Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Toward Better Readability in Adventure Games

The problem with adventure games wasn't ever their content. These games featured some of the most compelling characters, interesting settings and best humour in the history of interactive entertainment. Given how often the absence of these in modern games is criticized, clearly something else was responsible for their decline in popularity. Gameplay was the downfall of adventure games.

Telltale Games are the modern flagbearers of commercial adventure games. Looking at their games, it's clear they sought to address some of the readability issues older adventure games had. In the Sam & Max episodes, there is only a single contextual action that can be performed on any object. Inventory items are removed when all their interactions have been performed and there are no red herring items (items you can pick up but are never used). Additionally, by creating shorter games with smaller still scenes in each of those, the amount of possible interactions is made more manageable.

But the most commendable improvement was adding an in-game hint system in the form of Max. There was an option slider to turn hit frequency from never to often. This allowed the player a way to move past being stuck without having to resort to GameFAQs (which, once used, becomes very easy to return to). But as successful as Telltale has been, I wonder if there are some fundamental limitations on how most adventure games are structured.

Adventure games still have linear, unchanging stories. They're not very meaningfully interactive. Some amount of story will occur, the player will be gated until they can solve a series of puzzles, the next bit of story will be parceled out. Repeat until conclusion is reached. If all you want to do is create a linear story, then you're wasting your time trying to make a game of it. Film, theatre, literature; all these do a far better job of telling linear stories and honestly, I think they always will.

For many, I don't think the payoff for adventure games was the interactions as they were implemented. If the payoff from old adventure games really was using verbs with sprites and managing an inventory, then they're not worth saving. But if the satisfaction came from them being non-violent, intellectual games with compelling characters and settings, then there is something there worth preserving.

The notion that most needs throwing overboard is the designer saying the player will move through their story jumping through hoops X, Y and Z. This model leaves no space for interesting dynamics to arise. We need to scuttle this thinking and instead look to create a smaller set of mechanics they can be utilized in interesting way. The Last Express is a very good example of how to create a non-linear adventure game without sacrificing an engaging story. I could write this much again just about it, but to avoid abusing your eyes further, I'll redirect to Chris Remo's excellent write-up on Gamasutra.

This is the empathy I was talking about before. We need to understand that while a great linear story may be interesting for us, there's no guarantee it will similarly engage the player. And it certainly doesn't play to the strengths of our medium. Why must adventure game puzzles only have one solution? Why must every one of them be solved to continue? Why must the player's agency be wholly illusory, with them being unable to make any impact on the story? Adventure games succeed despite their gameplay, not because of it.

The other component is making sure new adventure games don't fall prey to the poor readability of their predecessors. Playtesting games without clear skill progressions (i.e. non-combat games) is doubly important. In his GDC talk about puzzles and interaction design, Randy Smith presented what he called the > 99% problem. Namely, the combinatorics of puzzles make it so that the puzzles need to be solvable by nearly everyone. Some might naively think that having any puzzle in a game solvable by 95% of players is satisfactory. The problem with this is at each puzzle 5% of the players are being lost, such that even if a game has only 4 puzzles, a per-puzzle 95% success rate means almost 20% of players won't be able to finish the game. To have a game be solvable by most players, each puzzle must be solvable by >99% of players. But it must be solvable in the way that makes the player feel clever, rather than feeling like the designer assumed they'd be too stupid to get anything that wasn't blatantly obvious. Testing and iteration are the only way to ensure this threshold is reached.

It's clear that adventure games, of both the text and graphical variety, have fallen from the prominent position they once occupied. Many blame the audience, saying they're lazy and stupid, and they only want bigger explosions and more guns. This is cynical bullshit and there is no way less crass to put it. If the audience is not interested in our games, we have failed to engage them.

If we want to bring these experiences to a larger audience (and this seems to be what nearly everyone wants, there's enough of a niche for free IF/adventure games), we need to create experiences that are readable and engaging. Sure, a sizable portion of the audience is only interested in bombs and boobs. But there are enough thoughtful gamers out there that would appreciate and support a new wave of intellectual, non-violent story-based games.

We're not reaching them through marginally interactive linear story games though. Reaching this audience requires creating games that focus on a smaller set of meaningful mechanics that give rise to interesting story-based dynamics. Providing understandable relationships that allow the player agency and decisions with consequence.

If we are not willing to create readable systems to support adventure games, I fear we will always be talking about the adventure games we played, rather than the ones we are looking forward to playing.

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Blogger Aaron A. Reed said...

Hi Nels-- thanks for the thought you've put into these posts; I've enjoyed reading them.

I did want to take issue with this, though: "The notion that most needs throwing overboard is the designer saying the player will move through their story jumping through hoops X, Y and Z." Isn't this the model that nearly *all* games with a story component are based on, not just adventure games? In fact I'd say adventure games tend to be better at this than most other genres. In a "Myst" game you can often choose which order you want to play the different Ages in, and many times which order you want to solve the puzzles within an age in. Additionally, many of these games have branching endings. Contrast this with Half Life 2, which has an unflexible sequence of levels, each of which you move through on an unflexible pathway. (There are good and bad examples on both sides, I realize, but in my mind adventure games are associated with a more flexible and open-ended structure.)

