Three Adventure Games

So my blogging schedule was a bust. No surprises there, really. But I must say I impressed myself with how quickly I flubbed it. Oh well. Never apologise. I’ve been very busy. A lot more people seem to want things edited in winter than in summer.

But occasionally my work coincides with blog-worthy material. Case in point: I’ve recently been hired, in a very loose way, to help with a computer game. It’s a point-and-click adventure, so it’s given me an excuse to check out some recent games. Today I’ll be reviewing three, all from the last few years: Resonance, Gemini Rue and A New Beginning.

No real spoilers after the cut, but Resonance is so good I’d recommend playing it without knowing anything about it at all, especially if you’re interested in mystery and thriller techniques. It’s on sale at the moment, so you can get it and a bazillion other games for just $5. That deal will also get you Gemini Rue, so I feel a little less bad about giving it such a drubbing. Avoid A New Beginning completely.

A New Beginning (Daedalic Entertainment, 2010)

A New Beginning

Hmm. Outside for a sexy adventure or stay in and rummage around the house? Which would infuriate the player more?

A little unfair to call this a review, perhaps, because I gave up after about thirty minutes. But absolutely nothing interesting happened in those first thirty minutes, and almost every line of dialogue was off in some way, both in the writing and delivery.

Making wonky stories and dialogue better is my job. I’m grateful for it, I enjoy it and I’m glad to help out people who, for the most part, really love writing. But I don’t want it to spill over into my leisure time.

Many people are fine with terrible game writing. They either don’t much care of they just don’t see it. That’s cool, but I think they might be giving designers the impression that everything’s fine, and everyone else is just moaning. But you shouldn’t ignore criticism just because some people are pleased. Just as some people are never happy, some people are always satisfied. And writing is cheap to fix. You could hire a hundred writers for the cost of a minute of rendered CGI cut-scene.

Anyway, there are no excuses here: Daedalic are the top dogs in the traditional adventure game market at the moment, and they can afford competent translators, editors and voice actors. People who don’t pronounce “Sisyphean” to rhyme with “pristine”. (That’s not a snobbish thing. Who cares if you don’t know a particular word? There’s nothing less appealing than vocab-based dick-measuring. But if no-one on your production team knows how to pronounce something, that’s probably a clear sign that you should use a different word. And it seems an odd mistake for a company called Daedalic! Maybe they pronounce it Deadlock?!)

Even if the writing and acting were better, I doubt I’d have given it much more of a chance. I guess it’s about environmentalism, given the opening sequence where future scientists on an Earth where the climate has spiralled out of control decide their last resort is to travel back in time to put things right. That’s an interesting enough premise, but no part of me wants to begin that story by fixing a broken fan-belt as my primary goal. This is a typical adventure game ploy: make it seem like we’re going to start in medias res with a thrilling cutscene but then rewind the story and make you do chores instead. Well I can’t be doing with it. If your story doesn’t have space for engaging puzzles, or at least an engaging beginning, then you’ve misunderstood how to design an adventure game.

As I said, I’m busy. I don’t have time for crap. I think a lot of game designers think they have a captive audience. You really, really don’t. People value their time, and they have no qualms about giving up a game that isn’t engaging. This isn’t their fault for being impatient, it’s your fault for being boring. Even if this gets better an hour in, even if it’s the best game ever once it gets going, that’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have to give things a chance in case they improve. If the good stuff doesn’t kick in for an hour, then cut the first hour! If you can’t… well, I don’t believe you. Hire an editor, listen to what they have to say. We’re basically magic.

Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger, 2011)

Gemini Rue Screenshot 1I’d heard good things about this, and it won a lot of awards and story and writing plaudits. It may not be entirely fair, but the fact that it’s practically all the work of one guy meant that I was prepared to give it much more of a chance than A New Beginning. I’ve got a lot of time for lone voices.

I shouldn’t have bothered. This was pedestrian from start to finish, and by the end I actively wanted it to end so I could do something else. I don’t want to piss all over the guy’s effort – it’s really a very, very impressive achievement for one man – but thuddingly average stories like this winning awards is one of the reasons why computer game story-telling is progressing so slowly. There’s not one iota of originality here, and what the story does do it does pretty badly. Yes, it’s better than a high percentage of computer game writing, but I’m afraid that’s not much to be proud of. The bar is set so very, very low.

