I’m thinking of a number between 1 and You’re Dumb

Since this is about adventure games, I feel like I should make my usual disclaimer explicit: this is a personal blog, I don’t speak for my company, and vice-versa. Any opinions I spew out here are not necessarily my coworkers’; in fact, when somebody at work tells me, “I read your blog,” it’s most often followed by, “I didn’t agree, but….”

harveybirdmanmentok.jpgApparently, “Yahtzee” Croshaw has a column in the back of PC Gamer now, and the one in the July 2008 issue is about how he’s bored with adventure games. They always devolve into the same old thing; and sure the SCUMM games were excellent, but that was in spite of their gameplay, not because of it; and ever since Half-Life came out and proved that action games don’t need to be mindless and shallow, do we even need adventure games anymore?

Fair enough. A few years ago, I would’ve probably agreed completely. When I first got into videogames, I was only into SCUMM games, because shooters were dumb. And even then, it was rarely because of the puzzles; the puzzles were almost always something you had to slog through to get to the next cool story moment. When Dark Forces proved that DOOM could have a cool story and characters, and then Jedi Knight and Half-Life proved that cinematic storytelling could actually be fun to play, I said, “Well, that about does it for adventure games.” Until I started working for Telltale, I can’t remember playing an adventure game since Zork Grand Inquisitor. (Which is still a fantastic game, by the way, one of the best I’ve ever played).

But that was eight years ago. I tend to like Croshaw’s video reviews, because buried amongst the Britishisms and dildos, there’s frequently some genuine, bullshit-free insight in there. Even when I don’t agree, I like hearing someone cut through conventional wisdom and hype and just get at the heart of whether a game is fun or not, and why.

And that’s why I was disappointed in that PC Gamer column, because it doesn’t say anything new. Basically, he says the exact same thing anyone says whenever the topic of adventure games comes up:

Myth 7: Adventure games suck because they’re artificially complicated and there’s only one correct solution to every puzzle and it’s never what you would do in the real world so you have to READ THE DESIGNER’S MIND!!!!

Whenever this observation gets trotted out on the internet, it’s invariably followed by a link to the Death of Adventure Games article from Old Man Murray. That’s the one from 2000 where a particularly ridiculous puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 gets ripped apart, and adventure game fans and creators both get exposed for the smug, self-important bastards that they are. And as soon as you link to the OMM article, the crowd scatters like cockroaches, adventure game apologists hanging their heads in shame. The issue was definitively settled, eight years ago: Adventure Games Just Aren’t Cool Anymore.

And then the writer of that article went on to get a job at Valve, working on Portal, which is more like an adventure game than most adventure games I’ve played.

Seriously, how can anyone look at this:
and not recognize it as an artificially complicated puzzle set up by a team of game designers, where there’s only one correct solution, and to solve it, you have to know what the designers want you to do?

I have to provide power to that device in order to be able to flip a switch? Well, obviously, I need to use a crate to bounce a flying energy ball around a corner and into that receptacle. Duh! If you don’t see the correct solution instantly, you have to keep trying combinations of things until you get back on track. Which is, apparently, pure gaming bliss in a first person shooter, but sheer torture in an adventure game.

Assuming that adventure games do in fact suck, then it’s not because they put you in controlled environments with arbitrary and ridiculously complicated solutions to obvious problems. At least, that’s not endemic to adventure games, because any game with puzzles is the same way.

But there must be something specifically broken about adventure games, or else I would play more of them myself. And the conventional wisdom wouldn’t be that they were made obsolete by Half-Life, and with good riddance. And I wouldn’t keep hearing from friends, “Sorry I haven’t played your games, I don’t have time for videogames anymore. By the way, have you played Portal? It’s awesome.” So what’s the problem, exactly?

I find your creation of a monkey wrench to be most illogical, Captain

There’s one key word that I’ve been carefully avoiding so far in order to make a point: “logical.” Wolpaw complains about the “weird dream logic” of Gabriel Knight 3. Croshaw says that adventure games rarely reward logical thinking, instead making you do what the designer intended.

We tend to think of “logical” as being synonymous with “intuitive.” So when we get frustrated with adventure games, we conflate “logic” with “common sense.” If I’ve got a case that’s screwed shut, then I should just be able to use a screwdriver to open it. I shouldn’t have to go through a five-step series of puzzles to trick a guard into dropping his knife, because the knife is the one thing the designer has intended for me to use, because the designer is a smug idiot who’s calling me stupid and you can take your knife and screw your dumb game, I’m going to play Gears of War.

