Adventure Games: The Emergence of the Episodic

That's a sort of Engrishy title, but it should suffice for what I'm about to discuss.

Adventure games have been slowly crawling back from obsolescence in recent years and nothing has quite emphasized this comeback like the recent remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign for a new Double Fine Adventure Game from adventure auteur Tim Schafer. Clearly we as a global community are not yet done with pointing and clicking.

Yuuuup.

Unlike many genres which are happy to invoke the same trappings and tropes over and over with slightly better graphical fidelity, the adventure game genre is continually reinventing itself. From its early challenging text-parser driven narratives, to the snarky arbitrariness of Sierra's Quests, to the goofy, low-stress charms of LucasArts and the many smaller studios throughout that timeline with their own stories to tell, the genre went from strength-to-strength as the designers carefully considered what made a good story and balanced that with what made a good game. Then - and forgive me if I've gone a little too esoteric with this analogy - like the horrible fish-salamander abominations from the universally-despised Voyager episode "Threshold", it evolved a little too quickly/stupidly and led to the many compelling fiascos of the FMV adventure game era, including but not limited to: demonic rapes, tiny Jim Belushi flying an airplane and cyber-Walken blowing up your "C-Space" avatar. The genre died of embarrassment soon after.

These days we have all manner of adventure games making the rounds. Some, Indie hits like Gemini Rue and Spanish homages like Runaway and The Next Big Thing for example, are happy to continue where the classic 2D animated adventure games left off, before the whole business got a bit hairy. One could even make it a point that any game with a strong guiding narrative that can only move forward after solving environmental puzzles, such as Portal or Limbo, could be considered adventure games as well. Hell, people make that case for the Legend of Zelda too, though that's perhaps a contentious blog for another day.

After all that senseless rambling, I'll now get to the heart of this blog: The episodic adventure game. Now that term might immediately bring to mind the TellTale franchises for a lot of you, but that's not actually what I'm talking about. At least not entirely. What I mean are the games that give you a series of self-contained puzzles to solve, with each solution continuing the story while completely changing the environment and inventory for the next chapter. Games like Ghost Trick and Zack & Wiki, to name but two examples.

The strength of this format is that it greatly alleviates the usual frustration with obtuse adventure games - expediting the "try everything on everything to proceed" tactic when stuck. As older adventure games were balanced to increase the difficulty by adding more and more moving parts (or "innumerable inventory items", "barely visible background components that can be interacted with" and "rarely helpful NPCs" as the case may be) in more areas, it also tended to make progress maddeningly indiscernible, which in many cases was already exacerbated by being strictly defined by the sort of incomprehensible dream logic you'd expect from inter-dimensional beings who have had our reality explained to them via interpretative dance. With a single screen of objects to tinker with before you move on forever to pastures new, you're far less likely to encounter that sort of aggravation. Likewise, the narrative will also often benefit from following an episodic format - like a TV show - that gradually reveals more of the plot and the characters to the player in bite-sized morsels.

So much stuff, so little of it possessable. Phew.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective specifically, which I recently played, has plenty going for it already: Stylistic art that evokes Gallic studio Delphine's older rotoscoped adventure games like Out of This World and Flashback, a brilliant gameplay conceit that is fully exploited by the varied puzzles, a memorable cast of eccentrics and a cracking mystery plot that taps into the thoughts and motivations of several different characters at once. However, its greatest boon is that each chapter is split up into single areas (usually several rooms, which can be surveyed by passing through floors and walls) with a finite list of objects to possess and manipulate and clearly defined objectives with not-so-clearly defined solutions. As challenging as the game's puzzles might be, especially with how many require crackerjack timing with gestures and movements you may have initially missed, the smaller scale means you never stay bamboozled for too long.

Similarly, many industry critics lauded TellTale's episodic approach as a means to provide a new pricing structure that allows dissatisfied consumers to opt out relatively cheaply as well as immediate fans to subscribe for the whole affair at perhaps more than a singular title might cost, yet I feel - again - that the true strength of the format has always been that manner of beneficial simplification: A sequence of smaller, manageable worlds that can tell their own self-contained stories, but will also contribute to a larger, overarching narrative that covers the whole season of episodes.