But here’s the setup. Judge for yourself.

Azriel Odin is an ex-assassin looking for information about his brother. Delta-Six is a prisoner in a semi-automated testing facility, where criminals are “rehabilitated” by having their memories wiped, faces changed and being trained in handy, workplace-friendly skills like computer hacking and shooting people in the face.

The game is split between Odin’s detective work and Delta-Six’s escape plans, with a large section where you can swap between the two characters at will. Although there’s no interaction between the two strands, this is still a good design choice. It allows the player to mix things up if they get stuck and achieves something quite clever, which I’ll go into in my next article for spoiler reasons.

Gemini Rue Screenshot 2

If you’re after adequate explanations, you’ve come to the wrong torture chamber.

The game isn’t beautiful, partly because of the low-res limitations but mainly through poor design choice. The testing facility in particular would be hard to make attractive with any budget, and there’s a lot of time spent in corridors and stairwells. Still, it’s very impressive as the work of just one guy, and it’s easily as attractive as the 90s games its emulating. The rain effect in the city sections is particularly good.

But that story! Sure, the game took three years to make, so it’s not the designer’s fault that in the intervening years this has basically become its own Flash game subgenre, but was “nameless inmate undergoes tests in a sterile facility overseen by a disembodied voice with a sinister purpose” ever interesting? Especially when it’s done super-earnestly? (I know, I know. The Prisoner, right? Sorry, that was crap too.) At least Portal had jokes.

There is a sort of point of it all, to do with the nature of personal identity and the importance of memory, but it’s underdeveloped and doesn’t make much sense. The author comes down firmly on one side of the issue, which I think is usually a mistake with thematic stuff. Especially because, as so often happens, even the slightest critical thought shows that his story supports the opposite view to the one he thinks it does. But that will have to wait until the spoiler tags come off tomorrow. For now, general advice: people don’t if you don’t pick a side, you can’t accidentally end up supporting the wrong one!

One a line-by-line basis the writing is mediocre to awful. It’s not as bad as A New Beginning, and to start with it’s just inoffensively bland, which is absolutely fine for a thriller. Good genre writing doesn’t draw attention to itself. But by the end it goes completely off the rails. There are many lines in the third act that only make a dim sort of sense because of context, and some of it is barely English. The excellent voice actors struggle valiantly with the warped syntax, but even they have difficulty in the game’s final minutes. I understand that the author may not speak English as his first language, but Wadjet Eye should have done a better job polishing the text. Editors are magic.

Anyway, a lot of people seem to love this, so I don’t want to frighten anyone off. This is all just my opinion and I’m a grumpy bastard. If cyber-noir is your thing then you might find a lot to enjoy here. It’s not a genre that gets a lot of love. It’s also on sale for a crazy low price most of the time, so there’s not much to lose, even if you give up after an hour.

But if you want to put on a white jumpsuit, wander round a spaceship and crawl through vents while avoiding psychopathic crewmates, you should play Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s 7 Days a Skeptic. If you want to put on your best trench coat and mope around a grim and drizzly future-opolis, you should play Bladerunner. Both are miles better than Gemini Rue in every regard, superficial musings on the philosophy of identity included.

Resonance (Vince Twelve, 2012)

Resonance Screenshot 1Now this is how it should be done. This is published by the same company as Gemini Rue, and is also mainly the efforts of one dedicated guy, but it’s so much better. In fact, it might be the best serious adventure game I’ve played (Day of the Tentacle and Curse of Monkey Island are going to be tough to topple, but comedy in adventure games is a whole different design model). The story is top notch, the writing is never less than competent and often excellent, the graphics are nice in a retro way and the puzzles are well-integrated and challenging without being annoyingly difficult. I’d urge you to play it, because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it in my next post.

Ed is a physics student working on Resonance, a technology that can generate limitless energy via particle entanglement. Unfortunately, the same technology can be used to blow buildings to smithereens. Ed’s professor, Dr Morales, wants to destroy it. He’s terrified of what might happen if it falls into the wrong hands and is convinced that people are following him. But before he can destroy his research, Dr Morales is targeted by a Resonance device that rips him and his lab apart.