But for a game to be “logical,” it doesn’t have to work like the real world, it just has to be consistent within its own world. All “logic” requires is that if you tell me A and B, I can deduce C. There’s no reason that finding a leaf will turn me into a raccoon and make me able to fly; I just can predict that that’s what will happen, because you’ve told me that’s how the world works. If I want to clear out a room full of people, there’s no reason I would think to trick a cat into painting a white stripe on its back; I can only predict that because you’ve shown me repeatedly that this world has the rules of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

And if I’m on one side of a room with a pit of acid in the middle (for some reason), and the walkway is broken, but I still need to get to the other side of the room, there’s no reason I would think to shoot a gun at a wall to open a trans-dimensional portal. Except that you’ve just spent an hour or two teaching me how that gun works, and I know the name of the game I’m playing, and I know there’s a solution to this puzzle based on the items I have, and when all you have is a portal gun, the whole world looks like a concrete wall.

In videogames, there are three big problems with real-world logic:

1. It’s boring.
Using a screwdriver on a screw just doesn’t make me feel cool or clever. I frequently use screwdrivers to manipulate screws in my daily life, but I hardly ever use a shotgun to mow down packs of zombified alien/human hybrids. In an action-oriented game, you want weapons and items to work like they do in the real world, because the point of the game is using the shotgun, not figuring out what to use it for. But if an adventure game does nothing to subvert the player’s expectations about how objects work, then it’s not really a game as much as a barely interactive storybook.

2. It’s pervasive.
No matter how much time you spend familiarizing your players with the rules of your game world, they’ve spent more time learning the rules of the real world. So the real-world solution is always going to be their first course of action. After two hours of playing with portals in a game called Portal, I came to a hole in a wall that I wasn’t tall enough to climb through. Naturally, I picked up various boxes, chairs, and computer equipment, carried it to the hole, stacked it up, and jumped on top.

That didn’t work, because what the designers wanted me to do was this: Open a portal, walk several rooms back to the rocket-shooting sentry robot that was trying to kill me, open another portal, and lure the robot into shooting at me again, so that a rocket would fly through the portal and take out the message tube that was even higher off the ground than the hole I’d been trying to get through. Of course!

3. It evolves.
Adventure games are old. That OMM article declaring their final death was eight years ago. Ron Gilbert wrote an article lamenting the sorry state of the genre, and that was back in 1989, way before what we now consider “old school”. For one thing, that means that absolutely nothing I’m saying about game logic and puzzles and adventure games is new; it’s been discussed and refuted and re-discussed for at least 20 years.

It also means that adventure game puzzles have become as stylized as kanji: lots of people have an idea what they’re getting at, even though they no longer bear any resemblance to the real-world things they were originally supposed to represent. Adventure games have so thoroughly exhausted the possible uses of screwdrivers, that using one to actually turn a screw is kind of subversive at this point. And most of us know that to get out of a locked room, you slide a piece of paper under the door, poke the key out of the lock, and pull the key back in, even though most of us have never actually seen a lock that works like that.

So every player is going to have a different notion of what’s “intuitive.” That would be true of any random sampling of people, and it just gets worse when you take videogame history into account. For someone who’s played a ton of games, the most intuitive solution to a problem might be the exact opposite of what’s intuitive in the real world. Too much real-world logic, and the solution is too simple and easy; too much videogame logic, and the solution is impossible to predict and frustrates the player. And the definition of “too much” varies wildly from audience member to audience member.

And again, adventure game fans and creators have been going over this problem for over 20 years, suggesting ways to “fix” adventure games by making adventure game puzzles suck less. More often than not, they come to the conclusion that the problem has no solution, other than to stop playing or making adventure games. So they go on to platformers, RPGs, and shooters, which are now sophisticated enough to combine the great storytelling of an adventure, but with gameplay that actually fun to play.

Which means that we’re losing the core of what makes adventure games cool. And instead of replacing the outdated adventure game genre, we’re setting up a situation where platformers, RPGs, and shooters will make all the same mistakes adventure games did. We’re borrowing vague notions of “cinematic storytelling” and cut-scenes and puzzle sections and trying — with varying degrees of success — to fit them into different genres. Because we know that there’s something inherently fun about running around and jumping on monsters or shooting them with guns or leveling up characters. So we can replace the tedium and frustration of adventure games with something that we know is fun.

But adventures don’t necessarily need to be replaced, because adventure games don’t suck. Adventure game puzzles do.

You don’t have to read my mind to tell where I’m going with this.

The biggest problem with adventure games is the same problem as with all storytelling games: there’s still this insistence on a division between “story” and “gameplay.”

There are definitely people out there who are big fans of adventure game puzzles, and who believe that the puzzles are what makes the game. And as the success of Professor Layton proves, it’s not a small, niche group of people, either. I’m not in that group, though, and games like Professor Layton are anathema to me. The “story” in that game, such as it is, is nothing more than a backdrop for a bunch of self-contained puzzles.

