An interview about Adventure Games

We sat down with Mr Chris Picone and answered some of his burning questions about our adventure games.

The fearless rogue directors of the 80s, such as Lucas, McTiernan, Scott, and Cameron, became our guides to the world of adventure and science fiction. Their movies had such simple concepts but very tight execution that they have become synonymous with well-made science fiction. Their far-flung visions spilled over into our imagination. As the passage of time has ticked on, we find ourselves looking back on that art through a nostalgic lens. So have many others. The following decade saw a new medium for storytelling that Chris and I obsessed over. 

CHRIS ON HIS FAVORITE GAME

Space Quest 5 was the first adventure game I ever completed on my own. I think that’s why the idea of death in adventure games has stuck with me. I never saw them as ‘failing’, instead finding out that you were on the right path and needed to adjust your thinking. So I see FALLOUT as my visual aspiration. 

NIC ON HIS FAVORITE GAME

If I had to choose a single game that has influenced me more than any of the other thousands, I’d have to pick STAR CONTROL 2. It has a beautiful meld between a point-and-click adventure, a fantastic story, and RPG-lite elements. I could gush for hours on how well Toys for Bob designed it. It’s unrivaled in its union of mini-games in a collated product and showed that adventure games could have incredible depth. 

Some say that RPGs are adventure games with combat, and others proclaim that if an adventure game has any skill-based combat in it, it’s no longer an adventure game.

An adventure game puts most of its focus on the story and tells that story through puzzles. I suggest that if you had to remove either of those two elements, we would be hard-pressed to call that an adventure game at all.

If I am myopic and technical, I’d say that a point-and-click adventure game should only have a single input source at a time, and this pointing device should provide direct feedback to the player. Further to this, the avatar should be limited in their world interactions, but they should be solving a puzzle at all times.

ON PUZZLES

Understanding what a puzzle could be is a constantly shifting goal post. The use of verbs eliminated a lot of guesswork, and eventually, the amalgamation of the verbs into a single USE command streamlined the process even further.

I think a puzzle, in whatever form it takes, should drive the story and be anchored in a fraction of reality. Arbitrarily placed puzzles are just not fun! Nobody uses a sliding puzzle to turn on a light switch in their house, and door locks aren’t in other rooms. Puzzles should have their roots in the environment they are in. The context of the puzzle should be tied into the puzzle itself. 

In Stasis, we stuck with inventory puzzles and some logic puzzles. The game was designed to be a lonely experience and to push the ideas of loneliness, and we had no dialogue puzzles. There is minimal interaction with other characters in the game. It was a case of the context and the world that the player found themselves dictating how the puzzles were designed. The one timing puzzle in the game (a surgery sequence where you operate on your spinal cord) is placed in such a way to provide friction with how the player has played the game up to that point. According to our players, the most successful puzzles in our games are the ones that feel like they are part of the world. 

ON STORYTELLING

Ron Gilbert’s “Why Adventure Games Suck” has a small piece of advice – something that is at the very core of adventure-game puzzle design and yet it is also one of the most brutal rule to follow!

“The backwards puzzle occurs when the solution is found before the problem. Ideally, the crevice should be found before the rope that allows the player to descend. What this does in the player’s mind is set up a challenge. He knows he need to get down the crevice, but there is no route. Now the player has a task in mind as he continues to search. When a rope is spotted, a light goes on in his head and the puzzle falls into place. For a player, when the design works, there is nothing like that experience.” ( https://grumpygamer.com/why_adventure_games_suck )

This rule for interactive storytelling dwells on the concept of foreshadowing, clue dispersion, and the impact of information on decision-making. It dictates how puzzles flow, how environments are designed, and how the narrative should unfold. While in many cases, this additional information is not essential to the completion of the puzzle, it provides clues and hints that can expand the game’s lore and, in so doing, make the world feel alive. 

ON PACING

Computer games are complex art forms. They are a marriage between technical and artistic methods. It’s the equivalent of writing a book with chapters that can be read in any order yet still have a coherent crafted story.

While game narratives share many of the same challenges as films or novels, they overcome those pitfalls differently. Games use the constant feedback loop of challenge-reward-challenge-reward to push the player forward in the narrative. As a result, there is a continuous need for ‘rising action’ to keep a player engaged. In adventure games, these challenges are generally found through puzzles, which lead to the reward of pushing the story forward. The story’s momentum is created by the discovery of new areas, new characters, and new sets of challenges.

It can be hard to break this genre’s true nature, which is a series of locked doors with different keys that need to be found. We think that the trick is to move as far away from literal doors as you can and instead look at the design as an obstacle and challenge instead of a lock and key puzzle. 

Stasis was a linear game, and in Cayne we attempted to further experiment by opening up the world and allowing puzzles to be solved in parallel. In Beautiful Desolation, we kicked those doors wide open and gave the player a larger world to explore in a non-linear manner. 