You control four characters as you try to help Ed track down the missing Resonance research: Ed himself; Anna, Dr Morales’ niece; Ray, an investigative reporter; and Bennett, a cop.

Don’t get me wrong; we’re still firmly in cliché territory. But at least these are the clichés of fun books and films, rather than over-earnest games. And they’re leveraged beautifully in service of a wonderful surprise in one of the most effective computer game scenes I’ve ever played. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in writing mysteries should play through this at least once to see how elegantly it’s managed.

Resonance Screenshot 2

Don’t worry, Prof; limbs are highly overrated

The key to its effectiveness – and this is what the creator of Gemini Rue and really a huge swathe of the gaming industry needs to understand – is that everything in Resonance is specific. Sure there’s a mystery, and more than a few surprises, but there’s none of that needlessly cryptic and amorphous enigma that permeates so many other games. Everyone is given a clear and separate motivation. It doesn’t matter that many of these are lies or more complicated than they first appear. The point is the player has something to latch on to.

When Resonance springs its twist, you have to throw out everything you thought you knew and replace it with something else. That’s a great feeling, the Holy Grail of thriller writing. But with Gemini Rue, you never actually knew anything pre-twist, so it doesn’t feel like anything’s been shaken up. Playing as God-knows-who, stuck God-knows-where trying to escape from God-knows-who-else before they can do God-knows-what isn’t intriguing. It’s a story vacuum. Enigma is irritating, like someone passive-aggressively making it clear that they know something you don’t. What’s fun is plain, honest deception, concrete information that can be turned on its head in one fell swoop. Resonance understands that, which is why it’s a first-class thriller.

13 thoughts on “Three Adventure Games

    • That’s totally understandable! Thanks for the comment.

      Are the any games you do like? I’m pretty big into interactive storytelling, so there’ll probably be a lot of posts like this, I’m afraid.

      The time factor is an issue, I agree. Consumers have been trained to want 40 hours for their £40, and that anything that lasts under 10 hours is a total rip-off, as though it doesn’t matter how fun something is, as long as it fills your time.

      That was fine when I was growing up, and most gamers really WERE teenagers. But now the basement-dwelling loner stereotype, if it was ever appropriate, is massively outnumbered by people with jobs and kids and lives (and male gamers are outnumbered by women), who would like shorter, better stories with actual characters and plots that don’t make you blind from eye-rolling. But no-one in industry seems to have paid any attention.

      The surge of independent games has changed things a bit. Smaller teams mean smaller games, and most indie adventures clock in around 3 or 4 hours. I think that might be the sweet spot, but objectively that’s still a lot.

  1. Nothing of a virtual nature. My eldest son has ridden the Xbox and the PS waves, to the detriment of my bank account, and I tried, I really did, to virtually bond with him, but a) I was quite poor at everything to his obvious frustration and b) my interest was never truly taken. I’m talking about FIFA, rally car racing, GTA and Call of Duty type games. I wanted to get into them because they looked fun and engaging but a tatty old paperback that cost me 50p out of the local charity shop ultimately seemed a better way to kill an hour.

    Shows how little I know when the term interactive story-telling strikes me as something new and novel. Or is something like GTA considered interactive story-telling? I’m guessing not because there is no real story in that from what I remember just decisions to be made based on whether you want to blow the cops away with a rocket launcher or invite a prostitute into the back of your car.

    Out of ignorant interest are these games here played on xboxes and PS’ or computers? The idea of an investigative story is more appealing for me than chasing a virtual football around the TV screen.

    • Later GTAs have quite well-regarded stories, actually, and are probably a whole lot more interactive than the examples I’ve given here. But the problem is that there’s also a lot of cognitive dissonance. Niko in GTA4 is supposedly struggling with the morality of his lifestyle, but the actual gameplay encourages you to run over pedestrians! So it’s easy for the story to seem like an afterthought.

      This is a key problem. Giving the player control is an extremely powerful way to get someone invested in a plot, but when the player has a lot of freedom, it tends to undercut the story, or at least dilute it. Adventure games keep a tight reign on the story, but at the expense of massively restricting freedom. It’s a tough balance.

