Massive Collaborative Interview
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Mark Yohalem - Wormwood Studios
Francisco Gonzalez - Grundislav Games
Chris Bischoff - The Brotherhood
Nic Bischoff - The Brotherhood
Christian Miller - Silver Spook Games
Interview by Chris Picone, 29 January 2019
Hello again everybody! I fell off the radar for a while there, but I’m back with something very exciting. I am very pleased to present you with my latest interview, courtesy of some incredibly talented adventure game designers – some of the best in the business. Joining me is Chris & Nic Bischoff from The Brotherhood (Stasis, Cayne), Francisco González from Grundislav Games (Lamplight City, Shardlight), Christian Miller from Silver Spook Games (Neofeud), and Mark from Wormwood Studios (Primordia). I selected these four developers for the interview because, while they are all very accomplished, they have also taken very different approaches to game design which I thought would lead to some very thoughtful discussion. During the interview, we talk at length about puzzle design, interactive storytelling, tutorial design, dialogue in video games, the evolution of adventure games, and finish up with some shameless plugging (and a couple of teasers for some upcoming games). The interview’s quite long (>13k words!), so I’m going to keep this introduction short and jump right into it.
Please note, the developers do mention a few other articles throughout the interview. I’ve compiled those links at the bottom of the interview for your convenience, along with links to each of the developers’ games and studio websites.
CSH: Before we get down to business, let’s take a trip down Memory Lane. After all, that’s part of point-and-click’s appeal. What are some of your favourite games and which games influenced your work as a developer?
Francisco: I would say it’s fairly obvious that one of my favourite and most influential adventure games is Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. I made an entire 8-part series of freeware games that were highly influenced by it (Ben Jordan) and my most recent release, Lamplight City had more than a passing aesthetic resemblance to GK1. At this point, however, I feel like I’ve gotten all the Gabriel Knight out of my system. Other favourite games are Curse of Monkey Island, Quest for Glory IV, and Conquests of the Longbow, which I feel is severely underrated.
Mark: Because the stature of childhood experiences grows proportionally with the body itself, the Nintendo games of the 1980s have outsized importance in my memory: the exploration and sheer adventure of Zelda; the huge, alien organisms of Contra; the grinding of Dragon Warrior, which my older brother and I would trade off on while the other was at soccer practice; King Slender’s backbreaker in Pro Wrestling and Bo Jackson’s speed in Tecmo Bowl; the brawls in Ice Hockey and the one time I managed to score by flinging my skinny skater through the goalie in a kind of kamikaze attack; the melodrama of Ninja Gaiden; the music and sense of progression in Mega Man 2; the insuperable toughness of Double Dragon. Almost all of these recollections have a social dimension to them because these were games I played with neighbours and friends (we each owned only a small handful of games) and even when we played them solo, we’d still share tips and tricks at school and in the alley behind our houses. These games may have had no more merit than did the Frosted Flakes jingle or the narrative arc of Challenge of the Go-Bots, but they are snug in my memory, ensconced in, and enhanced by, warm nostalgia.
A handful of games had a direct inspiration on me: I played them, and wanted to make a game like them. Those games, in more or less chronological order, are as follows. Final Fantasy II made me dream of making a jRPG, something I (mostly) accomplished with my first paid writing job, a fevered week spent scripting Infinity, a GameBoy Color RPG. (The five grand I got for it paid for a trip in Europe with my then-girlfriend, now-wife after a study abroad semester, so I owe more than a bucket-list checkmark to that game.) Loom and to a lesser extent Hugo II: Whodunit made me dream of making an adventure game, something I accomplished with Primordia. Starflight (and later Solar Winds and Star Control II) made me dream of making a space opera, something I’ve thus far failed at – Star Captain was my attempt. Warcraft (and, arguably, Warlords and Ancient Art of War before it) made me want to write a campaign for a strategy game, which I was able to do with TimeGate Studios for Kohan II in my second major paid writing gig. Planescape: Torment made me dream of writing for a sprawling, narrative-heavy RPG, which the kind folks at inXile let me do (in a small way) with Torment: Tides of Numenera, which I expect will be the last work-for-hire writing I do outside of my legal work.
It’s harder to point to a specific inspiration for my current project, Fallen Gods. It has its roots in non-electronic games, the Lonewolf gamebooks and the board game Barbarian Prince, but it was also inspired by King of Dragon Pass and Darklands.
Honestly, there are so many games I’ve played and been shaped by, it’s hard to limit myself.
Chris & Nic: The fearless rogue directors of the 80s such as Lucas, McTiernan, Scott and Cameron became our guides to the world of adventure and science fiction. Their movies had such simple concepts but very tight execution that have become synonymous with well-made science fiction. Their far-flung visions spilled over into our imagination. As the passage of time has ticked on, we find ourselves looking back on that art through a nostalgic lens. Apparently, so have many others. The following decade saw a new medium for story telling that Chris and I obsessed over.
Chris: Space Quest 5 was the first adventure game I ever completed on my own. I think that’s why the idea of death in adventure games has stuck with me. I never saw death as ‘failing’, but rather finding out that you were on the right path and needed to adjust your thinking. I see Fallout as my visual aspiration.
Christian: I’m more of the “don’t burden the player too much” school there, and so in Neofeud, if you did get into a bad (read: dead) situation, you just automatically jump back to a minute or so before that, rather than having to reload a save from god knows when.
CSH: Or having to start the game again, which was usually my experience, especially in the old parser days.
Nic: If I had to choose a single game that has influenced me more than any of the other thousands, I’d have to pick Star Control II. It has an amazing meld between a point-and-click adventure, an amazing story and RPG-lite elements. I could gush for hours on how well it was designed. It’s unrivalled in its union of mini-games in a collated product and showed that adventure games could have incredible depth.
Christian: My favourite games of all time are Deus Ex (2000), Fallout 1 & 2, System Shock 2, Primordia, Technobabylon, and Doom. Deus Ex I’ve played probably 50 times, and I still regard it as the best game of all time, even with all of its flaws. I’m hoping to outdo Warren Spector on the cyberpunk immersive-sim one day, but will probably fail. Influences… man there are a lot, so I’ll whittle it down to three known and three probably unknown.
William Gibson (Neuromancer, et. al), Ridley Scott, and Warren Spector.
Joel Potrykus - director of Buzzard, Ape, and Relaxer. Completely disregarded genius punk director out of Grand Rapids Michigan. There’s one interview where indie film festival folks are asking Joel, “So what cameras do you use?” and Joel is like, “We used a Canon 5D Mk III. We bought the camera on eBay. Sold it on eBay after we were done.”
Boots Riley - Stop reading this interview and go watch Sorry To Bother You right now.
Gabriela Aveiro-Ojeda - An indie game dev currently in Toronto with family from the Guarani people, indigenous to Paraguay. In their game, 1870: Cyberpunk Forever, you play a distraught member of a future-dystopia megacity called “The Hub” and follow an exposed cable to a village of indigenous cyborgs who have created their own alternate version of the future that fuses technology, sustainability, and spiritual practices in a way that doesn’t completely obliterate people’s lives; make them overworked yet struggling to find housing, healthcare, and non-lead filled water that doesn’t give their children brain damage; alienate them from each other; enslave them to corporations and their own devices; manufacture fascists and Nazis all over the world from the US to Europe to Brazil; and ruin all life on Earth through environmental apocalypse, like we’re doing a great job of right now. This game only takes about 20 minutes and is mostly text but it gave me a lot of ideas for one of my two latest projects, Terminus Cyberstar and Neofeud 2.
CSH: So many great games, it truly was a golden age. Luckily, and thanks to the likes of you guys, we’re in the midst of a second golden age right now so those who are too young to have played any of the games you mentioned are at least able to enjoy their progeny.
Next question: how do you define the adventure/point-and-click genre? I’m not looking for a squabble over semantics here, but for the sake of plenitude I am interested in where you draw the lines in the sand in terms of adventure games crossing the threshold and becoming puzzle, interactive story, or roleplaying games.
