Adventure, A Genre of Virtues and Vices

I love the Adventure genre and most of my favourite video games are adventures. Even before I started playing Point & Click adventures a few years ago and became obsessed with them, I already loved what the genre had to offer. Exploring mysterious locations, solving puzzles and uncovering mysteries while using strange contraptions are just some of the things that draw me to this wonderful video game genre.

Every video game genre has its virtues, the elements that make them special and interesting, but also their vices, the ones that make the experiences drag or the overused tropes and clichés that bring nothing to the table yet developers constantly pick them from their toolboxes.

The Virtues

Adventure games, at their core, have two distinct elements: narrative and puzzles. Narrative defines the story focus of adventure games, the plot and characters that give context to the different challenges presented in the game. They frame the actions, the requirements and connect the solutions to one another, so that by overcoming the challenges the players move to the next plot point. A perfect example of this is the mobile adventure game series, The Room. They are mostly puzzle-centric, but there is a fine storytelling thread that gives it all meaning and pulls you ever forward towards the solution. Life is Strange is another fine example, as each puzzle is closely tied to advancing the plot.

The second element comes in the form of puzzles, obstacles that you must overcome with analytical thinking instead of brute force. Even in the many Adventure hybrids, such as Action Adventures, there will often be moments when the mental aspect takes precedence, when button mashing, hacking or firing a weapon won’t cut it.

In the last few years we’ve seen a surge of games where the narrative takes centre stage, with the puzzling almost forgotten. I’m speaking of narrative-centric games, such as the Telltale titles or the recent Knee Deep. But while these games eschew the brain-teasing aspect of the genre, they still keep a few puzzles, because as I mentioned above, they are at the core and without them, the genre loses its identity.

Adventure

Not a lot of puzzling…or exploration in these, but they do have the deep plots!

Personally I’ve found that playing adventure games, along with an unhealthy amount of reading, has helped me plan my stories better. I’ve learnt to better pace them, to split them up better into acts or chapters. I’ve also become better at judging stories, to recognise the failings in them, the problems in structure, pacing and tone. It’s certainly helpful when I review so many of them.

Puzzling on the other hand has helped me become better at problem solving. I can now see the separate tasks or steps to solve any given problem. I don’t see an insurmountable obstacle, just a checklist of tasks to overcome the problem and move on with the story as it were.

And it’s not just me. A recent study at the Nanyang Technological University had 52 non-gamers had to play a set of games for one hour on their mobiles, five days a week. After twenty hours the players of the game “Cut the Rope,” a puzzle-based game, could switch between tasks 30% faster, their adaptability went up by a similar amount and their ability to focus on tasks improved by 60%, while those who played titles in other genres, such as Fruit Ninja, saw no benefit.

Adventure

The other game played by children in the study (Image Credit: The Telegraph)

Dr. Michael D. Patterson, co-author of this paper said, “This finding is important because previously, no video games have demonstrated this type of broad improvement to executive functions, which are important for general intelligence, dealing with new situations and managing multitasking,”

A different study, a much older one, from 2002, sought to determine whether “computer adventure games” could enhance performance in problem solving. Their conclusion: “The model of adventure game performance based on data collected in the study revealed that experience of adventure games leads to a modest increase in the use of general strategies and that the application of those strategies does lead to enhanced performance in a novel adventure game task.” Though they did state that further work was needed to measure how effective it was under different models and approaches before it could be used as a teaching tool in school.

Since then, adventure games have been introduced to classrooms as teaching tools. In fact, a study by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe in 2009 showed that “[Teachers] use digital games to increase pupils’ autonomy in learning, and to personalize, and sometimes reward, learning.” This study is a fascinating read as the results of its use on groups of children resulted in an improvement on their ability to solve problems just by playing Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and/or NintenDogs as part of their routine.

One of the games the kids played in the study!

One of the games the kids played in the study! (Image Credit: Nintendo)

As a player, I love how deep the stories are in adventure games. I’ve often found them better written and paced than those in other genre titles. Because the gameplay is often simple, pointing and clicking, the developers take greater narrative risks and better use the settings and genres they’re working in. Recent games I’ve played, The Charnel House Trilogy, The Last Door, Stasis and Technobabylon pushed their genres to new directions. The first three did so with supernatural mystery and horror, and the last one with Cyberpunk.

And anyone who knows me, or has read The Weekly Puzzle here on The Mental Attic, can tell just how much I adore puzzles. The harder the better and I’m always excited to run into a new type of puzzle in a game, something I haven’t seen before. Though sometimes encountering something familiar, something that reminds me of a favourite title can also be good.

Puzzles and Narrative are Adventure’s core, but also their greatest virtues, the two elements that draw players in. The different researches on the puzzling side prove that these virtues extend beyond gaming and can be beneficial for current and future generations. Be it task-based problem solving, keen observation or lateral thinking, by playing these games and overcoming these challenges, there’s a chance you’ll become better at these things.

Besides, how many of you are out there that can’t wait to play Monkey Island with your children? To have them struggle and overcome the same puzzles that got you stuck? Someday I’ll take my kids through Gabriel Knight, Dracula 3, Monkey Island 2, Full Throttle and Myst.

The Vices

Punishing Curiosity

I mentioned before that Puzzles and Narrative are the core of the Adventure genre, but there is a third element that comes into play, Exploration. Be it clicking everything in the room, finding everything there is to collect, reading the characters’ comments on everything and everyone or just visiting every room in every way possible, adventure games should urge us to indulge our curiosity. Yet, it’s happened so many times that designers punish players for wanting to explore the game-world.

