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Three adventure games

I played stuff

Related imageRelatively recently, I played three adventure games that were fairly compelling and impressive, but only one really blew me away. Two of these adventure games were by, arguably, the greatest designers of the genre: Ron Gilbert and Tim Shafer, in their great return to adventure game design. One was by a rather meek newcomer: Swedish independent Natalia Figueroa. This post is about how Ms. Figueroa blew me away.

Now one could argue that my expectations were very high for Schafer and Gilbert and very low for Figueroa, and that would be true. But that’s not where their games differed. Ms. Figueroa’s game shone in a very different and much simpler way.

The three games are the following: Tim Schafer reignited the flame of adventure games and probably strongly contributed in making Kickstarter a valid platform by using it to fund the adventure game that would eventually become Broken Age. Ron Gilbert followed suit with Thimbleweed Park. Natalia Figueroa also funded her game through crowdfunding, though in her case it was through Indiegogo. She made Fran Bow. Fran Bow was released shortly after the second part of Broken Age, a year and a half before Thimbleweed Park.

Broken Age

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Broken Age is meticulously designed, masterfully executed, innovative, charming and probably does not contain anything seriously wrong.

First, as one should expect from Tim Schafer, the art of Broken Age is executed in an extremely thorough way. The backgrounds are superb. The animation is simple, expressive and memorable. The voice acting is fantastic and some of the voice talent in Broken Age is performed by famous Hollywood and TV actors.

The basic premise is that, as the title indicates, the player is offered to play as either Vella, who seems to live in a idyllic fairytale-like world or Shay, who lives in a science fiction-like world. Neither world is fully coherent and both have details that just look wrong, or sometimes just elements that just don’t belong. Still, neither Vella nor Shay’s story seems to clearly connect to the other. The game is clearly divided in two parts and the implicit purpose of the first part is to figure out the connection between the two main player characters and their respective worlds. This is in addition to the general goal of the adventure game which is always to move the story forward.

This is a compelling premise. Shay and Vella seem to be separated in every conceivable way: one travels through space, one is stuck in a small area of land. One seems to live centuries after the other. Although, conceivably, Vella could be living on one of the planets Shay visits. Still, both characters are kept a distance that’s just effective enough to keep the player digging and seeking.

Shafer is no stranger to multicharacter adventure games. He’s mostly famous for Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, but I would still argue that his masterpiece is Day of the Tentacle, where the player had control of three extremely expressive characters, Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne, each separated by two hundred years in time.  The time puzzle of Day of Tentacle, which are at the core of the multicharacter aspect of the game, are one of its more memorable parts.

That is, if it works. And while the mystery of the connection between Shay and Vella does work, without a doubt in Broken Age, it’s not enough to keep the two parts connected. Not even in the second part of the game when they are connected not just through the continuous deepening mystery of how they are linked, but through specific puzzles and therefore through gameplay.

The problem with Broken Age

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And this is one of many ways in which Broken Age fails. For all of its meticulous attention to detail. For all of its exquisite art, delightful details, charming mood, stunning reversals and surprises, it feels unfinished, empty, hollow.

Not just that: it feels unfinished because it is too detailed. I know that sounds strange. Let me explain. It feels as if if more resources had been assigned into content and less into art, the game might have felt fuller, more meaty.

But it does not. Shay’s ship feels pretty small and empty. Shay, for reason that eventually become clear, never actually leaves his ship in part one of Broken Age. Vella does get to explore her land, but not very far. And she does not get to know that many people. And the people she does get to know are interesting, but she never seems to be able to interact with them that much.

Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island games, the three characters from Day of the Tentacle or April Ryan and Zoë Castillo from the Longest Journey games all seemed to be able to enter and touch much deeper, more complicated, more tangible, messier at times, fuller worlds. In comparison, the worlds of Broken Age feels like a empty template of what it could have been. It feels short. Like a thin slice of a wonderful, but overly decorated cake.

After I played it, I thought that Ron Gilbert, were he to make an adventure game, would focus less on voice and graphics and more on content. He’d give us a big, complex, deep, mysterious story with meaningful interaction. And that’s still what I expected when Thimbleweed Park was finally announced.

