If Not Puzzles… What?
Hidden object hybrids have come largely from the other direction, with purely casual games gradually adding more and more adventure elements from their Where's Waldo?-style origins, but the end result is the same and it's become enormously popular. Scattering around random seek-and-find minigames helps to break up the relentless slog through puzzle after puzzle with a bit of breezier gameplay. There's still a fair bit of traffic on these figurative roads, but at least there are stretches where you can hit the gas and make some tracks in between. Who didn't play I-Spy on long car trips growing up?
It's surprising that we haven't seen more RPG elements blended into adventures, though Lori and Corey Cole are revisiting their own Quest for Glory idea once again in the upcoming Hero-U. The odd other game, like the very odd Carte Blanche, has lightly incorporated some stat-building along the way, but roleplaying remains a huge untapped resource. It doesn't need to involve combat, either. It'd be so easy to offer alternate solutions based on... say, your detection, charisma, or mechanical skills established to that point (with or without the player's awareness). Unique abilities for multi-character parties represent another common RPG trait. We've already seen this in adventures, dating at least as far back as Maniac Mansion and as recently as games like Resonance and Botanicula, but in general it's still under-utilized. It doesn't fundamentally change the nature of the gameplay, but it does introduce a whole different layer of strategy to accomplish common goals. That at least feels different, especially when multiple characters use their individual abilities in tandem.
Then there's the oft-dreaded "action" element. I'm not talking about full-fledged action-adventures like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, which are heavy on combat and/or platforming but relatively light on puzzles. I'm referring to more and more adventures incorporating some form of action, whether it's shootouts in Gemini Rue, fisticuffs in Indigo Prophecy or road rage in L.A. Noire. These aren't really "new" developments at all, mind you. There were gunfights, punch-ups, and car chases in Blade Runner, The Last Express and Police Quest long ago, so for all the hue and cry about modern adventures abandoning their traditional roots, in a way this is just the genre coming full circle. Though it's often done poorly, there's an established place for discretionary action in any adventure, particularly when it's optional.
Survival horrors have always been the close cousins of adventure games, but a little too much peril generally separates the likes of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark (the most recent installments, at least) from their more puzzle-oriented relatives. Then Frictional Games came along and turned that notion on its head. While Resident Evil and Dead Space become more and more shooter-based, indie horror titles such as Penumbra and Amnesia have sparked a whole new interest in psychological terror rather than in-your-face foes overcome with axes, swords, and bullets. They may involve the odd mad dash for safety, and the threat of danger is ever-present, but it's your wits (and courage) that ensure your survival, not your arsenal. This appeals to a whole new legion of fear-mongers who simply aren't frightened by risk-free horrors like Dark Fall and Scratches.
The other popular genre hybrid gaining serious traction these days is the puzzle-platformer. Back when we first started our Puzzling (mis)adventures feature, they were still few and far between, but now the landscape is dotted with them. Even Nintendo's quintessential platform stars, Mario and Donkey Kong, have their own shared puzzle series (and an excellent one, at that). Sometimes the platforming provides a serious challenge, like in Snapshot and Quantum Conundrum, which demand fine timing and death-defying acrobatics to succeed, while in other games it serves mainly as an environmental backdrop for the puzzles. There's not a single tricky jump in Ron Gilbert's The Cave, making it a "platformer" only in the most rudimentary sense, and an adventure game in every other. For many, the more tactile nature of such experiences makes puzzle-solving actually feel FUN.
Another hands-on trend coming into prominence is the reliance on Quick Time Events. Again, these have been around since the days of Dragon's Lair, so the concept itself is well established. But with games like Heavy Rain leading the way, QTEs have become an accepted means of inserting brief moments of tension into an otherwise leisurely experience without demanding too much dexterity or skill from the player. There's so little personal investment required that they get old fast when overused, as they did in Jurassic Park, so this is a complementary option at best, but QTEs can certainly serve a purpose when used in moderation.
Along the same lines – and not coincidentally championed by the same games – are context-sensitive motion controls to simulate real-life experience. It's easier (and more commonplace) to do with cross-platform adventures that use gamepads, but even some point-and-click adventures now involve a degree of button-mashing or directional gesturing. For all its abundant promise, the Nintendo Wii proved disappointing in this regard, but the DS smartly introduced activities like blowing into the microphone for a more tangible experience. There's a fine line between increased player involvement and tedium, but when used judiciously, motion control adds a welcome level of interaction.
Crucial dialogue choices are coming back into vogue as well. Many games over the years have offered interactive exchanges – insult swordfighting arguably remains the crowning achievement of ingenious wordplay – but all too often even branching topic trees have been largely cosmetic. Lately, however, more adventures have looked to dialogue as an essential puzzle component in its own right, like tripping up witnesses on the stand in Phoenix Wright by identifying faulty testimony. Others use it merely as a test of observation, like the quizzes that punctuate key moments of Hotel Dusk. Like any other puzzle type, these are black-and-white challenges (some far more forgiving than others), but it's a positive step towards full integration of puzzle and story that too many games lack. Conversation doesn't have to be something you merely click through or watch.
Nor does it need to be a puzzle to be effective. You could make important dialogue decisions way back in Tex Murphy's heyday, even to the point of influencing the final outcome, but that feature was so far ahead of the curve that the genre as a whole still hasn't caught up. Fortunately, there are promising signs that at last it's nearly arrived. Whether making split-second, life-or-death decisions or simply weighing difficult moral choices, The Walking Dead makes you agonize over each and every choice you make, intensely, personally. Regardless of whether it matters in the grand scheme of things, it matters to you because they're yours. After struggling through your own internal quandary to reach a decision, you then own it, consequences be damned. Even when there is no right and wrong, simply involving the player emotionally makes this well-worn gameplay mechanic feel entirely new and relevant again. We need much, much more of that.Continued on the next page...
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
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