Puzzle design in modern adventure games sports about as much diversity as the quests in a garden variety MMO: fetch quests, key-hunting, and lever-pulling abound. More often than not, the role of this type of gameplay is merely that of a bridge between the player and the progression of a narrative, an interactive distraction so the game can stretch more time from its story. This is a criticism often levied against some first-person shooter games as well, but even today’s most quirky, artistic, and fundamentally enjoyable video game experiences sometimes lack the gameplay innovation that made their progenitors such compelling virtual adventures. By prioritizing storytelling in video games, developers inadvertently send the signal that gameplay innovation is less important to the growing medium.
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A big question in any work of art in any medium is how to convey information to the audience. I don’t mean any information. I mean the type of information that if done badly gets called an info dump, the exposition necessary to get everyone on the same page, so we can get on with the action and drama of present events in the story. This information is important for the audience to know. Otherwise, they won’t understand the stakes or motivations of the characters. Yet, these scenes contain an inherent paradox that has to be worked out or worked around. The audience has to know this information to understand the plot and to understand the character’s motivations, yet this information is only interesting to people who are already invested in the tale being told.
There’s a long history of creators working out novel solutions to providing this basic need in fiction. However, fiction that seeks to create a world and use it as a platform for numerous stories has a bit of an additional issue. There is a tendency to overstuff works created within the context of an already existing world with information because any part of it could be useful or necessary later down the line. Video games have largely inherited this problem. The need to create worlds that the player can inhabit rather than a fiction that exists within defined boundaries exacerbates this problem. Lore can permeate a world with interesting, but largely useless information. The solution to this overstuffing of information in video games has frequently been to make learning about it largely optional.
I said in my PopMatters review of 80 Days that the titular 80 days of the bet that inspired this trip around the world in the first place is a macguffin. The real core of the game is the act and art of traveling through the foreign locales. The sights, the people, and the adventures are what matters. They matter far more than making the trip in an arbitrary number of days. Whereas Phileas Fogg is content enough with his cabin and his newspaper, we play as Passepartout, and he is out and about finding information about travel routes, making trades and getting into mischief.
That much I still believe about the game. 80 Days is the artful worldbuilding and allowing the player to explore it that matters. Given that the 80 days may seem like an extraneous challenge for those who have already explored the world, it is nonetheless an important component even to those who wish to experience the title as interactive fiction and not a challenge.
This post contains spoilers for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
There’s a saying when it comes to writing fiction. Never reference a better work in your own writing. You’ll only make the audience wish they were reading that instead. The saying is only half true. In reality, the effect of making a reference to other pieces of fiction is generally an enhancement of the feelings an audience already has towards your work. Making a reference to a better work in one that the audience isn’t liking, will make them wish they were reading that instead. However, making that same reference in a work that the audience is liking, will make them appreciate it as an homage or possibly as a deepening of the thematic message of the original. This goes for movies, poems, songs, and, yes, video games.
Ignoring for the moment that making a direct reference is complicated, it is a substantial risk because it can have the above effect of making the audience wish they were reading/watching/listening/playing the other work right now. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does refer to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other genre fiction, but peppered throughout the game world are a number of side stories that have an unfortunate, detrimental effect. Those short side stories make me wish any one of them were the focus of the game instead of the Carter family.
The first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead earned widespread critical praise, mainstream public appreciation, and a bevy of game of the year awards in 2012. Come two years later, the direct follow up, The Walking Dead Season Two, has received, shall we say, a somewhat more muted reception. Between the first and second seasons, there was a change in The Walking Dead. While there are many obvious changes one could point to—a new playable character, a greater focus on action, etc—the particular change I thought had the most impact was the loss of that certain je ne sais quoi that sunk the first season’s talons deep into our collective psyches. Every other obvious change to the series seemed to have some interesting possibilities to it, whereas the “feel” of the game was off in its second season.
There are quite a few possible explanations for this. The writing team behind the episodes changed significantly between the two seasons. There were three writers that worked on Season One, one of which wrote three of the episodes by himself. Season Two had a total of eight writers, who ended up working in pairs for over half the season. It could be that the narrative opportunities for the game shrank with by changing the protagonist into a young character that couldn’t have the social influence of her older predecessor. Maybe it was the shift in structure from the more episodic, single issue storytelling of the first season to episodes more clearly geared towards advancing a single narrative arc over the course of the season. However, I like to pin the fault on something much more basic. The episodes in Season Two were an hour shorter than their counterparts in Season One.