Looking at the state of adventure games today, there seem to be three identifiable types: those that adhere to the traditional 2D point-and-click interface (Syberia, Gray Matter), those that embrace movement on a 3D plane (Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain), and those that do both, allowing you free movement in a 3D world while keeping the 2D interface (most of Telltale’s games). It’s interesting to see how each deals with the problems of a 3D world. One group avoids it altogether, another embraces it, and another tries to find a happy medium. And make no mistake, a 3D world is very problematic for a point-and-click adventure.
Nowhere is this more evident than when a traditionally 2D series tries to make the leap to 3D. I recently played and finished Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror and thought that it was an exceptionally intuitive and streamlined adventure game. When I started Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon, which made the leap to 3D, I was impressed by the new visuals but all the intuitiveness and streamlined design were gone. The series took a giant step back just as it took a giant step forward.
Broken Sword 2 has the most elegant interface of any adventure game that I’ve played. The interface is presented in a widescreen format complete with black bars brodering the top and bottom of the screen, giving it a naturally cinematic look, but those black bars also hide an interface that would otherwise clutter the screen. The screen as it first appears is devoid of any interface. There’s no command or item list, not even an options menu, just the mouse cursor. The rest of the UI is hidden within those black bars that frame the screen. Moving the cursor over the top bar reveals options like Load, Save, and Quit, while moving over the bottom bar reveals the items that you’re currently carrying. By keeping these icons hidden, the player is better able to focus on the game itself and appreciate its detailed art and animation.
Overall, the game is structured as a series of small puzzles that are linked together. Each new screen is a puzzle that must be solved before you can progress. While there’s something to be said for the openness of a game like Monkey Island 2, which makes you travel to all three islands before you can solve any of the major puzzles, I personally prefer the episodic nature of Broken Sword 2 because it’s that episodic structure that allows such a minimalist interface to exist. Your inventory is inherently limited because the bottom bar can only hold so many icons, and by making the puzzles episodic, the game forces you to use most items that you pick up right away, keeping the inventory free of useless junk.
All of this changes in Broken Sword 3. Before that game, the developers were working with years of genre iteration behind them, but now they’re working at the forefront of something new and stumbling into the same problems that plagued early adventure games: ease of use.
The most significant result of the change from 2D to 3D is that the mouse is no longer your central means of control. The keyboard is. Since point-and-click adventures are essentially one button games due in large part to the mouse cursor that can be pointed anywhere, switching over to a less adaptable controller makes everything more cumbersome. Suddenly the Broken Sword series is fumbling with the same problem as its predecessors. How do you create a control scheme versatile enough to allow players to perform all sorts of actions, rather than just one action repeated over and over again?
In Broken Sword 3 the inventory appears on separate screen, thereby requiring a button to bring it up. Also unlike the second game, you can’t see your full inventory all at once. Instead, you get a small window that only highlights a few items at a time. You have to cycle through this list of icons to see everything that you have, necessitating even more button presses just to use an item. Possible actions that you can take at any given time are attributed to the arrow keys (at least I had mine set up that way, it’s either that or W,A,S,D, which I used for movement instead), but this seems entirely unnecessary given that previous games didn’t need four action buttons, just one: the left mouse button. This is effectively a return to the old command menu, though now in icon form rather than in text.
Exploration is also considerably slowed, though here the 3D has a big, positive impact. You have to walk your character around the 3D environment to find interactive items, thus preventing you from exploring a new room from a single position by just clicking “Look At” everything. Walking around the environment helps to create a sense of place, and investigating a murder scene feels more like an actual investigation instead of mundane pixel hunting.
When you’re walking around, if there’s an interactive item nearby, then your character’s head turns to face it. The item is automatically targeted, so pressing any action button will instigate an interaction, but if two such items are close together, the game only targets one. There’s another set of buttons dedicated to scrolling through these environmental items, meaning that there are three sets of buttons overall: a set for movement/inventory scrolling, a set for actions, and a set for environmental items. With a 3D environment there’s also the issue of camera placement. Where should it be positioned? Should it be tilted? At what angle? Should it pan?
With the fourth Broken Sword game being very hard to find (and nigh impossible to run if Steam forums are to be believed), one has to look elsewhere to see how adventure games have further adapted to 3D. Quantic Dream solves the issues of inventory by removing inventory altogether and streamlines exploration by attributing environmental items to swipes of the control stick rather than buttons, thus lessening the need for buttons. Telltale Games solves all of these issues by overlaying a 2D point-and-click interface on top of a 3D world, which works quite well.
I find it interesting that Telltale is now moving towards a more Quantic Dream-style interface with the upcoming Jurassic Park game. I’m curious if they’ll try to refine it by adding their own twist to that interface, just as Quantic Dream refined it from Indigo Prophecy to Heavy Rain. But as much as I like the interface from Heavy Rain, the fact that there wasn’t any inventory at all feels like a cheap workaround rather than an elegant solution. No developer has been able to come up with an interface as versatile as point-and-click for a 3D world, but as adventure games become more popular (and they will because they have so many elements that modern games strive for), it will be fascinating to see how other developers like Rockstar tackle these problems. Because L.A. Noire will certainly have more in common with Broken Sword than a Grand Theft Auto game.