Thursday, October 21, 2010

Adventure Game Problems

If you design games, you should play games.  It's that simple.  Not just the genre you create, but other genres as well.  I'm perhaps guilty of playing too many RPGs, but over the past couple of months I have also played Alan Wake, Just Cause 2, Serious Sam HD and Tales of Monkey Island (and a few others) between my modding sessions. The last is something I've been playing recently, and as a result I have been reminded of the frustrations of adventure games.  They can be really fun, but they have a few problems that arguably make them less enjoyable when compared to era in which they were among the best games around. There are three significant ones that come to mind...

Arbitrary Solutions
Frequently the means to solve a puzzle is not obvious, or completely unintuitive.  Now it could be argued that this is part of the fun, but it's not particularly enjoyable to randomly try combined items in your inventory until something works, or attempting to use every single item in your inventory with an object until you find the right one. Part of the enjoyment in an adventure game is the problem solving of coming up with the solutions. Solutions can be as crazy and off the wall as the designer likes, but there should be some means for the player to identify a solution.

Guybrush escapes from a crazy doctor using only his feet

Tales succeeds in some cases (like escaping from a crazy doctor while strapped to an operating chair - above), but fails in others (smashing glass unicorns by firing a cannon pointing in the wrong direction). Of course, a game can't always get it "right", but it can be frustrating for the player when they had no real way of identifying the correct solution beforehand.

Pixel Hunting
To this day, I remember my frustration with playing the original version of The Secret of Monkey Island. The particular puzzle that stopped me for a long time was getting past a group of vicious piranha poodles guarding the Governor's mansion.  I could feed them a hunk of meat, but this would not occupy them for long enough.  The correct solution was to use a yellow flower on the meat (or to place it in a pot in which you stewed the meat) which would then send the dogs to sleep. This gave you the amusing message: "These dogs are sleeping, NOT dead. No animals were harmed during the creation of this game."  The problem was you had no real way of knowing you could interact with the flowers unless you happened to move the mouse over them and noticed the status bar change text. They were also found in a forest that you visited for completely unrelated reasons, which also ties back to problem 1.

Monkey Island's sleep-inducing flowers

Identifying which objects you could interact with was a significant problem in older adventure games. Tales of Monkey Island goes some way to fixing this, by allowing you to press a key to "highlight" interactive objects. However, sometimes there are multiple objects with which you can interact within a single highlight, which can lead you to miss important object that you need to use.

A Single Path
Adventure games are typically fairly linear.  This is because they rely on story (and frequently humour) in order to keep the audience engaged.  This is a good thing because it helps the narrative, and also prevents the player from getting into a situation where it is impossible to beat the game - yes, that is A Good Thing.  But this does result in problems when the player wants to pursue a particular task but they are unable to do so because they need to complete something else first.  Generally there is no easy way to tell the player the exact order to do tasks in. Moreover, doing so would feel very heavy handed and likely annoy players with blatant railroading. As such, sometimes you can be stuck trying to solve a puzzle that is currently impossible.

The only way to lose Monkey Island

All these problems can potentially be fixed, but do those fixes come with a cost?  The arbitrary solution that initially makes no sense can turn out to be hilariously wacky and amuse players. Pixel hunting... actually, I think we can safely ditch that entirely. Highlight all usable objects in the scene, using a specific outline for each object if necessary. The designers can even throw in a few red herrings if they want to avoid making puzzles too easy. The single path is perhaps the hardest to address, as a linear story will almost certainly be more entertaining than a non-linear one, and the story and humour are probably the two major reasons for playing adventure games.

Of course, it might be interesting to discuss the adventure game genre as a whole, why it fell into decline, and why it has only gained attention again in recent years with the episodes of Tales and Sam and Max, but that's probably a post for another time...

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