Epic vs. Episodic Adventure Games

by Nick Dinicola

5 November 2010

Do point-and-click adventure games work better as episodic stories or as a single epic story?

Certain genres are better suited for an episodic structure than others, and with the success of all of Telltale’s games, it would seem that the adventure genre is well suited for that kind of small scale story. Yet after playing through the last episode of Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, the downsides of this structure became obvious. It would then seem like the epic nature of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition is preferable, but it too falls victim to the same problems that plague all story-driven puzzle games.

In Monkey Island 2, I was often confused as to what to do. The game takes place in a kind of open world. Once you get a boat, you’re free to travel between three islands and explore them in any order. This means that there are multiple puzzles going on at the same time, which lead to you collecting many important items all at once and your inventory quickly becomes cluttered. This wouldn’t be so bad if you eventually used each item, but you’ll collect several joke items with no purpose as well, and this large quantity of things makes it difficult to separate the important items from the jokes.

With the episodic structure of the Sam and Max games, the number of items has to be edited down to only what’s necessary. This makes the solutions clearer, since it’s easier to see how each piece fits together. This also means that the puzzles themselves are easier in general but not because they’re less mentally taxing. They’re easier only because the instructions are clearer—at least theoretically.

The downside to these smaller scale puzzles is that a frustrating puzzle in a confined space is worse than a frustrating puzzle in an open space because it feels like we exhaust all our possible options at a much faster rate. Without a variety of places to explore, we just spend hours staring at the same screen hoping to see something new.

It’s difficult to make a satisfying single-screen adventure game puzzle, and while Telltale has succeeded in most of its attempts, the final episode of Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse shows off the potential pitfalls of doing so. One scene has Sam in a storage room that transforms him into various objects when he touches things. When he turned into a cactus, I naturally tried to touch the balloons; when he turned into a Roomba, I naturally tried to run into things. It just so happens that running into a shelf knocks over an item. Since this is an episodic game, I know that every item is important, so I know that I’ve just solved a puzzle, but the solution isn’t satisfying because I arrived at it through dumb luck, literally running into it without thinking.

This sort of lucky solution is far less likely in an epic game like Monkey Island 2, though only because the world is so big. The closest thing to an accidental solution that I have had when playing was when I jokingly thought to use a monkey as a wrench (get it, monkey wrench?), and it worked. The puzzle wasn’t solved by accident, and I didn’t use every item that I had with every object onscreen. It was a logical conclusion to a puzzle based on cartoon-logic. However, this was only after an hour of frustrated wandering and wondering what tiny clue I had missed.

Personally, I think that the episodic structure works best for adventure game. Most epic adventure games are really just a series of smaller episodes stuck back to back. For example, both Monkey Island: Special Edition games are split into chapters. The problem is that most of the time these chapters aren’t that small, instead they’re stretched out, filled with distractions and non sequiturs that add humor and pad the length. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but such fluff is unnecessary if your only goal is to make a game feel epic. It’s not really the size of the world that creates an impressive sense of scope but rather the visual variety of the world and how often the game is broken into chapters.

They Stole Max’s Brain!, the third episode of this season of Sam and Max, managed to feel like a truly grand adventure because it was broken up into several smaller sections, as opposed to just a couple large sections, and the game changed drastically each time. You begin by interrogating several suspects about Max’s missing brain, and this section is driven purely by conversation trees. You then find yourself in a museum and are faced with more traditional puzzles. Finally, you’re transported to an alternate dimension where you must collect special pins to get a meeting with the new ruler of the world. In terms of size, it’s still a small game, but the constant introduction of new twists makes it feel much bigger.

Or perhaps I’m just spoiled by the “quick fix” nature of Telltale’s episodic games, and the long form structure of classic adventure games is too demanding for my generation of gamers. I would like to think that’s not the case, since I’m excited to play more of the Broken Sword and Gabriel Knight games, and the Monkey Island: Special Edition games were quite popular back in the day. On the other hand, I can’t imagine playing Monkey Island without a hint system. I would never get through the first chapter.


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