In Stasis 2, we are returning to the linear story path but with a twist; you can now control three characters that need to work together to solve each puzzle. 

Creating a sense of pacing in a non-linear story is trickier than in a linear adventure game, but ensuring a series of bottlenecks with clear goals has been critical in the design process. Of course, how the players get to these bottlenecks is up to them!

ON TRAPS

The downfall of having a more open world is making certain areas feel repetitive. For example, once a questline has been completed in a traditional linear narrative, you can easily block off any environments or characters that that particular quest needs. In a non-linear game, it becomes harder to justify why those quest areas and characters are no longer accessible. It can also make the game world start to close in on the player if this large open world area you have to explore suddenly becomes much smaller and more limited towards the end of the game. 

A way around this is to create multiple uses for each area that intersect with other explorations. For example, have the same bar you visit, but populate it with different characters. Or have an environment where it can be seen differently if you revisit it with an additional tool. Make the player feel like they are visiting the area to tackle a new challenge instead of backtracking there to pick up the pieces of an old one.

Fast travel is something that we also try to move away from. The teleporting protagonist immediately takes you out of the moment in the game. If you need some fast travel system, keep the areas you can fast travel within small and contained. We think that adventure games are incredible journeys that you are on – skipping around the world feels like you are fast-forwarding through the parts that can make the journey stick with you. 

Fast travel used to the extreme turns the classic adventure game into a hidden object game and detracts from the adventure component. 

If you do have a fast travel option, it should be something that has been earned, and something that makes sense within the world that you have built. A train system that you have to fix, or a teleportation system that had to be stolen from somewhere. Speed only matters when the player knows that there is a slower alternative. 

ON MODERNIZATION

We never really set out to make a ‘modern’ or ‘retro’ adventure game – we wanted to make a fantastic game with an art style that we loved and a genre (science fiction horror) that we’ve always been a fan of. Most of our design decisions (interface choices, a single USE cursor, deaths) have come out of the natural way that the game was played. Even now, our decisions are focused on keeping the player immersed in the game world. For example, we are limiting the number of clicks needed to get from needing information to having that information at hand.

Isometric games are unique in adventure games because the camera is far from the player character. It has puzzles that involve smaller items and interactions challenging to create and telegraph to the player. The actions tend to be quite large in their effects on the world. For example, we can’t take pickpocket from an NPC or swap out a piece of paper from a desk because the player does not notice this action.

In trying to break away from linearity, we have had a lot of fun creating real consequences for your choices. But, of course, there is always a trade-off when creating world-altering outcomes. You may be making a lot of content that some players will simply never experience, but this can add to the idea of replayability in the game – something that can be an excellent way to set your game apart from others. Of course, adding in mechanics like this has to be planned as early as possible because of the domino effect that it can have on other systems and the story itself. 

In Beautiful Desolation, the consequences of your actions could lead to puzzles that have to have multiple solutions. If one avenue of a game is locked off, you may still need to complete a puzzle chain but in a different way. You were learning how to bottleneck puzzles in the same way RPGs bottleneck their stories become so important! This is also where puzzle design being written to work hand in hand with the story helps – if the story changes, the puzzles should naturally alter along that path.

This is easier said than done because we need to work within our budget and time allotment as Indie developers. However, we should always find a middle ground to entertain the player. 

With the competitive nature of modern gaming being what it is, the expectations in what a game needs to deliver nowadays have also grown tenfold. With access to the same distribution platforms that larger budget productions have, we have also been elevated to the same playing field. 

For a small team to compete against a multi-million dollar production is unfair, but that is the state of the industry. So often, to stand out, we have to rely on unique styles and design, filling a niche that the more prominent developers have ignored.

ON TUTORIALS

Tutorials for adventure games can be challenging to implement, not because they are mechanically challenging, but rather because their mechanics can be varied. In an adventure game, you may come across many mini-games or puzzles that require some unique way of interacting with the world, and having a tutorial for every encounter where the mechanics may change would bog the game down and possibly feel like the game is trying to hold your hand through the puzzle solutions. 

We have often thought that part of the fun of an adventure game is trying to figure out how to play the game. Having a sense of discovery is so crucial to the genre that having extensive tutorial sections seems to take away a lot of the sense of pride of just…figuring things out!

THE GOLDEN RULE

We had the pleasure of meeting Fred and Paul, the masterminds behind the Star Control universe, and they offered us some advice that has become our game development mantra, “Never let the game do something that the player can do.” The player is the essential part of the game, and they need to be the driving force through the story and design. It is tempting for a narrative designer to have the action play out in a cut scene or a text block. However, the visceral feedback that the player will get from doing it themselves is a cognitive emotion that will stay with them, and the experience will make the game better. 

Making adventure games in practice is simple. The systems are not complex, but they need to work together seamlessly. It’s a unique genre in that it’s been kept alive almost exclusively through the players’ passion, with developers often being those very players who refuse to let the genre do anything but thrive.

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