Hooray for Niche Audiences, or, We Made it Weird

Modernizing adventure games, the potential lifespan of interactive media, and what it means to be a “niche audience” in the 21st century

(One of my favorite jokes I’ve written for a game is a reference to Zork, even though I don’t like text adventures. Sam & Max screenshot via Mixnmojo.com)

On his blog, Andrew Plotkin wrote an interesting post titled “Unwinnability and Wishbringer.” The basic concept is taking aspects of 80s text adventure games that have fallen out of style — for instance, letting the player get the game into an unwinnable state without necessarily realizing it — and thinking of how to modify them to be more appealing and less annoying to modern audiences.

The thing I found so insightful about Plotkin’s post is that he makes clear that many of the “annoyances” of text adventures weren’t flaws or mistakes, but design decisions. It’s easy for us to just assume that the frustrations of those older games were a result of their being old. Either limitations of technology (I have to draw my own map?) or primitive game design that simply hadn’t yet evolved elegant solutions to problems like being able to leave an area without a crucial item.

Instead, he suggests that the decisions were made for a reason, and you need to understand what they contributed to those text adventures before trying to modernize them. For instance: drawing your own maps reinforces the idea that you’re exploring a real place, and a closer idea of how the areas are related to each other. Having unwinnable states can help make the game feel like an active, living system, instead of a set of static puzzles waiting indefinitely for you to solve them.

What I really love about this is that I can extrapolate it out to say that text adventures are more than just a format, they’re a genre. And therefore, I can say it’s fine that I don’t like text adventures, and it just means that they’re not my thing, not that I’ve got too short an attention span and lack of imagination to appreciate them as a more intelligent and cultured gamer obviously would.

A long time ago, I heard an idea that greatly appealed to me: a video game’s format isn’t its genre. Game reviews at the time always described a game’s genre as “first-person shooter” or “graphic adventure” or “fighting game” or similar. But the actual genre should be “comedy” or “drama” or “action” or “horror.”

At the time, it was an important distinction, because so many games were unambitious in their storytelling and unimaginative in their content. So many first-person shooters felt so similar to each other that it seemed everyone had forgotten you could do more with it than just tell the same action movie or sci-fi action movie story over and over and over again.

But implicit in that idea is that format is largely irrelevant. Saying that you don’t like FPSes or RPGs would be as small-minded and incurious as saying you don’t like movies in black and white, or with subtitles. That seems pretty silly now, but at the time, games like Half-Life 2 and BioShock had done such a good job of mashing up different elements of shooters, adventure games, and RPGs, it gave the sense that mechanics and formats could be freely mixed as much as you wanted.

In retrospect, the idea that game mechanics would become less significant compared to “narrative content” wasn’t just unrealistic, but actually harmful. It may have started as a well-intentioned counter to the idea that games were only about their mechanics, and the narrative was just window-dressing with as much relevance to the game as the painting on the cover of an Atari 2600 game box. But it was an over-correction.

Not to mention that it wasn’t accurate. Loving Half-Life 2 and BioShock and Portal didn’t suddenly mean that I was a fan of first-person shooters. And it absolutely didn’t mean that I was “good at them.” Instead, it meant that I was too distracted by the overall experience to really notice how the format was being used differently in those games than in the ones I’d never been that interested in, like Call of Duty or Battlefront.

Portal, obviously, isn’t just a shooter with an interesting gun. It’s a puzzle game. But it’s presented in a format that feels more direct and more immersive than the “typical” puzzle game at the time.

And in my case, was 1000% more engaging than trying to complete a puzzle game — with an increasingly relevant narrative — via a text parser. My reaction at the time was to say, “This is exactly the kind of experience I always wanted to get from text adventures and even graphic adventures, but could never quite get into.” Which it was, but which also ignored all the ways the different types of games are supposed to be different.

I can’t imagine anyone not liking Portal, so to take Half-Life 2 for example: I was looking at it as the future of narrative games, while a dedicated fan of text adventures or puzzle-based graphic adventures might very well have been turned off by all the shooting or speedboat-driving. What I was seeing as an obvious evolution was really just an evolutionary branch.

Which is all just a long build-up to my shallow epiphany: different people like different things. And also: I don’t have to be good at every type of game, or even like every type of game. I’ve always considered being bad at big blockbuster games to be somehow a failing on my part, so it’ll be nice to (eventually) shed that mentality.

