Searching Under the Rug: Interfaces, Puzzles, and the Evolution of Adventure Games

The challenge in an adventure game is not based on fighting enemies, building armies, or the usual competitive activities associated with video games. Rather, the player has to figure out what the designers were thinking when they built the game and follow some script of events in order to win. These events are activated by actions the user can perform and the necessary actions are created by the player executing a particular command on a particular object in the game world. The player interacts with the world by performing actions on individual objects, using objects with each other, and navigating through the world. To progress in the game, the player needs to find a particular sequence of events or combination of actions which trigger other behaviors and events in the world. Gradually, those events lead to some winning state. The user is given a set of graphical, verbal, or textual descriptions of the game world and is supposed to figure out exactly what the programmer expects him or her to do. — Mark Newheiser, Strange Horizons

I’ve blogged before about an episode of Blake’s 7, a British sci-fi series from the late 70s, that centered on the thief Vila, who usually played a supporting comic-relief role. In this episode, the main action focused on his efforts to escape from a trap, and we see him develop a relationship (of sorts) with the long-dead designer of said traps.

Here’s a bit of the script from City on the Edge of the World, written around 1980… I think it does a good job describing one way of thinking of the player’s relationship with the puzzles in an adventure game:

KERRIL: We’re shut in. Vila, we’re shut in!
VILA: Don’t worry. My man knows we’re here.
KERRIL: Your man?
VILA:
The designer. He knows we’re here, and he knows we’re not stupid because if we were, we wouldn’t have got this far.

KERRIL: So?
VILA: So if he wanted to stop us, there’s only one way left to him.
KERRIL:
What?

VILA: Shh.
KERRIL: According to the locals, this lot is thousands of years old. You sound as though you’re expecting to meet this character.
VILA:
He may be dead, but he’s still trying to outthink me. Keep behind me.
Step where I step, and don’t touch anything. Right?

KERRIL: Right. What are you expecting him to do?
VILA:
I’m expecting him to try and kill us.

But note that the encounter with the puzzle is less meaningful when it’s divorced from its context. As I noted, Vila is the comic-relief sidekick, who chooses cowardice and self-preservation over action. This episode is memorable not simply becuase of the cool puzzle, but also because the story furnishes the character with a love interest (who’s turned on by the very geekiness that dooms him to sidekick status in an action TV series). I enjoyed watching Vila figure out what the designer was thinking, but that’s becuase the show provided a framing narrative that explained the stakes, and I got to watch how Vila reacted to changes in the environment.

But if, while playing an adventure game, my primary reaction is “What was the designer thinking?” it’s probably because the story was not sufficiently interesting. 

When I play an adventure game, I want to spend time thinking, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” or, better yet, “What would the protagonist do if he/she were in this stituation?”  If I click randomly on the screen in hopes of hitting a hot button, or if I have to type ten different synonyms to get the game to understand me, then the game world does not contain sufficient clues to help me solve the puzzle on my own.

Given my obsession with narrative, I would have liked Newheiser to have spent more time talking about the story that contextualizes the puzzles, so that the player feels that solving each separate puzzle advances the PC one step closer to reaching a goal.

An adventure game is a series of puzzles, solved by interacting with
discrete elements in the game world, usually in a way that does not
depend on reflexes or real-time concerns.

Bloxorz and Echochrome both fit Newheiser’s definition, but they certainly aren’t adventure games. Portal is a string of puzzles, but they’re given meaning by a story.

It’s worth the time to look back at Grahamn Nelson’s classic “The Craft of Adventure,” (which refers specifically to text adventures, which continued evolving on their own trajectory after the graphic adventures became popular) and Jesper Juul’s Half-Real for some meaty analysis of the relationship between puzzle and story.