I can’t use these things together

You are likely to be eaten by a grue.One of the life lessons that I keep learning, and keep ignoring, is that you should always keep your career separate from your hobbies. In retrospect, I could’ve saved a lot of time and effort if I’d just bought the sequels to Monkey Island and SimCity instead of flying all the way out here to get free copies.

A corollary to that is that if you’ve got to have a weblog, you should keep your personal one separate from your professional one. The reason I started this thing was to have an outlet to pontificate about things of trivial importance like movies and TV shows and comic books and videogames. And I’ve been a fan of Sam & Max since I was a sophomore in college, and I got into the comics because of adventure games. So it’s pretty obvious that as soon as I heard about Telltale’s Sam & Max games, I would’ve scampered off to the internet to write about them. But a while ago I outed myself as having worked on a few of them. And it’s just not cool to respond to a review of something that you worked on.

Luckily, I’m a guy who writes on the internet about movies and comic books and videogames. I gave up any pretense of being cool a long time ago. So I can just make this disclaimer — I don’t represent Telltale in any way; my opinions most likely don’t reflect their own; and I’ve just done dialogue writing for a few of the episodes, with no hand in the game design whatsoever — and we’re all set.

Preamble aside, I’m not really interested in responding to the reviews. I’m pleased with how Episode 4 came out. Since they’re still art and not product (yet), reviews of videogames are inherently subjective. And I sure as hell am not going to comment on whether people thought it was funny or not; the only objective truth about being funny is that Dane Cook isn’t. I just want to comment on two statements from the reviews and what they say about adventure games in general.

Eurogamer’s review (a pretty negative one) had this line:

…being able to easily carve through each episode makes for a far less satisfying gameplay experience, because there’s a notable lack of achievement. To a certain extent you’re playing an interactive graphic novel with mildly diverting puzzles. A deeper analysis would suggest that the intrinsic desire to play through an adventure game gets lost by reducing the puzzles to little more than mining dialogue trees and using the right object when the context presents itself.

And Joystiq’s review (they liked it) said this:

The thing is, the puzzles in Sam & Max aren’t strictly, well, puzzles. They’re jokes. And you get to make them!

As far as I can tell, they’re both saying basically the same thing. But I like the way the Joystiq guy says it a lot better. And it hits on my master theory of adventure game puzzles: they almost universally suck.

I’ve already said on here that I just don’t like adventure game puzzles. I always assumed I did, because when I first got into games, adventure games were all I played. Every time I tried a non-LucasArts adventure though, I ended up disappointed. For a while I thought it was just that I don’t like non-comedy games, since in comedy games you can make jokes about how stupid the puzzles are. But there are exceptions (Fate of Atlantis and the non-LEC game Broken Sword) that put that theory to rest.

Of all the adventure games that I’ve played, there are only 1.05 that got the puzzles right. That’d be Day of the Tentacle, and the “something of the thread” puzzle from Monkey Island 2. All the other games that I’ve played and still liked, I’ve liked in spite of the puzzles, not because of them.

And what the successes have in common isn’t that they’re comedy or non-comedy, or from LucasArts or not; it’s what drives the focus of the game: Adventure games work when the story drives everything.

I haven’t just offered up an insightful analysis that’s going to blow the lid off the industry; adventure games are story-driven by definition. You play them by advancing the story, and you “win” when you see how the story turned out.

It’s so obvious, in fact, that I’m surprised when people keep trying to turn adventures into puzzle games. And I’m surprised when players are disappointed by a game that “only” delivers a well-written, engaging, funny or dramatic or scary story. It’s all about the puzzles, we hear. (After the most recent GDC, there’s a big deal being made now about whether developer-created stories have any place in the great next generation of games, but that’s a topic for another post. For now, just stick with me on the assumption that adventures and other story-based games are worth keeping around.)

Now, if somebody were telling me a story, and after every plot advancement, he spent a couple of hours describing the main character trying to open a locked door, or manipulating a sliding-block puzzle, I think I’d end up pretty disappointed. But that’s exactly what a lot of adventure games (I would say most) do — put pointless complications into an otherwise interesting story. Instead of having the player interact with the game by advancing the plot, the player’s interaction with the game is doing some nonsensical thing. His “reward” is getting to watch the plot advance afterwards. And every time over the past decade you’ve heard somebody talk about the death of adventure games, there’s a maze or idiotic locked door puzzle standing over the body.

So it sounds like I’m pushing for the resurgence of the interactive movie, right? No, because even the most linear, predictable adventure game has a level of interaction and engagement that you can only get from a videogame. And that Joystiq review sums it up: to paraphrase, it’s a story that you get to tell.

The puzzles that I liked so much from Day of the Tentacle worked because the player could see the joke set-up, he had the pieces to make it happen, and he just had to put everything together. You’ve got a cat, some white paint, a fence, a bunch of people you need to get out of a room, and a childhood spent watching Pepe LePeu cartoons. The cutscene that follows isn’t the reward; the moment that you understand what you have to do is. Same with using a bucket of mud and a door in Monkey Island 2 — you don’t just get the joke after it’s been told to you; you’re the one who gets to tell it.

So I don’t think adventure games are dead, necessarily, just that they’ve been picked apart and cannibalized by everything else. Role-playing games can have big cinematics, dialogue trees, and even sliding block puzzles, but on top of a game mechanic that’s often fun on its own. Half-Life and Dark Forces proved that even first-person shooters can be story-based, and No One Lives Forever proved that they can be funny. And developers still love playing around with the format, doing hybrid genres (I’m looking forward to Bioshock more than I can describe), and episodic content.

Adventure games reinforce the idea that there’s room for story, and comedy, and real character interaction, in videogames, and that the level of interaction you can get from a videogame — that feeling when you and the developers are in sync and you get to say or do exactly the right thing to deliver the next big step of a cool story — is impossible in any other medium. (And it’s impossible in “create your own story” games like The Sims et. al.)

Now, if it can reinforce that idea without my ever having to do another thinly-disguised Sudoku or chess puzzle, or put together a string of nonsensical objects to use in a completely counter-intuitive way, then all the better.