The two biggest games that I’ve been bad at in recent memory: Marvel’s Spider-Man and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Both are objectively excellent games, and both are brilliant examples of advancing narrative structure in conjunction with game mechanics instead of being in opposition. The other thing they both have in common is that I’m currently prevented from being able to advance through a story I’m really enjoying, either by having to web-swing in pursuit of a rapidly moving car, or by spending a startling amount of surfing. Being competent at web-swinging is obviously a prerequisite for being Spider-Man, but I honestly never suspected that being a Jedi required so much surfing.

The good thing about living in 2021 is that the publishers and their marketing teams have significantly lightened up from their early-2000s tendency to call me a pussy.1I suspect I’m still somewhat traumatized by walking into my office at EA every morning and seeing a huge LED screen screaming that if I’m not playing Madden I might as well be buying candles with my girlfriend like some pathetic, whipped beta-cuck. The only things stopping me from lowering the difficulty on Spider-Man and Fallen Order are a lack of free time, and my pride.

And even on easier difficulty — which, let’s never forget, game developers and marketing teams used to sneeringly call “girlfriend mode” — I might end up not liking the games as much as I want to. Which is perfectly fine. Games have gotten so fragmented, and the idea of “gamer” has become so ludicrous, that there’s not much sense anymore of the one hot game that everyone just has to play to be “media literate.”

I mean, I’m never going to be into Fortnite, and I’m never going to be into Among Us2And yes, I have tried both., so any idea that I was actually part of the Video Gaming Community was probably null and void even before my beard turned white. As it turns out, the halcyon days of the mid 2000s weren’t actually a sign that the video game industry had evolved to develop games that spoke directly to me. It was just a rare bit of convergence that I just happened to like the popular games at the time.

And the discussion of “modernizing” text adventures from the 80s brings up another thing I’d never really thought about: what happens to that direct communication between author and audience once the audience has changed?

Since I first started wanting to work in games, I’ve thought that the best thing you can achieve are those moments when it feels like the game developer and the player are perfectly in sync. Seaman perking up at my mention of a Coen Brothers movie. Monkey Island 2 and Day of the Tentacle setting up mud, a bucket, and a partially-opened door; or a black cat and white paint; and letting me complete the classic gag. Portal leaning hard into the feeling of being led by the nose and then giving a peek behind the fourth wall. You Don’t Know Jack making the perfect Groundhog Day joke. It’s so much more profound in interactive entertainment, because it’s got the same spark of creativity as making the game in the first place: here are all the pieces, now you make it happen.

That’s difficult enough even when you’re making stuff that you expect to have a lifespan of at most five years. But what about when audiences are still playing your game 40 years later? Obviously, leaning too hard on topical references will break the connection. But how do you make something timeless without its feeling somewhat toothless?

Not only do I not have the answers, but I’m not even sure if it’s that much of a problem. The explosion of video game formats and genres from an unprecedentedly huge and diverse group of creators means not only that there is a game to suit just about everyone’s taste, but that there’s less pressure on each creation to be some massive thing that’s going to please everyone and remain relevant for decades. They’re allowed to be more ephemeral. All they have to do is make their connection now, and not be overly concerned about longevity or mass market appeal. And just like how some bizarre, inconsequential Saturday Night Live sketches still get referenced a decade later, a few stand-out games will become classics not by trying to be, but by some weird confluence of timing, talent, and tapping into something universal.

What’s increasingly clear is that so many of my assumptions about how entertainment is supposed to work are no longer valid, assuming that they ever were. It’s still odd to think of “nerd culture” or “genre fiction” now that the terms are no longer relevant, because it’s all gone “mainstream.” It’s weird to realize that there are people out there as obsessed with something as much as I was about Mystery Science Theater 3000, for example, and it’s not just that I’m not interested in it, but that I don’t even know it exists. And I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that a series as unabashedly weird, novel, and well-made as WandaVision is one of the most popular series on television right now.

I guess ultimately it means a shift in how I’ve always thought of the creative process. Maybe it’s not a process of translating your ideas into something that’s more universal. Maybe it is just a case of making stuff that you think is cool and letting it loose with the trust that it’ll find its audience.