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Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Garden Needs Pruning: Adventures

(Please note: I have relatively limited knowledge on this subject.
If I am in error about something, please correct me in the comments.)

The game presents a block of text, the player responds by typing a simple text command, and the game responds with another block of text. When this interface is the dominant element of an experience, you've got an adventure game.

The primary content of an adventure is no more or less than the dialogue between player and program. In that sense, it is similar to chatterbots, which I'm not sure how to classify. The difference is in the player-program relationship. In an adventure game, they are not equals. The program outputs paragraphs of carefully crafted pre-written text, to which the player responds with just a few words.

These words are typically a verb and a noun, for the sake of practicality. "go south". "take key". "drop sandwich". "open door". "examine chair". That sort of thing. Sometimes only one word is needed. "look". "north". "inventory" to check what you're carrying. The interactivity is just enough to give the sense that you are participating in a piece of prose. Then the program reacts. If the writer anticipated the action, then the story will be effected and continue. If not, the program will say it doesn't understand.

Once you have that back-and-forth, what do you do with it? What is there for a player and a program to talk about?

There's the world, for one thing. The player can explore the scripted world by moving from place to place and examining everything he sees. The writer engages the player with the creativity and detail of these surroundings.

Or there can be added rules, of some sort. (Rules can always be put anywhere.) A monster with hit points to fight with. A trap which will pop up and hurt you at random. A magic wand to cast spells with.

There can be characters to interact with.

You can collect stuff. This was typically tied together with everything else, where what you're collecting are points, and you get points by doing just about anything. Or you might have to collect physical objects, where you can't proceed past a certain point unless you've taken everything.

There can be games of perception, where the player needs to notice little details in the environment.

Wow, that's a lot of things to talk about. Anything goes, as long as it inputs commands and outputs lavish prose. And all these things combine to make a rich experience, where the player feels he is participating in the dialogue in a meaningful way. And the more you surprise him with new kinds of gameplay, the more he's impressed by the interaction.

The adventure game is closely related to the original role-playing games. So closely, in fact, that it can be seen as a direct descendant of that discipline. In a (non-computer) role-playing game, the game-runner talks and talks and talks and then the player responds simply with what he would like to do. So the adventure is essentially a role-playing game in text, with the game being a pre-scripted program rather than an intelligent person. (This connection is not meaningful with computer role-playing games, which have evolved in a different direction.)

The adventure game is a weak Form, because the player-game dynamic -which is the purpose of all the interactivity- cannot change significantly from game to game. Every adventure game is a showcase for nearly the same interface.

That interface is pretty cool. Which is why adventures were pretty popular in the 80's. But the adventure Form never aimed to go anywhere past where it already was.

The novelty eventually wore thin. The fact that the player was influencing prose was no longer enough of a draw for that to be the dominant element of the experience. So adventures got a new definition:
There is a world to explore, and puzzles (predictable rule systems) to solve. There may also be games of interaction, perception and/or collection. When these elements are present and dominant, you've got an adventure game.

This is a textbook example of a complex Form. And the primary content of a complex Form is story.

Well, there's a lot of stuff there to tell a story with. A world in which to set the story, puzzles with which to advance the story, characters for the story to happen to and around. Collection (theoretically) serves as an incentive to keep going in the story, and perception… okay, I don't know how perception games fit in. Ah! They give you what to do while you're waiting for the story. How elegant.

Though interface is not particularly relevant, adventure games are commonly classified by their interfaces. This is perhaps a hold-over from an earlier way of thinking. "Text adventures", also commonly called "interactive fiction", use the old-fashioned text interface. Anything with graphics is a "graphical adventure", though that is split up further: "Point-and-click adventures" have you control… you know what, this really doesn't matter.

Let's move on to categories which do mean something: actual genres. The adventure, like all other complex Forms, is a strong Form, because there can be many kinds of stories. So there are the comedies and the fantasies and the science-fiction and the dramas and the horror and the mysteries.

And let's stop on that last one for a bit. Mysteries. Where you look around and act clever but sociable to get clues which you can use to figure out who did whatever was done. If you look at the adventures that have been made, an awful lot of them have been mysteries. Many which seem like other genres are actually mysteries in disguise! And even those which genuinely aren't mystery stories tend to have little bits of mystery all over in them. And why?

