Busted

The AGS Awards came out just a bit ago, and it reminded me that with Parallels working I can play all those indie adventure games I’ve been meaning to get to. So I quickly jumped into the prominent free ones I’ve had my eye on: Ben There, Dan That, Nanobots, and Shifter’s Box.

It reminds me of when I got DOSBox and ScummVM working last year and set about playing all the allegedly important adventure games I didn’t get to when I was growing up: Gabriel Knight, King’s Quest VI, Beneath A Steel Sky, Broken Sword. And I learned then what I just learned again now.

Adventure games are fucking broken.

how and why adventure games are broken

1. case study – nanobots

Erin Robinson is a nerdy ginger game developer with talent and freckles and I don’t want to pick on her by calling Nanobots broken. And it’s only broken in the sense that I think most adventure games for a long time have been broken in the same way. Nanobots is fresh on my mind, so please, think of it as a conduit to talk about the genre as a whole, and not an individual attack.

I haven’t finished the game yet, and I’m not sure I’m going to. The game posits that a grad student named Groovy Greg is trying to build tiny robots that can love as a thesis project, but so far they’re just bickering with each other. Just before gameplay proper begins, his professor comes into his room and says he’s going to destroy the bots because he’s working on the same idea and doesn’t want to be beaten to the punch. But he leaves to get his coffee. You assume control of the nanobots, who have to overcome their differences and combine their different skills to save themselves.

So: you’re given a main objective, Nanobots Must Save Themselves From The Professor. The theme of the game, then, to be born out by the gameplay, seems to be cooperation.

Well, so far I have story issues, i.e. why Groovy Greg needs more than a single bot to prove his thesis and why he would give each an arbitrary skill (strength, height, communication, chemistry, and so on) that don’t relate to his thesis. But it’s a conceit for gameplay purposes, fine, I’ll suspend my disbelief so far.

Except that the question of why we have more than one bot becomes a gameplay issue: each bot has only one inventory slot, so if a bot holding a quarter need to pick up a gumball, you need to cycle through the bots til you find one with a free slot and walk them over to trade items. Their walk speed is slow and you’ll find yourself trudging different bots back and forth across the surface of the desk again and again, because Bot A found something that only Bot B can interact with. Heaven forbid Bot B is already holding something, then you’ll have to trudge over Bot C to hold one object while everyone else trades around. I don’t really know why their walk speed is as slow as it is, I can’t see any way that the game would be hindered by fast robots. And since this is tedious, I’m wondering why a single bot with many skills and inventory slots wouldn’t be better. From a gameplay standpoint, it’d be a lot more fun.

But our theme is cooperation, right? So far the bots have never been separated by any distance of space or needed to do anything simultaneously, so again, having multiple bots hasn’t justified itself. There has never been a puzzle that requires multiple bots, so each bot is simple a redundancy, and having many on the desktop is just clutter. Since one puzzle actually involves one bot getting obstinate and needing to be pacified by another, multiple bots is again an hindrance.

Maybe the idea is that they cooperate better as time runs on, but we’ve got a game that, in the first 1/3 at least, is running counter to it’s own theme, and I’m not sure what the bribe is for me too keep playing until it starts making its point.

But there’s a more fundamental problem here.

2. the fundamental problem

[spoilers ahead]

The nanobots’ objective is that they must save themselves from the professor. So far I’ve made a phone call to a French-Canadian woman and set her up on a date with Groovy Greg. I’ve messed with Greg’s computer. I’ve accessed a tall shelf and turned on a fan. I’ve figured out how to get a gumball out of a gumball dispenser and I can apparently move around objects on the desk to bounce the ball in different directions.

And in all of this I still have no idea how this is going to help the nanobots. I am not developing a plan. I don’t think for a moment that turning on the fan is going to help me directly, I’m doing because I can do it, and because the game put obstacles in my way so I know I’m supposed to do it. I don’t see any immediate benefit for this.

So playing Nanobots amounts to what many adventure games amount to: I’m going take random stabs in the dark, pick up everything that isn’t nailed down, and interact with everything the game lets me interact with, until the story progresses. And when one of these things saves the day, it’ll be a bigger surprise to me than the characters.

This is not a problem exclusive to Nanobots, and there’s no reason to hold it up as some egregious example. It’s a game brimming with personality that obviously has a lot of love put into it, and all it’s guilty of is following a model that’s been dominating most of the genre for over a decade. Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword are held up as two of the greatest adventure games every made, and they both drip with guilt in this area.

Many adventure games are built on the assumption that players will enjoy fiddling with things for the sake of fiddling with things, that the pleasure comes from just fucking around and seeing what happens, from completely aimless exploration. And it’s possible to build a game around that idea (the exquisite Knytt Stories is such a game), but this is at odds with linear storytelling. It means that every time the puzzles start the narrative essentially halts in its tracks. Even The Curse Of Monkey Island had this problem: puzzling was just the time between cutscenes.