If you're saying that the emphasis on story in adventure games makes this problem stand out more, then I'd agree, but I'm not at all convinced it's a genre-specific failing.

May 6, 2009 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Aaron It's not a problem that adventures games alone suffer from, but it affects them greater than other games because adventures don't have any other payoff.

Half-Life 2 has gunplay, driving and physics-based puzzles to keep things engaging. Failure at these can usually be improved by repetition and the amount of possible actions to take (especially in re: the physics puzzles) is quite constrained.

Adventure games that only have verb/inventory puzzles are more problematic, as discussed prior, because when you're stuck, there's often nothing you can do to change that. Nearly all the classic LucasArts/Sierra are structured this way. Being able to try multiple puzzles at once only defers the problem of being stuck on any one.

This is why I think The Last Express is such a good model to learn from. It doesn't gate the player (quite the opposite, actually) and there are numerous outcomes without dependencies.

With all that being said, some prominant developers think this problem is deeply problematic for all games. I'm not sure I'd go as far as Jon does, but I don't think he's entirely wrong either.

May 7, 2009 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Andrew Plotkin said...

I too am enjoying this thread.

There's an old truism in the IF world (several years is "old" in the videogame sphere, right?) that if you build a puzzle with multiple solutions, every player will find one of them and then complain that the game was too linear. Furthermore, every player will find the solution that suits him *least*. (The logic-puzzlers will figure out a way to brute-force the puzzle and then complain that it was boring; the persistent types will get stuck on the most mind-bending puzzle path...)

This is a Murphy's-Law take on game design, but it's a real issue even if the statement is exaggerated.

Similarly, every player sees a single path through the game -- the one he took. Interactivity in the sense of a dynamic plot is not, *of itself*, of benefit to the player. The player can't see it! You have to make the interactivity itself readable -- which is just as much of a challenge as making the gameplay and puzzles readable.

(Because, of course, both puzzles and plot-interactivity are different species of the same thing -- interactivity -- at different levels of the game structure.)

The Last Express uses a certain set of levers to make the player engage with its story structure. Most obviously, it kills you, frequently and with enthusiasm. You have to rewind/restore to make any progress at all (at least, I did).

Sam&Max goes to the other extreme, as nearly all commercial adventure games do (since Myst). You can't die. Then again, each Sam&Max episode has a pretty linear structure. You often have a mini-branch point, where you have to find three items (in any order); the game makes this fairly clear, and there's no pretense that it will make a difference in the long run.

On the other hand, the Sam&Max games are a good example of how a pure-puzzle game -- even the oldest school of inventory puzzle and fetch-quest -- *can* provide interesting dynamics. You are never, after the first episode, thrown into a totally arbitrary environment with arbitrary locks and keys. The puzzles form running gags -- i.e., learnable patterns. You have a stock of, well, stock characters (Bosco, etc) who provide known avenues of action.

Plus, the element that lies between your "using verbs with sprites" and "compelling characters and settings": actually solving the puzzles. People do do that for fun, you know. :) It's *not* fun when you degenerate into mechanical "try every X with every Y"; it's fun when your thinking about the game stems from the game's logic and your immersion in the environment. That can be looney-tunes logic (as in S&M) or symbolic/mechanical/pattern-awareness logic (as in Myst). But it is what draws me to adventure games. The payoff (at this level) is in feeling engaged with the environment, not the plot tree.

Whatever you can say about the decline of *pure* adventure games, that kind of world-immersion problem-solving gameplay remains popular. It is used as an element in action games (Tomb Raider), CRPGs, etc, etc. It may be outweighed in terms of player-minutes by the more familiar bashing and shooting gameplay, but designers and players seem to agree that it has its charms.

May 8, 2009 at 2:32 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Andrew Thanks, it's been great reading your thoughts on this too.

You've identified another major readability in challenge in a lot of games- presenting clear choices to the player. Often, players are asked to make decisions without any read understanding of the possible outcomes or that there's even a decision to be made. This makes that decision making process seem arbitrary

It's not just story-based decisions either. Nearly all RPGs as you to choose your class before the game begins, but if you're not familiar with a D&D-esque class system, it's a pretty blind and arbitrary decision to make. Or even if the player has experience with an RPG class system, they can be some incorrect assumptions about how this particular game has altered it.

It also introduces the problem where the players are more concerned about the content they won't see than the content they chose. They end up saving before each decision point and trying out all the options. This is certainly within their rights, but it also interrupts the flow and continuity of the game's narrative.

Obviously, the outcomes shouldn't be totally obvious as having something surprising or unexpected happen is important. But there's a wide gulf between obviousness and the kind of consequence unknown decisions players are called upon to make.

And you're absolutely right that puzzle solving is quite satisfying. The challenge with adventure puzzles is that once the player gets off the intended path, it can be very hard for them to get back. Offering multiple paths might help mitigate this.

May 8, 2009 at 3:39 PM  

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