Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Those who Forget History are Doomed to Repeat it

I am an active retro-gamer.

Part of this is due to having a friend with an Atari 2600 when i was little, and beginning my own gaming career with a NES, a 386, and the arcades. The other part is a fascination with the history of videogames. To not only see where genres and franchises began, but to witness the refinement of mechanics over time and gameplay choices that would definitely not hold water today.

I can see the possibility of this idea becoming a regular feature, but am reluctant as there is already the Bad Game Designer: No Twinkie database by Earnest Adams which is a great read.

None the less, i was playing King's Quest (1984) yesterday (part of Telltale Games' wonderful charity bundle this year), and came across two game mechanics of interest.

The first deserves it's own discussion so i'll just mention it for now, as this was a staple of the entire genre for quite a while. I'm referring to character death in an adventure game. In pretty much the entire Sierra catalogue, one wrong move could spell a grisly end for your character. The first game i remember playing where your character couldn't die was The Secret of Monkey Island, and even then, many adventure games kept this mechanic.

Granted, some of the deaths i experienced yesterday in King's Quest were amusing (getting baked into a gingerbread man by the witch being a highlight), and other games by Sierra like the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games had hilarious game over scenarios, but death seems antithecal to the main mechanics of the genre.

If i had to boil it down, i would say the main gameplay mechanics of these games are exploration, problem solving, and playing out a story. The fact that your character can die doing the wrong thing seems like a kick in the teeth. It doesn't encourage trying out ideas, but encourages safety during play.

With proper use of save games and patience though, character death can be overcome while playing these games. However King's Quest is guilty of a far worse mechanic, and that is the ability to create an unwinnable scenario.

The goal of King's Quest is to find three treasures and return them to the king. There are areas of the game where you can come across a dwarven thief. He will run into you and steal something out of your inventory. I think you know where i'm going with this. Yes, he can steal the treasures out of your inventory. There is no way to retrieve them when this happens. Essentially, game over. I'm at a part of the game where the only way forward is to walk through a screen where this dwarf appears. Loading the game over and over, i cannot make it through without losing a treasure. Looking online i can sneak past him using a ring of invisibility, but i have not come across this ring yet.

It's almost like a variation on character death, but this is a punishment for either not exploring enough or trying to do something in the wrong order. King's Quest 6 (1992) had a similar problem. You could pawn off a ring of yours for different items (trading them to the pawn broker and back many times throughout the game), but if you didn't possess the ring at the end of the game, you couldn't complete it. Once again i remember Lucasarts's games doing away with this problem of the genre (and unlike character death, this is a mechanic that didn't stick around).

Well if i come across any other mechanics such as these, i will post again on this topic. In the meantime, i'll make sure my next post is on something other than the adventure game... i promise.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pheonix Wright and the Death of the Adventure game

In my post about Pheonix Wright, i mentioned how as an adventure game, it relies mostly on its story and characters, and is occasionally interrupted by puzzles in the form of finding inconsistancies in testimony. I would like to expound on that and put forth a possible explanation to the decline of the adventure game genre.

First a little background. Adventure games were one of two genres that overtook my gaming interests in the mid 80s... till about the mid to late 90s. Oh sure, i played anything i could get my hands on, but adventure games and platformers were my genres of choice. my first memories of adventure games were the Sierra text parser games, notibly the Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Police Quest series (I didn't get into King's Quest until KQ6).

While the genre still lives on, i have done a lot of thinking on when it really exited the mainstream, and while i think it was slowing down by the mid 90s, i would say the adventure genre's final breath was with Grim Fandango. Why is this? The rise of 3d, the action/adventure genre, the FPS, and within the FPS, most notibly, Half-Life.

It's not that putting the storytelling, characters, and puzzles of an adventure game into an action game made the adventure game redundant, it's that this highlighted the problems of the adventure genre itself.

As i said when talking about Pheonix Wright, you have a linear story broken up by frequent puzzles that have to be solved to continue. Now Pheonix Wright is much more linear than most adventure games, but the same problem still stands. Especially these days more than ever, a player wants to constantly move forward when playing a game. In an FPS, you're travelling from firefight to firefight, and if there's an area you can't progress in, it's due to a combination of tactics, and skill. You know how to continue. In an RPG, more often than not impeded progress can be solved by grinding (killing monsters till you level up enough to continue). My point is, in many of these popular genres, it's obvious what is needed to move forward. This is not always the case in the adventure genre.

