How Adventure Games Aren’t Sports

games: sports vs. puzzles

I am so close to finally beating Give Up, Robot 2. I know I’m behind the curve on this one, but whatever. I got stuck on the 2nd-to-last level in Hard Mode, and actually thought it was unbeatable because of a bug. I even wrote Matt Thorson, who kindly wrote back and said it’s not a bug, just that I need to turn off a setting in the Options menu.

So, after a hiatus, I am back to kicking ass, and have made it to the final level after over 1000 deaths. This one will fall eventually.

During the time I wasn’t playing it, I went to PAX East. It was a wonderful weekend, where I met a pack of other indies, got hands on Fez, Bastion, Snapshot, and SpyParty, and visited my Boston friends. ’twas marvelous.

I could (and might) write a proper blog about attending PAX, what with all the fabulous talks, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. One of the talks I went to (it was either Game Design Is Mind Control or How To Win At Games, I forget which) pointed out something I hadn’t thought of about the distinction between games and sports.

You don’t win at football by having the best play, by the two coaches turn their chalkboards around, show their plays to each other, and seeing which would beat the other. There’s a physical component – the team with the best play will fail if it has bad players. The team’s strength, stamina, and speed are all factors in your success. In this way, Give Up, Robot 2 resembles a sport. Knowing how to beat a level doesn’t mean you have the precision to actually beat it.

Beating a sport takes – well, something. I don’t want to say “skill” and imply that strategizing alone doesn’t take skill, so we’ll say “endurance.” Sports are games of endurance.

A game like chess, on the other hand, is a game of… well, let’s say “skill” this time, accepting that endurance involves skill, but not skill alone. In chess, it doesn’t really matter who moves the piece, as moving the piece is no great feat. This is why you can play chess by mail. All that matters is the strategy. The game, really, is played in the mind, and the actual board is just a means of communicating your strategy. You an play without a board, using drawings, as you do in newspaper chess.

In this way, an adventure game is more in like with a game of chess than with a game of Give Up, Robot 2. Or Mario. Or football.

Because it doesn’t matter who clicks “use rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle on cable” in Monkey Island. The game part was thinking to try it in the first place. You could play Monkey Island by mail, if you had the patience, though you’d miss my favorite themesong.

This, I recently realized, is why adventure games felt so broken when the developers put in arcade or stealth sequences. Sure, it’s partly because adventure game developers aren’t good at making action games (look askance at Tim Schafer). But it’s also changing something on a fundamental level. A game of skill becomes a game of endurance. Even if the endurance is well-executed, it’s out of place, and the game up to that point probably hasn’t trained you for it.

It’s why we bitched so much about the arcade bits in Full Throttle (shifty glance, again, at Tim Schafer, who is liable to take his cafeteria tray elsewhere). And why we hated King’s Quest 8.

It’s like a game of chess that will spastically and randomly turn into a real-time game – oh wait somebody did that.

I suppose it’s why puzzle sequences in action games, fairly rote and perfunctory, also appear out of place. Suddenly all the game’s selling points, the tests of endurance, get put on pause so you can do some weak strategy work, i.e. Uncharted. It’s not that these puzzles are weak, though they certainly are. Better puzzles would probably make the problem worse; the longer the puzzle lasts, the longer you are divorced from the game’s core mechanics, which have always been endurance-based.

It’s important for me to keep this in mind as I build OEM. I thought recently how the movement mechanics would make it very easy for the game to contain platforming sections. But now I think it’d probably just make the game feel disjointed. Whatever I’d gain from a sense of precarious immediacy I’d lose twice over in leaving the heart of the game, logic and puzzles and strategy, behind for a while.

One has to decide what their game is about and stick to it.

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1 Response to “How Adventure Games Aren’t Sports”


  1. 1 saluk 05/18/2011 at 12:16 am

    You are right, a game needs to pick what it’s going to do and stick to it. However, from your example, uncharted is basically modelled off of Tomb Raider, which was a pretty good blend of puzzle+action. It would be wrong to say that puzzles should have been left out of tomb raider, because “puzzles+action+exploration” were it’s DNA. So if you want your DNA to be logic+story+light platforming, you can make that work. As long as you know what you are making, and everything works together, you are in good shape. Which is easier said than done, even if you DO limit yourself to a very simple concept.

    Now you are correct that, if the game starts with a long series of puzzles, never deviating, and then all of a sudden you have to go through the hardest section of VVVVV with no training, that is bad. But if there is very light platforming, perhaps as a connection between areas, and it feels like part of the game, then having a slightly more difficult platforming challenge come up would not feel out of place.

    Also, while the action sequences in Full Throttle were a bit out of place, King’s Quest 8 actually knew what it was. It wasn’t what people expected out of a King’s Quest game, but it was decent at what the game actually was – an action rpg. So the problem there is more marketing or expectation rather than flaws in game design (not that it didn’t have its flaws, but I think its design mistakes are off topic here).

    What you want to do is sell the idea of the game very early on, and then never stray too far from that idea. But even better is when, while not straying too far, you find ways to keep people surprised. Think of Portal, where your expectations are played with through to the end of the game. Each section builds on what you’ve learned, but does something slightly unexpected. (Don’t emulate portal 2, where when you divide up the 3 sections it almost feels like 3 different games wedged together)

    BTW your game sounds great and I love your artstyle! Good luck getting it made.


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