Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Magic of Old Adventure Games

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 4 Feb 2014 12:00
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As anyone who views my Wikipedia page will know, adventure games and I have a history. I was practically raised by them, like Tarzan by the apes, and was only brought to civilization in my late teens to be taught how to stop stealing random useless objects and communicating only with the phrase "That doesn't work." I've played a lot of adventure games, made a couple, and so I can tell you that the problem with the present resurgence of adventure games, with the various Telltale properties and Broken Age and all that, is that most of them seem to be afraid to attempt to elevate the adventure game as a concept.

What I mean is, the standard model for your adventure game is that you pick up items, keep them in an inventory, and use them to solve a sequence of puzzles. But that alone results in a mediocre adventure game at best. One in which all there is is a succession of keys to use on doors. They might not always look like keys and doors, but that's what they are. Items beget items, or at least access to new areas where other items can be found. You get one item, like a sausage, and you use it to distract a dog in order to get a can opener, which you use to open a can and get a light bulb, which you use to light a room so that you can see how to get to the room where you get a sponge, etc.

The very worst adventure games are basically just chains. The challenge is to find where the chain starts - to pick up an item without having to expend another item to do so. Then you use that item to get the next in the chain, and so on to the end. Maybe at some point the player character goes to a new area and loses all their items so the chain starts again. And that's fine if all you want to do is say that you made an adventure game, in this age where such things are few, but not if you have any ambition to make one that actually compares favourably to the classic titles in the genre.

Because the best puzzles in adventure games are the ones that aren't just keys in doors. The keys-in-doors chain is like the foundation upon which others things can be built, like story and character and actually clever puzzles.

The Secret of Monkey Island is rightly considered to be one of the greatest adventure games of all time. One of the most noteworthy puzzles is the 'beating the Sword Master' sequence. At its base, it starts with an inventory puzzle: you have to buy a sword, and then use the sword on the men. But the important part is that victory depends on voicing effective insults, and giving the correct comebacks to insults directed at you. That means wandering around the island, challenging randoms, building your repertoire of insults and collecting their responses. At the end of all that, you challenge the Sword Master, who uses a wholly different library of insults. But here's the clever part: each one can be countered with one of the existing insult responses.

See, the inventory puzzle at the heart - get sword, use sword - is just the bare patch of poured concrete upon which the brick building of the experience is built. It's a smart puzzle that ends with a raw challenge to the player's wit and intellectual problem-solving skills that can't be solved by randomly clicking on things until the game gives in. It also riffs cleverly on sword fighting as it was depicted in your Errol Flynn-style classic adventure films, where the animated fencing was secondary to the banter exchanged between hero and villain over locked blades. Not only that, but it's also an opportunity to appreciate some very solid writing and world building in a way that blends seamlessly with the tone and action.

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