I was recently musing on different types of adventure games, and maybe my insights can benefit somebody else, so I wrote them down.
Adventure games are a genre of puzzle games. As a player, you type or click your way through a series of puzzles and choices. The story drives these games, as opposed to games that are mostly about action.
The earliest of these adventure games were text-based. They started with a game called Adventure. The most famous of these types of games, though, is Zork. In these text based games, you input a command (in text) and the game responds with what happens:
> go north
North of House
You are facing the north side of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are barred.From Zork
From there, the games started to evolve. Instead of a description only, simple images were added. That’s where Ken and Roberta Williams came in, who created a game called Mystery House in 1980. Their game was a huge success, leading to their famous King’s Quest games.
Their company Sierra Online becoming a staple of adventure gaming. The other elephant in this particular room is Lucasarts, with games like Monkey Island.
With the broad adoption of the mouse and graphical user interfaces, the games with a text interface made way for those controlled with a mouse. First, you could move with the mouse but still had to type commands. Later, games became mouse only. And so the point-and-click adventure game was born.
That led to games like Myst and the 7th Guest, that focus more on puzzles and graphics than clicking. They were popular enough to drive the CD-rom to the mainstream.
And from there, things evolved to the modern day, with adventure games like The Walking Dead, which is neither a puzzle or point-and-click game, but still an adventure game. In these types of games, you don’t need a mouse, and the puzzle-solving has been replaced by a branching narrative. The final forms of that type of game are probably the blockbusters like Detroit: Become Human, which are about as far as you can get from the original Adventure game.
Shades of adventure
So, I was thinking about these games. If you follow this blog, you’ll have noticed I love point and click adventure games. But I don’t love all of them equally. I’m not a fan of Myst, or the 7th Guest. I am a fan of The Walking Dead, but not as much as a game like Gabriel Knight.
Thinking about that, the difference between those games seems to be the way they handle puzzles. At one end of the spectrum are games like Myst. Puzzles are separate from the story. You go from place to place, and the puzzles help you advance, and that in turn triggers the unfolding of the story. Point-and-click adventures from Sierra and Lucasarts have puzzles that are more integrated with the story. You solve logical puzzles that double as plot advancement and plot branches. And finally there are games like the Walking Dead, where the puzzles are on the back burner, and you simply steer the narrative with choices.
So, you can distribute adventure games along a spectrum of ‘puzzle-story integration’. And I am not a fan of the separate-puzzle end of that spectrum, where games like Myst house. For me the narrative side of a video game is the most important. Which is also why I love a RPG video game like Horizon: Zero Dawn more than Skyrim.
And that’s part of the point of this post: I hope that if you think about this yourself, you’ll also find why you like certain video games and not others.
A note on tradeoffs
This use of puzzles in video games is not just an aesthetic choice. It’s also a trade-off in game design. From the previous section, you’d think that I’d like games like the Walking Dead the best, because those are most purely about a story. However, that isn’t true. Because I’m not necessarily a fan of branching narratives.
You see, the problem with branching narratives, is that branching breaks foreshadowing and character arcs. A story is a like a pyramid formed by plot points and characterization. The climax of the story is the top of that pyramid. If you branch the story, you’re basically trying to change the structure of the pyramid.
At worst, this can make the entire pyramid come crashing down. That’s my personal take on one of the reasons the Mass Effect 3’s ending drew so much ire.
At best, the pyramid will be a bit weirdly shaped, if you don’t change the central narrative, but only minor subplots, or some of the trappings of the story. Games like the Walking Dead do this: the central narrative is always the same, and ‘impactful’ choices really only affect side characters and subplots. I feel that actually detracts from the experience.
Games like Myst have a different solution. They just have a fixed story that you unlock by solving puzzles. It works, but the puzzles take you out of the story, and become a distraction.
Point-and-click adventure use a yet different approach. They integrate the puzzles into the trappings of the story. The narrative doesn’t change much. Instead, the structure of the pyramid is formed by puzzles. Which, in my opinion, is the superior solution.
But, branching point-and-click adventures?
Yes, point-and-click adventures also use branching endings. I’m not convinced that actually makes them better. As evidence, see all the internet guides about achieving ‘the best’ ending, suggesting we all know that there is but one way those stories should end. One well-built ending serves games better than five endings where four are inferior to the fifth.
That said, a game is not a movie. That’s why there is a trade-off. The more you steer away from puzzles, the more the game will become a movie. If you take the branching narrative out of a game like the Walking Dead, it will just be a cartoon.
Still, I feel the point-and-click adventure approach works best, for the reasons I’ve outlined. And those games already have puzzles, which is why I think they are best served by not including branching stories. But, that’s just my personal opinion. Artists can and should follow their own instincts and opinions.
In short, there are shades of adventure games, ranging from puzzle-based to story-branching-based. They all have their pros and cons, but I personally think the point-and-click strikes the best balance between puzzle and story.
But, as with all taste, your mileage may vary.