Thimbleweed Park

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When I saw the opening screen of Broken Age, I knew nothing about the game. I didn’t even know I’d have to begin by picking between two characters. I wanted to start playing as a complete blank slate. But when I came to Thimbleweed Park, I wanted to keep on top of things. I followed the blog. I even contributed. I made up a title for the bookstore and I wrote three books for the library.

Thimbleweed Park is also a multicharacter adventure game. It starts as a murder mystery. A body has been found in the eponymous Thimbleweed Park in 1987, an decaying city. The player controls five characters, including two FBI agents, a young game designer, her father, and a clown. The game is full of references to old games designed by Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and their colleagues and seems to target, at least in part, their long-time fans.

Just like I had hoped, Thimbleweed Park did not look too polished. Ron Gilbert seemed to be focused more on content than on presentation. Again, I do not and would never deny the importance of presentation, but I am curious about a game where most of the effort is focused on creating deep, meaningful content. Ron Gilbert’s blog entries talked a lot about storylines and about puzzles. There were a lot of posts about art too, but the art seemed to be kept efficient, and manageable.

When I remember Ron Gilbert’s main games, the Monkey Island games as well as Maniac Mansion, they were not just interactive stories, but they were worlds with strong storylines that the player could fully explore in a narrative way. Not in an RPG way. There were no monsters to kill, but you could make any joke available to any character without fear of consequence, just to see how they would react. That’s a narrative form of exploration. At the same time, the secrets of these worlds would slowly be unveiled to you. I was hoping the new game would be like that.

The problem with Thimbleweed Park

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But to me, Thimbleweed Park was not like that. That world, while intriguing, seriously lacked tension. The mysteries felt flat. The jokes were interesting references, but were not funny. I found one character truly compelling: Delores. Franklin, her father also came off as sympathetic, but mostly again because of the way he related to her. Delores was a fully-realized character. He story was interesting; he dialog was funny; her goals were easy to identify with; the mystery around her was truly puzzling. And the gameplay that came out of that was truly fun. But it also underlined how flat the other characters’ storylines felt in compasion.

Still, overall, my main objection with Thimbleweed Park was how arty it felt. Usually, I approve of artistic ambition in games, but in this case, it came at a very costly price. The game starts with an actually intriguing murder mystery. However, as the game progresses, it slips into a completely meta reflection on itself. This is daring and I’m not sure that the game pulls it off. As banal as is sounds, if we had explored the connection between each citizen of Thimbleweed Park and the murder victim, I think it might have made for a more interesting game.

I would also like to point out that I’ve played the game shortly after its release. At the time, the characters could not talk to each other and there was no hint system. Also, there arcade was closed. I have not played the game since, mostly because I did not enjoy that much the first time. But this inability, now fixed, for the characters to communicate felt terribly wrong. It made the whole world of Thimbleweed Park feel hollow.

Fran Bow

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Fran Bow follows an episode in the life of its title character, a young girl called Fran Bow, who lives in New England in the US in the fifties. In a very long intro scene, we learn has no friends, except for a pet cat. One night, a horrifying creature kills her whole family but she and her cat escape. She ends up in a mental asylum. She is certain that her cat is still alive in the forest. There, she is treated with an experimental medication that gives her terrifying visions. Realizing that, her doctor immediately stops her treatment. But Fran thinks that these pills can help her find her cat.

The game has a very simple interface. Fran can walk, look at things, use things, use dialog trees (always with two options), and swallow a pill. Under the influence of a pill, she can close the pill bottle, with will stop the pill from being effective. While the pills are in effect, she has visions. And, of course, her visions are real. But the player is quickly challenged to questioned what “real” means.

The dialog seems to be written by someone whose native language is not English. There’s an overuse of the phrase, “It’s fine.” The graphics are a bit clumsy. At first, the puzzles are fascinating, but towards the end, I’d accuse the game of puzzle-stuffing. By that, I mean that Natalia Figueroa seemed to want to tell a story but was making a game so she interrupted her story with puzzles that didn’t really need to be there. There are all details. Trifles. Overall, I would argue, that Fran Bow is a true masterpiece. More so than either Thimbleweed Park or Broken Age.

