Adventure Notes – Broken Sword and Broken Rules

Adventure Notes - Myst

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

My current fascination with classic adventure games began last summer with Revolution’s Beneath a Steel Sky. I’ve played through several other adventure games since then from various other notable developers, including Sierra and Cyan Worlds, with each one having its own distinct feel and style. However, I recently finished playing through Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, which was also by Revolution, so it felt like I had gotten back to where I started.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

After playing it, I started to think about how adventure games implement their puzzles. When I started with Beneath a Steel Sky, I had to rely often on a walkthrough to get through it. But the more adventure games I played, the less I found myself looking for help. I assumed that I was building up my “instincts” for the genre. But with Broken Sword, I found myself getting stuck a little more often then I would’ve liked, and having to get hints to move forward. In some cases, the solutions irritated me more than the puzzles, because I was left wondering how I was supposed to have known what to do outside of blind experimentation.

Then something occurred to me: puzzles don’t necessarily have to make logical sense as long as they adhere to their own rules. There has to be some sort of consistency. It’s a common rule of game design that we see in many genres. A game lays some groundwork and teaches the player how things work, and then the player uses this knowledge to take on future challenges.

Indeed, narrative media in general uses a similar principle. No matter how fantastical or irrational a story may be, it’s easier to suspend disbelief as long as the fictional world plays by its own rules.

Based on my own experiences so far, adventure games seem to be a bit loose and messy in this regard. The puzzles don’t really follow any strict rules for how things are supposed to work, and thus there are few skills for the player to learn. Puzzles in the latter parts of a game may be more complex, but they aren’t really building off of any foundation other than “click on this, then on that.” In other words, it was rare to have to draw back to any experiences from the earlier parts of the game that would help me in the latter parts.

It is that free form randomness that leads to a puzzle feeling obtuse. Finding the solution to a puzzle and thinking, “How was I supposed to know to do that?” is a result of not understanding what rules the puzzles was based on, if indeed there were any rules to begin with.

I don’t mean this to be a slam against Broken Sword specifically. It was an awesome game, and I highly enjoyed it. But adventure games, in general, could stand to improve in this area. (Maybe they have in more recent games, and I just haven’t played them yet.) In my opinion, Myst and Riven came pretty close in regards to establishing consistent rules and building off of them.

But anyhow, now that Broken Sword is behind me, I have moved on to The Longest Journey. I’m not sure how long it will take me to play through it, but it may be an on-and-off affair like Xenoblade Chronicles. There may be a “Long Haul, Part 3” article in the future.

RPG Journal – The Long Haul, Part 2

RPG Journal

How long is too long?

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game as long as Xenoblade Chronicles. I’ve spent more time on shorter games if you count replays, but for a single playthrough of one game, the most time I’ve ever spent was probably around 60-65 hours. I’ve passed the 90-hour mark in Xenoblade, and I’m expecting it to continue well past 100.

Xenoblade Chronicles Box Art

As an adult, I think I prefer shorter games that I can replay. But anything that lasts longer than 30 (or even 20) hours feels like a pretty big commitment. That’s a full day out of my life. I have to admit, I get a little intimidated by long games.

There’s also something to be said for games that find the right length. Even the best game can start to drag if it lasts for too long. I’ve been pacing myself with Xenoblade, playing it off and on, to avoid fatigue.

But I can’t deny that it’s still immensely fun. Even approaching 100 hours in, I’m captivated every time I turn it on. Each new incredible environment still fills me with awe, and makes me want to explore every inch of it. It says something that a game can last so long, and yet still maintain its enchantment over me. There’s so much to see and do in this game, it is simply overwhelming. That’s probably how it manages to stay fresh.

So, what am I really complaining about? Just too much of a good thing. And there are certainly worse issues for a game to have.

Adventure Notes – Riven and the Intangible Inventory

Adventure Notes - Myst

Riven BoxartI finished Riven a while back. As a sequel to Myst, it did a great job of carrying on the story and upping the stakes. It wasn’t a mere rehash, nor did it diverge too much from its source material. It walked the delicate line that so many sequels have trouble finding of being both familiar yet new.

However, I think I actually liked realMyst a little bit more. I’m in the minority here, and don’t get me wrong, Riven was a great game. But as photo-realistic as they made Riven look, I think I preferred the more surrealistic charm of Myst. I also liked the more modular design of the original as opposed to the sequel’s wide open world.

But there’s another issue I want to discuss, and that’s the way the Myst games handle inventory, or lack thereof. In most adventure games, you find items laying around the game world, and you pick them up and carry them around with you, because as a player, you know that at some point, you’ll use them to solve puzzles. Where, when and how are left up to you to figure out, but you’ll at least know you have the right tools.

Myst games, on the other hand, are known for their minimalist interface, and not having a “proper” inventory system. You don’t pick up and carry items with you, and therefore, you don’t have tools to solve puzzles. Perhaps this is why so many people think the puzzles are so obtuse.

