Somebody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

By Peter Smith (August, 1999)
I can forgive Microsoft Word for not making a good cup of tea. It's supposed to be a word processor. When I'm eyeball to eyeball with Word across the keyboard I know what I should or shouldn't be doing. If I do the wrong thing with Word, like asking for a nice cup of Earl Grey tea, then I accept I'm in for a dubious experience. An unrewarding experience. A funless experience. A cup of tea-less experience. However with Adventure games I don't know what I should or shouldn't be doing. That's the whole point of them? And most of the time when I play Adventure games I do what I shouldn't be doing, usually several times over. How good an experience an Adventure game is depends on what happens when puzzles aren't solved, more than when they are.

Yes, as you solve the puzzles in an Adventure game let's have great cutscenes. Yes, when you finish the game let's have a great finale. But I like games where the author has thought about mistakes you might make, and provided behaviour for them. I like games where there are things you can do, things to look at, people to talk to, as part of the background to the game as much as solving puzzles. Some, perhaps many, may play Adventure games just to pit themselves against the puzzles. Game developers may rightly wonder about wasting time and space on behaviour which game players may not even see if they don't make that mistake, or if they're following a walkthrough. This comes down to personal taste, but I'm not completely alone - see reviews which regretted that Broken Sword II didn't have the same detailed background as the original Broken Sword. As an analogy I read the footnotes in science fiction books by authors like Jack Vance which don't add anything to the story, but add to the sense of time and place.

Let me try and explain what I like. In Simon the Sorcerer the error message you get when trying to pick up things depends on what the thing is - so a tree is too heavy, and Simon prefers blondes to the blacksmith. This is a step up from just being told "nothing happens". In Kings Quest VII: The Princeless Bride there are numerous cutscenes showing you dying as a result of mistakes you can make. You can jump suicidally into an empty grave whereupon your name gets inscribed on the previously blank tombstone. Nice touch. In Dark Side of the Moon there is the roller-coaster ride which can see you drowned, pulverised, macerated, incinerated, etc. It's worth taking the wrong route once or twice just to see what happens.

What I find a little off-putting is just getting a standard error message no matter what you do. In Nightlong there's a lava pool in the VR amusement park. I tried random objects on it like bits of paper, which in real life would burst into flames. Nothing happened past inappropriate error messages. It struck me that it would be cute if the game had allowed you to throw useless inventory items into the lava pool. I wouldn't ask for much in the way of cut scenes, a sizzling noise and a couple of sparks would do. As an aside, I really like problems where the silly answer is the right answer. One of my all-time favourite moments was maltreating the pirate's wooden leg in Monkey Island 2. Beautiful just beautiful.

This is probably due to an insecurity complex but I like games that give you some encouragement if you get an answer half-right. I like it to be clear if you can interact with items or not, even if you don't yet know how. Good examples: in Nightlong you can shoot the werewolf with ordinary shot, it just doesn't die. In Sanitarium at the start it will tell you that you can't grasp the power cable with your bare hands, or you're not near enough to reach it. In Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis on the team path you have to get an item from Trottier. This game is very well written here as in other places. There is a real sense of interaction as Trottier will either flee in terror or walk out in annoyance according to how well you dress up. Is this, though, helping Adventurers too much?

I often do the same thing several times in a game. It's irritating to get the same reaction each time, particularly if it's a long cutscene or dialogue. In Monkey Island 1 I kept getting captured again and again by the fruity cannibals. But it wasn't boring. Each time they tried to seal up the door of the hut in a different way. It was worth getting captured again and again just to see what kind of door they would try next. In Simon the Sorcerer you have to get past a very hungry frog at one stage to be able to get a particular item. While the cutscene for getting swallowed by the frog was the same, you could click to skip it and that was fine. What wasn't fine was trying to get Rosella to enter Malicia's house in Kings Quest VII. A bug? here meant trying this tens of times before I managed it. I got sick of seeing the same sequence over and over again. Perhaps the game could have decided that if you've seen the death sequence once or thrice that's enough, and after that prevented Rosella going in unless she could manage it (saying something like "that nasty dog's going to sniff me out again".)

Unsatisfactory is when continuity or story logic gets lost amid the puzzles e.g. the Quandary review of Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller mentions that if you go to Hell too early you tell the general you're going to free him before knowing you want to. Sometimes games act very arbitrarily which spoils the sense of immersion I'm after. For example in Nightlong you cannot pick up the Egyptian book until you've been to the Sphinx. Or in Kings Quest VII Rosella can only use the stools in the Troll kingdom when the game wants her to use them. The Quandary review of Blackstone Chronicles mentions there are problems which even if you know the answer you must wait for a character to give you the clue.

Adventure games should seem like whoever wrote them was awake. A classic example from the past of how things should be - in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis you can tell Omar you've lost the mask and so can't trade it. If later on you speak to Omar and decide you want to trade the mask after all he will be puzzled as you said you lost it. Great little stuff. A classic example from the present of how things should NOT be - in Cydonia you have to do a number of things at the beginning. You're supposed first off to talk with a fellow astronaut. If you have this talk after you've done everything the conversation tree still assumes you have these things to do.

Finally an example to prove there are still people out there writing Adventure games as opposed to manufacturing them. In Dark Side of the Moon there's a videophone system. You can call, for instance, Brave Hope Corporation on the videophone. If you call after Chief Grice has made you a wanted person "Brave Hope" will tell you encouragingly they don't take calls from wanted felons. And suggest you turn yourself in as well. This has nothing to do with solving DSOM - but it cheered me up no end.

Copyright © Peter Smith 1999. All rights reserved.