What works with Fran Bow

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Fran Bow perfectly mixes a deep, complex story with compelling gameplay. It’s hard to talk about without giving too much away but there’s one thing that I can say with confidence about Fran Bow: at every step of the way, I thought, “Oh, I know exactly where this is going” and at every step I was wrong. The game was several step away from me. This was true of both the story and the gameplay and in both cases, they were really the same thing.

This also happened for Thimbleweed Park, but not in the same direction. I’d think, “Oh, I think I know where this is going…” but it went in a different direction but I wish it had gone in the direction I had wanted. That’s less good.

Fran Bow plays with its own rules constantly, but never ignores them. For example, you think you know how the pills work, but you don’t. Even though the rules of how the pills work are as given to you, they never change. You just don’t have all the element yet to understand what those rules mean.

Also, Fran Bow is long. Every time, I thought I was near the end, I realized I was nowhere near it. And every time I thought the tone of the game had changed completely, I realized that it really had not. I was just fooled into mistaking a temporary alcove for a whole new structure.

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Fran visits deep, complex worlds. She interacts with strange, complex people. She herself is worth getting to know. Her world is fascinating and full. Fran Bow also shows strong authorship. One can clearly tell is is the work of a dedicated author with a vision. It has flaws, but its flaws make it better. It allows to hang onto it, unlike a completely smooth surface that a player or other art appreciator would just slip off of.

I have no idea what Natalia Figueroa will do next. I’d say there’s no way she’ll do something as good as this next time, but, honestly, there was almost no way she’d do something nearly as good as Fran Bow the first time, so, in all fairness, all best are off.

Final note about Thimbleweed Park

One thing about Thimbleweed Park that is probably worth noting is its engine. Based on the game’s development blog, it looks like the engine for Thimbleweed Park could be an amazing tool to make new adventure games. Ron Gilbert, who was, after all, the lead developer of the legendary SCUMM engine, put a huge amount of effort into making it. He did say he would consider releasing the engine but made no promises.

It is not unheard of that when a game splits its effort between its content and its engine, it cannot deliver as much of its content as one might hope. I’d argue that’s why the first Assassin’s Creed had much more repetitive content than the second one. For the first game, the whole rules of how the game was played, the mechanics and most likely the engine had to be built. The second game only had to build on that.

I know a lot of people loved Thimbleweed Park. I have high hopes for its engine.

Why no dialog trees in Go, Jill!

My current side project is a text adventure tentatively called Go, Jill!. I want it to be a mostly-free roaming world with a main linear story where the player character, the titular Jill, will be able to talk about a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing I don’t want is dialog trees.

Interactive story and branching

Dialog trees are very similar to the concept of branching stories. Usually, when people hear the term “interactive story” they think of branching story. It seems to make sense, right? How else is a story going to be interactive? In fact, there are many arguments that can be made both in favor of and against branching in interactive stories. Most of them were masterfully presented in the book Interactive Storytelling for Video Games.

In general, branching gives a better sense of agency, and that’s a good thing. But, as counterbalance to that, branching carries many downsides, some of which are:

  • It’s hard to write one good story, let alone several good ones.
  • Similarly, in a scripted story (as opposed to an improvised one), a good plot is usually made by planting narrative seeds that will bear fruit later. This is further complicated if the story branches.
  • A story should generally be surprising. If it branches, people will either be progressing at random or not be surprised.
  • Generally, the end of a story either presents a conclusion or a clearly purposeful sense of non-conclusiveness (like The Sopranos). If the story branches, one may always have the impression that the conclusion they saw is only one of many and that often feels wrong.

An ending being only one of many if fine if the game one plays is really set to make people construct their own narrative. Several role-playing games are made precisely to allow that. However, while they are clearly set in a narrative-like world, they don’t have an actual narrative in the generally accepted sense of the term. The ending the players arrive at simply did not exist before they played. It is not one of many pre-existing ones.

Dialog trees

Dialog trees are mostly a form of branching. Even if great care is placed in making sure that they never have negative consequences (like Ron Gilbert did) every time a choice is made it usually prevents another one. In a game of strategy that’s good, but in a narrative context, that’s bad. Furthermore, most dialog trees don’t take the care Ron Gilbert did and actively use dialog trees to alter the course of the story and branch it out.