So we come back to Double Fine's as yet untitled Adventure Game. While there are plenty of reasons to stick with the older LucasArts format, given that's what many of the donors are probably hoping for without perhaps realising that nostalgia is often equated to rose-tinted glasses for a reason, I wonder if it can't benefit more from an episodic style instead - provided, of course, we wouldn't need to wait much longer than we must to play the whole thing. Double Fine already knows how to craft a game like that, as evidenced by the sublime - if all too brief - Stacking. It'll be interesting to see how this new game will turn out, given everything that's transpired within the adventure game genre in the many years since Tim Schafer's career-making masterpieces. I guess we should trust that those guys know what they're doing, ultimately. They've earned it. And you've all earned some stickpeople comics for reading this far, thereby masterfully segueing to...

BONUS COMICS!

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Sorry.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I deserve some kudos for avoiding a Brad-related punchline. Or, at the very least, less abuse.
15 Comments
16 Comments
Edited by Mento

That's a sort of Engrishy title, but it should suffice for what I'm about to discuss.

Adventure games have been slowly crawling back from obsolescence in recent years and nothing has quite emphasized this comeback like the recent remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign for a new Double Fine Adventure Game from adventure auteur Tim Schafer. Clearly we as a global community are not yet done with pointing and clicking.

Yuuuup.

Unlike many genres which are happy to invoke the same trappings and tropes over and over with slightly better graphical fidelity, the adventure game genre is continually reinventing itself. From its early challenging text-parser driven narratives, to the snarky arbitrariness of Sierra's Quests, to the goofy, low-stress charms of LucasArts and the many smaller studios throughout that timeline with their own stories to tell, the genre went from strength-to-strength as the designers carefully considered what made a good story and balanced that with what made a good game. Then - and forgive me if I've gone a little too esoteric with this analogy - like the horrible fish-salamander abominations from the universally-despised Voyager episode "Threshold", it evolved a little too quickly/stupidly and led to the many compelling fiascos of the FMV adventure game era, including but not limited to: demonic rapes, tiny Jim Belushi flying an airplane and cyber-Walken blowing up your "C-Space" avatar. The genre died of embarrassment soon after.

These days we have all manner of adventure games making the rounds. Some, Indie hits like Gemini Rue and Spanish homages like Runaway and The Next Big Thing for example, are happy to continue where the classic 2D animated adventure games left off, before the whole business got a bit hairy. One could even make it a point that any game with a strong guiding narrative that can only move forward after solving environmental puzzles, such as Portal or Limbo, could be considered adventure games as well. Hell, people make that case for the Legend of Zelda too, though that's perhaps a contentious blog for another day.

After all that senseless rambling, I'll now get to the heart of this blog: The episodic adventure game. Now that term might immediately bring to mind the TellTale franchises for a lot of you, but that's not actually what I'm talking about. At least not entirely. What I mean are the games that give you a series of self-contained puzzles to solve, with each solution continuing the story while completely changing the environment and inventory for the next chapter. Games like Ghost Trick and Zack & Wiki, to name but two examples.

The strength of this format is that it greatly alleviates the usual frustration with obtuse adventure games - expediting the "try everything on everything to proceed" tactic when stuck. As older adventure games were balanced to increase the difficulty by adding more and more moving parts (or "innumerable inventory items", "barely visible background components that can be interacted with" and "rarely helpful NPCs" as the case may be) in more areas, it also tended to make progress maddeningly indiscernible, which in many cases was already exacerbated by being strictly defined by the sort of incomprehensible dream logic you'd expect from inter-dimensional beings who have had our reality explained to them via interpretative dance. With a single screen of objects to tinker with before you move on forever to pastures new, you're far less likely to encounter that sort of aggravation. Likewise, the narrative will also often benefit from following an episodic format - like a TV show - that gradually reveals more of the plot and the characters to the player in bite-sized morsels.

So much stuff, so little of it possessable. Phew.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective specifically, which I recently played, has plenty going for it already: Stylistic art that evokes Gallic studio Delphine's older rotoscoped adventure games like Out of This World and Flashback, a brilliant gameplay conceit that is fully exploited by the varied puzzles, a memorable cast of eccentrics and a cracking mystery plot that taps into the thoughts and motivations of several different characters at once. However, its greatest boon is that each chapter is split up into single areas (usually several rooms, which can be surveyed by passing through floors and walls) with a finite list of objects to possess and manipulate and clearly defined objectives with not-so-clearly defined solutions. As challenging as the game's puzzles might be, especially with how many require crackerjack timing with gestures and movements you may have initially missed, the smaller scale means you never stay bamboozled for too long.

