Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: Why I Love (and Sometimes Hate) Adventure Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 16, 2014

The following is a guest post by my good friend Greg Squire of Monkey Time Games. He has graciously offered to help out while I’m off in the Land of the Rising Sun. Enjoy!

The adventure game genre is filled with tons of evangelists and also tons of antagonists. And while I imagine that may be true of any game genre, it seems they are especially vocal when it comes to adventure games. Many laud the merits of the genre as an interactive storytelling medium, but many others decry that the genre barely passes the minimum qualifications to be a “game”. Many, myself included, have loved to see the resurgence of the genre in the past several years, but there are others that would like to keep the genre buried forever. In this article I hope to convey what I like and sometimes dislike about the genre.

Encyclopedia_Brown,_Boy_DetectiveI was first introduced to the concept of interactive stories in reading some of the old “Encyclopedia Brown” and “Choose your own Adventure” books as a kid. The idea that the story could change based upon your own choices was a powerful notion to me then. And granted these stories were fairly limited in their “interactivity”, they still opened my eyes to the possibilities. Later I was soon introduced to the world of interactive fiction (then known as “text adventures”) through a game called “Zork“. I played it for many hours on my Atari 800XL that I had purchased with my paper route money. It opened up a new world to me. I could type anything into that little prompt for the game, and it magically talked back to me. Often it would respond with “I don’t understand that” type of messages, but on occasion I’d be surprised with humorous responses. As I told the game what to do, it would comply and respond with words that advanced the story along. It was as if I was really was in that world at times, and it seemed endless. Of course that was an illusion, but it really seemed like I could do most anything that I wanted in that imaginary world. I went on and played many other Infocom and Scott Adams adventures that were popular in that day. I was hooked. The door had been opened and there was no going back.

Fate_of_Atlantis_artworkBy the time the 90’s rolled around, adventure games had evolved into the familiar graphical point-n-click format that’s still in use today. I have fond memories of playing many of the Lucasarts adventures as a young adult. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis are some of my particular favorites of that era. Perhaps the nostalgia of looking back on that era is partly why I like the genre so much. Most people have fond memories of things they grew up with, but I think that’ nostalgia is only part of the equation.

I feel a big part of my draw to adventure games is the exploration aspect of it. The genre encourages the player to look around their surroundings and examine the virtual environment. It’s through that exploration that items are uncovered, which are then used to solve puzzles and advance the story. It’s like a treasure hunt at its core; and who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt, right? Also it’s a mechanic that helps pull the player in and help them to feel a part of that world.

Another big aspect is story. I heard it said by Tracy Hickman and others is that the human race is wired for story. Since the dawn of man, we’ve told stories by the campfire. It’s an essential part of our being and probably why we get a lot of fulfillment from stories. It’s part of how we learn and understand the world around us. When we hear part of a story, most of us will be drawn to know how it ends. It’s part of our natural curiosity to know the ending. It’s just how we are wired, and that’s why story is such a powerful tool. Adventure games are heavily story driven, and that helps drive us to complete the game, as we want to know how the story ends. Perhaps this is the greatest reason I love the genre, as I love great stories.

The puzzle aspect of adventure games is also another draw for me. I’m a very cerebral type of person, and I tend to be a problem solver. Since my youth I’ve always liked puzzles of various types. I love the ‘ah hah’ moment you get when you figure something out on your own. That can be exhilarating, and is part of the inherent reward you get from the game. However I realize that for some, puzzles can become frustrating and can even become a deterrent. It’s a reason that some people don’t like the genre. Puzzles certainly aren’t for everyone.

Now adventure games aren’t perfect I admit, and there are some things that I and many others sometimes hate about them. Most of these boil down to bad design decisions, but they are something that has plagued the genre from time to time (mostly in the early years). The first problem is “pixel hunting”, which is when the hot spots of particular objects are made too small, thus making them hard to find. In some bad cases, the user would literally have to hunt for that one pixel (or small group of pixels) to find the needed “hotspot” to advance the game. This was a particularly bad practice in the 90’s when some designers thought it would add to the challenge and make it more fun. However it only succeeded in adding more frustration to the player.

MI2_JojoSecond is the problem of getting stuck due to overly difficult or nonsensical puzzles. This is still a problem in many adventure games today, because puzzle difficulty is relative. What might be an easy puzzle to one player, might be extremely difficult for another. Some games try to alleviate this problem by implementing a good hint system, or by making such a puzzles optional instead of mandatory. Also it’s considered bad design if the puzzle doesn’t fit naturally into the overall story and/or environment. Unfortunately many games have included nonsensical / lateral thinking puzzles, and the solution to those puzzles are so bizarre that it just frustrates the player even more. I have experienced this problem many times with adventure games, and I have had to turn to walkthroughs on the internet in order to progress through the game. In these cases of bad puzzle design, the only way to solve them is to either look up the solution in a walkthrough (cheating), or do “option exhausting”, which is where the player tries every dialog option or tries to use every object on every other object. Obviously this is very tedious to do, and most players would either cheat or quit the game. On the bright side, I haven’t been frustrated with many puzzles in adventure games these days. Not sure if that’s just because I’ve gotten better at them, or if designers have learned from the past and have made better puzzles. Hopefully the latter.

Another problem I see in the adventure game genre is confusing user interfaces. Now this is an area of debate because some people love the old Lucasarts “click to construct a sentence” interface, and some love the old Sierra “verb coin” interface, where you use the secondary mouse button to change the mouse icon to the action (verb) that you want to take before clicking on an object. However I feel that both of those interfaces are overly complex, and are a hurdle to new players not familiar with the genre. I personally don’t like either of those interfaces. However it’s true that those interfaces do give you the flexibility of doing any action with any object, but I would contend that this just isn’t needed. Usually there’s only one or two actions that make sense to do on any given object. You wouldn’t TAKE a door, but you would UNLOCK or OPEN it. You wouldn’t UNLOCK a person, but you would TALK to them. You wouldn’t TALK to a banana (at least not usually), but you would TAKE it. The context is usually enough to determine the action needed. I am a big proponent of the K.I.S.S. philosophy (Keep It Simple Stupid), so I’d rather keep the player’s learning curve down with a simple interface. I much prefer a one button interface that determines the context based on the kind of object you are interacting with. Many of the Telltale and other recent adventures have used such a simple interface successfully. It can be done.

GK2Lastly is the issue of time commitment, and depending on who you talk to, that can be an upside or a downside. I guess this one comes down to personal preference. Some people want a long drawn out experience, and feel slighted if the game doesn’t last 10+ hours. However I prefer a comparatively shorter, faster paced, but enriching experience, because my time has gotten more and more limited as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s the case with many older players, as they’ve taken on the responsibilities of work and family. I have to take my games in bite size chunks these days.

So despite the shortcomings of the genre, I still love adventure games and what they bring to the table. I think that games have the potential to be the most powerful storytelling medium, but I don’t feel that it’s there yet. I think there’s still plenty of innovation ahead. So where do we go from here? Hard to say for sure, but I’ve always imagined something like Star Trek’s holodeck technology as the holy grail for interactive storytelling. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more immersive than that. Perhaps with advancements in virtual reality and automatic story generation, we may eventually get to something akin to that. But for now we’ll have to settle with the current state of gaming. Further, there are some that still claim that adventure games are dead, or were dead but have seen a small comeback, but the reality is that they never died at all. They just morphed and evolved, like all game genres do. We don’t always call them “adventure games” anymore, but many games these days have “adventure” or heavy story elements in them. For instance, the action adventure genre, which are games like the Tomb Raider and Zelda series, are essentially adventure games with action elements thrown in. They still have strong story, exploration, and puzzle elements, but we don’t think of them in the same way as the adventure games of yesteryear, but yet they are still “adventures”. They have morphed and mutated, and for better or worse, adventure games are here to stay.

Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    I much prefer a one button interface

    Many of the Telltale

    Tomb Raider and Zelda

    It’s because of attitudes like this that the adventure genre hasn’t seen the same oldschool resurgence that RPGs have. Adventure game fans just aren’t hardcore enough.

    More here: http://www.rpgcodex.net/content.php?id=9141

  • Xian said,

    I think you summed up many of my feelings. I always enjoyed adventure games, though I haven’t played as many lately as I used to. My biggest problem was one you mentioned, inevitably I would get stuck at some point and I am too stubborn to turn to a walkthrough for help. It took me longer than I want to admit to figure out the babelfish puzzle in the old Infocom Hitchhikers Guide for example.

  • McTeddy said,

    Adventure games are a genre I’ve always wanted to love, but don’t. I love the storytelling and the fact that they allow me to experience Non-Combat stories too.

    But pixel hunting and figuring out the designers expected path can go too… never mind. I suck at these and rarely beat an adventure game without GameFaqs. (Full Throttle is the exception)

    Besides, even with logical puzzles it doesn’t always work smoothly. In Silent Hill Shattered memory there was a puzzle when you’re trapped in a car, I saw someone fight for an hour. The doors are stuck, check the glove compartment, under the seats, toy with the radio…

    Solution: Unlock the door.