Never-Ending Story: The Role of Gameplay in Modern Adventure Games

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.

Adventure games have always been able to combine narrative and gameplay in a way that most genres can’t touch, and yet the balance continually tips in favor of storytelling, relegating gameplay to a lower priority where it often acts merely as a means to an end. This results in compelling narrative experiences without satisfying interactive gameplay. For instance, adventure games pioneered the quest format, in which the player seeks out an item to exchange for another item which they use to exchange for another item, and so on, until all of the puzzle is solved. This type of “repetitive exchange” puzzle design can feel tedious when done well, and decades after its first usage it seems now to be downright archaic, but it’s a format that has always served plot advancement. Even still, modern adventure games continue to utilize this and other outdated mechanics in gameplay, even as art design and narrative style have evolved.

One such game is Ripstone’s acclaimed Stick It to the Man. Aesthetically, the game blends the styles of Tim Schafer and LittleBigPlanet, its quirky, unhinged, and light-hearted design carrying over into its story. The game is about a man named Ray who gains the ability to read thoughts while struggling with his own mental issues. Gameplay involves reading the minds of non-playable characters (NPCs) to figure out what they want, and then exploring the world to find the solution to their problems — here it utilizes the aforementioned “repetitive exchange” puzzle design — while avoiding enemies and engaging in basic platforming.

This is a perfect example of how adventure games adeptly fuse gameplay and narrative: the player, as Ray, helps others fulfill their desires while advancing the plot about fulfilling Ray’s desires. However, the lack of uniqueness in the puzzle design betrays the unusual and quirky aesthetics while the repetitive stealth and platforming elements kill the pace and dull the impact of the story. As a game, it remains beholden to traditional gameplay styles even as its charming narrative and art style work magic.

This problem appears in Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War as well. This is a game that has received a lot of positive attention for its gorgeous, early 20th century French-style art, emotional storytelling, and relatively mature, almost non-violent depiction of wartime. It’s clearly a rare gem in that regard, but its repetitive and simple gameplay mechanics are uninspired enough that it drags down the entire experience. In addition to “repetitive exchange” puzzles, there is plenty of key searching and lever pulling, processes (they can scarcely be called “puzzles”) that require almost no thought at all thanks to the small level size and linear exploration.

Granted, unlike Stick It to the Man, Valiant Hearts offers at least some gameplay variance, including driving sections in which the player avoids obstacles and a strange medical minigame in which the player presses buttons in time like a rhythm game. Unfortunately, though, each of these sections is as tedious as the last, and after the player performs them multiple times, each one becomes a chore to get through, amounting almost to mindless busy-work in service of far more interesting narrative and art. In an entirely bland or unremarkable game this would simply be par for the course, but in a game with the exceptional style of Valiant Hearts, it does an incredible disservice to the art itself, and it disappoints on a whole new level.

Story is still king for the genre. Two of the most successful modern adventure games, Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, feature very little in the way of actual “gameplay” as we define it, but that is how they choose to innovate the genre. Player choices and quick time events replace antiquated puzzles and item-finding; exploration is cut down in favor of character development; and climatic events happen in cutscenes rather than gameplay. The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain linearize video game storytelling by taking gameplay freedom away from the player and giving them agency within the narrative instead: pure interactive storytelling. The great success of both games, along with “visual novel” franchises such as Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape, perhaps speaks to the fact that adventure games are a narrative-driven medium more than anything else, but this sends the unfortunate signal that compelling gameplay is best left to other genres.

Gameplay is essential to the video game medium. For otherwise unique games like Stick It to the Man and Valiant Hearts, archaic puzzle mechanics risk dating and diminishing the effect of the whole package. Both titles may manage to transcend their traditionalist approach to puzzle-solving and become truly great games in their own right, but not every game is going to win that battle. As titles like these, The Walking Dead, and Heavy Rain garner mainstream success, the true role of narrative and gameplay in modern video game development is becoming increasingly clear. In some ways, critical and commercial success for these games sends the signal that compelling gameplay isn’t a necessary component of great games. Meanwhile, the industry as a whole has seen a move toward more narrative-based experiences with games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, titles that are certainly interesting and engaging in their own right but also conform to traditional, vanilla gameplay styles, as if games can only offer smart stories or captivating gameplay, not both.

We should not turn our backs on compelling interactivity. Gameplay is not and should not merely be a means to a narrative end; it is the defining component of the video game medium. By all means, we should continue to experiment with the relationship between narrative and gameplay, but we must also remember which one will always define the experience.

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