Riven: The Sequel to Myst
Riven: The Sequel to Myst

But as I played through Myst and Riven, I realized that they do, in fact, have an inventory system, and it works in much the same way as other adventure games. The difference is that instead of finding items scattered around, you find information. You then collect that information by writing it down on a piece of paper (in real life, in case you’ve forgotten that that exists), and keep it with you because, as a player, you know that at some point, you’ll use it to solve puzzles. The page of notes next to my keyboard was my toolbox, and it was essential in getting through these games. Information is sort of an “intangible inventory.”

I want to play through more of the Myst series, but Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation are not currently available on any download services. Uru: Complete Chronicles and Myst V: End of Ages are out there, but I don’t want to skip ahead without playing the others first, so I’m going to have to hold off a bit. In the mean time, I plan on trying out Broken Sword and The Longest Journey.

Adventure Notes – Myst

Adventure Notes - Myst

realMyst box artOne of the big surprises for me in 2012 has been my unexpected foray into point-and-click adventure games. It’s a genre I’ve had little interest in before, due chiefly to the fact that I’m not very good at them. And yet, for whatever reason, I started dabbling in them. I have since finished a handful of them, and have discovered that I really enjoy them! It might be due to the assistance of the Internet, where if I get stuck, it’s easy to look up the solution and move on.

My latest completion is Myst, which I actually have played before, but it was back in the mid-’90s when it was still fairly new. I had forgotten most of the puzzles, and only remembered some of the environments and the general storyline. The version I played through this time was realMyst, which was a full 3D remake that came out in 2000. It’s a brilliant and fantastic game, and I enjoyed it immensely.

And yet, it’s kind of a divisive game. Even back when it first came out, despite being the best-selling PC game of all-time, it got hammered by game critics for being an example of everything that was wrong with “new” CD-based games. They claimed it was all graphics and no gameplay, and didn’t have anywhere near the depth of even old text adventures. Even in 1996, when Next Generation magazine published its Top 100 Video Games of All-Time (the first time I’m aware of anyone doing such a thing), they practically bragged about snubbing Myst, even mentioning so on the cover.

Looking at the game today, it’s kind of an interesting mix of old school and modern design. Its approach of simply dumping the playing into the game world with little-to-no explanation or direction is decidedly old fashioned, and yet, it was still handled very well. The environments were small enough that I never got lost. Clues, which may have been nothing more than random numbers, seemed obscure at first, but I instantly knew what to do with them in the context of their puzzle. Indeed, this was the first adventure game I’ve played all year in which I never got stuck and needed to get help.

realMyst
realMyst

On the other end of the spectrum, Myst‘s highly streamlined and minimalist interface was extremely forward thinking in 1993. This approach is commonplace today, but it was completely against the grain at the time. Many adventure games from the likes of LucasArts and Sierra Online had multiple commands, inventory systems, and complex conversation trees. Myst‘s only command was to point and click on things. The only inventory was the one thing you could hold at a time. As for conversation trees, there weren’t any to speak of. This may have been seen as a dumbing down of the genre, but actually, it kept the puzzle-solving firmly in the game’s environments, and out of the interface, where you might spend a lot of time just trying to guess which command or item you were supposed to use.

And while it still has its detractors today, Myst‘s reputation has turned out to be favorable. Most recently, it was chosen to be part of a new video game exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The game also had several sequels, the first of which, Riven, I will probably have already started playing by the time I post this.

I’m happy that the adventure genre, once thought dead, has been making a little bit of a comeback in recent years. I’ve started this Adventure Notes feature, similar to my RPG Journal series, in order to discuss my exploration of the genre. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

RPG Journal – The Long Haul

Xenoblade Chronicles Box ArtBeen a while, but I finally got back into Xenoblade Chronicles earlier this month. It’s got to be one of the longest games I’ve ever played. When I picked it back up, I had already logged in about 55 hours. At around the 70 hour mark, I had the uneasy feeling that I may only be halfway through. I am now past the 80 hour mark. I’m worried that at 127 hours, I might have to cut my arm off.

But I forge ahead.

Something I like about the game is that when a new member is added to the party, it actually feels exciting. I think the reason is that in this game, once a new character joins you, it’s more or less permanent. There are a lot of RPGs where characters frequently come and go based on the story, and that makes them feel somewhat arbitrary. It diminishes the satisfaction of building up those characters and forming a party when they can be whisked away from you at any given moment.

I like it better when earning a new character is essentially the same as a power up. Just as you build up one particular character the way you want, it’s fun to be able to build up a team of them, and form strategies for how they’ll work together. It also helps when you have to work a little to earn that character. In Xenoblade, I would get the sense that I was about to recruit a new character, but it often made me jump through a hoop or two to get them. It built up my anticipation, and made the payoff that much better.

In a way, I suppose it’s also better than RPGs where you create your entire party from the get go, because you don’t earn the extra characters.

Anyway, I have no idea how far away I am from the end, but I’m in no rush.