It's because with a mystery story, the adventure Form actually makes sense. There's a world, setting the tone and context for the crime. There are puzzles, demonstrating the cleverness of the detective. There are people to interrogate. There are clues to collect, which require careful observation. In short, there isn't anything in the gameplay which isn't perfectly suitable for a mystery story.

The format isn't particularly suitable for anything else, though. Having a big world to explore doesn't make sense in a thriller or a romance or a comedy or a drama- it distracts from, rather than adding to, the human emotions of the piece. Having to notice small details keeps you distracted from the bigger picture you'd want in a fantasy or science-fiction story, and it doesn't add any emotions either. Having puzzles which demand to be solved puts a speed limit on pacing.

So while adventures are capable of any kind of story, they're only good at one. Any standard adventure which is not (to some extent) a mystery is less than the sum of its parts, because no matter how good the gameplay is it's all in the service of a story that can't be told well.

There are two ways gamists get around this. One is with the old gamistic cheat that is cut-scenes. You don't know how to tell your story with the elements you've built in, so you take away all interactivity for a few minutes and tell your story as a movie.

The other way is to make one element dominant over the others, so that the adventure becomes a simple Form. Maybe you can't tell a good story with adventures, but you can design a good world or good puzzles or good characters or good… um, hiding places for collectibles. So if you just focus on that one element and make that one element good, then the whole game will be good.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work so well. The extra elements which have attached to the adventure as a part of its evolution do not suit exploration games or puzzle games. It does not suit a game of exploration to limit significant areas based on how far the plot has progressed or how clever the player is at predicting rules. It does not suit a game of rules to require you to wander around aimlessly. It does not suit a game of perception, along the lines of Where's Waldo, to be so darned complicated that kids can't enjoy it.

The types of games included do not fit together with each other, and they do not fit together with the focus on story. A puzzle-driven adventure can't be as good as a dedicated puzzle game. An exploration-driven adventure can't be as good as a dedicated exploration game. A perception-driven adventure can't be as good as a dedicated perception game. Almost all the parts of the adventure Form are being held back by being in this context.

The adventure game is broken.
There is a pre-scripted story which progresses when the player makes choices. When those choices are the dominant element of an experience, you've got an adventure game. Its primary content is the pre-scripted story.

That may sound simple. It is.

The difference between a pure adventure and a non-interactive story is that the progression of the story is directly tied to the player's involvement. That means the player controls pacing, and the player controls which of several (or even many) pre-written directions the story should go in. He controls these things on a macro level and a micro level, and it makes for a distinct kind of experience.

The player is presented with things he can do. Just having those options to begin with, and having specific carefully-chosen options, already creates all sorts of emotions in the player. They change depending on context: In a conversation, for instance, options will typically be limited to lines of dialogue. In a usual adventure only one character is playable at a time. So the player is given options which are relevant to that character in the current situation. The player can't jump around unless the writer thinks it makes sense for the character to jump around.

When the player uses a certain option, however that option is presented to him, the game will react by continuing the story in a way fitting to that choice. Then the player can feel a small sense of ownership over the story, even though he doesn't have total freedom in the game. He can also experiment with different options, where the effects on the game environment tell him something about the story.

The adventure is similar to rule systems in that respect, but there aren't really any rules. If you wanted to stretch it, you could say adventures are rule system games where the only rule is "Whatever the writer says, goes." and the player's trying to anticipate what'll happen next.

The story can be presented in any fashion. It could be text, or something like a movie (or an actual live-action movie), or a comic book, or even a musical! Any sort of non-interactive entertainment goes. Take any one of those, and add relevant (but small) interactivity throughout, and you're using the language of adventures.

If the player has too much freedom, then the experience of using that freedom takes precedence over the pre-scripted story and what you have is no longer an adventure. And if there is not enough freedom, that's not an adventure either. So the adventure is like the "missing link" between the old, passive experiences and the new, active experiences. It can get strengths from both sides: Vivid characterizations, but where you get to stand in the person's shoes. Carefully crafted plots, where you can still feel pride or guilt over how it turns out. Empathy, but with a personal investment. An experience crafted with the writer's instincts but tailored to whatever the player's mood is.