Chris & Nic: Some say that RPGs are adventure games with combat, and others proclaim that if an adventure game has any sort of skill-based combat in it, then it's no longer an adventure game. Personally, I think that an adventure game is one that puts most of its focus on story, and tells that story through puzzles. I suggest that if you had to remove either of those two elements we would be hard-pressed to call that an adventure game at all. If I am to be myopic and technical, I’d say that a point-and-click adventure game should only have a single input source at a time and this pointing device should provide direct feedback to the player. Further to this, the avatar should be limited in their world interactions, but they should be solving a puzzle at all times.
Francisco: For me personally, the thing that mainly separates adventure games is the puzzles being integrated into the story, as well as the player character having a defined personality, rather than being a blank slate for the player to inhabit as they play a role.
Mark: Well, “adventure” is definitely broader than “point-and-click,” and it has had a loose meaning over time (for instance, Star Control II was sold as an adventure, as were many console action games – though I confess that Nic’s answer above is the first time I ever heard it described as having “point-and-click” elements!).
“Point-and-click” is weird because it excludes Sierra’s parser-based games (like King’s Quest I EGA), which seem to be in the same basic genre as Sierra’s mouse-based games (like King’s Quest I VGA), while including Myst-likes, which certainly involve point-and-clicking but seem significantly different.
So, I don’t know the right label for the genre, and any category is fuzzy around the edges. But I do think there is a type of game that is exemplified by the adventure games developed by LucasArts, Sierra, Westwood, Revolution, Microprose, Adventure Soft, etc. in the 1980s and 1990s. I would include the games that Wadjet Eye Games (WEG) has published and developed in that genre, although I realize that Unavowed is getting into that fuzzy edge.
The defining features for me are more descriptive than normative: the perspective is typically a non-isometric, non-overhead third-person one; the puzzles typically involve using items on the environment or on NPCs; the usage of items tends to be custom (i.e., items behave in a pre-scripted way in pre-determined circumstances, like when you use a snare on the Energizer Bunny in Space Quest IV) rather than generic (i.e., items behave in a rule-based way across all sorts of encounters, like when you use a trap on an enemy in Baldur’s Gate II); combat is rare or non-existent; economy is rare or non-existent; the player-character is pre-defined; assets and encounters are not recycled; character progression occurs by acquiring items, abilities bli, and information at pre-defined points, rather than by increasing generic counters such as XP or GP; there is a story, and the story is primarily about the player-character.
These are not what makes an adventure game good or fun, but if most of these traits are present, I will recognize something as a point-and-click adventure game, and if most are absent, I will probably slot it into some other category (action game, RPG, puzzle game, etc.). If I had to pick two key features, I would say that they are inventory-based puzzles and player-character-centric stories.
Christian: I’m not really huge on Jesuitical semantics (I mentioned to Mark that my dad studied to be a Jesuit priest at one point in a podcast I did with him, but that is beside the point!). But as my game Neofeud is a flagship game for my self-owned business Silver Spook Games, what I do care about, as anyone selling creative work to get by must, is perceptions among demographics. I mean, I could disregard perceptions, not sell many games and go back to being homeless, but that sucks!
I am no marketing expert, not by a long shot, but I take it there is still a hardcore dyed-in-the-wool point-and-click fanbase, the average age of which is closer to mid-Gen-X, and appears to be slightly more literate than your average ranked Fortnite esports champion.
I see that Dave Gilbert (of WEG) has point-and-click as a top tag on Unavowed, and so does Francisco Gonzalez’ Lamplight City, two releases in the last few months from established devs. Francisco described Lamplight City to me as, “A detective game primarily,” and it does involve a lot of investigating, but obviously it still makes sense to some people as a point-and-click.
Something like VA-11 HALL-A is pretty clearly visual novel, though there is some overlap, but it definitely doesn’t have the puzzley, adventurey aspects of point-and-click.
Red Strings Club (great game, highly recommended) is halfway between VA-11 HALL-A and a hard-point-and-click like Technobabylon in that it has some puzzle-like game mechanics interspersed between a lot of dialogue (which is also pretty puzzle-like). It classifies as a ‘cyberpunk narrative experience.’
Ultimately, I don’t like to think of games as, “Does that constitute a Point-and-Click or an X,” but rather, “How useful is this tag to this audience on this platform (i.e. Steam, Twitter, ye olde forums)?” So I think point-and-click is still useful for art or entertainment products that somewhat resemble Monkey Island or Space Quest to an older crowd into classic retro games. Other terms like “Cyberpunk” are even more arcane and complex and I will stop talking about that now because it will result in a Ph. D dissertation.
CSH: Wait, you were homeless?
Christian: Yes, I did spend a good portion of the time while making Neofeud itself homeless, while also working other jobs. My wife and kids and I lived out of a car for some portion of it.
The art, stories and gameplay of Neofeud are a reflection of my experiences as a STEM teacher for the underserved youth of Honolulu’s inner city. Teaching robotics, programming, and sustainability is an often difficult, stressful, and even Kafka-esque endeavour – being in one of the richest, most beautiful places on Earth, yet dealing with families with working parents who are living out of a van, or sleeping on the street. It was hard trying to keep the kids out of gangs, off drugs, and on a path towards better opportunities, such as the ones I had growing up in a slum area of paradise while going to an upscale private school. I made Neofeud to be a fun and engaging game in and of itself, but I also wanted the player to think about the society in which we live, as well as the one which we may be heading toward if nothing is done.
Mark: While almost every adventure game developer has an interesting biography, I’ve always thought Christian’s is especially singular, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has played Neofeud, which could only be the product of an eclectic and catholic (I mean this in the sense of “all-embracing”) life and spirit.
CSH: Well I’m glad things seemed to have worked out for you and Neofeud 2 isn’t being made from the boot of your car, as it were! I feel like there’s probably a story there worthy of its own interview. But for now, I couldn’t help but notice that each of you mentioned puzzles when I asked you to define the genre, so let’s talk about that first. And since I like to poke the bear – pixel hunting: Go!
Christian: Pixel hunts are not good……… I don’t think we should do them. I haven’t encountered a single review or comment about Neofeud that went, “Awesome game man, except you completely left out the pixel hunting… why?”
Francisco: The trouble with pixel hunting has more to do with clutter in backgrounds. I think, generally, if a background is drawn with the most important items the player is meant to interact with in mind, and details filled in later, that it’s a step in the right direction to minimize pixel hunting. Another thing is to make sure that hotspot sizes are large enough to minimize confusion. Generally speaking, designers and artists should communicate to make sure that backgrounds don’t end up looking like a Hidden Object Game.
Mark: “Pixel hunt” is a pejorative that harkens back to a legitimate criticism of a few isolated parts of a few older adventure games (like Gabriel Knight) where there were small, unlabelled hotspots that had to be interacted with in order to obtain a necessary object, without which the player's progress would be halted, perhaps for no apparent reason. Nowadays the term is often (in my opinion) misapplied to any time the points of interaction are not illuminated with neon lights at the press of a button.
I have three responses to the “pixel hunt” criticism.
First, it is definitely a flaw in adventure games that often a player becomes stuck not because he cannot figure out how to use the means available to him, but rather because he has overlooked one of the means available to him. It’s really boring not to be able to solve a puzzle because you’ve lost a puzzle piece, especially when you don’t realize you’ve lost it. This flaw transcends “pixel hunting” though. For instance, both times I played Monkey Island 2 (as a kid and as a parent with my daughters), I missed the window on the ship in Woodtick that leads into the galley (i.e., kitchen). That window is plenty large and the hotspot is labelled, so it wasn’t a “pixel hunt,” just situational blindness. That blindness isn’t even always tied to graphics. Sometimes a player forgets about an NPC to whom they can return to advance things, too. The problem is the same. Figuring out how to gently nudge the player toward the puzzle piece he’s missing is an important part of adventure game design.
Second, I dislike having a button that illuminates all the available points of interaction. It reduces the explorational experience to a checklist and encourages grinding gameplay. Even if it’s “optional,” many players will quickly become hooked on it. It’s aesthetically unpleasant, too, and makes the game itself look like a solution guide. There has to be a better solution to this problem.
