Adventure Games As Theater and ‘the Charnel House Trilogy’

In the second and third parts of The Charnel House Trilogy, the screen effectively gets black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. The effect conforms the field of view to match that of the train car by highlighting the length of the place and it’s enclosed nature. In doing so, the game creates a portal by which we look at the action through, highlighting how everything is framed as a performance to whomever is looking through that portal. Which is true of any game, really.

While playing through The Charnel House Trilogy, I noted that the framed view made the setting looking kind of like a stage. The character blocking while moving around a room in these sections was similar to theater blocking in how to present the various characters in relation to one another. When viewed though a theater lens I see The Charnel House Trilogy doing something really interesting. It’s casting the player as an actor in a performance where the script is uncovered as performed. In doing so, it’s throwing off an older design paradigm and creating a better work for it.

Among adventure games fans there is a conservatism in thinking that puzzles in point-and-click games are supposed to be challenging. This isn’t a new conservatism in the genre born of nostalgia or a calcification over time. It’s always been there, as early as the 1980s when text adventure game maker Infocom tried out a puzzleless adventure game, A Mind Forever Voyaging, only to see it condescended to and ignored. The thinking goes: the puzzles are the thing being engaged with, therefore they must be the reason to play the game.

Recently at the GDC conference, Brian Moriarty gave a postmortum on his classic adventure game Loom. During the talk he brought up Mike Dornbrook, head of marketing at Infocom back in the day. He was the keeper of the Infocom mailing list. Often he would conduct surveys using said mailing list. On these surveys he would include two questions: “What are your favorite Infocom games?” and “Which Infocom games have you actually completed?” There turned out to be a strong coloration between the answers of those two questions. People’s favorite games tend to be those they actually completed. Thus the games people said were their favorites the most tended to be easy games aimed at children and beginners. The direct opposite in conventional thinking then as it is now.

Moriarty brought the point back to Loom by showing a passage of text in Loom‘s manual. “Most important of all, Loom is designed to be completed, not played halfway through and then thrown on a shelf and forgotten.” That is the truth. Most adventure games, including those that are the most beloved of their era, were not completed by most people who played them. There are extensive analytics nowadays that show most games period are not completed. I can only imagine it is worse for adventure games.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Reasons that were so common in design that some of them have their own nicknames: pixel hunting, moon logic and mazes. Many additions to adventure games recently have been efforts to mitigate or remove these problems. Buttons to highlight interactive areas to solve pixel hunting, narrative centric puzzles to mitigate moon logic and outright deleting mazes from the design vocabulary. Yet, underneath all of this, the base problem remains.

Adventure games were made to hit an arbitrary number of hours to be worth their cost in the eyes of their players. It was an expectation that was directly the cause of all the worst excesses of those old games. Why was the solution to a puzzles placed and the other side of the game world? To lengthen the game by making you find it and trek all the way back. Why was an item so hard to find? To lengthen the game by making you click on every single part of the screen. Why were the puzzles so difficult to figure out? To lengthen the game.

In this mode of thinking, challenge is the goal, the ideal for the adventure game to strive towards. The focus then becomes a balancing act between extremes. Make the puzzles too easy and the players complain. Make the puzzles too hard, stymie the players and then they complain. Every designer of that era was looking for that sliver of middle ground that doesn’t really exist because every person is different and sees difficulty differently.

Times have changed and the expectations of what an adventure game needs to provide the player have changed along with them. While the strain of conservatism still runs through the niche fanbase of the genre, there is still a greater degree of freedom. Slowly we are moving away from the design ethos that puzzles are there to only provide a challenge for the player. For many, as Dornbrook’s surveys attested to, they played these games for the story. In these cases, the puzzles merely got in the way, often acting as arbitrary roadblocks instead of being a part of the holistic experience. Presently, the most popular and best selling adventure games are in the Telltale style. A style that over time has been excising puzzles entirely. Instead, the games focus more and more on narrative choice and have radically altered the structure of the adventure game in the process.

Structurally, The Charnel House Trilogy is doing nothing different from a standard point-and-click adventure game. The player talks to NPCs, collects items and solves puzzles by applying those items to various features of the environment to progress. That progression from plot point to plot point, though, is strictly linear. The player wont be working on multiple different puzzle threads at once. This focuses the game on its story rather than figuring out what roadblock can be overcome. In addition, the game doesn’t use blind exploration as a necessity to continue. The game always telegraphs the next step in the sequence. A character will tell you where to go through dialogue, a door will be open that wasn’t before or the narrative beat will flow right into the next story node.

As the player, we may not know what lies before us in the script, but, like any script, there are stage directions. We are both an actor going through a set of motions and audience watching the story play out before us. If you think about it, this is really true of any adventure game. Except instead of being incidental, here it is the central design focus. We, as players, may not be walking around a train and opening up compartment doors, yet we still are granted the feeling of being in this place as our character does so through sense of presence. Instead of challenge, the game uses the puzzles so that we may further mirror our characters and step into their shoes by acting out the motions in the unseen script. In this design ethos, the player cannot be stymied by logic or frustrated by cluelessness. The player will have the tools they need to continue and a rather obvious way to apply them.

Critics often talk about the concept of flow in video games in the realm of actions being taken by the player. That state of mind that is achieved in action games when the player’s ability coincides with the difficulty in such a way they are able to act uninterrupted by outside forces in the game. It’s that narrow band between boredom and anxiety. The same principle holds true for narrative. A narrative that flows from one plot point to the next works better than one that gets interrupted, in this case, by a character (and player) that cannot move forward.

For whatever else I can say about The Charnel House Trilogy‘s story, it flows. The presentation that allows it to do so is something that is desperately needed in point-and-click adventure games. Even those I have really loved in the past few years have been hampered by the need to submit themselves to the older design ethos of challenge interrupting narrative. Adventure games have to choose between a plot based narrative and a challenge based puzzle ethos. Trying both at once has proven, time and again, to be a broken concept. Those older adventure games that we remember are those that managed to work around the problem, instead of removing it altogether. They remained lesser versions of themselves as they try to please two masters. We would do better to view adventure games of The Charnel House Trilogy‘s type as theater and not a series of logic problems.