One of the things that makes Portal such a great game is that instead of trying to disguise the fact that it’s a sequence of artificial, constrained environments with a pre-designed solution, they accentuated it. That’s also the main reason the game fell apart for me after the “twist.” It became even more linear, controlled, and artificial, but tried to disguise itself as a real-world environment.

There’s been plenty of stuff written on-line, by the game designers and others, about the different narratives going on in Portal. For the first half, it works well, because the story and the puzzles are the same thing: basically, the entire story is about trying to escape from a sequence of artificial puzzles. But later, you’re asked to apply the logic of the test chambers to the world outside the chambers. Your goal is to make your way out of a Half-Life 2 level, but you’re still solving puzzles. When you’re inside the test chambers, it’s clear who put the puzzles there, but out here, it’s jarring. You’re reminded that the game designers must have put them there. (I’m aware that the ending implies the entire game, including post-testchambers, was an elaborate test, but you don’t know that until the end).

That’s the most basic template for an adventure game: take a story, then split up the story moments with puzzles to keep the player occupied. To use another example, I could only make it through an hour of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune before I got frustrated and turned it off. It would seem to have everything going for it: very high production values, solid writing and characterization, beautiful environments, a shooting interface in a console game that actually works well, and a story that starts out with just enough intrigue to make you interested. But you can’t follow the story without first completing sequence after sequence of Tomb Raider-like puzzles. The fourth time I came into a room where I had to figure out a sequence to set all the torches on fire, I’d stopped caring about what happens next.

Even well-designed puzzles can be annoying, if they feel out of place, they break the flow of the game, or it becomes clear that they’re not part of the story, but an obstacle in the way of the next part of the story. Half-Life 2 is one of the top five greatest videogames ever made, but it still has moments where a puzzle grinds the entire thing to a halt. Would a sci-fi action story involve a thirty-minute sequence where the lead is figuring out how to drop a washing machine off a scaffolding to raise an elevator? And as neat as a puzzle based on buoyancy is, why am I stuck inside this cordoned-off area using barrels to make a ramp for my speedboat, instead of out there saving the Earth?

New Objective: Figure Out Your Next Objective

It’s bad enough with pacing. Add in the problem of real-world logic and intuition mentioned earlier, and it gets even worse. The “boss” sequence at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two is both one of the most fun and one of the most frustrating segments I’ve played in a game. It was just plain inspired design, and a great climax to the game, and it had me turning off the machine and cursing Valve and everyone who works there several times before I finished it. But my entire problem with it was skill-based, and not logic-based: I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, I just couldn’t do it. There is only one solution to the “puzzle:” you can’t just use your regular arsenal of weapons to wear the monsters down. You have to use this weapon — and only this weapon — on these creatures and then do this. And to make absolutely sure that you knew what to do, they prefaced it with a long set-up, with graphs, pictures, screenshots, a short tutorial section, repeats of the maps, and then frequent voice-overs once the segment was in progress. I found myself saying, “Yes, I get it, guys, so let me get out there and try to do it.”

As a result, I eventually felt relieved when I was finally able to finish that section. But I never felt clever for figuring out what to do. Games just can’t do that anymore. They have to state the next objective, highlight it with a dot on your minimap, flash a big arrow to it, and explain what to do when you get there. You’re always reacting to story events, never really causing them. In even the best story-based shooters and RPGs I’ve ever played, there are hardly any moments where I felt like I knew where the story was going next, and then I made the next bit happen. Day of the Tentacle had at least a dozen of those moments.

The difference is that in a well-designed adventure game, there is no division between story and gameplay. The game is the story, and vice-versa. Your obstacles aren’t logic puzzles, but plot points. Or at least, scenes that further establish the characters and the way the game’s world works. Figuring out the solution to an arbitrary videogame puzzle is never as satisfying as figuring out how to move a story forward.

And ideally, you don’t have to treat “puzzle logic” as this subjective morass of unpredictability, wondering whether your puzzle is too hard or too easy. Because if you’re telling your story well, that means that events are already logically flowing from one to the next, and the player is less inclined to be thinking in terms of “hard puzzle” or “easy puzzle,” but instead “what happens next?”

I’m definitely not convinced that shooters and RPGs and platformers will never be able to provide these kinds of experiences. Games keep getting better at storytelling, and there’ve been plenty of moments in the last couple of years that I’ve been genuinely shocked and genuinely impressed by a plot development in a game. But with all the advances in production values, and better talent involved in the storytelling, you still don’t see the kinds of “a-ha!” moments that are relatively common in adventure games. A few years ago, I assumed that adventure games had already been made obsolete, but now I see that there’s still plenty of potential in them, as long as we play to their strengths.