Finally, there is a huge difference between hiding an object from the player that should be hidden from the player-character, and hiding an object that should be obvious to the player-character. When I was a kid, a neighbour was showing my brother a small semi-precious stone he’d received from a foreign visitor, and my brother accidentally dropped it onto the gravelly, pebbly, dusty sidewalk. We spent the better part of an hour looking for and eventually finding the beryl. If you had that sequence in an adventure game, a “pixel hunt” would be mimetically appropriate and might help build some kind of meaningful player experience. In that sense, the snake scale at the crime scene in Gabriel Knight – a common example of a “pixel hunt” – is actually fairly reasonable. A careful forensic examination of a crime scene is a classic trope, and the player’s experience here is mimetic. The hidden book on a bookshelf in Gabriel Knight is less defensible. It should have been handled by a large close-up UI (with many books, to be sure) where the player could read the titles on the spine. Even then, the premise that Gabriel doesn’t know what books are on his shelf seems dubious; he comes across as the kind of character with close familiarity with his library. In essence, the player is being made to manually, painstakingly search for something that he should be able to find merely by directing Gabriel to find the necessary research topic. This feels more like padding/sadism, and the difficulty of designing research in a way that isn’t insta-win,* rather than valuable, well-designed gameplay. (* My all-time favourite research puzzle is in Anchorhead, though I also recall really enjoying the research system in the first Blackwell game where you could combine topics and then use them in dialogues, if I’m remembering correctly.)
Most of the time, small, necessary hotspots will be more of a negative than a positive, so I see them as a rare, situational option than a genre mainstay.
CSH: Well, that was fun. But pixel hunts are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Puzzles are (arguably) the bread and butter of adventure game design, so let’s delve a bit deeper. Part of the reason why I selected the four of you for this interview is because you all have a very different approach to puzzles, you all have good reasons for your approaches, and have executed them well in your respective games. The four of you are some of the best in your field and I think we have an opportunity to get quite technical here, so let’s get into it.
Francisco: I always consider puzzle design to be my weakest area, mainly because I tend to veer towards keeping puzzles grounded in reality. As a result, most players consider them too easy. I’ve never really been a fan of designing puzzles intended to stump the player. A bit of challenge is what should be aimed for, but not so much that the player will become frustrated and not want to play the game anymore. This is probably the toughest balance to strike well.
Inventory puzzles are a mixed bag. Essentially, they make up the backbone of adventure game puzzles, usually using an item on something in the world, giving it to a character, or combining items to make something useful which can then be used on items in the world or given to characters. It’s very easy to boil every inventory puzzle down to “use key on door,” which also means that adding variety to the formula is also difficult. My personal problem with inventory puzzles is that they can get stale very quickly, so it’s a good idea to throw in other types of puzzles to eliminate or minimize the repetition. Something like a dialogue puzzle or environmental puzzle that requires no items.
I’ve also tried timed puzzles. Those are very, very tough to get right, to the point where I would say it’s better to just avoid them. For instance, in A Golden Wake, there was a puzzle where you were held at gunpoint and had to escape a room. The solution was to click on a nearby bag of flour to throw it on the ground, causing a cloud of flour to distract the person threatening you so you could make your escape. There was a roughly ten second window in which to do this, which seems fair, but when a player is placed in a threatening situation, it’s easy for them to panic and start clicking on everything (it didn’t help that clicking on the wrong things stopped the timer and immediately killed you). In one instance, I got feedback that they had clicked on the flour just as the timer ran out, which made them think that wasn’t the correct solution either. So all in all, it was a general bad mix of elements. The only saving grace was that when you died, it put you back just before the conversation that triggered the whole puzzle.
Christian: I think inventory puzzles are kind of a staple. I have a few in Neofeud but I don’t really feel strongly one way or the other about them, really. Logic puzzles are often the most interesting and satisfying, I think? Except to audiences who are not particularly there for the puzzley stuff, and more for the novel-ey material.
Timed challenges can also be frustrating to a certain crowd, it’s tough to balance. Combat (and timed stuff) tends to make point-and-clicks start to feel like they’re genre-hopping into RPG or eye-hand-coordination game territory, which it appears can be a turnoff sometimes. I’m an FPS native who immigrated to point-and-click land after playing Primordia and Technobabylon in my late 20s, so I am used to combat generally. But I have to admit, one of the reasons I jumped to point-and-click was because they seemed “like RPGs, minus a lot of the combat and statistics work.”
Chris & Nic: The understanding of what a puzzle could be is a constantly shifting goal post. For example, in the old parser games, the use of verb commands eliminated a lot of guesswork and eventually the amalgamation of the verbs into a single USE command streamlined the process even further.
I think a puzzle, in whatever form it takes, should drive the story and be anchored in a modicum of reality. Arbitrarily placed puzzles are just not fun! Nobody uses a sliding puzzle to turn on a light switch in their house, door locks aren't in other rooms... Puzzles should have their roots in the environment they are in. The context of the puzzle should be tied into the puzzle itself.
In Stasis, we stuck with inventory puzzles and some logic puzzles. The game was designed to be a lonely experience and in order to push the ideas of loneliness, we had no dialogue puzzles. In fact there is minimal interaction with other characters in the game. It was a case of the context and the world that the player found themselves in dictating how the puzzles were designed. The one timed puzzle in the game (a surgery sequence where you operate on your own spinal cord) is placed in such a way to provide friction with how the player has played the game up to that point. According to our players, the most successful puzzles in our games are the ones that feel like they are part of the world.
Combat in adventure games is something that we put a lot of thought into for our latest creation. There are no such thing as ‘junk fights’ in an adventure game. Each combat encounter should be treated like a puzzle and therefore should have meaning and design behind it. If this logic chain breaks - the game breaks!
Mark: One of the great tragedies of the point-and-click adventure game scene of the past 20 years has been the flight from puzzles. The Old Man Murray “adventure games killed themselves” thesis has become so ingrained that it is now conventional wisdom that 1990s adventure game puzzles were all hopelessly illogical and impossible to fathom even with hindsight and hint-lines. But if you probe someone complaining about “moon logic” and ask them to give examples of “illogical” puzzles, they usually can’t get past Gabriel Knight 3’s cat-fur moustache. The same is true of the “pixel hunting” complaint. Even avid adventure gamers would be hard pressed to come up with more than a couple instances where it was really an issue. “Moon logic” has become shorthand for “I got stuck at a puzzle”; “pixel hunting” for “I missed an object.”
When a valid particularized criticism hardens into a truism about the genre as a whole, it blinds critics. It blinds gamers. And then it blind developers. In fact, the overwhelming majority of classic adventure game puzzles did not suffer from moon logic. Instead, they either employed straightforward logic (distracting a monkey with a moving banana) or alluded to established tropes in the game’s particular genre (using ants to find a needle in a haystack in King’s Quest V or using smoke to reveal lasers in Space Quest IV). And the best of them (the very best being the spitting puzzle in Monkey Island 2) involved overlapping elements of environmental observation, study of the “rules” governing some phenomenon, experimentation with those rules, and lateral thinking. Moreover, almost all of these puzzles served as a way to showcase the protagonist’s personality – whether Graham’s jack-of-all-fables cleverness in King’s Quest or Bobbin’s sorcerer’s-apprentice bumbling in Loom or the literal rigidity of Sonny Bonds in Police Quest.
The craft that lay behind these puzzles involved both science and art, and like other fields of endeavour, its output provides a repository of hard-won wisdom. If we write old-school puzzles off as bullshit, trolling, or idiocy, we may feel better about ourselves in contrast to our forebears, but the price of that smug satisfaction is high for designers (and consumers) of adventure games. We pay in our own ignorance.
The gulf between the research and analysis (and resulting sophistication) of the best “amateur” text adventure developers, folks like Emily Short or Andrew Plotkin, and the relative ignorance of contemporary point-and-click developers is startling. Indeed, that gulf is equally vast if you compare the research and analysis that, say, Ben Chandler of WEG gives to adventure game artwork to the utter lack of comparable research and analysis from any adventure game designer of our generation.
