"Adventure games? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" laughs Gabez
ADVENTURE GAMES ARE DEAD
...Wait, no they’re not. Companies like Tellale, Autumn Moon and Funcom are obviously still interested in the genre. If adventure games are dead then why the hell are they still being made? No, adventure games are not dead and never have been. But you know what is dead? Innovation. And we don’t often hear the gaming press lamenting the passing of that.
If you’ve read my previous article on how adventure games should change to accommodate recent industry developments (and we’re not talking about “market place realities” here) then you’ll know what my argument has been thus far. If you don’t know, then here’s a quick summary: adventure games should wake up to competitors like Half-life 2 if they want to be taken serious again. I suggested further integration with action and role playing elements – as long as it goes beyond Broken Sword 3’s infamous crate pushing.
But now I’m selling out and I’m making a sequel to my argument. See, I don’t just think that adventure games should change to fit every other game out there; I think that every other game out there should change to fit adventure games too. Now, this is, to a limited effect, already happening. Take Psychonauts for example - at first glance it appears to be just a platform game, albeit one with an original concept and stylised graphics. Look under the surface, though, and you’ll find the live throbbing heart of an adventure game. Story and characters are placed in much higher priority than in other games, giving a much better incentive for progressing and therefore providing a better game play experience all round. Unfortunately most games aren't like this though, having almost non-existent characters and wafer thin plots. The result is the game world doesn’t feel real and the player’s actions seem insignificant as the plot doesn’t relate to them nearly enough – so why bother?
Here’s where a lot of games could take a leaf out of the Adventure genre’s book. There are two good things about using puzzles rather than action elements: one, it forces the user to think and so winning is all the more satisfactory, and two you can more easily see the results of your actions from interacting with the environment instead of just slaughtering everything in sight. Of course, puzzles on their own can lack the dynamism that action gives games, which is why the developers of Quake IV shouldn’t cut out all the shooting just yet. The point is, adding adventure elements like puzzles, characters and a good player-interactive plot can seriously lift a game from the depths of mediocrity. And when these elements are in a game from early on like with Pyschonauts and Half-life 2 then it works even better.
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
Now here’s the thing. A lot of games do this already, but they don’t, in my opinion, go nearly far enough. Other genres are all for integrating RPG elements into their games, but when it comes to borrowing ideas from the adventure genre they’re a lot less enthusiastic. What constitutes a character is not how many levels they have, or whether they hold the Goblin slaying sword +11, but it’s what they say and do; character is the mark they leave in the game world. The problem with using action is that character is sacrificed, because there’s no time to go into details. The best we usually get is a break in the fighting when another character pops along for three lines of dialogue before disappearing in a puff of smoke again.
One way around this problem is to have safe areas in between the action – like the base camp in Pyschonauts or Unatco headquarters in Deus Ex. However, these areas are often just designed as “filler” between the levels and hold little in the way of depth. But fleshing those areas can be counter-productive; if you go with an adventure then action then adventure ad infinitum format then you’ll soon confuse the player and create very unbalanced gameplay.
So what’s the solution? It’s simple – mess things up. Instead of going from A to B to C, go to A to C then back to B then to X! In other words, games should stop being so uniform and regulated. If you can’t have safe-areas between levels where you have adventure elements then throw in adventure elements anywhere. As long as it fits in with the plot it’ll work, trust me.
An example: you’re running along shooting enemies when BHAM arch-nemesis-villain dude turns up and there’s some awesome cut-scene where you face him. Except, get this, you can actually respond through the old adventure game multiple-choice format – beats just shooting the crap out of them, right? A bit of plot and character development later and ZOOM said villain has dropped a sizzling stick of dynamite and speeds off on a hover bike. Cut to control being reactivated for the player, and they can either rush towards the dynamite (giving the impression that they can have an impact on the world) or stand around doing nothing. Whatever they choose, the dynamite explodes causing the area you’re in to burst into flames - but this isn’t a cue for one of those annoying “get out in 2 minutes!” moments – as instead you’ve got all the time in the world to work out a plan to get out. Move upstairs, rip off the bed linen store it in your inventory. Now go down again and shoot the chandelier… combine the two objects to make a grappling hook that you can use to fire out of a window of your choice and swing dramatically to safety.
THE HECK DA YA MEAN!?
Of course I’m presuming we have a decent interface in our theoretical game, but that’s no problem either. If adventure games have taught me anything it’s that you can use your eyes, mouth and hands to interact with anything in the environment (and you'd be suprised how much I can achieve in every day life with just those three actions). Presuming we’re talking about a first person shooter here, all you’d need is some kind of interacting button, say the right mouse button, that you can hold down and select highlighted objects. The idea is simple, but can add a whole new dimension that games have only started to scratch the surface on. I want to be able to talk to everyone and pick up anything that isn’t nailed down in any game I play, just like I would with an adventure game. In short, I want depth and I want an interactive environment.
Mixing adventure games with other genres would have another knock-on effect: it would make games more cinematic as well as more interactive. To be honest, it’s about time games caught up with films. I guess the question you have to ask is, “why do we play games?” Is it just for some brainless entertainment? If it is then we as gamers are wasting a lot of time. If it’s something more than that, then surely games should focus on supplying more than just “great graphics and gameplay”. Sure the fun factor is important, but games, like films, should be used to express artistically something far deeper than that, to the point that the player is moved in some way by what they’ve just played. We’ve all at some point in our lives seen a film or read a book that’s changed the way we think (even if it’s in a very minor way) and made us go “wow” – but how many times has that happened from playing a game? Not enough, but integrating adventure elements into games would help them become more cinematic and more powerful.
One of the buzz-word in the game ‘biz these days seems to be immersion. There’s a desire within games to bring the player closer to the action and the game world so that they can believe that they’re actually in the game, and this is reflected through the drive for greater realism in graphics and gameplay. But aren’t we all forgetting something here? Namely, games aren’t real, and no matter how good the graphics are, or how much you make Gordon Freeman mute, the simple fact is that the player will never be totally immersed in a game.
Why not, instead, distance the player? This is what adventure games do beautifully, and it means we can have jokes like “never pay more than 10 bucks for an adventure game”. The distancing effect can give developers huge power to do and say what they like. Instead of controlling one character for a whole game, mess things up and have the next levels with the enemy as player controlled, with things controlled by plot rather than gameplay, much like it is with adventure games. I mean, that’s what they do in films, so why can’t we have it in games?
Distancing the player would not mean that the game feels unreal or irrelevant to the player – rather, it would make the story the characters and the meaning of the game more apparent as the player is not tied down to one protagonist. Admitting that a game is a game would allow anything to happen – like, for instance, a song half-way through a la Curse of Monkey Island. It’s not realistic, but this is a game dammit – and let’s not forget that. If it fits the mood and the plot then go with it – heck, we don’t even need to set anything up; just have the characters burst into song for laughs. Or do a dance. Or if its a serious game then try giving the player control of a different character for a new perspective. In short, keep the mechanics of the game as a means to tell the story rather than the story itself.
Games will never be able to be truly beautiful or meaningful without techniques such as distancing, which makes the characters and the story the point of the game – you’re playing a story, not just killing time. Humanity has been telling stories for eons through plays, books, art and now we have games as an added medium to tell our stories and to express ourselves artistically – to pass on knowledge and to make statements about what the developers as individuals think. No other genre save for the adventure game has attempted to do this so well through use of puzzles and emphasis on plot – so let’s hope that developers borrow a few ideas from Guybrush and friends.
Next week: Indy month begins.