Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Adventure puzzlers are terrible games

Goomba may be a cynical asshole

Adventure puzzlers are terrible games, yes even Monkey Island and the other nostalgia tinted Lucas Arts classics. I posit that everything positive about these games is an outcome of them trying to provide value despite the gaping sinkhole that is their core gameplay.

I recently played and reviewed Antichamber (here), the game has rave reviews. I then played The Room for Android, the game is the 15th highest selling paid game in the play store right now. The Monkey Island guy raised 3.5 mil on Kickstarter from 85k people to make another one of these things. And yet the games are still crap.

I am not so vain as to say that everyone else is a fool and only I can see that these games are over processed mush being dripped into the mouths of comatose consumers. These games do a lot of great things. Monkey Island is funny, charming, and with its humility feels very personal. The Room is a very tightly built game with minimal mechanics, minimal settings, minimal story yet evocative of mystery. Antichamber makes surrealism accessible with minimal fluff, squeezing great atmosphere and philosophy out of a limited context.

Yet everything that is good is done despite a weak core and maybe because of it. The cohesive moods and tight settings that add value to these games are there because actually playing them is a disorganized mess. In an adventure game the player has to be taken into new directions. This means that the puzzles have to change but there is no way to properly frame the puzzles in terms of mechanics. In Monkey Island there is no way for the player to know what can be combined to make the needed item so everything that can be clicked together has to be clicked together. In the Room there is no way to know when your action has changed the entire puzzle and so you have to look at every angle of the object yet again. And in Antichamber there is no way to know if the puzzle you are working with is a dead end or it has be looked at backwards, sideways, or slowly - thus devolving the game play into an equivalent click fest where everything has to be stared at in every possible way. Trying all permutations of available game choices without a way to prune the possibility set is not fun or engaging; finding the solution is not satisfying; and it does not empower the player. Mind you, these games are the best case scenario with disciplined designers who mostly avoid sprawl and self-indulgent introduction of 'clever' mechanics - I am looking at you Room with your random one time use of my phone's gyroscope.

The Room has tried to combat this frustration by staying very consistent in it's mechanics and by limiting the choice set dramatically so permutations that need to be executed are few. But as a result the puzzles are no longer compelling. The Mechanics are restricted to look at things through your alternate vision lens, finding an item, and finding a place where that item you just found fits. Repeat. I don't feel clever when I solve this.

Similarly in the Antichamber the trick is picking out what variable i need to manipulate and then the solution is trivial. It feels a little bit like the Man vs. Beast show where the key thing determining the outcome is whether the beast realizes that it's competing. Beating the puzzles in Antichamber feels as gratifying to me as I am sure it feels for a zebra to beat a human runner in a race. The task is trivial once I figured what the hell I'm supposed to do.

Overall, I think these games are an evolutionary dead end. The goal is to get the player to work through the setting, story, mood, whatever. And the way to compel the player  is with rudimentary and arbitrary challenges. It is a tempting design idea to make the feel of an interactive experience takes center stage but if the game play is a net negative to the experience it shouldn't be a game.

Go see a Magritte exhibition, read H.G Wells, watch Amélie, don't play this rubbish.

Decalcomania by Magritte, 1966

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