I started my gaming with the Playstation and Nintendo 64, so I completely missed the “golden age” of adventure games. I have a few memories of laughing at Sam and Max Hit the Road, and I vaguely remember enjoying one of the King’s Quest games, but that’s about it. Until recently. I was happy to find Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis as an unlockable bonus in the newest Indy game, and I bought the updated Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars after hearing such good things about. After playing both, I am now unabashedly in love with the genre. As I look back at my time with both games, I realized that these old games represent the eventual result of certain modern trends in gaming.
A Focus on Memorable Stories and Characters
As games have become more cinematic, more emphasis has been placed on story and characters. Every game wants to tell a good story now, and often the story for a AAA game is hyped up just as much as the graphics or controls. This focus on story and characters is a staple of all the old adventure games. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is remembered because it captures the fun peril of the movies, and many titles from LucasArts are loved for their humor and characters.
Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is no exception. Some of the most memorable moments come from interacting with other characters. From the snooty sounding British woman who’s only too willing to stick it to “The Man,” to the Middle Eastern boy whose wealth of knowledge comes from memorizing Trivial Pursuit cards, to the American tourist who thinks he’s a spy, everyone we can talk to has a distinct personality. These are not nameless townsfolk who only have a couple sentences worth of dialogue; we can carry on a full and unique conversation with each person we come across. As for the story, it starts off as a murder mystery and slowly grows into a global conspiracy. The ever-growing scope means there are always new twists being introduced, and the mystery plot, with its focus on discovering leads and solving puzzles, makes for an addicting game. Which leads into my next point.
The Games are Driven by Story Not Action
Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, the founders of BioWare, had a recent interview with gameindustry.biz in which they said, “We talk a certain amount internally about whether you need to have combat as part of the experience…Certainly the core gaming experience, folks that are used to playing games over the last ten years, they want to have those battle moments, and the fighting. But there are different audiences that would maybe just enjoy the story.” Combat is the chief method of interaction in games: These “battle moments,” these short action sequences that test our skill, are strung together one after another until there are enough to keep a player busy for 8-12 hours. This makes for a compelling game since there’s always a new obstacle to overcome, but it’s not very conducive to storytelling, and to hear Greg and Ray talk of it, it sounds like there’s never been an alternative.
Adventure games, almost universally, are driven by story and not “battle moments.” Many adventure games do have combat, but these moments are not the focus of the game. It could be argued that this genre is driven by puzzles instead of story, but players usually get frustrated if the puzzles don’t make sense within the context of the game. The best adventure games integrate their puzzles naturally into the story.
In Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, the story is already tailor-made for some abstract puzzles. As a simple mystery the story works well with the gameplay, tracking down leads and asking the right questions to the right people, but it works better as a grand mystery since unraveling a centuries old secret often requires solving some ancient puzzle. The puzzles in Broken Sword compliment the story as each solution revels more of the plot, which leads to another puzzle, and so on. As the player finds clues he’s driven to continue playing, to unravel just a little bit more. The story compels us forwards, and the puzzles add challenge and interactivity to what would otherwise be a movie or novel.
As games focus more on story, death becomes an impediment to the experience because when the player dies there’s no more story to tell. But when the latest Prince of Persia removed death completely, it was derided by many as being too easy and too short. From that controversy it would seem like gamers still want the possibility of failure. But Prince of Persia was driven by those same old “battle moments.” Sometimes we were battling an enemy, other times the environment, but we were always fighting against some skill-based challenge the game threw at us. By removing death, the possibility of failure, from a game driven by this competition, success became inevitable and therefore worthless.
On the other hand, the removal of death in Broken Sword is hardly noticeable. It was only when I was about 10 hours in, and the main character was being held at gunpoint, did I realize I had not yet died in the game. Not only had I not died, but I had never even been in situation where death was possible. Because the game was driven by story and not combat, death would only interfere with the pacing, so it became unnecessary.
Lack of death is, unfortunately, not part of all adventure games, but when the player is allowed to die in such a game it only proves how disruptive death is to the overall experience. I died quite a few times in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis whenever I was forced to fight guards. Since death wasn’t possible for much of a game, I took a laissez-faire approach to saving, so when death was unexpectedly introduced I ended up having to replay large portions of the game again. It’s always frustrating when a game teaches us to play one way, and then punishes us for playing that way. It’s telling that death was only possible during these moments of combat. Whenever a game resorts to challenges of skill, death/failure must be possible even if it impedes the story. So in a game like the Fate of Atlantis, and other adventure games, and any story driven game, it’s better when those moments are simply removed altogether.
It’s fitting that the adventure genre has seen a recent resurgence. From the popularity of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games, to Telltale Games’ episodic adventures, to the release of the updated The Secret of Monkey Island, to the re-release of many old LucasArts adventure games on Steam, it’s clear that this genre is far from dead. Their user interfaces may be antiquated, their graphics may be terrible, but since these games are driven by their puzzles and stories, they become timeless in a way no shooter can ever be.