Many times this happens without even a word of warning. Can anyone count how many things could randomly kill you in the King’s Quest series? In the first title you could die by taking a wrong step at the very start of the game. In every screen of these games (and frankly many Sierra games), there was a good 50/50 chance something random might kill you. Space Quest 3 had one of the worst examples of this. While on an alien planet, you see a glass display case in front of a store. If you opened it guess what? You died. An alien grabbed you with its tentacles and bye bye.

Adventure

Yes, careful where you step! (Image Credit: The Adventure Gamer)

But it’s not just Sierra. Delphine did it a lot, especially in games like Future Wars or Operation Stealth, and more recently, The Brotherhood’s Stasis did it as well. One wrong move, one wrong click and it was time to sleep with the fishes.

These design choices mean to teach you, but they do so by punishing and ending your game. Games like Stasis include an autosave before the event, mitigating some of the frustration.

Clueless Design

Every puzzle, every riddle and every mystery needs clues. Murder mysteries need forensic evidence, riddles are often wordplays and contain their clues and puzzles need references, either something you read or something in the environment to give you a starting point.

But many designers opt to give you clueless puzzles, and my meaning is literal, without clues. Sometimes it’s because the solution itself is quite simple (to them) and so they didn’t bother giving you an idea of where to start. Sometimes, however it’s because there is no logical leap between the problem and the solution, something we call Moon Logic. As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw described, “First, think of a problem that the player has to get around – like, say, helping a cat down from a tree. Then, think of how a normal, sensible person would solve the issue with the objects that would be close to hand. Then seal your head inside of a half-full vat of boiling chlorine for about twenty minutes, and write down another way you’d solve the problem that at that moment makes perfect sense to your probably fatally poisoned mind. Repeat this process until you have discovered the most circuitous possible solution.”

Katie Hallahan, designer and PR Manager for Phoenix Online Studios had a post on her website a few months ago in which she described puzzles that frankly made no sense.  In one of the King’s Quest titles, an evil sorcerer miniaturises your character so your way out is to use MOULDY CHEESE with a machine. Why? No one knows. Gabriel Knight 3 has an infamous identity theft puzzle using cat’s hair that makes me shudder when I think about it. Monkey Island got away with tons of these nonsensical puzzles by adding a thin layer of good humour between the solution and your migraine-suffering mind.

For those who’ve listened to my adventure game rants during meetups, you know I have a love-hate relationship with Daedalic games, for their overuse of moon logic and poor clue-ing. In The Whispered World you need to reach an island. There are some broken down boats, so you might think you need to find sticks, nails and a hammer to fix one up and set sail. But no, the solution is to turn a tree into a cannon by blocking up some holes, filling the cavernous bottom with enough explosives to level Rome and then snuggly fitting yourself at the top. Care to explain how you’re supposed to guess that?

Adventure

This is clearly a cannon! It’s so obvious! (Image Credit: GNews.ro)

Then there are the truly clueless puzzles and this time I mean it in the traditional sense. These are worse than moon logic at times. It’s the type of puzzle where you have about a dozen tools you can easily see as sensible solutions to the problem, but the real one is the one that makes no sense whatsoever or requires you to fist complete a series of other puzzles to get to it, when you already had enough tools at your disposal to take care of the job.

These puzzles mean to artificially inflate the difficulty factor, but it’s not real difficulty, it’s not a proper brainteaser. It’s a game of guesswork, to try to figure out what the designer was smoking when he designed the puzzle, or following Yahtzee’s definition, to determine the exact temperature at which the chlorine was boiling!

Incongruous Gameplay

Adventure games come in many shapes nowadays but unless they’re a hybrid, such as Zelda or Tomb Raider’s Action Adventure, the gameplay elements are usually exploration, puzzling and talking to people.

In many cases, designers and developers feel they should spruce things up by adding in minigames or elements of other genres to keep players on their toes. These incongruous gameplay moments end up being an unmitigated disaster.

Adventure

Oh Delphine…you and your nonsensical and badly controlled arcade sequences!

Delphine was the all-reigning champion of incongruous gameplay elements, by shoving as many arcade sequences in their adventure games as possible, with nonsensical rules that most times left you wondering if you were doing it properly. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey had atrocious combat and stealth segments that clashed with the rest of the game. There was no reason for them, yet you had to suffer through them. Space Quest 3 had an arcade game you needed to clear to get a secret message to progress in the very flimsy plot. Telltale’s Sam & Max series’ first season used minigames in almost every episode. From chasing people in the duo’s car to play a gun-version of whack-a-mole, these sequences padded out the game in non-fun ways. Daedalic’s Deponia games even had a combat minigame that just didn’t work properly, and they must have known it because there’s a skip button.

Dracula 2 tried to spruce things up by making certain sequences timed, in an overly-pixelated game. The intent, I suppose was add an element of adrenaline and danger to the game, to make you feel as though you were in danger, which stood in great contrast to the rest of the game, which was more cerebral. Yet another attempt that backfires tremendously.

 

Yet despite these recurring vices, the Adventure game genre is still alive and it has so much to offer. Indie developers grace us with ambitious projects that take the genre and the titles’ different settings in new and exciting directions. Take Red Thread’s Dreamfall Chapters and some of the other games I mentioned above, they do wonderful things with the adventure genre and every year we get more amazing titles to make us cry, both from beautiful stories to brain-melting puzzles.

I am fairly confident that I’ll continue to play these games for years to come, and maybe, if those studies are correct there’s hope I might one day be able to properly multitask.

I can only hope!

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