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.