The fact of the matter is, modern point-and-click puzzle design is terrible compared to either modern text adventure puzzles or classic point-and-click puzzles. I include myself most of all in that criticism; Primordia’s puzzles are generally mediocre “use A on B,” “ask A about B,” or “combine A with B” stuff, and some of them are genuinely bad because they break character (Horatio sawing off Goliath’s finger and shoving it up his nose) or internal logic (Crispin tying the cable when he has no hands) or external logic (needing to adhere the bomblet to the dome door in order to blow the door open).
Unfortunately, there are few incentives to improve in this regard. Because of the entrenched anti-puzzle truism, because studying and developing puzzles is very hard work, because professional reviewers are happier when they can breeze through a game, because Let’s Play streams work better when the LPer isn’t sitting there stumped, because frustrated players leave negative reviews while unchallenged players seldom do (though I was pleased to recently receive such a negative review on Steam!), it is easier to simply remove puzzles – to subtract something good – than to preserve and improve upon them.
That’s a real loss to the genre, and it’s a real loss to the players who, I think, could learn to overcome their anti-puzzle prejudice and rediscover the special joy of solving P&C puzzles – that strange sense that you have reached across time and space to shake hands with the designer, that his or her puns and veiled references and train of logic may be distinctive, but they are comprehensible. Equal to the flash of satisfaction in that aha! moment is the flash of recognition: solving a puzzle in an adventure game, like reading a scene in a book, can reveal that the player’s apparent idiosyncrasies are in fact shared by an author somewhere out there in the world. “You are not alone.”
On that point, I think it’s no surprise that the stock adventure game protagonist for most of the golden age was lonely. The most dramatic examples might be Bobbin Threadbare, “Gwydion,” and Brandon, but Larry Laffer, Roger Wilco, Guybrush Threepwood and many others are essentially lonely outsiders as well. This was not a Sierra or LucasArts trope; it was pan-developer. I suspect these characters appealed to the designers and players because many of them sometimes felt out of sync, and out of the in-group, in their day-to-day lives. The quasi-communicative act of solving a puzzle posed by the game’s designer was a form of recognition. That was true for me, at any rate. When Bobbin and I solved a puzzle the same way, I felt a kinship not just with him but with Brian Moriarty. Puzzles and puzzle solutions were also something to talk about and share with similarly offbeat friends.
Of course, my general view is that all game development is a blessing (a word with its etymological roots, rightly, in “bloody”) and that we should celebrate every game. The last thing I would do is suggest that games that eliminate or derogate puzzles shouldn’t be made; every developer has his own devil or muse or genius whispering in his ear, and that counsel should be heeded above my tantruming. But I worry that uprooting puzzles from adventure games isn’t so much a matter of weeding as of wholesale transformation, a transformation that ends with replacing challenge and exploration and even self-realization with the comforts of a manicured garden.
Christian: Thank you, Chris, for your flattering praise of us as leaders in the point-and-click arena, first off. But I actually sympathize heavily with Francisco's feeling of puzzles being his weakest link.
As I mentioned, I've been making games for over 20 years by now, in corporate workspaces, indie settings, STEM classrooms with immigrants from Micronesia to Honduras, out of the trunk of a Mazda Tribute, across many engines from Half-Life to Unreal to Deus Ex to AGS to Cry Engine, Unity, and more. But I still would not claim I'm a puzzle expert. That said, I agree with Francisco's basic idea that puzzles should be challenging enough, but not overly challenging. At the same time, I understand Mark's lamenting the relative loss of puzzles of the sort from the pre-21st century 'Golden Age'. A lot of things about the game industry are very, very different from that time period.
I actually found that Primordia's puzzles were very enjoyable, relative to all the point-and-clicks I've played. I'm obviously partial to the art style, which always strikes me as “Giger hired to work in a sepia wax museum” (and I'm a massive Giger fan). But the way in which grokking the world’s internal systems – like plasma torch burns / melts, Crispin can ‘get to hard to reach places’, etc. – and then using that knowledge on your surroundings, the wordplay and reading/observation-based memory games was really compelling for me. And all of the challenges involving deeply law-centric municipal politics refracted through the lens of Asimovian science fiction (or more specifically Canticle for Leibowitz) were really spot-on, and made me realize the possibilities of the genre.
CSH: I’m with you, Christian, I also thoroughly enjoyed Primordia’s puzzles. For me, I suppose more than anything else, they hit the right balance between nostalgia and innovation. I suppose Mark’s right about the flaws he mentioned, but when you’re actually playing the thing you’re so absorbed in the moment that you don’t really notice little details like that. At least that’s how it was for me.
In any case, we still have lots of ground to cover so let’s move on. To reuse my previous analogy, if puzzles are the bread and butter of point-and-click games, then the story must be the meat. As a traditional writer, I’m always fascinated by the concept of writing for a video game. Some of the writing must be completed in isolation, particularly dialogue, as what’s happening on screen fills in the context. But the story must still be complete, which must present a challenge in its own right – unless the game is strictly linear, which very few adventure games are, so you may need branching dialogue and plotlines. And while the multimodal nature of gaming allows you to show your world rather than describe it, it also restricts world-building in a way, because there’s no feasible way for your characters to explore much of your world outside the immediate storyline. Add to that the interactive nature of gaming – you want your players to explore and uncover the story as they progress through it. Meaningful decision-making (or at least the illusion of it) is paramount, but that comes with its own problems and challenges. Finally, traditional techniques such as foreshadowing and pacing must still be adhered to – but in news ways, controlled through puzzles, clue dispersion, and optional lore.
As experts in your field, what light can you shed on the art of interactive storytelling?
Christian: I just listened to a talk by a guy from Inkle Games at AdventureX where he basically broke down why a lot of dialogue in video games sucks, and how to make it better, based off of film dialogue. In particular, the Rachel-meets-Deckard scene from Blade Runner. (Because of course we all wish we made Blade Runner.)
It's interesting what people view constitutes, "Good Writing (tm)." This dev is of the Terse Noir-Minimalist School. But then you've got Pulp Fiction that is like a florid conversational novel. Or Planescape Torment, which is like a Neal Stephenson-size codex, times two. Or Shakespeare, who is Wordy McWordman.
I do agree though that having a lot of useless words and conversations in a game that are obviously just there to ‘have a puzzle’ or ‘dispense a quest’ like a vending machine.... sucks. Neofeud does have a lot of dialogue, but I like to think that most of it is there to flesh the world and the characters out more, so it is doing work.
Also, don’t do Amnesia unless you’re going to do something really interesting, IMHO. I do like optional lore, being big into sci-fi / cyberpunk worldbuilding. Item descriptions or random hotspots can be a good place for this, I find.
Chris & Nic: Ron Gilbert's “Why Adventure Games Suck” has small piece of advice - something that is at the very core of adventure game puzzle design and yet it is also one of the hardest rule to follow!
“The backwards puzzle occurs when the solution is found before the problem. Ideally, the crevice should be found before the rope that allows the player to descend. What this does in the player's mind is set up a challenge. He knows he need to get down the crevice, but there is no route. Now the player has a task in mind as he continues to search. When a rope is spotted, a light goes on in his head and the puzzle falls into place. For a player, when the design works, there is nothing like that experience.” ( https://grumpygamer.com/why_adventure_games_suck )
This rule for interactive storytelling dwells on the concept of foreshadowing, clue dispersion and the impact of information on decision-making. It dictates not just how puzzles flow, but how environments are designed and how the narrative should unfold. While in many cases this additional information is not essential to the completion of the puzzle, it provides clues and hints that can expand the games lore and in so doing, make the world feel alive.
Mark: The wonderful and largely unique power games have is to implicate the player in the story – the story is not being told to the player, but with the player. That works best when the verbs that drive the story are consistent with the verbs accessible to the player-character. That’s one reason, I think, that adventure developers increasingly shy away from puzzles: if you want to tell epic stories of derring do, it is awkward if the protagonist’s main verbs are “pick up,” “combine X with Y,” and “use A on B” (sorry, MacGuyver). It can be done, but it’s tough – it’s easier to add in guns and killing (like in, say, Gemini Rue). And if you want to tell a story about flawed characters salving each other’s wounds (and who doesn’t?), focusing on dialogue (like in, say, Unavowed) makes more sense than having the characters literally compounding salves out of ingredients scrounged from the environment.
