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.

1 comment:

  1. Very true Dave.

    I really hate the "unwinnable scenario" with a passion! It just smacks of lazyness.

    The other just seems like it was designed in before the game was played (obviously), but no one ever spoke up about how it actually reduced enjoyment of the game.