Adventure Game Reviews: Reading Between the Lines

By Albert Them (November, 2000)
I have always been annoyed by dismissive reviews of adventure games that substitute catch phrases for actual depth of thought. Rosemary Young, in her The Mouse That Roared, cited "standard point and click adventure" as a standard putdown. There's also the dreaded "pixel hunt" or the "sterile slide show" or the "linear game" with "irrelevant and obscure puzzles." Let's translate these, shall we?

Standard point and click ...
Hm? Well, "standard", I suppose, means following the familiar conventions of the adventure genre. For me, that's good. I never want to learn sixteen key combinations that allow me to jump, run, dive, shoot, swing, climb, swim. "Point and click" describes what I like -- clicking on the item I want to examine, acquire, or use; or clicking on the spot I want to move to. This emphasizes play over diddling.

Pixel hunt ...
This term used to characterize the legitimate complaint that some one speck out of 307,200 specks on the screen hid an item required to complete the game. We all disliked such examples of thoughtless game design. However, what it seems to mean now is that any on-screen object that does not resemble a well-lighted bus with a flashing "Take Me Now" sign represents an annoyance to the reviewer who is just itching to move on to the next room and shoot something.

A well-designed "room" in an adventure game has fascinating nooks and alcoves that invite scrutiny. It is a pleasure to examine, for the atmosphere hints at the character of the game's inhabitants, or reveals the state of the player's urgent mission, or forebodes a threat. Discovering a new inventory item (or a place to use an existing one) is a special treat, a reward for diligence, and not a requirement for enjoying a room. It is not the mindless picking up of lots of obvious items that provides a game's pleasure, but the effect of the scenes on your imagination.

Sterile slide show ...
This term connotes Myst, Zork Nemesis, Buried in Time and their ilk. How fashionable it is to decry these gems! By contrast, games like Simon the Sorcerer have lots of quirky characters, and one of Simon's strengths is the humor of its dialog. Myst lacks that particular strength, but compensates by depicting brilliantly imagined worlds where even mundane objects like walls, floors, and furniture are fun to look at, and the puzzles are intricately conceived. Critics enjoyed complaining that Myst had no story. On the contrary, it did have a strong story that was available for the player to infer by exploring. I can recall the jolt I felt after prejudging that Sirrus was the likely villain (because he ranted whereas Achenar was urbane) to discover a drawer full of syringes in Achenar's room. No character spoke a word, yet the simple scene screamed Achenar's shared guilt.

Linear ...
A complaint about a game's being "linear" means a set of obstacles have to be overcome before the rest of the game is made available, and the reviewer has a low tolerance for being "stuck". Some reviewers are apparently appeased by being allowed to traipse over the game world to begin independent and irrelevant quests, or by being presented with alternative ways to circumvent the obstacles. But these permissive approaches have problems -- not disastrous ones, just matters of taste, really.

In my view, if a player can detach from the main thread, this necessarily impedes story development. To most adventure fans a game without a story is a game without interesting characters and without urgency. What follows is general lack of interest in the game itself. For example, if the player has not figured out how to break into the castle, but if he or she can find Peasant Peter's pet pig instead and collect a few guilders, why rescue the fair princess from the burning stake now? Uh...priorities?

The problem with allowing alternative ways to circumvent obstacles is that it actually lowers the play value of the game. If a player, for example, is allowed to cross the enchanted bridge if in possession of EITHER the magic feather OR the sacred amulet, he or she is only playing half of the game's available puzzles. Twice the programming, half the fun!

The best designed games combine linearity with some openness by limiting the game world until several puzzles are solved. Since these puzzles can be solved in any order and independent progress can be made on any of them, the player has some freedom without being distracted by game areas that get ahead of the story.

Irrelevant and obscure puzzles ...
Complaining of "irrelevant and obscure puzzles" seems like an excuse for disliking the kind of game whose intrinsic fun is solving puzzles. Likeable games like Jewels of the Oracle or Pandora's Box are exclusively "irrelevant puzzles," yet players enjoy them for the sheer challenge. Oh, it is always wonderful if an adventure game's puzzles can be challenging, original, AND contextual, but that is a matter of the degree of the artistry of a game, not its prerequisite. If a reviewer wants to complain instead about puzzles that are arbitrary or contrary to logic, I am on board. Kyrandia I, an otherwise charming game, had a puzzle in which an arbitrary subset of gems had to be disposed of in an unknowable order. Failure required painstaking wandering to reacquire gems for another trial. I would gladly have replaced this tedious and pointless exercise with a good old "irrelevant or obscure" puzzle.

Finally, on Rosemary's discussion of 3D's threat to the familiar use of the mouse for movement, she is exactly right. In Grim Fandango, for example, the keyboard interface was clumsy and movement was difficult. But Grim had beautiful shaded and lighted art, a tremendous story with characters to care about, inventive and clever puzzles, uniformly excellent voice acting, good music, humor, expert writing, and the most original premise I have seen in an adventure game. A good game can overcome the limitations of its interface, and a great game like Grim Fandango can make you ignore them.

By the same token, good games rise above (what might be perceived by some as) their technological obsolescence. I cannot think of one good adventure game whose mere 2D graphics disappointed me. After all, we read in 2D and look at drawings in 2D. Should we be disappointed that newspaper photos do not have holographic images? 2D was, and still is, just fine. I have learned to expect a 3D game to present a trade-off of good art and bad interface. But if it's a good game, I can live with its shortcomings.

Copyright © Albert Them 2000. All rights reserved.