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Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.

Get them! They killed adventure games!

Now that I’m at the ETC trying to find my way through Real Life by Building Virtual Worlds, trying not to get lost on a tangent about the whole apparent contradiction of the matter, I find myself looking at my old, beloved adventure games, no longer at some fossilized artifact of a bygone past, but more as a moribund selfless martyr waiting to be nourished back to health so that it can go back to being productive, beautiful and beloved. Is my assessment accurate? And if it is, am I the one to do it, or to take part in that movement?

It’s generally a good thing not to dwell too long on past wrongs and better to focus on future endeavors. So let me be very bad and dwell a lot. Even if adventure games are not, in fact, dead, they are in many respects as good as dead. And I call murder! Murder, I tell you! And I will, just like an Agatha Christie detective, point a stern finger at those responsible. At least according to me.

Games as software rather than entertainment

You’d have to be really old to remember this, but there was a time when video games were sold as software, not unlike office software. The number of lines of dialog, number of rooms in the game, duration of the music included, were listed in bullet points as features on the back of the box. What is a “box”, you ask? Look it up, that’s not the point.

This was not particularly harmful for adventure games. True, VGA graphics did not translate as beautiful graphics, but beautiful graphics existed and did influence games for the better. Where this started to make a real difference in the output is when features started mattering more than content

FMV and 3D

The beginning of trouble came with Full Motion Video. Now some of my favorite games of all time were made with FMV. Full Motion Video was the practice of basing most of the graphics of the game on pre-recorded video. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within was such a game and is, in my opinion, about as great as an adventure game can be. (From Sierra, by Jane Jensen.) Yes, some of the dialog was cheesy and the background music was silly and some of the effects and the acting were a bit over-dramatic at times, especially during the intro, but this is, overall, forgivable given how young the medium was and how tight the story turns up in the end. But then, FMV became the main selling point of the game, rather than a tool, a medium for great content. Released at about the same date, Phantasmagoria, also from Sierra, by the very person who created the very medium of the graphical adventure game, Roberta Williams herself. Phantasmagoria, while innovative in many ways, did suffer from a repetitive structure and — form my point of view at least — overly gratuitous violence.

A good example of how technology can get in the way of good fiction can be found by following those games chronologically to the third Gabriel Knight title: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The 3D engine for that games was clever, versatile, clearly benefited from extensive user testing and despite all that mostly came in the way of a good gaming experience. The story of the game was not bad, but very clumsily plotted. In the previous two Gabriel Knight titles, the backstory was slowly hinted at through the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the whole backstory is dropped onto the player towards the end of the game in one very long slide show. No 3D in the world is going to make players enjoy that. In the previous Gabriel knights game, Jensen seemed to have put a considerable amount of effort in making her characters as humanly flawed as she could, people the player could relate to, no matter how great they looked or how pathetic they appeared.

Still, adventure games could have lived through that. They could have used 3D in a positive way. Some did, particularly the Tex Murphy series. Or they could have persisted in staying 2D after a while. But the gaming world as a whole evolved in a way that turned out to be terribly harmful to adventure games as a genre.

 The opposition between core and casual gamers

Nowadays, there is a clear split between casual and core gamers. Core gamers play games like BioShock and Mass Effect. Casual gamers play games like Angry Birds and Peggle. Or do they? Do core or casual players play Super Mario Galaxy? What about Plants vs. Zombies? But without getting entangled in that tricky debate, it’s important to keep in mind that in their heydays, adventure games were very much targeted towards core gamers. One of the reason for this was that at the time, there really was no such thing as casual gamers. At that time, if one played video games at all, one was a gamer without that many subcategories.  A funny and very accurate description of how casual gamers somehow recently became a very important demographic for games can be seen in Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review for Peggle.

But this has changed. People who actually play video games or computer games are core gamers. People who play Wii Sport or Angry Birds are not gamers at all, according to most people you will ask around, including the players themselves. These are just people who happen to play games. And yet they should matter: as of 2009 Wii Sports was the best selling video game of all time. This, on its own should mean something. The vacuum within the very identity of casual gamers is a problem. Let me explain.