Similarly, many industry critics lauded TellTale's episodic approach as a means to provide a new pricing structure that allows dissatisfied consumers to opt out relatively cheaply as well as immediate fans to subscribe for the whole affair at perhaps more than a singular title might cost, yet I feel - again - that the true strength of the format has always been that manner of beneficial simplification: A sequence of smaller, manageable worlds that can tell their own self-contained stories, but will also contribute to a larger, overarching narrative that covers the whole season of episodes.

So we come back to Double Fine's as yet untitled Adventure Game. While there are plenty of reasons to stick with the older LucasArts format, given that's what many of the donors are probably hoping for without perhaps realising that nostalgia is often equated to rose-tinted glasses for a reason, I wonder if it can't benefit more from an episodic style instead - provided, of course, we wouldn't need to wait much longer than we must to play the whole thing. Double Fine already knows how to craft a game like that, as evidenced by the sublime - if all too brief - Stacking. It'll be interesting to see how this new game will turn out, given everything that's transpired within the adventure game genre in the many years since Tim Schafer's career-making masterpieces. I guess we should trust that those guys know what they're doing, ultimately. They've earned it. And you've all earned some stickpeople comics for reading this far, thereby masterfully segueing to...

BONUS COMICS!

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Sorry.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I deserve some kudos for avoiding a Brad-related punchline. Or, at the very least, less abuse.
Moderator
Posted by Video_Game_King

Yea, that's pretty much how my sword experiences went. I don't know whether to commend or condemn the game for it.

Edited by selbie

All this talk of adventure games is making me excited for The Witness. Also, no mention of Myst makes me a sad panda. That game pretty much defined the genre for me alongside Kings Quest, Grim Fandango, Sam & Max and Leisure Suit Larry.

I think episodic content is great for the adventure genre, but only after you've set things up with a major release to establish the characters etc. Kind of like a movie-length episode for a TV series.

Posted by Little_Socrates

HA! Great comics this time. I agree that Ghost Trick's gameplay is largely benefitted by its chapter-based format, though that game would still be pretty memorable if it had more frustrating gameplay. I still need to go back and play pretty much every classic adventure game, though; my only completed classic is Monkey Island.

Posted by Mento

@Little_Socrates: Yeah, I'm feeling I ought to play Full Throttle soon, given recent events. Maybe DotT and Grim Fandango for an additional time.

I still maintain that the brilliance of Ghost Trick is that no one level outstays its welcome, or gives you too much to keep track of on-screen. It's nicely checkpointed too, which not only cuts down on repetition but gives you a sense of progress in the level; that you haven't been barking up the wrong tree for the past few minutes. Pity it didn't sell better on the DS, hopefully this iOS port is getting it the attention it deserves.

Moderator
Posted by Hailinel

@Mento said:

@Little_Socrates: Yeah, I'm feeling I ought to play Full Throttle soon, given recent events. Maybe DotT and Grim Fandango for an additional time.

I still maintain that the brilliance of Ghost Trick is that no one level outstays its welcome, or gives you too much to keep track of on-screen. It's nicely checkpointed too, which not only cuts down on repetition but gives you a sense of progress in the level; that you haven't been barking up the wrong tree for the past few minutes. Pity it didn't sell better on the DS, hopefully this iOS port is getting it the attention it deserves.

I think part of the reason that it didn't sell well on the DS is just that Capcom didn't seem to handle its release very well. I don't think I've ever seen it on store shelves.

Online
Posted by Little_Socrates

@Hailinel said:

@Mento said:

@Little_Socrates: Yeah, I'm feeling I ought to play Full Throttle soon, given recent events. Maybe DotT and Grim Fandango for an additional time.

I still maintain that the brilliance of Ghost Trick is that no one level outstays its welcome, or gives you too much to keep track of on-screen. It's nicely checkpointed too, which not only cuts down on repetition but gives you a sense of progress in the level; that you haven't been barking up the wrong tree for the past few minutes. Pity it didn't sell better on the DS, hopefully this iOS port is getting it the attention it deserves.