But whatever the story, that union between what the player can do, what the character must do, and what the actions move the story along is critical. Even where there is a defined player character, even where the player’s freedom of action is quite limited, simply being complicit in the story’s major beats has a deep impact (consider, for instance, Cloud’s killing of Aerith in Final Fantasy 7).
One way to measure the power of this complicity is to consider the connection players feel for, and praise they heap upon, game stories that are undeniably thin, derivative, and poorly executed. Consider how uncomfortable these stories become when we are alienated from them and experience them as outsiders in novelizations or films.
Thus, while I think that game story-tellers should look to novels, comics, movies, plays, TV shows etc. for raw material – and for the sheer joy of those works! – trying to make game narratives more novelistic or cinematic is a flawed effort at internal colonization. We should instead try to make game narratives more game-like, leveraging the special assets of our wonderful medium to build a richer, or at least different, connection with the player than what exists in other media.
That is not to say the game stories should be thin or dumb, or that freedom and choice always trump drama and themes. Only that we should be proud and protective of this unique trait.
Francisco: Interactive worlds in adventure games have the unique ability to parcel out story information, clues, and worldbuilding details at the designer’s leisure. It’s entirely possible to put in non-essential information or exposition in things like look descriptions or comments characters make while solving puzzles, and not just in dialogue.
For example, in Shardlight, I didn’t want to give the player a giant info dump about the world right at the start, so instead opted to provide a brief expository narration and throw the player in, allowing them to discover more about the world and its inhabitants as they played, hopefully forming a clearer picture once the main story kicked in. I believe that non-essential information should be there for the player to discover as a reward for exploring, not thrown in your face constantly.
Christian: I do think that ability to kind of ambiently absorb content at the pace, rate, and amount that the player desires is a huge advantage of adventure and adjacent games over TV, film, books, etc., and makes for an immensely immersive experience when done well. It also can help to allow for a self-adjusting ratio of gameplay to reading about backstory, lore, etc..
I felt it was well-woven in Shardlight, especially with things like the children’s jump-rope nursery rhymes that gave a sense of the fallen post-apocalyptic world without being an infodump-ey wall of text.
Chris & Nic: Computer games are a complex art forms. They are a marriage between technical and artistic methods. It's the equivalent of writing a book with chapters that can be read in any order, yet still have a coherent story.
While game narratives share many of the same challenges as films or novels, they overcome those pitfalls in different ways. Games use the constant feedback loop of challenge-reward-challenge-reward to push the player forward in the narrative. There is a constant need for ‘rising action’ to keep a player engaged. In adventure games these challenges are generally found through puzzles, which lead to the reward of pushing the story forward. The momentum of the story is created through discovery of new areas, new characters, and new sets of challenges.
It can be hard to break the truth nature of this genre which is a series of locked doors with different keys that need to be found. We think that the trick is to move as far away from literal doors as you can and instead look at the design as obstacle and challenge, instead of lock and key puzzle.
Stasis was a linear game, and in Cayne we attempted to further experiment by opening up the world and allowing puzzles to be solved in parallel. In Beautiful Desolation we are kicking those doors wide open and giving the player a larger world to explore in a non-linear manner.
Creating a sense of pacing in a non-linear story is trickier than in a linear adventure game, but ensuring that there are a series of bottlenecks with clear goals has been important in the design process. How the players get to these bottlenecks is up to them!
Mark: Bottlenecking is an area where I think Primordia fell short: we relied far too much on locked doors (i.e., obstacles that prevent you from entering new areas) rather than locked boxes (i.e., obstacles that prevent you from interacting/collecting something within an area).
Everywhere you turn in the game there’s a locked door, and if it’s not a literal locked door (of which there are a dozen), it’s a closed mouth, a barred path, a pitch-black hatch, a raised drawbridge, a heavy manhole cover, or some other impediment that functions as a locked door. Because of that, the player’s ability to explore a new area is almost immediately interrupted: he discovers Goliath via the telescope, and he hits a locked door; he blows open the dome, and he hits a locked door; he knocks aside the sparking wire and continues down the causeway, and he hits a locked door. This mode of adventum interruptus treats the gameplay (i.e., solving puzzles) as a form of incarceration. Rather than feeling like the game is giving you prizes for achievement, it can seem like the game is trying to spoil your fun.
The reason I slouched into that structure in designing Primordia was not a conscious approach but more just my own inexperience and mediocrity as a designer. Maybe it was laziness, too. Locked doors need no special logic; we encounter them everywhere in our lives. They can be opened in different ways (keys, codes, sledgehammers, explosives, wire cutters, etc.). They are the easiest obstacle to imagine and implement. And they also have spillover benefits to a designer: Limiting the player’s locations makes it easier to focus him or her on the active puzzles; it reduces the amount of situation-specific environmental quips the designer needs to write; it lets the designer know that before the player enters area such-and-such, he will necessarily have items A, B, and C and information x, y, and z, which makes it easier to avoid dead-ends or large amounts of branching conditions and unlikely-to-be-seen dialogue. For all these reasons, they make life easy for a designer, but boring and constricted for the player.
Locked boxes, unlike locked doors, leave players free to explore the world. They serve as tantalizations with rewards inside, rather than obstructions to progress. Even if they can serve a similar structural role (i.e., gating the player’s progress based on items and information), they don’t feel the same to a player.
The great old adventure games have many more locked boxes (and this doesn’t literally mean “boxes,” of course, merely something within an area rather than at the edge of an area) than locked doors. They feel open, explorational. That openness means that you can layer puzzles – showing the player something at time X that is not relevant until time X+n – in a way that keeps areas relevant as you backtrack through them. The treasure chest you encounter in the first room is memorable; you’ll always want to get into it, in a way that a fence or locked door may not hold lasting enticement.
That said, the more open the world, the more thoughtful you need to be about minimizing the annoyance of backtracking – whether through fast-travel, insta-exiting (where you can double-click on an exit to leave the room instantly), some form of “teleporters” (these can be taxis or pentagrams or whatever), just some way that a player who knows he wants to get from A to Z doesn’t have to meander through the whole alphabet en route every time.
Francisco: Pacing is interesting, because there are really very few “open world” adventures in the same sense as you see in action/adventures. I think this is another fine line to walk. Restrict the player too much, and they might become frustrated if they can’t figure out how to solve a problem and move on in a small space. Give them too big a world to explore, and they can quickly become overwhelmed.
My approach is usually to start off relatively small, and then open up the world as the game progresses. I did this in both Shardlight and Lamplight City, where the starting prologue area consisted of only 3-4 screens, and once the self-contained intro was completed, the greater world opened up. In Shardlight, the opening area was revisited later; in Lamplight City, it wasn’t. Revisiting locations works well to conserve assets, but should really only be done if it’s justifiable, not just to avoid having to draw another room.
The main thing that affects pacing is player direction. It’s important for a game to communicate and establish goals for the player, so they’re never really stuck wondering what they have to do to proceed. Whether this is handled via in-game to-do lists, personal notebooks, journals, etc, or a clear set of puzzle chains, it’s of utmost importance that the player always have a clear goal in mind.
Christian: Non-linearity can be tough to pull off if you’re in a small team doing a lot of hand-drawn assets sort of thing (I’m a team of one hand drawing everything so that goes double). It will be interesting to see what Dave Gilbert and Wadjet Eye do next after Unavowed, which has a lot of non-linearity and replayability, but also took Dave like three years to make, largely due to having to write one game four or five different ways.
CSH: Is Unavowed really that non-linear? I mean there were choices, of course, but I always got the impression that it was all smoke and mirrors, and the outcome would be the same regardless. Which is an observation, not a complaint – I loved Unavowed.
Christian: Maybe “replayable” is a better term for what Unavowed is. Because you can select from a variety of potential party members, you can replay the game and get a very different experience the next time around.