The first adventure games were hard. Very hard. Zork was created at M.I.T. for M.I.T. students by M.I.T. students. That is not exactly a broad demographic. As the genre became more popular, many efforts were made to make the gaming mechanics easier and allow more people into the genre. But the change went from “very core players” to “less core players.” Take a game like Plants vs. Zombies. This games is the result of the opposite shift. Pop Cap originally made games for extremely casual players and slowly shifted towards more core-like titles.

Current core-player games focus on using complex graphics systems, themes that appeal to young males, a focus on speed and thrill. The large number of horror games are war games should serve as a testimony for that. They bring out thrill, not thought. Compare BioShock and Loom, for example. They hardly have any themes or mechanics in common. The slow pace of adventure games, the focus on reflection rather than thrill, these rebuke those who became gamers since the late ninties. Those sought more or less the exact opposite sensations that adventure games provide.

I would argue that that means that adventure games have become a genre that should be directed towards casual gamers. And yet, it still carries its legacy identity of being a core gamer’s genre. Trying to sell adventure game to gamers has failed since about the year 2000, mostly because the demographic that is actually likely to enjoy adventure game, casual players, does not even identify as gamers at all.

Lady on the Plane

Casual gamers tend not to care about pixel shaders, 3D sound or fragging in multiplayer. They would probably care more about plotlines being deep and yet flexible, about motivations being complex yet believable, about the world they’d visit being intriguing and yet reassuring. One would feel comfortable escaping to.

Text-based adventure games are an excellent example of an incredibly powerful resource gone wrong. Tools like Inform7 offer a huge ration of ease of use compared to power of creation. It’s a programming language that looks very similar to English and is meant to be used to create text-based adventure games. Yet many of these cater to a small, hard-core crowd; they often take pride in being difficult and they don’t seem to care much about potential newcomers to the genre. As Extra Credits reminds us, easiness in games is generally not a problem is the game had depth. Then, ease is merely a transparent interface to an immersive experience. Again, this is an instance of the potential new audience for adventure gamine and interactive fiction being placed on the wrong side of the core gamer/casual gamer divide, mostly based on what should be an archaic focus being placed on technology. That, right there, is what killed adventure games.

Can adventure games be rescued? I think so. I think the key element if one intends to revive adventure games is to hold on to  a lot of what used to make them great, but to rethink a few aspects of how they work. These might actually be fundamental aspects, such as how they deal with interfaces, introductions and tutorials, or their standard themes and their verbosity, for example. Many of these are symptoms of how they still hang on to their status of core player genre. It is a very harmful misconception that casual players deserve a lower status. (Some successful casual games, maybe, but that’s another issue.)

A couple of weeks ago, on a plane, I showed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to woman in her fifties. She looked very curious about it. She said that to her, the experience looked similar to reading, but with interaction. She said she loved reading, which is not a statement commonly attributed to core gamers. She seemed tempted by the idea of giving Monkey 2 a try. However tempted may she have been by the genre as a whole, as themes go, she would probably be more interested in a psychological conflict than in a story about an inexplicably evil villain bent on taking over the world and the axiomatically selfless hero who is bent on stopping him.

Who’s right

It’s important to keep in mind that neither theme is better or worse than the other. The question is more: who does which one address? And can the answer to the previous question be used to save adventure games? Aren’t some big studios (both in film and in gaming) trying to trick their respective audience by selling them technological advances rather than content mostly because the quality of one is much easier to gauge than the quality of the other?

When the iPhone and iPad came out, many reviewers thought they would fail, or be only mildly successful, because most people were not asking for any of the feature in either of the devices. No one wanted all-touchscreen phones. No one wanted a large tablet device. They didn’t know it was an option, except after the device’s announcement, where they only knew about it in theory. But both of these have shown to be extremely popular.

Casual gamers aren’t asking for adventure games. But hardly any adventure game is really catered for them. Trying to impress casual gamers with AAA titles is very likely to fail because the technical or thematic aspects where these titles shine is not something that casual gamers care about.

An excessive focus on technology without regard to its relevance and an strong and yet somehow artificial divide between casual and core players is what killed adventure games. By fixing those problems, we should be able to bring adventure games back.