I think part of the reason that it didn't sell well on the DS is just that Capcom didn't seem to handle its release very well. I don't think I've ever seen it on store shelves.

I managed to pick up a release in stores, but that was in the UK.

I would argue that Chapter 9 (the prison power-outage level) was immediately ill-conceived and definitely overstays its welcome, but I agree the rest of the game totally boasts that. I spent about three hours trying to actually play that level before resigning myself to a FAQ.

Posted by csl316

I do declare that 9: The Last Resort should be the next candidate for Random PC Game.

Posted by Jaqen_HGhar

@csl316: That would be pretty cool. I kinda doubt it will happen though, as finding copies of it is a pain in the ass. Which I discovered when I managed to snag one copy a few years ago from ebay. Pretty cool game though, even with a crippling bug making it unbeatable. And it is pretty difficult to get working on modern computers.

Posted by TheHT

...fucking Capra Demon.

Posted by Lokno

@selbie: I also can't wait for the Witness. Glad to hear someone else talking about Myst. I guess it wasn't as important to PC gamers, but it was sentinel for me, at least.

Posted by paulunga

Great article, one thing though: It's true that there are quite a few old school adventure games coming out of German studios, but the two examples you used were both by Péndulo Studios, a Spanish developer.

Posted by Mento

@paulunga: Oh whoops, well caught. I'll just fix that. Probably got them mixed up with the Secret Files fellows. Checking the other wiki, it seems German studios are responsible for quite a range of games from different genres.

I guess I could've also pretended I didn't know what "Teutonic" referred to, but either way I look like an idiot so I guess the particulars are irrelevant. Heh.

Moderator
Posted by paulunga

@Mento said:

@paulunga: Oh whoops, well caught. I'll just fix that. Probably got them mixed up with the Secret Files fellows. Checking the other wiki, it seems German studios are responsible for quite a range of games from different genres.

I guess I could've also pretended I didn't know what "Teutonic" referred to, but either way I look like an idiot so I guess the particulars are irrelevant. Heh.

Yeah, kinda funny that you picked that one. Adventure games really never stopped being a thing in Germany. Which is great, because I know quite a few people who like them, myself included. Daedalic Entertainment for example, most of their stuff is excellent but they also publish other developer's games, including Telltale's catalogue and Machinarium. That's why I loved Tim Schafer's joke in the Kickstarter proposal video.

Edited by Rowr
Posted by JazGalaxy

I don't think you speak about the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to these types of games.

Initially, when adventure games became popular, they were keyboard driven. You had to type into the computer what you wanted your character to do. This was a high barrier to entry (I remember not being able to play kings quest when I was little because I couldn't type), but it also added a LOT to those games. I remember playing a VGA remake of an old adventure game I had played with hte keyboard and walking into a familiar screen. I remembered a rock being there that I had tried to climb, roll, prop up and dig under. In the VGA remake, the rock wasn't even there.

Catch that: My imagination had taken that rock and given it heighth, weight, presense and interactivity. I was engaged in that world. That can't be over emphasized.

As adventure games grew in popularity, the interfaces were cleaned up to make them easier to play. THis was a great advancement in many ways because I, for once, could actually PLAY them. However they lost something. There was less room for imagination and less room for experimentation.

As the genre grew older, developers kept making more and more advancements "for the players benefit". WHere once you had, say, 8 different ways to interact with the environment, suddenly you had two or in some games one. Instead of having to look around the environment for clues, suddenly things you could interact with were shimmery or highlighted.

This had a LOT to do with why Adventure Games died. They were suddenly accessible enough that anyone oculd play them... but why would you want to? They were reduced to marginal cartoons where occasionally you clicked on something. The level of interactivity, which is the hallmark of videogames, was almost entirely eliminated.

Flash forward to the "episodic days" of the modern era and you're seeing a lot of the same thing. There are people playing games because of a wistful rememberance of the past, but you're not seeing a lot of new players playing adventure games. The ones who do are, in the cases of games like Jurassic Park or Back to The Future, confused as to why they need to be games to begin with.

For adventure games to be reborn, they need to embrace what made them popular in the first place.