Any genre of story is possible, and indeed all could thrive. Mysteries will never go away, but there can also be romances and thrillers and provocative science-fiction and escapist fantasy and insightful drama and interpretations of moments in world history and politics and live-action opera and short poetry and whatever else you can think of.

Adventures have so much potential!

The Dynamic Interface

How can adventures evolve? I wrote this two years ago:

What I'm most interested in are dynamic interfaces- interfaces which change depending on what's going on. This would be easiest to pull off (and most effective) on the DS, so let's say this is on the DS. The idea I thought I'd post a minute ago would have been a hybrid interface, with movement on the D-pad. But now that I'm writing, I figure, why not go the whole way? So everything's done by the bottom screen.

On the top screen is the 3D gameworld, shown in cinematic camera angles that turn around as necessary. (The player has no direct control over the camera.) The bottom screen is covered with buttons for contextual actions ("Exit, Talk to salesman, Hop Up and Down while Singing 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'") pictures of key objects in the vicinity (a screwdriver, a stereo, a lit dynamite stick, a purple cat hopping up and down while meowing "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"), and/or a few (as few as the designers can get away with) consistent buttons like one for opening the inventory. Pressing on one of the pictures moves the camera to a better position to see it (like zoomed in real close while the cameraman jumps up and down to the tune of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"), and maybe some new buttons will appear (For the stick of dynamite: "Hit with hammer, Stuff in Stereo, Eat, Ignore, Run Like Heck, Go Back") and maybe even a little textbox will pop up with the player character's innermost thoughts! (For the stick of dynamite: "Hmmm.... what is this? I've never seen a thing like this before... Nosiree, I've never seen anything like it... I have no idea what this is..." and a button marked "Ponder Further")

See, the beauty of what I just said is that I haven't really said much of anything. There's lots that the designer could put in, but nothing that needs to go in! Since this is a "dynamic interface", the designers get to put in whatever is most dramatic/funny/effective/reminiscent of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" for whatever's going on. If you're outside, then the designers could put in a top-down map, or buttons for all the buildings nearby, or a signpost, or a little rhythm mini-game of skipping forward to the tune of..never mind. And just think of the amazing possibilities there could be with an ever-changing interface!

For my first example, let's say the designers (like any good, righteous, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"-fearing adventure designers) are passionately in love with pixel-hunting. They wouldn't mark out the objects- oh no!- Then they wouldn't be able to give you the fun of finding them yourself! So instead, they'd put buttons (or pictures) for each of the locations objects might be hidden in (Top Shelf, Middle Shelf, Bottom Shelf, Left Shelf, Right Shelf, Floor next to Shelf, Underneath the Shelves, Behind the Shelves, On the Ceiling above Shelf, Inside the Unscrewed Knob on the Left Side of the Middle Shelf, On Top of Shelves Examined Under Microscope), each one turning the bottom screen into a 2D representation of the area for you to enjoy yourself pixel-hunting in. Now, if the player has been searching for the brilliant hiding spot (the third black dot to the left on the front of the bottom shelf) for a reasonable amount of time (seven hours) and is still too pathetic to find it, the merciful designer can have the game start to eliminate the buttons that lead nowhere (or, if he feels like having some fun, the Bottom Shelf button), to point the player in the right direction.

My second example assumes that the designers are godless evil simpletons who shamelessly want to spell out how to push the story along. Some of the items in a room will be important to the story and are obviously important to the character (say, his pink bunny slippers. This character is obsessed with his pink bunny slippers.), while other items are only there to flesh out the gameworld a bit more. The buttons (or pictures) for the most crucial items could be bigger or placed to attract attention on the bottom screen, so that the player (if he is the sort of mindless bloodsucking drone that these evil designers worship) can play through the game quickly if he so chooses. (Bah!- free will.) Or if there was an item which the player ignored before, but now has become crucial to the plot, it could get bigger to attract attention. Or a button could start out big, but get very small once the player has already seen it so it shouldn't distract.

