Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Information Complexity and the Downfall of the Adventure Game

Atul Varma | 25 Sep 2007 08:17
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In the beginning, adventure games were pretty straightforward.

The bedroom is a mess.
It is a small bedroom with a faded carpet and old wallpaper.
There is a washbasin, a chair with a tatty dressing gown slung over it, and a window with the curtains drawn. Near the exit leading south is a phone.

The bedroom of Arthur Dent, one of the 35 rooms in Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from 1984, is an elegantly simple construction. A few years ago, as I played this game along with a slew of other Infocom titles for the first time since my childhood, I quickly realized how much more fun they were than any adventure game I'd played since. They didn't necessarily have a better story, perhaps, but they involved virtually none of the tedium and frustration I'd often experienced with the newer entries into the genre.

I started wondering why that was, and it occurred to me that the problem was one of usability.

The thing is, aside from having a reasonably evocative description, Arthur's room presents the player with a very limited amount of information. There are at most nine different objects we can interact with here: the carpet, the wallpaper, the washbasin, the chair, the gown, the window, the curtains, the phone and the exit leading south. Examining some of these objects will reveal that there appears to be "nothing special about them," which basically means they're decoration and don't influence gameplay. Assuming you know how to touch type, it's easy to quickly discover what's important.

The graphical adventure games of this area - the early King's Quest and Space Quest games, for instance - were constrained by the limited technology of the time. Even the most advanced computers could only display 16 colors at a time, and the resolution of the games was limited to 160×200 pixels. But these constraints meant the amount of information they could present was quite limited - probably more complex than Arthur Dent's 47-word bedroom, but still navigable. Furthermore, these games didn't have point-and-click interfaces, because computer mice weren't widespread at the time. So, like text adventure games, the player had to type his intent at the bottom of the screen. This meant the player could ignore anything onscreen that he couldn't associate a word with, which made the information space even easier to navigate. For instance, take a look at this screen from Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter:

(click the image for a larger size)

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