CSH: This happens to be a nice segway to my next question. Despite the fact that modern adventure games still utilise the retro graphics and familiar interface and puzzle design inspired by the classics, they really have changed a lot over the years. Even in non-hybrid point-and-clicks, RPGs seem to have had a huge influence with increased importance placed on player choice & consequence (real and perceived) and subsequent non-linear storylines and progression. Technology has of course improved, which allows for exponentially larger resource capacity but also creates higher expectations. Adventure games may still use retro pixel graphics, but they’re frequently high definition these days. Voice acting has become much more prominent, although that also creates resourcing issues for developers, and as a fan of FF7, Zelda, and many older games, I think the “silent main character” has its place. Parsers were replaced with cursors, which have since made way for “smart” cursors. Modern conveniences like automated note-taking and fast travel have been introduced. Walkthroughs are now readily available, which can be super handy for getting you out of a tight spot when you’re pixel hunting and can’t quite find the pixel you’re looking for or if you had to put the game down for a while and can’t remember where you were up to on the puzzle you were solving when you left. But they also make “cheating” really easy, potentially negating some aspects of puzzle design and creating other problems.
So the question is: How has the modernisation of video gaming affected your design philosophy?
Francisco: Designing adventure games in modern times is more of a challenge, because most people associate adventure games with difficult puzzles that have people stumped for ages, and part of the fun is figuring those puzzles out. But you have to take into consideration that walkthroughs on the internet are readily available, and also that thousands of games get released every day, so if a player gets frustrated with your game and puts it down, the likelihood of them ever coming back to it is practically non-existent. That being said, I don’t think we should see eliminating puzzles altogether as an end goal, but rather adapt them so they don’t make the player feel like the game is unfair. This can also be helped by including an in-game hint system, or the possibility to have the game nudge you in the right direction via optional dialogue, again going back to the point that the player should always have a basic understanding of their next goal.
Another thing that modern adventure games do well is developing characters and story more than their predecessors. As a result, the more complex stories allow for more interaction and branching storylines. I find this fun, especially considering how popular streaming is nowadays, so having a story based game with a story that can play out differently might incentivize someone who’s already watched some of the game to give it a try themselves. Of course, the trick is designing a satisfying story and not getting carried away with a bunch of content that 50% of players might not actually see.
Christian: That’s really true, that if the player gets turned off to the game early on, for whatever reason, it’s almost certain they’re never coming back to it with the massive tsunami of games coming out daily. Just on Steam, the rate of game releases doubled between 2017 and 2018, at least. That’s something you’ve really got to consider, especially if you’re a fledgling indie without an established brand and visibility. I think a hint system, intuitive design, and that sort of nudging can go a long way.
I’m not big on the silent main character thing. This starts branching out into the RPG and open-world game space, so I apologize if I digress a little. There’s always a tension there, when writing RPGs, point-and-clicks, and games generally with narratives. I’m not a veteran point-and-clicker and found it tough with really wide-ranging puzzles where you’re trying to find out what item you missed over 10 different rooms across a world map, or what item was supposed to go where. So I tended to kind of limit the total ‘possibility space’ of gameplay at any one point to just one or a few rooms. Again, your mileage would vary there because the more experienced point-and-click players might say, “Man this game was too easy.” In the end you can’t please everybody.
More agency for the player can be a good thing. But the more agency and options you give the player, the more difficult it becomes to have a coherent protagonist / player character, and ultimately a coherent and compelling story. In Deus Ex for example, Warren Spector wanted the player character (JC Denton) to have a constantly monotonous tone, so that the player “could read their own emotion into the words,” and give the player that agency of deciding how they felt . He’s never really upset with anyone, he never gets really scared, happy, sad, he basically has no emotions. This is best illustrated when there’s a bomb about to go off in a helicopter where a very sympathetic ally is seated, and JC’s response is just, “A bomb,” said like he’s reading off a grocery list (even with JC’s monotone, Deus Ex is still the best game of all time :P ). The decision makes total sense in the context of a game whose high concept is, “Question Everything” and “You decide what to think, not the designers.” But it has its drawbacks.
Having an unvoiced main character, or just leaving a lot of the character’s personality out of the game due to the variability of player options is a choice the designer makes that, in my opinion, *must* sacrifice either player freedom, or quality and coherency of the player character and story. I obviously chose to have a player character (Karl Carbon) with a definite history (ex-cop turned social worker for homeless robots) and strong feelings (i.e. kind of an asshole deadbeat, tries to do the right thing but is often weak and authoritarian, will blow his stack if you accuse him of things, or talk about his estranged family).
Unlike JC Denton, Karl gets completely furious at times. Karl feels deep-seated guilt – though often in strong denial about it – and regrets things he’s done. Karl cries. You can’t do that *and* have an unvoiced series of heavily varied options. You can’t have Karl Carbon in Neofeud, where we’ve got a story of a social worker struggling to help a crushed race of sentient machines and transgenics treated like disposable objects or trash while he and his own are being threatened by a fascist uncaring corporate-state – and also allow the player to have Karl go around shooting the underclasses at random, if they feel like it, like in many modern games.
Mark: Learning from the mistakes of the past is important, but more important – and more commonly neglected – is learning from the successes of the past. If you can preserve what worked before, then you need only minor incremental improvements in other areas for the trajectory to be ever upward. But if you are jettisoning good stuff as well as bad, then a downward trajectory becomes a real possibility.
Popular culture rewards critical takedowns (i.e., over-the-top laundry listing of the flaws in some work), and the primary opposition is panglossian praise that, by treating every aspect of its object of love as the best of all possible things, obscures what is good by failing to distinguish it from what isn’t. These two camps are very common in gaming. Neither does a good job of analysing what a game does well.
If you ask people to describe adventure games of the 90s, you’ll get some fannish love letters on one side, and on the other, a loud chorus chanting a litany of (perceived) mortal sins and abject failings. These critics, at most, will nod toward humour or artwork in these classic games. When 2018 writers describe 1994 adventures, one is left with a picture that is so distorted that it is hard to imagine that anyone – let alone those writers themselves! – loved those same games in 1994. But they were loved broadly and passionately, often for the very things that are now treated as self-evidently bad. As I noted above, the Old Man Murray orthodoxy of puzzle-hating is an example of that.
Beyond this strong conservationist view toward puzzles, I generally approve of modernizing the genre, and I agree that most quality-of-life features are good. The key, though, is that when a game helps the player – with automated note-taking, with in-game hints, with visual cues, with tutorials – it needs to help in the way that a good parent or a teacher helps. That mean not just doing it all for the player, but instead giving the player a nudge so that he or she can do things first with assistance and then alone. The goal should always be for the player to grow in confidence, in assertiveness, in willingness to try and sometimes to fail. If you train your players to hold down the “highlight hotspots” button, to spam F1 for hints, and to cry foul whenever they get stuck, you have harmed, not helped, even if such cheats allow them to make it through to the end of your game. Players may have won your game, but they have lost something, too.
Chris & Nic: We never really set out to make a ‘modern’ or ‘retro’ adventure game - we wanted to make an awesome game with an art style that we loved and a genre (science fiction horror) that we’ve always been a fan of. Most of our design decisions (interface choices, a single USE cursor, deaths) have come out of the natural way that the game was played. Even now our decisions are focused on keeping the player immersed in the game world. Limiting the amount of clicks needed to get from needing information to having that information at hand.
The resolution of our games (from Stasis at 720p to Cayne at 1080p to Beautiful Desolation which runs at HD+ but has environments that are rendered at 8k) has also come from the gameplay dictating the sizes of the environments that we want to explore.
Isometric games are quite unique in adventure games because the camera is far away from the player character. It makes puzzles that involve smaller items and interactions difficult to create and telegraph to the player. The actions tend to be quite large in their effects on the world. We can't just pickpocket from an NPC, or swap out a piece of paper from a desk because the player wouldn’t even notice that this action has taken place.
In trying to break away from linearity, we have had a lot of fun in creating real consequences for the choices you make. There is always a trade-off when creating world-altering consequences in that you may be creating a lot of content that some players will simply never experience, but this can add to the idea of replay-ability in the game - something that can be an excellent way to set your game apart from others. Adding in mechanics like this is something that has to be planned as early as possible, because of the domino effect that it can have on other systems, and the story itself.
