Challenge and Abstract Narrative in Adventure Games

The common refrain is that video games are played for their challenge. For a long time feeling the sense of accomplishment from beating a game is why many players would say that they played video games and that creating a challenge for the player is a game’s purpose. This is, of course, not true, and challenge should only be included when it is useful for the game’s own goals and what experience that it wishes to craft. Adventure games, for example, don’t test the reflexes or a player’s management skills, as other genres that might typically be seen as challenging do. What is challenge in an adventure game?

Typically, it is arriving at that “aha” moment. Reaching that moment requires the act of applying non-traditional keys to non-traditional doors. It may be attempting to apply an item to the environment or trying to give another character an item and receiving something in return. The challenge is in solving logic puzzles, most of which come in the form of environmental riddles. Traditionally, the problem with this approach to challenge has been in trying to balance these puzzles, both in terms of making them difficult enough to deliver that “aha” moment and also in not creating puzzles that are absurd enough to stall the player or make the player quit the game entirely.

However, the real problem with the bad puzzles of old adventure games is that they try to serve two masters: that of challenge and that of story. Any puzzle in these games must remain fair to the player and internally consistent in the context of the game. Sooner or later one or the other of these “rules” must bend for the sake of the other, breaking the experience. Either the designers twist the logic to accommodate the story, or the better puzzles in a game seem arbitrarily added to the experience, making no narrative sense and failing to lead to any true sense of narrative progression.

I mentioned this idea in my last blog post. The Charnel House Trilogy works by making its puzzles super simple and giving clear directions in order to create a different kind of experience than is usually found in an adventure game. It rids itself of one master in order to devote itself to properly to serving the other, preferring narrative progress to complex puzzles. However, adventure games are often mainly played for sake of a story. It is the traditional thinking about games more generally that keeps the need for challenge around. Can adventure games sacrifice the master of story to devote themselves to the master of challenge?

It’s an unfair question. In my last post, I made sure to use the phrase “plot based” with regards to narrative construction. Stories where the plot is the structural bedrock on which a game rests are fundamentally opposed to challenge, as challenge can break the experience that those games are trying to create. But a work doesn’t need a plot-based narrative in order to tell a story. In fact, the more abstract that a narrative is, the more challenge can be fit into it and can instead more richly inform the thematic content. I’m thinking of Antichamber and Year Walk, specifically, as examples.

Year Walk features a nominal plot in so much as there is a sequence of events that occur during the course of the game. But if you boil the broad strokes of the plot down to the points that need to happen to maintain structural cohesion, the plot amounts to something like: meet love interest, learn love interest is marrying someone else, go on year walk, complete year walk, read diary from the future, open strange wooden box. The actual events of the year walk itself are immaterial to the plot, but they have everything to do with the atmosphere and thematic resonance of the game. It’s in this space where a majority of the player action takes place.

The player is dealing with the various spirits and woodland monsters of Scandinavian lore, figuring out what each of them wants, and then overcoming the roadblocks that each of them put in the player’s way. Here, esoteric logic makes sense in the narrative, but also the challenge of the spirits’ puzzles fails to hinder any story beats that the game wishes to hit. There is an ending, but much of the meaning and understanding of what the Year Walk experience is about can be gleaned by simply existing in the game’s world.

In the even more abstract realm exists Antichamber. Here, the player is dropped into a maze of non-Euclidean geometry. Gated paths are made of white walls, colored blocks, and passages that warp reality. The maze of Antichamber is not a real place, and it is not meant to represent a real place. It is a thought experiment given form and so whatever challenge came into designer Alexander Bruce’s mind, he could alter the world to fit it in, so long as it obeyed the few basic laws of reality that the game establishes.

The world in Antichamber is abstract, and the story matches that abstraction. Around the game’s maze are plaques on a wall that show a simple linear image of an event in a life, not anyone’s life in particular, just broadly, a life. When clicked, that image changes into a small aphorism that imparts some truth about life: “If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, try doing something else,” “How we perceive a problem can change every time we see it,” or “Failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress.” These are clues regarding the puzzle that they are close to. The player then connects the type of challenge of the puzzle to a similar event that matches the plaque. The connection allows the player to see a new path through the puzzles or to gain a different perspective on some event in their own life.

This abstraction works in the game’s favor. It means that there can be no puzzles that are left disconnected and at odds with the progression of the narrative because there is no narrative being stalled. Sure, there is content (including one hell of a spectacular ending sequence) that might never be seen if a puzzle gets in the way of progress, but the main thrust of the story, the idea that the game is imparting, lies in the puzzles themselves. Each one is an event and a message in and of itself.

Gamers have a particular way of looking at adventure games and have certain preconceived notions of what they need to be to be viable as games. They also have notions about what these games ultimately are and sometimes write them off as not being worthwhile. No one likes moon logic and losing the beat of an otherwise great story because of the demands of puzzles and challenge. Yet, games that don’t fit the narrow definition of adventure games, a definition that too often facilitates an environment doomed to create broken experiences, are likewise dismissed as being either “not games” or “not adventure games,” depending on which side of the line one stands on.

It’s believing in the rather specific needs of the genre that holds the genre back from growth and holds players back from enjoying these kinds of game. As the protagonist does in Year Walk, we need to reach a moment of self reflection and kill off these notions of how things should be, and as in Antichamber, we need to gain a new perspective that opens a new reality to us all.