Monday, June 15, 2009

Getting Stuck: An Adventure Game Saga

Well, folks, I've had a bit of an issue pop up. Some family troubles. And that's going to be monopolizing a good bit of my time for the next few days, but I don't feel right leaving you guys with nothing on Monday. So, while you wait for the next installment of Retro Treasures, I figured I'd take a short moment to discuss a little issue that exists within one of my favorite genres-- getting stuck. No, not the kind of stuck that you experienced in Super Mario Bros when you first reached world 8. What I'm referring to is the all-encompassing, mood-killing brain lock that comes from getting stuck in a graphical adventure.

If you've played an adventure game, you know the feeling. You've taken Guybrush to every island you can. You searched every nook as Larry Laugher. You've shown you want to be a hero so bad you've died in every possible way that the creators had imagined. And yet, you can still not proceed forward.

If you haven't ever played an adventure game, simply conjure up the feeling of having misplaced your keys. And then realize that you're doing this for fun. It's a frustrating experience made all the more so by both the nagging sensation that you've already seen the necessary item and the complete lack of anything new to experience.

So, players does the only thing he or she can do. He or she talks to people over again, look at the same objects again, and try to pick up the same immovable items in the vague hope that he or she simply missed it the first time, and only thought it had already been tried. And occasionally, the player does have a breakthrough and the cursor picks up that unseen path or minute little item. And away you go, off to solve the puzzle.

Those moments are absolutely divine. That simple moment where you know that everything is falling into place and the inane genius you possess will conquer it all. And then the very next puzzle stops you cold. And in an instant all that annoyance comes tumbling back.

In essence, that is the strange cycle of the adventure game. New acts and new areas provide such a simple thrill as all new and easier puzzles fall away and there is still the simple joy of exploration. But the tedium eventually catches up, and all but the most stalwart of players will succumb to the inevitable-- Cheat.

If you say you've never called up a hint line or looked up even a single hint in an FAQ, you're a dirty liar. It's the constant temptation of the adventure game. One made even worse by the Internet and readily available FAQs that are only a few, simple key strokes away.

But once you cheat, once you look for help, the flood gates open. You find yourself thinking less and less. And more and more you're turning to the FAQ for help. Be it for the name of the next item or an in depth explanation for an entire section, the result is always the same: the game feels cheapened.

It's not that the game isn't fun. Even in this new state, it's still an enjoyable experience watching the story unfold. But the actual playing of the game, of using that necessary item, simply feels hollow.

That is the biggest problem for adventure games. It's a precarious balance between too easy and too hard, and no matter where on the spectrum the game falls, someone will get stuck-- stuck between the choices of frustration and cheating. And unfortunately, it's a problem that comes from the very core of how adventure games are created, played, and expected to be. It's a problem without a solution. But would the fans want it any other way?

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