The consequences of your actions should lead into puzzles that have to have multiple solutions. If one avenue of a game is locked off, you may still need to complete a puzzle chain but in a different way. Learning how to bottleneck puzzles in the same way that RPGs bottleneck their stories becomes so important! This is also where puzzle design being written to work hand in hand with the story helps - if the story changes, the puzzles should naturally alter along that path.
The downfall of having a more open world is that it can make certain areas feel repetitive. Once a quest line has been completed in a traditional linear narrative you can easily lock off any environments or characters that that particular quest needed. In a non-linear game it becomes harder to justify why those quest areas and characters are no longer accessible. It can also make the game world start to close in on the player if, towards the end of the game, this large open world area you have to explore suddenly becomes much smaller and more limited.
A way around this is to create multiple uses for each area that intersect with other quests. Have the same bar that you visit, but populate it with different characters. Have an environment that if you visit it again with a different tool it can be seen in a different way. Make the player feel like they are visiting the area to tackle a new challenge, instead of backtracking there to pick up the pieces of an old one.
Fast travel is something that we also try to move away from. The teleporting protagonist is something that immediately takes you out of the moment in the game. If you do need to have some sort of fast travel system, keep the areas that you can fast travel within small and contained. We think that adventure games are incredible journeys that you are on - skipping around the world feels like you are fast-forwarding through the parts that can make the journey stick with you.
If you do have a fast travel option, it should be something that has been earned, and something that makes sense within the world that you have built. A train system that you have to fix, or a teleportation system that had to be stolen from somewhere. Speed only matters when the player knows that there is a slower alternative.
With the competitive nature of modern gaming being what it is, the expectations in what a game needs to deliver nowadays has also grown tenfold. With access to the same distribution platforms that larger budget productions have, we have also been elevated to their same playing field. For a tiny team to complete against a multi-million dollar production is extremely difficult, and often we have to rely on unique art styles, or in the case of adventure games, filling a niche that has been ignored by the larger developers.
CSH: One feature in particular that has evolved over time is the tutorial, and I think this is especially important for adventure games. While consumers are fairly tech-savvy these days and adventure games aren’t normally overly-complicated affairs, they are a bit of a niche and some features which may be obvious to us (such as mixing item combinations) must be a foreign concept to others. I suspect intuitive design is the key then, but how you go about integrating a tutorial system organically? Or do you still prefer the benefits of a more traditional tutorial?
Francisco: Tutorials are interesting because one assumes that most people playing adventure games are familiar with the genre, but at the same time if you didn’t grow up playing the classics, the Sierra or even LucasArts UI can seem completely alien.
I always feel it’s a good idea to have a tutorial, generally to explain how the interface is going to work (for example explaining if it’s a single- or double-click interface) and familiarizing the player with the location of the inventory or how to access the menus. Having a giant popup at the start of the game that asks if you want the tutorial enabled feels a bit immersion breaking to me, so generally I just have it on by default. Having the option to turn it off in a settings menu before starting the game could work, but it also stops the player from just immediately getting into the game.
Chris & Nic: Tutorials for adventure games can be a difficult thing to implement, not because they are mechanically challenging games, but rather because their mechanics can be so varied. In an adventure game you may come across many mini games or puzzles that require some unique way of interacting with the world, and having a tutorial for every encounter where the mechanics may change would bog the game down and possibly feel like the game is trying to hold your hand through the puzzle solutions.
I’ve often thought that part of the fun of an adventure game is trying to figure out how to play the game. Having a sense of discovery is so important to the genre that having extensive tutorial sections seems to take away a lot of the sense of pride of just...figuring things out!
CSH: Well fellas, as much as I’ve enjoyed our time together, I suppose I had better let you all get back to making games so I can play them. Besides, if we keep going, we’ll have to re-badge this thing as a collaborative novel. So let’s wrap this thing up. What have you learned in your time as game developers? Are there any golden rules for adventure game design that you’d like to pass on?
Christian: I don’t know if there are any golden rules. My main thing is I want people to actually play the games (and buy the games because I need money to live) enjoy them, and I also want to tell stories and communicate messages that people need to hear. If there is a Silver Spook brand (other than skewing toward cyberpunk), it’s making games that say something. Like Stan Lee said in one of his soap boxes, “A story without a message is like a man without a soul.” I really got into games because we’re being overrun with selfish, corporate soullessness in every aspect of games, media generally, and the world as a whole, in my view.
Point-and-click games are a genre and an audience/community that really lends itself to telling stories, I find.
I’m also working on another game that is an immersive sim, similar to my favourite game Deus Ex, because I feel there is potential there both to bring back both the quality of the narrative, and the quality of gameplay of the immersive sim. Like real gameplay, like they made at Origin, Looking Glass, Ion Storm, and Troika. Not these massive, bloated AAA tourist parks and photo-real rollercoaster rides chock full of microtransactions passing as games nowadays. I have somehow managed to acquire a small indie team of about 6 people who believe in a vision I have.
Francisco: In general, I’ve learned that players expect a relatable and interesting protagonist, as well as supporting characters. Also, a good general rule is to grab your player’s attention within the first 5 minutes of gameplay, or else they’ll consider the game to be slow. I learn a little something new with each game, which is really all I can hope for!
Chris & Nic: We had the pleasure of meeting Fred and Paul, the masterminds behind the Star Control universe, and they offered us some advice that has become our game development mantra, “Never let the game do something that the player can do”. The player is the most important part of the game, and they need to be the driving force through the story and design. It is tempting as a narrative designer to have the action play out in a cut scene or a block of text, however, the visceral feedback that the player will get from doing it themselves is a cognitive emotion that will stay with them and the experience will make the game better.
Making adventure games in practice is simple. The systems are not complex, but they need to work together seamlessly. It's a unique genre in that it's has been kept alive almost exclusively through the passion of the players with developers often being those very players who refuse to let the genre do anything but thrive.
Mark: Love thy players and thy game. At the end of the day, except for some rare, meteoric successes, independent game development is a rough line of work, if you treat it as work. Few games make their developers rich; few even turn enough profit to justify (by a "lost alternative wages for time spent developing" measure) the months and years spent creating them. As a lottery, it is a particularly cruel and gruelling one. But as a labour of love, it is a beautiful thing.
Something like 2,500 of Primordia's players have taken time to write a review, send an email, make a video, post a message, or in some other way convey what the game meant to them. For a small percentage of those players, the game meant frustration and disappointment (love those players, too, for having hazarded their hopes on your game. Their disappointment is almost always warranted, even if it's overstated). But most players have told us about the ways Primordia made their life better: maybe it was just a short span of fun, maybe it recalled nostalgic, oversized childhood memories of older adventures, or maybe – in some cases – it gave them a new perspective or some new inspiration.
Earlier, I said that solving a puzzle is like connecting with the puzzle's designer across time and space. These messages from players (not to mention the plush toys, heavy metal albums, paintings, poems, cosplay, and other amazing things Primordia fans have made) cross that same space in the opposite direction. We might think of game development as sending signals from our lonely hut into the cold and dark, not knowing if anyone will answer. When you send that signal, don't you love the people you are calling out to, even if you have no idea who they are? Isn't their mere existence – their mere possibility! – something to love? It's relatively easy to love them when they send back a signal saying, "Your game is great!" But only a tiny fraction of them will do that. The trick of game development is to love not just that 1%, but also the other 99% whom you actually reached, but who didn't manage to send a signal back to you. The long, painful process of game development, the inevitable disappointment and exhaustion and frustration, shouldn't conceal that it’s all part of sending a message to someone you love. (For that reason, nothing enrages me more than when I see developers expressing contempt for players, either implicitly through exploitative pricing strategies or outright explicitly in public messages. I get mad at them, but also mad for them, because most of all what they are spoiling is a beautiful relationship that they themselves could have.)
