This article was originally written on October 13, 2005 for The Next Quarter gaming blog. It has been unmodified except for the addition of images.
This week brings the release of one of my more personally anticipated games, Gyakuten Saiban: Yomigaeru Gyakuten or otherwise known to Americans as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
To get the basics out of the way, Phoenix Wright is an adventure game in the classical sense (classical equating to text) that revolves around a series of court cases where you play fledging defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he tries to defend his clients from wrongful convictions. This is actually a series consisting of now four games (three on the GBA and 1 on the DS) and Capcom has finally decided to localize the 1st DS game, which itself is a remake of the 1st GBA game (with the additions of DS-specific features and stories).
With pretty stellar reviews and lots of positive responses from various sources, I’m sure I will enjoy the game thoroughly. And truthfully, these sorts of games ranging from any Lucasart SCUMM game to the ancient Infocom text adventures have always appealed to me.
From left to right: Zork II, Day of the Tentacle, Myst, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
But adventure games have always represented a tricky conundrum in the face of serious game design. This problem arises from the fact that adventure games are possibly the most diametrically opposed type of game that we as ludologists tend to champion. These adventure games tend to be low on meaningful user interaction, devoid of just about any sense of user narrative, and almost always entirely stress content consumption. Or to explain in greater detail: interaction is strictly limited to minor puzzles designed merely as roadblocks towards advancement in the plot; the idea of users forming their own narratives from the game universe is disposed of completely in favor of glamorizing the designer’s narrative; and these adventure games have virtually no actual replay value since the game experience remains static from one playthrough to another.
Yet all these negativity flies directly in the face that adventure games, despite their seemingly innumerous number of flaws, are fun, are enjoyable, and universally cherished by a wide range of players. Why does conventional ludology seem to fail when it comes to these adventure games?
This seemingly vexing disparity was the subject of a lot of conversation between Chris and I as we tried to figure out what we were missing here. I think ultimately we arrived at the beginnings of a very interesting theory that illuminates very sharp differences between games and other forms of interactive media.
First, we looked at the fundamental reason why we play adventure games. The short answer? Most of our favorite adventure games are renowned for their stories, either dramatic or comedic, epic or intimate, the best kinds of these games have well-written enjoyable plots. The longer answer is that the best examples of adventure games not only have great stories, but also as a whole demonstrate a superior form of writing than any other sort of game. This writing extends beyond the immediate realm of the plot and infiltrates the entire story world presented in any adventure game. After all, half the fun from Sam and Max is from trying the entire gamut of dialogue choices to get the full range of witty responses from all the characters (to the point where players will consciously choose to ignore a “correct” response in favor of provoking dialogue responses from the other “incorrect” choices).
So where does this leave the interactive elements of these games? Well frankly, the interactive elements of adventure games are probably the least important facet in determining the quality of these games (in order of importance I would quickly rank story, graphics, sound/audio, then any sort of interactive element). And designers of these games recognize this fact; any sort of interaction is kept to a minimum since regardless of the specific game any sort of adventure game will be short on meaningful choices.
By meaningful choice, I simply mean that adventure games by their very nature do not allow players to make any fundamental gameplay decisions and those that do tend to be frustrating and poorly implemented. Fundamental gameplay decisions relates back to the idea that adventure games are entirely designer-driven, I as a player typically will not be able to change Guybrush Threepwood into a villain and become a villainous pirate since the story is immutable. Any interactive elements presented, be they the choice of choosing specific lines of dialogue or solving logic puzzles or playing mini-games do not allow me to craft a unique user-driven narrative, but are merely roadblocks to overcome in getting the game to divulge me greater details about the story.
And the games that do present fundamental gameplay choices tend to do it in two poor ways: either by giving the player the chance of dying (failure to complete certain tasks) or by creating some sort of branching story system. The latter still fails to completely break free of the idea that adventure games are designer-driven since the story branches are still entirely given by the whims of the writers and designers and doubly fails since making a good branching story is difficult.
Dragon’s Lair, where dying was most of the game.