It’s clear from the way this core flaw is in all the AGS Award Winners that adventure fans wholly accept this idea, and I think it small wonder that as games on the whole gained popularity, adventure games never grew their fanbase. People drawn to the medium by games as diverse as Peggle and Doom see this system for exactly what it is: broken.

3. practical aesthetics

David Mamet had a class on theatre acting called Practical Aesthetics. On Inside The Actors Studio William H. Macy summarized it:

What the character is doing is the playwrights intention, “to save the kingdom,” but what the actor does […] has to be accomplishable in real time in front of people. So you have to translate what the character is doing into something that the actor can actually do. So that it is not dependent on imaginary circumstances or on any emotional state. It is something that can be done dispassionately without any wind-up, and it has to be accomplishable, and when you do it you gotta leave the stage. You’re done, you did your objective, just do that and move on.

As an actor, you can play “save the kingdom.” You have to have immediate goals. I think the same goes for the player: they can’t achieve the goal of “save nanobots from professor” with a gumball and a fan. These are steps along a path but the player isn’t given any landmarks, no way of measuring their progress. And I don’t end up feeling like I am traveling through a story so much as the story is going on without me. It’s got its own objectives and it just leaves me to trade items around between robots for a while.

4. solution? bribery

Tim Schafer, in an interview I reread pretty often, said this about checkpoints in a narrative:

Well, you end up doing these little bribes with the player. Like in Psychonauts […] you’re a kid at the Psychic Summer Camp. There’s a girl, Lilly, at the Psychic Summer Camp with you, and she gets kidnapped. And Raz, the player character, really likes Lilly, and he wants to go off and save her. But you don’t know if the player really cares because he could just run and jump around and explore the camp and never go off and find her. And so you want to make sure that Lilly actually gives you some cool power or some cool tool in the beginning of the game, as a way to bribe the player to strengthen their empathy. You can’t just rely on the story empathy, you have to put in little gameplay bribes, to make them like that character and want to pursue her.

There has to be some kind of payoff for turning on the fan or getting the gumball out of the machine, rather than the game saying “don’t worry, it’ll come clear later.” In fact, the game doesn’t even say that, it doesn’t say anything at all, I’m just used to it because I’ve played these things since I was 6. This can be done in a story way, with characters implying that this or that object or action seems useful, and Nanobots does this in a way; Audbot can talk to the other nanos and they’ll drop hints as to what each should do. But these are not tied to the narrative at all; he insists that the gumballs should be used for momentum, but here’s the same problem: why? How will these gumballs keep the professor from killing you?

But better than a story bribe is a bribe that is both story and gameplay bribe. You want the payoff to not only be something that progresses the story, but something that makes the game more fun. Too often we bribe with cutscenes, which are a cheap payment as well as lazy story progression. The payoff needs to be something the player actually wants to do, and they need to have some inkling that this more fun thing is available to them via specific actions and objects. The thing you never want is for the the player to progress simply because you told them to.

5. tangential, alternative solution

A random other idea I had to for solving this problem would be a Spelunky-like solution: make something procedurally generated. You have a dilemma and the game randomly gives you a few items. These items can be used in the environment, and the game is programmed in such a way that you always have enough items to solve the problem. But you also have these other items that can be used in other ways as well. Then the player can come up with plans and test them, and when some don’t work it’s not frustrating, because you know it was random and there’s no penalty for trying. No adventure developer writes long sequences of plot that ultimately go nowhere just as red herrings, and if they did I for one would get really irritated that they put that effort into leading me astray.

Ideally, though, these puzzles would be very active, perhaps physics-based, where the items on hand let you do different things, and possibly the player can find solutions that the designer didn’t think of (Deus Ex tried to do this and half-succeeded). This wouldn’t really be an adventure game, but it’d be nonetheless an interesting way to tell a story.

6. why I care so much

I’m making a strong point about Nanobots specifically, and again, it’s pretty good by the standards of the genre; it’s really the genre itself I’m taking to task. But I’ve analyzed Nanobots more intently than other games because it’s actually attempting to do something I’m trying as well.

One-Eyed Monsters is a game with four playable characters with the same theme of cooperation, so I’m critical of Nanobots because I don’t want to fall into any traps that other developers fall into. It’s an important point for me that the four characters justify why there are four of them, that they have to work together directly and not just by trading off one who has what item or what skill.

But it’s most important that the story never be at odds with the game, because at that point there’s no reason to tell the story as a game. In fact, there’s a pertinent reason not to.

We need to fix adventure games or just declare them dead. And I get really anxious because I’ve grown up digesting a lot of the good and bad design choices in equal measure. Will I be able to spot the things that make the games good and tell them apart from the things that hold them back? Will I make a game that’s guilty of a lot of horrible design flaws that I just didn’t catch?

So I overthink everything now, while the engine is still being built, so that I won’t have to overthink them later (though I probably will).

I wish Erin Robinson the best, I’m looking forward to PuzzleBots, and I thought Spooks was pretty cool.

Food for thought. Cheers.

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