In fact i recall many games where either one puzzle or a multitude of puzzles kept me from progressing in an adventure game, sometimes for months. To this day, i still haven't completed Riven. In Pheonix Wright, you're enjoying the story and for the most part, progress is easy, but then you come to a puzzle that no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. The game screeches to a halt. This is indicitive of the adventure gaming experience.

This next part is tricky. I am reluctant to say that the gameplay of adventure games is not fun. The satisfaction you get when solving a puzzle can be very rewarding. Having said that, many puzzles are unclear, and require very odd leaps of logic, or the solution hides in minute detail. Many puzzles are not fun so that the satisfaction of solving them is usually replaced with confusion or frustration. Also, it is rare that the puzzles themselves integrate well with the story (ie. "I have to break into this house. Oh look, there's a relational number puzzle acting as his door lock, but he's just some security guard"). At least the puzzles of Pheonix Wright all fit into the story, but that's a rarity in the genre.

Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka of Bioware have talked about story in videogames, saying such things as their games are moving the industry towards games driven by story, and not combat. At the time Kotaku covered this (July of 2009), i was pretty angry about it. I felt that the adventure genre had been completely overlooked and they believed this idea of having a narrative driving your story was a new thing. The industry has changed however and that is part of the reason why the adventure genre has a niche audience now. What i believe Bioware has been trying to do with their games is to allow player choice to propel the game forward, so the player believes their decisions are having direct consequence on their experience (i'll have more to say about this when i complete Mass Effect any day now).

To finish up, i'll say that while a game's story can have a lasting effect on a player (Killer7 is one of the greatest stories i've experienced in a videogame for instance), it's gameplay that drives videogames. The adventure game had problems with this balance, and as games evolved, they got relegated to niche audiences. The trick is to have the story serve the gameplay, or in recent years, to have the story itself be the main element of gameplay (i believe Mass Effect falls under this category as the RPG elements and combat are secondary to your choices as a character. Games like Heavy Rain definitely fall into this category). As long as such games keep the player moving forward, i don't see these games falling into the same pitfalls of the adventure genre.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pheonix Wright and a Case of Tension

I've made a mistake.

Since my last post saying i'll be back, i've been doing a lot of thinking about writing about video games. What am i going to write about? Where can i do some research so it sounds like i know what i'm talking about? Will they be as good as the couple articles i wrote last year?

I've decided it's time to just write.

Let's talk Pheonix Wright.

Since the DS version was released in Australia in early 2007, i have been enamoured with this series. Recently since it is becoming difficult to find copies of the DS games that aren't ridiculously expensive, i bought the three games on Wiiware and am playing through them again (well replaying the first and second, i have not played the third as of this date).

Having completed the first again, i would like to talk about it. I might do this for the second and third title, but i'm not making any promises. Pheonix Wright is a streamlined adventure game set in a courtroom. Sure there are sections of the game where you have to investigate crime scenes and talk to witnesses, but those are preperation for the meat of the game, which is again, the courtroom.

To turn playing a defense attourney into a fun game mechanic required a little retooling of the court system. A trial can only last three days so the player has a definite time frame of how close they might be to declaring their client innocent. The prosocution calls all witnesses and has incredible influence over the judge and the police force. In fact, the only tool the player as Pheonix Wright has is cross-examination, where you scour through the witness testimony looking for inconsistancies and contradictions.

What surprised me in this replay is the tension of the courtroom drama (especially because even though this is a game that involves defending clients of murder, it is a quite humourous experience). It reminded me of how in many movies, even though there's that logical part of the brain that tell us "He's the hero, there's no way he can fail", there are sequences in these films that have us on the edge of out seat. Pheonix Wright employs the same logic. If our client is guilty, we lose, therefore the trial has to turn around. Why then are there so many occurances of Pheonix's hide being saved at the complete last minute?

It all comes down to the writing and pacing. It's an adventure game after all. Even the puzzles (finding contradictions) are scarce compared to the unravelling of each case. The characters and writing are what keep the player's attention, and to fake the player out, thinking that perhaps they chose the wrong contradiction or have travelled down the wrong path keeps an element of uncertainty in a very linear game.

That and how fun it is to yell "Objection!" and slam your hands down on the desk... even if you're not playing the game.