And here, we have many problems. The first one is that characters usually know more about their own world than the player does. That’s something that very visible in David Cage’s work. A character can open a drawer and find a photo than makes him sad. The player had no way of knowing that the photo would be there, but the character did. At the end, such choices are just random to the player.

Dialog trees are just like that only more so. When we talk to someone in life, we usually have a good idea of what will offend them and what will make them happy. In games, it’s mostly luck. It’s actually worse than luck because the narration of the games forces it to be surprising, on an innocent-sounding phrase is unpredictably likely to turn out to be offensive to a character for the sake of drama. If it weren’t, the story would be boring.

Also, some of the choices offered in dialog trees might be a lot less subtle than what the player has in mind. Let’s say a character asks the player “Should I go talk to my friend about her husband being unfaithful?” and the possible choices are “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know, maybe.” And answer like “Yes” can lead to

  • “You totally should. You’d be a horrible friend if you didn’t.”
  • Or “Yeah. I think so. If you don’t and she found out you knew, she’s going to blame you for it.”
  • Or “If you want. I mean, it’s your decision.”
  • Or “Sure. I’ll go with you. I can’t wait to see the bitch go down!”
  • Or “Yes. Let’s go to the café that just opened downtown.”

Even if the whole first line is given, the conversation might end up having the player character say things that the player never expected.

This is randomness, and randomness and storytelling don’t go well together. This is one of the areas where it is particularly tough for story and gameplay to merge. As Jesse Schell is very found of teaching, randomness is generally good for games. He also likes to say that story is often good for games as well. For my part, I’ll add that randomness is usually terrible for stories.

My alternative

Let’s be sensible: for point-and-click games, dialog trees are still the best solution. But Go, Jill! is going to be a text adventure. For that medium, dialog trees can easily be a bad decision. It’s very important to use one’s medium as much as possible. And I have a blog post about just that topic. For a text adventure, I always found dialog trees to be clunky. A sort of haphazard interface inside of the main interface. Text adventures do not have a perfect interface, obviously, but throwing a dialog tree in the middle of it takes away their main attribute: free exploration or at least the illusion of it. If I’m playing a text adventure, I like to feel like I can type anything. I know that only a few words will actually work, but if I play along and the game is well made, that feeling can still hold.

Some people often like to say that text adventures are misleading because they claim the user can type anything in the input field but only very few of these commands will work. First of all, a list of suggested commands were usually distributed with games at the time. Second, all games restrict actions. Try and have Mario walk in front of a pipe in the 2D games! Get Nathan Drake to talk the people who are shooting at him into changing sides! Take a saw and try dividing up those Tetris tiles! Go ahead, do it! Games are restrictive by nature. Text adventures, like all games, try to use their limitations to be better from them, as opposed to artificially build clutter and pretend that those limitations do not exist.

What I intend to do with Go, Jill! is to encourage the players to have Jill ask about and tell about as many things as possible to the non-player characters, with a specific focus on relations between people. It’ll be a lot of content, but I’ll try to make it work. Again, this will mostly be about exploration. The main consequence to most of that content will be the way the player explores and understands the story. With some exceptions, the actual gameplay will be unaffected. So, for example, Jill will be able to ask character A what he thinks of his romantic partner’s relationship with his mother. This will not be a suggested topic, just not I’ll throw in there. If the player tries it, there will be a response.

The idea is that from one same mass of text, each player will be able to explore the parts of the story that they want at will. Progress will depend on them following the main story path, but it will truly be an interactive experience in the way most of the backstory and underlying relationships will only emerge if the player seeks them out.

There is no negative consequence to picking the wrong option because there is no option to pick. There is no frustration for getting to the wrong ending because there is only one ending. But if a player is not interested in an aspect of the backstory or a character’s opinion, they simply won’t have to pursue it. If, on the other hand they want to learn all they can about what most of the characters think about things, that will be available to them with no in-game downside.

This will definitely not be a game one plays to win but one that one plays to explore.

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.