The Weakness of Adventure Games

How do you feel about adventure games? Is there anything in them thats good or that we could learn from?

In case my prior posts haven’t made it clear, I feel negatively about adventure games. Looking abstractly, I think the structure implied of adventure games is lock and key. This is why Zelda was originally considered an Action RPG, and over time people have come to place it more in the adventure category. Adventure games are games where there are barriers placed in your way that can be opened by application of a key item retrieved from elsewhere. The more such barriers and keys you have, and the less other mechanical elements you have, the more the game matches the adventure game template.

So Doom, with its red, blue, and gold keys as well as myriad switches, has slight elements of this, but the first person shooting is much more heavily focused on, with those elements not functioning as the primary source of interaction or challenge, but rather as staging elements for the primary conflict, elements that make you sweep the level over, encountering the enemies in all sorts of different contexts, from different directions as walls open up or more are warped in to replace the ones you’ve killed already, or to surround and ambush you as you attempt to pursue objectives.

Zelda by contrast has become more and more about matching key to door over time, as almost every element in the game has become subservient to overall progression, and all of the challenges inherent in say the combat or movement systems have become funneled into using the right item on the right enemy, door, switch, or grapple point. You NEED to get Epona, not because you’d like to traverse the overworld a bit faster, or take down monsters in an alternate way that might be more effective on some monsters, but because at some point there’s going to be a gap or a wall that only Epona can jump over.

From a depth perspective, the trouble with adventure games is that none of the elements are interrelated, have much interaction with each other, have multiple uses, can be pushed for a stronger/weaker/variable effect using skill or based on the context of application, and there is little potential for alternate viable strategies, only flat solutions. You can introduce these types of things into adventure games, allowing barriers to be bypassed or unlocked in a variety of ways, improving the adventure game structure, but also making it less focused on the unlocking of barriers, but instead more general mechanical and critical thinking skills, such as in metroidvanias, which use the adventure game structure as a staging mechanism for their platform challenges, but are not usually associated closely with pure adventure games.

The ultimate trouble with adventure games is that when your only mechanic is matching keys to doors, your only means of introducing challenge and critical thought into the game is obscuring the locations of keys, the order in which they must interact with environmental objects, which environmental objects are barriers at all, and so on.

Professor Layton practically isn’t an adventure game for its structure (it still is, it just lacks a lot of their lock/barrier structure for the most part). Advancing the plot in the Layton games is primarily about going to a location, talking to someone, and solving a puzzle. Sometimes the sequence in which people must be talked to is a bit funny, but if you just talk to everyone available, you cannot avoid progressing (assuming you’re good at puzzles). The game is extremely straightforward about what is required to do next, because it’s not trying to hide any information from you, or require you to guess at anything to progress, it just uses the basic adventure game structure as a way to push you into solving a lot of puzzles, which are the core of the game. It’s ever so barely a point and click adventure game, it’s just trying to give you more options in the order you solve puzzles, and create a hint-coin finding metagame that influences how easy the puzzles are, while also creating a definite sense of progression through the game.

Psychonauts by contrast is shackled to its adventure game design. It could have been a great platforming game, instead they decided you should go around collecting all this shit scattered through the levels. You need to collect 5 arrowheads to pay off two kids to progress after basic braining, you need the oarsman badge to go learn levitation, you need the arrowhead dowser to find enough arrowheads to buy the cobweb duster (which means collecting a ton of arrowheads twice), you need to have telekinesis to complete the milkman conspiracy (which means collecting a ton of psi cards and cores, and you also need to do a whole trading sequence in this level), along with the cobweb duster (which is necessary overall to beat the whole game), you need invisibility in Gloria’s Theater (more figments, psi cards and cores). And so on.

The key items/abilities in adventure games should have a variety of uses. That’s what is the case in (good) metroidvania games. You don’t just get the morph ball bomb that can blow up specific blocks, it can also let you jump in morph ball form, depending on the game even multiple or infinite times. The ice beam is used to freeze enemies, allowing them to be used as platforms, which is really involved mechanically, as opposed to just opening ice doors. The high jump boots are cool, but you can also walljump in many places, bypassing the need for them.

Dark Souls has a strictly lock-and-key structure, no new abilities, but there are a ton of low affordance means or alternate means of reaching places. You can pick the master key at the start and go directly to blighttown, you could also go through new londo, killing ingward. You can hop into the lower burg immediately. You can fight Sif early through the back way.

Adventure games by themselves are weak.

4 thoughts on “The Weakness of Adventure Games

  1. Prisoner 24601 March 23, 2016 / 2:12 pm

    Nahhh man, nahhh.


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