You should also love your game. Because your job is to improve it, you will have trained your eyes to spot its flaws and not its virtues. And an appropriate sense of modesty means that you will be embarrassed to dwell on those virtues even when you see them. That distortion will be worsened by the inevitable comparisons to other games, all of which will be better than yours in many ways if not in every way. Those games will also sell better, have a better Metascore, a better Steam user rating, more prominent press coverage, etc. All of these factors make it easy to doubt or dislike your game. But you shouldn't. In The Once and Future King, Merlin tells Arthur that “every letter written is a wound inflicted on the devil.” That might be overstating things, but both the process and the result of game development only add to what is good in the world. No game, however lousy, is totally without virtue. And no development process, however frustrating, is devoid of learning and satisfaction. It may sound corny or preachy, but consciously allowing yourself, imploring yourself, to love your game is important.
CSH: And last but certainly not least, you’re all working on new games at the moment. Let the shameless plugging commence!
Christian: Here's some info on Terminus Cyberstar, the cyberpunk immersive sim RPG I'm leading:
"Terminus: Cyberstar is a low-poly cyberpunk immersive sim in the vein of late-90's PC games like Deus Ex 1 and System Shock 2. It features multiple solutions to each objective, including combat, stealth, hacking, social engineering, and rewards player creativity, ingenuity, and exploration, rather than directing the player along a predetermined route. A deep, challenging, multi-layered story will play out in an original world of "interstellar colonialism meets cyberpunk".
Contrary to the bright Star Trek future of space exploration, fostering peace with strange new worlds, and interstellar prosperity - it seems humanity always brings its imperial baggage along. Planets are brutally carpet-bombed with antimatter, invaded with spacetroops, and plundered for resources abroad; inequality, mass-surveillance, and media manipulation punish the population domestically.
* A wide array of skills, equipment, and enhancements including nano-/bio-/mecha-/quantum- and even alien augmentations.
* Groundbreaking CCTV/drone/internet data surveillance and social ranking as integrated game mechanics - build facial, vocal biometric capture devices and use digital 'facemasks' for thwarting surveillance/drones which cover almost every inch of city. Mod burner phones for use in flux-spectrum darknets so your every email and social media post aren't used to locate, incriminate, and kill/imprison you.
* Hacking, including wireless 'net, drone-spoofing, and vehicle manipulation, even skyjack a hellfire-shooting Searcher Destroyer military craft.
* DIY crafting system: Upgrade your beat-up trenchcoat with solar trim, syphon electricity from the private power grid with hotwired multitools.
* Mechanical hacking: Take apart old phones and radios to hack together an EMP gun, reverse engineer a captured police-state robot-cop into your own personal bodyguard.
* Biohacking: play God with your own DNA to give yourself bone-hammer knuckles, bat-like sonar, or cheetah-like musculoskeletal structure. Just be careful not to turn yourself into Frankenstein or give yourself an artificial cancer!"
Here's an in-game video:
I’m also currently working on Neofeud 2: https://silverspook.itch.io/neofeud2
CSH: I had been expecting Neofeud 2 for some time now. I saw a lot of raw talent in the original Neofeud, it was an impressive game and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I can’t wait to see what you can do with a bigger budget than a game built out of the boot of your car! Terminus came as a pleasant surprise! I’ll be watching that one closely.
Mark: A man awakes in an otherworldly carnival and watches a gold-haired woman hurl herself down a bottomless well for his sake. He seeks empty answers from mocking ravens, an eyeless scribe, a living furnace, a mismade mermaid, and many more who dwell within the park. All the while, something awful screeches from the top of a towering roller-coaster, and he knows that until he destroys this Dark Thing, the woman will keep jumping, falling, and dying, over and over again ....
Strangeland is a traditional adventure game from the same team that made Primordia: Victor Pflug (art), James Spanos (code), and me (writing/design). The story had its genesis in a deep despair I felt when my grandparents died. My grandmother had been suffering from dementia for years, and her husband (my step-grandfather, a retired NASA engineer who bought us a computer, taught me to program, and sent me weekly clippings from science magazines for use in my scifi writing) had been caring for her throughout the decline. The narrowing of her mind, the narrowing of their lives in consequence, and the resulting ruptures in their relationships with the rest of the family would be familiar to anyone who has watched an aged relative suffer such decline.
At the heart of this tragedy was the inability of a man of rigorous, tireless, puzzle-solving logic to solve the slow and awful puzzle of his wife’s deletion and destruction. So, she died. A few weeks later, having been suffering for months from an undisclosed cancer, he, too, at last laid his burden down.
They left behind a meticulously organized, small apartment full of little signifiers of stories that couldn’t be told: a flag that had been around the earth on the Columbia; a photo of my grandmother staring down a behemoth wild alligator; a Lewis chessman biting his shield; an engineering manual with crumbling pages; a genealogy my grandmother had compiled over decades; a telegram calling my grandfather up to serve in Korea; watercolor feathers she’d painted; wood blanks he’d never carve; thousands of slides from worldwide adventures.
This loss of life, loss of love, loss of meaning, and ultimately loss of self are Strangeland’s themes, and lurking under them is the tragic reality that we forgo and forfeit those things not only because of disease and decrepitude, but also as part of the losing bargains we make with the world every day. Vic’s haunting art and James’s ingenious coding tricks (really, wait till you see some of them) have enriched those themes and given them a tactile reality that only those two can accomplish. Whether it’s a good game or not, I don’t know, but it’s been a good thing for me to work over.
CSH: The depth of Primordia’s world still blows my mind (particularly in such a short game), and I get the same impression whenever you talk about Strangeland. And Victor’s artwork is to die for. Alas, we must wait for perfection.
Francisco: I haven’t made any official announcements, but have been teasing a few things here and there. I won’t be showing anything major until production is well underway, but I will say a few things about my next project: It will be an adventure game (naturally), I’m doubling the resolution again and working at 1280x720, and it’s not a direct sequel to Lamplight City, but it is related (though it won’t be a detective game and will have an inventory).
CSH: Such a tease.
Chris & Nic: We are working on our third game, BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION.
BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION is a 2D isometric adventure game set in the distant future. Explore a post-apocalyptic landscape, solve puzzles, meet new friends and make powerful enemies, mediate conflicts and fight for your life as you unravel the secrets of the world around you.
Mark, a man out of time, searches for his lost brother Don, in a far-flung futuristic era ruled by highly advanced technologies which are both revered and reviled.
Your surroundings hold echoes of a desolate past, and glimpses of a dark future that has yet to be written by your actions. Be prepared to face many tough choices that will shape this land long after you complete your journey.
The inhabitants of this world will help and hinder you, as you make new discoveries and navigate the spectacular African-inspired landscape. Negotiate your passage with local leaders, healers and warriors, or find yourself embroiled in a battle against nanite swarms, enormous scorpions and rocket-equipped robots.
From thriving villages to crumbling cities, petrified forests and bone-dry ocean beds, this strange new world holds a multitude of terrains to uncover, beautifully rendered in 2D isometric art.
CSH: I kickstarted this one way back in January last year. Not long to go now!
Well, that’s a wrap. Chris, Nic, Francisco, Christian, Mark, thank you so much for sharing some of your invaluable time with me. As always, I found the experience eye-opening, and I can’t help but imagine that the wisdom you have shared with us in this interview will help some budding game designer realise their dream game. I wish you all the best luck in your future endeavours, and – as always – can’t wait for your newest creations to come to life (so I can play them, of course).
As promised, please find below a compilation of links and recommendations mentioned throughout the video, and links for each of the developers’ games and websites.
Links from the interview:
Sorry to Bother You trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XthLQZWIshQ
Ben Chandler of WEG: http://ben304.blogspot.com/
Primordia - negative review: https://steamcommunity.com/id/archcorenth/recommended/227000/
Jon Ingold’s workshop on game dialogue:
Ron Gilbert’s article on “why adventure games suck” (and what we can do about it)
Links to developer/game websites:
Wormwood Studios’ website:
Primordia’s Steam page:
Silverspook Games’ website:
In-game video of Terminus Cyberstar:
Neofeud 2’s website:
Brotherhood Games’ website:
Beautiful Desolation’s Steam page:
Beautiful Desolation’s website:
Grundislav Games’ website:
Lamplight City’s Steam page: