Choose your own Adventure

What exactly makes an adventure game anyway?

It is an interesting design question that I was struck by this last week while playing two very different games, both of which would be broadly described as 'Adventure Games'. It's a genre which had faded from it's hey-day in the late 80s and early 90s, but has seen a resurgence in recent years, largely spearheaded by the work of Telltale Games.

Adventure games, we are told, are 'back'!

I'm not so sure. In that I think they may have evolved into something else altogether. Maybe however, that doesn't matter if they are achieving the same connections with players.

From a design perspective it's an interesting case study.

The gaming audience clearly consider these games spiritual successors to their childhood favorites. Enough to honor them with the same moniker, yet when you dive down into the games, the mechanics, and the type of experience, are often quite different. Despite this this new generation are managing to capture the same part of our imaginations that drove our proverbial teenage crush on the genre in the first place. 

So as a designer, I'm fascinated by how this intersection of storytelling and gaming can evolve its core mechanical or mental challenge experience, while retaining that core appeal.

These modern games are not the same as the old 'point and click' adventures, and that two of last week's new releases highlight this perfectly, this post started to formulate in my mind as I played through the Remaster of Grim Fandango, and the new episodic title Life is Strange (but really I could have also picked any of the Telltale titles, same concept, it just happened that playing those two back to back really brought home these thoughts for me.)

So how are they different, yet the same? It all comes down to mechanics and choices. 

How do I get out of this one?

So what really defined the old adventure games?

Those games truly tested their players.

The challenge was in the puzzles. The mechanical, logical, or lateral thinking, puzzles that the game places between the player and them getting to see what happens next.

The continuation of the story was a reward. The puzzles were, in some ways, the equivalent of an end of level boss battle.

They were tests that need to be passed.

The story happened around the puzzles. Mechanically the story was moved forward by the player passing a succession of tests. There are no real choices, no interesting dilemmas for the player. The narrative itself was fixed, scripted. The players simply had to earn the right to progress it.

The player was rarely involved in any of the actual decision making that the characters might have been doing.

That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did make the experience markedly different from what we find in this modern generation.

This action will have consequences

At a fundamental level the modern games march into territory that the old point and click adventures rarely explored. Primarily that of branching narrative, They actively give the players the choice to make choices that genuinely change the experience of the story. 

The interesting points in these modern games is the human factor, not the mechanical. 

These games ask the player questions.

So rather than just setting out mechanical or logical tests before their players, these games involve the player in the narrative. They present interesting questions, often with no 'right' answer. The genre has evolved from simply testing the player to actually trying to make them an active part of the experience.

I think there are a lot more interesting opportunities for storytelling and immersion there. Sure, the tales are still scripted, but the basis of the interactivity has changed. It's no longer just about being rewarded for performing tasks, it's now about letting you feel as if you are part of the story.

The modern titles are all about choice and consequence.

The Question ...

So given that these games have cleared changed and evolved into something quite different over the years, why is it that we feel perfectly comfortable bundling these experiences together? What makes them something more than the sum of their parts?

Wandering through other worlds

For me it's two things, world-building and pacing.

These games all proceed at a pace that is different from other games. They are slower, more thoughtful, and are full of more interesting things. The pacing of adventure games allows for the user to explore and learn more bout the world they are playing in than is often possible in your average action title or first person shooter. Don't get me wrong, those other genres often also have interesting and compelling world-building, but it often flies past us so quickly we don't always have a chance to appreciate it.

Adventure games allow us to savor their settings and hear or see more about their worlds.

The interactions are of a more consistent nature with the characters. They don't need to be superheroes (even if they often are). These games often feel like they show all the interesting character and world building parts between action sequences that other, more action orientated, games skip.

It's almost like the difference between a HBO style adaptation like Game of Thrones, where there is time for the creators to flesh out (pun intended?) the world and the characters between set-pieces, and a single movie adaptation which often has to distill events down to those set-pieces. One approach is not inherently better than the other, but we are aware as players, when we are interacting at those very different paces.

In these games you get to learn more about the characters, their motivations, and why they are where they are. It's more indie movie than popcorn blockbuster. Even if they definitely are capable of the good action moments as well (Tales from the Borderlands has some good examples of that), the pace is more thoughtful.

These games build worlds, interesting, intriguing worlds, that draw us into their characters. Even when the narrative itself is fixed, we want to go on, learn more about this place, these characters.

Life is Strange did a great job in that department (providing you were willing to not cringe too much at the CW teen drama style dialog that I can only imagine is how middle aged game devs think teenagers speak, rather than how they actually might). As you guided Max through her sleepy, but presumably ominously haunted, Pacific Northwestern town, you were able to explore the lives of those around her, and get some interesting insights into the world, and the characters.

In Grim Fandango, Manny and company are such vibrant and interesting characters (despite being dead!), and the world they inhabit so intriguing and oddly wonderful, that you want to continue into the story.

In these games the characters, setting, and the pace of the game is every bit as important as the mechanics or the narrative.

That's why these very different games resonate in almost identical ways. You feel like you are part of the story, even if you are interacting with it in very, very, different ways.

It doesn't matter so much which mechanics are utilized so much as it's important that the experience feels authentic, and the story presented is interesting and engaging.

Different mechanics being used to generate similar attachments to a story.

A new old genre?

So you could argue that the genre is not necessarily so much about the mechanics as it is about pacing, and the connection to the characters.

As a designer I love looking as what draws players to an experience, and how that experience is often more than the simple interaction with the mechanics presented.

Something well worth bearing in mind when you're thinking about creating your own games.

... and finally ... because two other random thoughts wandered onto this page ...

Design Footnote I - Quick Time Events

The discussion on pacing hit's on another vice of the genre for me, the Quick Time Event.

This one doesn't actually apply to Life is Strange (at least not in the first episode), as it doesn't utilise them in any way, and that got me thinking about it's use as a mechanic in other titles in the genre.

They often seem a little out of place in these titles, but may serve an important design purpose. They definitely start to creep back towards the realm of testing me, and part of me says that I'm not sure I want my reflexes tested when I'm playing this genre. 

It's the only part of Telltales design that still doesn't always feel like a comfortable fit for me, but also prompts an intriguing design question. 

Thankfully, for my poor reflexes at least, QTEs are tuned pretty casually these days so it rarely stands in the way of progression. 

So then, as a designer, I want to understand why they are used. They do successfully  inject some more interactivity from a pacing point of view, and it is true, the Telltale games would probably feel a little flat without them. 

So that in turn poses that interesting design question. Is a mechanic still worthwhile when it is so easy that failure is extremely unlikely, and it is not even intended to really be a road-block? The Telltale titles would suggest that it's a perfectly valid technique, if it improves the overall experience of the player. If it aids in them feeling engaged with the experience then why not? It might work even if it feels a little counter intuitive to our usual thoughts on when to include a test for the player in our games.

Design Footnote II - Humor 

On another side note, for me that is why these games were also at their best (and occasionally worst) when using humor as a foil. The larger than life characters or situations in games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Maniac Mansion, and Zak McKraken, meant you were often laughing along with some fairly fiendish puzzling. The laughs were a reward.

It did alas, also mean that on occasion they fell foul of the most illogical, and frustrating, puzzles in the genre, as you often didn't know the 'rules' for that world and that lead to some fairly obtuse puzzles finding their way into the gaming experience (and in those days there were no internet walk-throughs to fall back upon!) Still, it's interesting from a design perspective to consider how much impact the choice to essentially try to make the games comedies had on their appeal.