I’d like to think that the graphic adventure game genre never withered, that it just evolved into other genres. That it now lives on inside the soul of every story heavy RPG. And to some extent, that’s true, but it isn’t, isn’t it? There is no easy way to say this, so here it goes without any sugarcoat: Graphic adventure games are (un)dead. Also, I think I know why and perhaps, just maybe, possibly this whole dead thing is reversible.
These types of games have an audience, a niche audience, but an audience nonetheless, so why there aren’t more than than 4 or 5 games in this genre released per year? Simply put, people stopped buying them. Alright, that sounds reasonable, but why? That is not so simple to answer, but I have a very strong suspicion: Because adventure games never evolved, they stalled, they reached a point where nothing new was attempted and people stopped caring about them in consequence.
Take for example A Vampyre Story and the new Sam & Max games: There is absolutely no difference, gameplay-wise between these games released recently and Monkey Island released in 1990. That’s 19 years! Sure, the verbs are different, the graphics are prettier and the puzzles are way easier, but the core gameplay is exactly the same: Collect items, talk to people, use items and interact with the environment with a very limited amount of verbs.
The most significant evolution the genre ever saw was a change in HUD for crying out loud. Even the jump to 3D was insignificant and in some cases, a huge step back (i.e. horrible controls and clunkier animations).
In the last few years the only significant, but really minor, improvements I’ve seen so far are the use of an internal hints system and a hotspot indicator (to avoid pixel-hunting, the game points at the interactive objects when a the tab key is pressed).
After all these years we still have situations like this:
- The goal: open a chest.
- Inventory: A flask of acid, a lock-pick and a shovel.
- What the player does: He spends 30 minutes trying to use the items and all the available verbs with the chest. Half of the options should do the trick, so it’s a matter of patience to see which one works. In the best case scenario, the game gives the player a very creative reason to explain how that would not work, and in the worst, the game insults the player for trying such a wacky combination by giving her a generic “No can do”.
- The solution to the puzzle: Use crowbar on chest. And the crowbar so happens to be laying on the floor, waiting to be picked up in a room 30 screens away from the freaking god-dammed chest.
- The reward: Bob’s toenail clippings are found inside the chest. A completely unexpected item that the player wouldn’t see coming in a million years.
There are several problems with this rather exaggerated scenario, so let’s analyze them:
- There’s only one way to do anything. Even if the game had a very limited amount objects available with clear uses for each one, the player is always going to come up with a different way of solving a puzzle, act upon it and then get frustrated by the resulting “no, that doesn’t work, try something else”.
- There’s a glaring lack of feedback. This means that, for example, it’s never clear if the player can or can’t solve a puzzle. The player defaults to brute force since there’s no hint and no logical next step to take.
- Puzzles that require certain items can appear way before the player obtains said item.
- The reason why we want to solve the puzzle is because it will somehow represent progress, because whatever is inside the chest is going to be necessary for solving another puzzle somewhere else. So if another puzzle required Bob’s toenail clippings then the player is going to be completely stuck until she finds a crowbar and uses it on a chest.
Now, some of these problems can be handled with careful placement of items, environment design and in-game hints built into normal conversations/phrases the characters say when “looking” at an object. Basically we, the developers, need to pay special attention to the puzzle design and offer help to the player when he seems to be stuck.
So, end of story, right? Well, no. Adventure games are still an exercise in frustration because they are little more than “guess what the designer is thinking” games. There’s no room for creativity, for diversity or for agency in these worlds. You either get the right answer or fail miserably, it’s just a binary state. The puzzle is either solved or unsolved.
Solving this issue is by no means an easy task, more so because it can never be solved completely. So that’s why, despite all I said, that I think Telltale are doing a fantastic job at it. By giving the player a series of short games with a visible horizon in each, the player never feels like she is never going to finish the game. By offering a bunch of different puzzles at the same time, she can try to solve one and fail miserably but still progress because she then solved one of the other puzzles available (granted, most adventure games do this to some extent). It’s all even more impressive when considering that each episode was developed in a month.
There’s still room for improvement, that’s for sure. So what can we do? There are so many things we could try, but there’s one idea that I’m particularly fond of. I’ve been wanting to see it in adventure games for a long long time now and I’m still surprised that nobody ever implemented it yet: Puzzles with more than one solution. It’s not perfect, a lot of people are still going to get frustrated but it’s a step in the right direction.
Maybe there is more than one way to put out a fire, maybe you could use a key or a crowbar to open the chest, maybe you could sneak behind the guard instead of bribing him, etc. The game doesn’t need to have moral choices or anything like that, just give me different possible solutions to a puzzle and I’ll be happy. While you are at it, maybe you could possibly have consequences for these actions too… but this may be a little too much to ask for, we haven’t seen something so different in more than a decade so it’s best to take it slowly, god knows how the fans of the genre might react to such a sudden change. But on the other hand, you can’t exactly worsen the situation, so a complete overhaul may finally kick the dust off, get the gears going and the cash flowing.