The idea of dying in an adventure game is a more interesting decision, but one that tends to become one of the more frustrating aspects (unless the idea of death is played off entirely as another amusing “decision” with no long-lasting consequences. Because typically events that lead to death in adventure games lack any sort of context or logic, you die because you chose the wrong piece of dialogue to speak or you didn’t solve that puzzle correctly in three tries or you failed to properly execute a specific sequence of events. By adding the possibility of dying and subsequently the idea of failure into the game, the designer is implying that some sort of risk versus reward mechanic exists. Except adventure games rarely have any sort of real risk versus reward system because it is nigh impossible to provide any meaningful reward in an adventure game that outweighs the risk. The best possible reward is the advancement of the story or further exploration of the story world and in all adventure games this is par for course, not some special event worthy of risking your avatar’s life. In an adventure game, any successful action leads to this reward for the player and by juxtaposing the harsh penalty of death for the same reward, we get frustrated when while attempting to solve abstract puzzle #13 we die because we couldn’t figure it out in arbitrary number of tries.
This also leads to another problem, death in adventure games tends to be immediate and without warning, there’s rarely any feedback telling the player they are doing something wrong (beyond the immediate “you suck at solving puzzles try again” mechanic). In a more complex game system, there’s typically a granularity of feedback the game gives you to help you understand your progress and currently status in both obvious and non-obvious ways. Adventure games lack this granularity and thus failure is either completely ignored (in most cases) or 100% punished.
So if people play classical adventure games for the story and not for the gameplay, does this make them bad games? Yes in one sense, but the answer Chris and I arrived at takes a different path. I’d rather not delve into the argument whether adventure games can actually be called games or not since these arguments oftentimes are semantically driven. But instead, I can say adventure games function less as games and more as exploration of texts.
We play adventure games the same way we read books or watch films, there’s a story or story world there that greatly appeals to us (I suspect only masochists play adventure games for the puzzles). So why make adventure games at all in lieu of films or literature? The answer lies in the first word, exploration is a theme central to any adventure game. Adventure games uniquely offer the experience over celluloid and books that we as readers of the text can – at our own pace – explore the story, the details nay, the entire world presented in each and every adventure games. And the best adventure games focus most on the last bullet in the list, the story world that encompasses the narrative. While films have their pacing determined entirely by the filmmakers and books can be read at one’s leisure, but don’t encourage going beyond the bounds of the author’s narrative, adventure games are uniquely suited to allow players the chance to perhaps forgo the central plot for extended periods of time to mess around in the universe the writers have crafted so carefully.
Myst, the bane of most gamers, did these two things right. First, you couldn’t die. But secondly, the developers of Cyan realized this central virtue of adventure games and created the Myst world to encourage exploration, wandering, lack of advancement in favor of sitting down in the central library and browsing through each and every book. There was never any pressure to advance, no game character telling you to move along, not even any in-game hints to give players a direction to go in the game. Myst’s entire focus was to create an environment where exploration was pivotal to the entire experience.
And doubly, this is what Indigo Prophecy gets wrong with its needless gameplay elements and complex story branching system. Players don’t care that we need to time button presses to dodge traffic or move a body, players don’t care that the central narrative can branch in a hundred different places, and players certainly don’t care that there are failure options present at every turn. When people play adventure games, the demands are simple. We want an interesting text to explore with all but the most perfunctory gameplay excised in favor of this exploratory experience.
I suppose some of these statements are a bit too forceful and there are certainly exceptions to the rule. This is not a concrete thesis on adventure games and their place in the gaming world, but a starting point, a lot of ideas wrapped around a hypothesis dreamt up by two college guys. And the death of adventure games as a viable source of revenue has forced adventure games to either stop existing altogether or change dramatically in hopes of attracting a new audience, so in a few years this model for adventure games may not be applicable.
But then again, perhaps if adventure games branched out to non-gamer demographics and focused on the idea of exploring the text again we might have an interesting revival of sorts. After all there are thousands of cheap paperback romance novels out there for the entire community of housewives, maybe a simple adventure game in that mold could sell. Or what about a non-fiction adventure game set around creating a biographical narrative for famous figures as educational software?
Meanwhile, I’ll be playing Phoenix Wright and screaming “Objection!” into my DS’s microphone.