Memorial Day Weekend Post.

adventure game engines

Back in middle school I wrote a short little essay about the virtues of point & click computer games over what I termed “move & shoot” engines. I got fine marks on the essay but I clearly failed the Geek Check.

“Move and shoot” is a poor term for the kinds of engines that most games run on nowadays, so let’s rephrase a bit: I’m talking about direct-control systems. The vast (vast vast vast) majority of games today have direct controls, by which I mean “this action is tied to this button.” Or replace button with “trigger” or “Wiimote waggle” or, if you’re on the DS, “yelling into the microphone.” These controls are direct because it’s 1-to-1; if you want to walk somewhere, you hold the trigger down until you’re there. It’s very tactile, makes you feel in control of your character.

Adventure games, historically anyway, trend towards using point & click interfaces, which are an entirely other kind of action. Take the classic Secret Of Monkey Island model:

You have a list of verbs at the bottom of the screen; in this screenshot the inventory is empty, but that big black space on the bottom-right is where your inventory goes. It’s all mouse-controlled; if you want your character to walk somewhere, you click on the spot and watch him go to it. Rather than a “talk” button, you select “talk to” from your verb list and then click on a person to talk to.

What this means is that the game is not very tactile. There’s this layer between you and the game (let’s go so far as to call it a membrane but not so far as to call it a hymen). It’s slower, less tactile, and less immersive.


Why the hell would anyone use this interface?


Seems that’s actually the question on a lot of developers’ minds, and as more tactile engines proved they were pretty fun to use, it seems people pulled away from the traditional point & click model. First, they reduced the number of verbs:

(Monkey Island 2; you’ll also note that the inventory, which was text before, is now graphical)

Then they introduced the “verb coin,” which represents your control over the environment with a graphical element, symbols representing “hands” or “mouth” which could be context-sensitive:

(from Curse Of Monkey Island; you now have only hands, eyes, and mouth)

By the time of The Dig, there was simply an all-purpose mouse click, with the left button being “interact” and the right button being “look.” This seemed like an admission that all the puzzles were going to be inventory puzzles anyway (that’s where you open up your box of Junk You’ve Been Carrying Around and drag one object onto an object on the screen). It’s not a system designed for much else. Whenever the developers wanted to do something that else, the solution was “throw in a minigame.”

Games With An Over-Reliance On Minigames

(pulled out of my ass at press time; there are many more than this)

Full Throttle
The Curse Of Monkey Island
Escape From Monkey Island
Sam & Max Hit The Road
Space Quest 4
Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist

Some of these games are quite good (some are horrid) but the emphasis on minigames seems to openly admit that adventure game engines aren’t any damn fun and we need to break out of them once in a while or our game won’t be fun.

So if the developers themselves don’t like their engine, why does anyone use it?

why the fuck?

The thing is, what an adventure game loses in that sense of touch it tries to make up in versatility.

Here are the basic elements of a classic adventure game engine: player screen, verbs (either icons, verb coin, verb list, or text parser), inventory (onscreen or off), dialogue system (generally dialogue trees).

Overall this is a fairly open system. Adventure games are meant to be all about narrative; in the ideal, we’ve got an engine that can turn just about any story-event into a puzzle. The early engines were sometimes more versatile than necessary; The Secret Of Monkey Island had the “Turn On” and “Turn Off” verbs which were used precisely never.

This seems tailored to the notion that you can tell whatever story you want, and whatever dilemma the character comes up against, your engine is fluid enough to work through it. I wish modern developers would keep in mind that the first Monkey Island dumped you on an island and said “you have to swordfight, steal, and hunt for treasure,” and each of these activities was done in a unique way but with the same engine. Swordfighting used the dialogue system, thievery was item collection, and treasure hunting was deciphering an arcane map.

Disregarding the whatever the general success of these as puzzles was (insult swordfighting openly admitted that it’s kind of a ripoff), the spirit was, or seemed to be, “what kinds of things can we stick in this engine?” Over time a lot of these innovations became tropes; adventure games became synonymous with inventories, dialogue trees, and the occasional permutation of insult swordfighting (i.e. rabbi boxing in The Shivah, oy vey!).

The other day I actually brainstormed, like, the most versatile adventure game engine ever, but that’s an idea for a much later date.

Right now the controls that we’re exploring in One-Eyed Monsters is to have only a few functions: look, interact with object, interact with character, talk to character, and switch characters. Each character has a small inventory and objects can be held in hand, which changes your interaction with the environment. This may sound pretty stripped down, but keep in mind every action is multiplied by four characters; every active object has potentially 4 ways of interacting with it.

a note on innovation

I don’t really think innovation is the only way to make games; a game using a derivation of the SCUMM engine and telling a good story will be a good game regardless. But I do think developers should keep in mind why we use less tactile engines, and appreciate them for their strengths instead of treating them like liabilities.


2 Responses to “Versatility”

  1. 1 Zubrowka Bison 09/24/2011 at 7:47 am

    Wow, nice post! Was looking for exactly this on Google and came across this. Hope you don’t mind but I’m doing my honours project on this and have linked to this.


  1. 1 Interesting Post « Zubrowka Bison Trackback on 09/24/2011 at 7:42 am

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