The Slide-Show Must Go On

By Peter Rootham-Smith (August, 2005)
Forums regularly have threads about "The way Adventure games need to evolve" or "How must Adventure games change". Such threads will bring out a wide range of opinions - some of which one agrees with, some of which one doesn't.

Is there any danger of this article saying anything that hasn't been said before? There's less danger of this article changing anyone's views - that's the problem of the aforementioned threads, they can get like artillery exchanges in trench warfare. A lot of bangs and booms but the positions don't alter. In fact, let's talk about something completely different. King Henry VIII. Greensleeves. Everyone knows the well-known wife beheader wrote Greensleeves. A reliable, dependable quiz question. And like many 'facts' which people blindly repeat, not remotely true. The words for Greensleeves first appeared in 1580, the music may be by lutenist John Dowland. King Henry VIII can be ruled out on stylistic grounds, as well as having been dead for a little while.

I can sense the editorial panel wishing a return to the topic ...

Slideshow Adventure games are where you have a number of views of the gameworld, and you move between the views as you might a normal slideshow. Examples are Myst or the early Nancy Drew games or Dark Fall. Slideshow games have been very common but their days may be numbered. Those who play 3D games in other genres feel very limited by a 2D game. The creators of Myst, which has inspired so many slideshow games, have moved beyond the Myst format with realMyst and Uru.

People are yearning for the ability to freely move around the gameworld, looking at objects from every angle, opening every drawer, manipulating everything they see. This goes beyond 3D games as they currently are, or likely to be for some time yet. They (or some of them) want a wider range of actions like jumping and running and pushing. Immersion is the name of the game (or mimesis if you don't like getting wet.) Realism, the game making you feel you're actually there, virtual reality, enter the matrix. That's a valid viewpoint, and no doubt there are great 3D Adventure games to be made. But there is still a niche for slideshow Adventures. They still have value. Some reasons why.

Slideshow Adventures are cheaper and easier to make than the 3D equivalent. Hobbyists can do them for fun. Small independent developers can produce reasonable (even excellent) games on a shoe string. They're a way to start for those hoping to make the big-time. For the Adventure genre to thrive it needs a supply of Adventures. If Adventures are limited to productions costing tens of millions of dollars there won't be very many of them.

More seriously one can feel as involved with a 2D game as with a 3D game. It's a question of accepting the limitations of the medium, and letting one's brain fill in as necessary. You don't have to do any more than you do when you pretend a picture in a gallery is a 3D scene. For us to see a 3D scene in a 2D picture takes a lot of sophisticated mental image processing - optical illusions came about from this.

If you're reading a book or listening to a radio play then you yourself are generating images in your head. A 2D game may not show you literally moving down a corridor (or travelling from location to location) but that's the same in other media - so in a film if someone goes from New York to Chicago you don't see every step of the way, you just see a few hints and your brain does the rest. Sometimes movies even jump from one place to the next. This is basic film language which most of us just accept - it was innovative when it was introduced in "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903.

Perhaps a 2D game, for convenience, has unrealism like characters standing in the same place or other game compromises. But that's the same in other media. In Japanese Kabuki drama characters are often riding horses. But the Japanese actors (bearing in mind the theatrical dictum about never appear with children and animals) don't use real horses. Instead they carry whips to symbolise they're riding a horse. The Kabuki audience just accept that symbolism. Lest you think that's just the strangeness of the Oriental mind, an example from American culture. The tension mounts as gunfighters stand poised in the sun bleached streets of the Wild West. Memorable Morricone score in the background. Suddenly (in slow motion) they draw, shoot from the hip, and bullets fly true to their targets tens of yards away. Pure myth. You can't get any accuracy shooting from the hip. Ditto mowing down crowds by fanning a gun. Doesn't work in practice.

Let's use a fancy word. Paradigm. Slideshow games are a paradigm, a way of doing things. Limiting of course - yes, no unrestrained 3D movement. That's an insuperable problem if you want a 2D game to be 3D, like it would be an insuperable problem to watching a B/W film if you wanted it to be in colour. But sometimes having limitations, having a set framework, is an advantage. It means authors can concentrate on writing, and not worry about the technology. It means players know what to expect, perhaps it won't be leading-edge/bleeding-edge, but many will be happy with that. Stability, sure foundations, are necessary for development. Music isn't advanced by new instruments - it's advanced by musicians mastering what they have. Books aren't about the paper they're printed on, or the way they're bound, but what's printed on the page. Games shouldn't be about the technology used, but the technique of those making the game.

Copyright © Peter Rootham-Smith 2005. All rights reserved.