Similarly, some characters are extremely important (the hero's girlfriend), while others are not (the hero's wife). The button to go talk to the girlfriend (or join her in hopping up and down to the tune of Thus Spoke Zarathustra) should be bigger than the wife's button, so that the player always understands what the character's priorities are like.

Let's say our hero is having a conversation with his wife (dialogue would also, obviously, be handled on the bottom screen), and really should be telling her that he sort-of-accidentally allowed her beloved purple cat to be blown up. This would be a pretty big button, since it's weighing heavily on his mind. Naturally, the player will try to push it, but whoops!- the button hopped over to another part of the bottom screen. Try to push it again, and again it hops as our hero puts off the inevitable. Eventually the button may try to hide under some other "excuse" buttons, or jump to the top screen where you can't reach it, or something like that. Now that's drama!

(When talking with his girlfriend, half the dialogue choices would be truly pathetic and half almost-intelligent, and the buttons would be sort of wavy and shake around, so that it's hard to press on the right one.)

If you're inspecting the scene of a crime, the game should move slowly to let you figure things out, take notes (on the handy-dandy bottom screen), etc. And by "slowly" I mean "slowly". It shouldn't be rushing you onwards or reminding you that your wife is outside carrying a club. The trouble is, the player is the one in control of the progression just as much as the designer. A dynamic interface can be used to encourage him to slow down. Let's say that since the beginning of the game the buttons have been hopping around, there have only been a (relatively) few buttons, and those buttons were often pretty big. Now you walk into the scene of the crime, and suddenly you've got no movement controls, no hide-from-wife controls, but twelve pictures of pieces of evidence (or red herrings) all given equal space in a four-by-three grid. In addition, everything is given narration by the character in a textbox at the bottom of the screen. As soon as the player sees all this, he understands that he's meant to go slowly.

On the other hand, let's say in the next scene he finds out some urgent news. (His wife is driving home to rip his fluffy pink bunny slippers and smash his record of Thus Spoke Zarathustra!) Let's say the designer is staying away from timed sequences- how can he indicate the urgency and speed up the game? Simple- he takes away all buttons but the "Run Like Crazy Back Home" button, and has that button take up two-thirds of the screen, hop up and down urgently and flash. (If that doesn't get the player's attention, maybe it could have an obnoxious sound effect like a siren combined with a French Horn.) As he runs back, he'll go through many areas he's been to before, but the buttons will (at least mostly) be missing: What difference does that third black dot to the left matter when the music (and the fluffiness) is in jeopardy?! It doesn't matter that there's no time limit- the player will run home (because he doesn't have any other choice) and won't really feel too cheated. (Because he understands that buttons can appear and disappear at random, and because -overall- this isn't too long a scene.)

These are two extremes, you understand- I'm not saying it would ever have to be so exaggerated.

Symbolism and Other Gimmicks
When you can play around with the layout of the interface at will, you can do all sorts of nifty stuff. Have you ever read David Mack's comic book Kabuki? No, I didn't think so. Oh well- that was a good example of the style I'm talking about. How about Bill Willingham's Fables?- That did stuff like that occasionally... Never mind. Okay, let's say you're in a garden, and you want to hit the player over the head with the word "flower" because this is some deep artistic nonsense. So you could arrange the buttons on the bottom screen so that the layout looks like a flower! Pretty cool, huh?

Practicality, practicality. Always you yell about practicality. Okay,- I'll give you practicality. Let's say there's an unresolved mystery in the story- it's just sort of there. But you want to tell players the answer to the mystery, and you just want to hint it. So in some important scene, you've got one picture in the center, and all the others around it. And why?- the player wonders. Why, it's because it's a clue, you nitwit! And he sees this clue, and then he understands the mystery. What do you mean, "pointless"? You're too picky.

Anyway, dynamic interfaces are a whole new language. I'm sure I've barely scratched the surface of all the possibilities that would be opened up here. You can probably think of more yourself. Something to think about...



You've got some fascinating and spot-on insights and ideas, here.

Coming from you, that means a lot. Thanks.


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