I have a love/hate relationship with the adventure genre, I love the amazing settings and unique storylines, but hate the fact that I feel like a complete idiot playing them. This kind of relationship has made me avoid a lot of what the genre has to offer and I have missed most of the games that people would call a masterpiece for the genre. Over the last few years I’ve tried the Sam and Max titles, The Longest Journey and even picked up The Monkey Island one reboot. In terms of gameplay I did not enjoy any of them, Sam and Max comes out ahead for the humor but I did not love any of them. The only series that I did like which I’m not sure if it could be called an adventure game in the normal sense was the Phoenix Wright series. Recently I picked up Sanitarium thanks to GOG. This leads me to the point of this article, a look at the adventure genre from my point of view and where I think improvements and suggestions are needed. Note: most of my comments can be solved by having an out of immersion hint system (think Monkey Island remake) so I’m not going to mention it for each segment as I want to focus on ways that don’t break the world of the game.
We’ve all been at this point before when trying to figure out a puzzle, saying to ourselves “who the hell thought this up!?” The problem is that one man’s common solution is another man’s mystery. Personally I mentally cannot do any music based puzzles, like matching tones or recreating songs or sounds, my brain just isn’t wired like that. What that means is that all a designer has to do is include one puzzle like that in their game and the game becomes unbeatable for me without resorting to a guide. This to me raises an important question “what is considered common knowledge?” Another example from me, let’s say a puzzle requires you to pick which children’s rhyme is a metaphor for the black death and use that as the base for the solution. I’ll give you guys a minute to think about that and join you in the next paragraph.
The answer is the rhyme “ring around the rosey”, which I know because I had to do a research project on the Black Death in high school and that fact stood out for me. For me that is common logic and if I put that into a game it would make total sense for me but would it make sense for everyone else? I think there are 2 solutions for this, one is if you are developing a puzzle around something real give the player clues about it. For example in one of the Penumbra titles you had to create various mixtures using chemicals. Instead of relying on everyone to take advance chem the game gave you a journal entry on various chemical mixtures and asked the player to deduce it from there.
Option two is for games that don’t take place in the real world, if you want to design a puzzle using a real world application, try warping it to match the setting. For example in the above example of creating a mixture using chemical components why not ask the player to use alchemy to develop a magic potion? Give the player clues as to how different ingredients work and go from there. The advantage is that everyone is starting on equal footing in terms of knowledge. Designing puzzles around real world applications is always a tricky issue what’s worse is when real world items are used in a not so real world.
One of the reasons why I stayed away from adventure games in the 90s was that crazy logic designers called gameplay, where an inner tube, glue and some kind of stick are actually a key to an ancient door. This to me is a design no-no on par with unskippable cut scenes or not having a save feature in your games. I’m fine with using real world items to solve a weird or not so common problem if you keep them to their real world uses. Don’t ask me to use a can of soda to shake up, put in a plastic clown’s mouth so that when it opens it explodes knocking the head off so that I can use the head for some other inane task. A great example of what I like was in Sanitarium which I’ll try to reveal without spoiling it outright, the second chapter of the game requires the player to use real world objects to defeat a not so real world threat and it made perfect sense while I was doing it (let’s not ask questions about why a game dealing with insanity and mental asylums make sense to me).
Besides the usual “Pc games are dead” motif I’ve heard over the years “adventure games are dead” is another popular one. Unfortunately from my time spent trying to play what was considered the best ones I could see why. Finding the examples that avoid the pitfalls in the genre is like trying to find a diamond in the rough. It is far too easy to create a poorly designed adventure title compared to other genres; at least with the other genres you can leave crazy designer logic at the door.