      The three games in the article are all on the PC, and are so deliberately retro that any PC will run them. They may also be available on consoles or iPads, I don’t know. They involve no reflexes or special skills. It’s all brain power. You control them with the mouse, and occasionally have to type things if you’re hacking into computers or something like that. But it’s very relaxed.

      • I’m quite astonished to read that the morality of Niko’s lifestyle is something that the game designers of something called Grand Theft Auto and all that that implies traditionally, culturally and virtually wish the gaming youth (or otherwise) to be concerned with . Good luck with that. It sounds like a massive paradox to me. I thought that the whole point of GTA and their ilk was to murder, maim and mutilate as many people as possible in the shortest possible time (that was always part of their limited appeal to me). OK, I’m exaggerating – give a dog a bad name and all that – but still.

        If anyone ever brings out a game where an eco terrorist has to plot and scheme to set off strategically placed biological weapons that wipe Mankind off the face of the Earth without harming any other flora and fauna I’ll be playing. Anything in that do you think? Maybe a follow up post-apocalypse survival game?

        Thanks for the information.

  2. Actually, Plague Inc. has just been released. The aim is pretty much what you’ve said: engineer a bioweapon to kill everyone on the planet. If anyone survives, you lose!

    GTA isn’t my thing, I admit. Nor is anything with even the hint of an elf or a space marine in it. But I’ve recently been playing Counterfeit Monkey, a heist game set in a world where people can manipulate objects based on their spelling! So there’s plenty of ideas to go round.

    You might be interested in LA Noire, which is a police procedural set in a meticulously recreated 50s LA. It’s got a lot of problems, but the scene-setting is very impressive. At the very least it might be worth scouring youtube for some videos. There’s a long way to go, and there’s still too much cribbing of ideas and techniques from film, which don’t really tranfer across, but people are certainly trying to break new ground.

  3. LA Noire game play video was actually quite engaging. Graphics are very good. I like the setting in time and place. If I ever break both my legs and am bed-bound for 6 weeks I might give it a go. Other than that, it can only interfere with my writing and I have enough calls on my time as it is.

    Re Plague Inc – seems I still can’t have an original idea.

  4. You know what I think would be a great idea? If before the spoilers, you would put in a big RECOMMEND sign or not. That way, if something is good, I can go and try it on my own, and come back ready for the spoilers, or say “Ok, this is something I will probably never try” and read the review.

    Having obtained a smart phone, I decided to try the point and clicks available. Have you ever tried “Inspector Grimoire”? I can’t find the first one, but the second one, in a swamp, was as near a perfect as you want to a casual to spend the time. Fun characters, entertaining stuff to do, sure, the premise and solution are kind of obvious, but like you said, in a fun game, that’s not really at fault.

    Then I tried “Broken Sword”, now for Android, and within a few minutes I was done. Great “lots of things”, but I really have no interest in finding assorted keys and figuring out how they fit.

    • Yes, I think that probably is the best solution. People are wary of my reviews because of the spoilers, but I don’t want to cut them entirely. I’m mostly interested in writing technique, and it’s impossible to discuss that sensibly if you have to do the spoiler dance every other sentence.

      Thanks for reminding me about Inspector Grimoire! I meant to play it and then I couldn’t remember what it was called. I’ll check it out.

      Which Broken Sword version did you play. I think the original is pretty good, but they made a new Director’s Cut which screws up the pacing entirely. If you started playing as Nico that’s the new version.

      I guess the original is still quite slow to start, but once it gets going it’s very good.

      • Oh and in case you didn’t read the review because of spoilers, Resonance is HIGHLY recommended. A really brilliant thriller and a great example of how a story can be improved by making it interactive. So many adventure games are just static-fiction with puzzles dumped in the way like roadblocks.

      • Nope, Director’s Cut…it seems the main mechanism (find assorted key to get to the next part” is what’s wrong.

        If I’m right, you will be surprisingly baffled by how simple a mechanism Inspector Grimoire uses to make it seem like a genuine investigation–ie: you have choices of where to go and what to do, up to a point.

  5. Gonna try it (“Resonance”) out as soon as I get home and have some time. Which, with two little ones in the house, might not be soon 😦

  6. Rick–
    Don’t know if you received my other comment (or my e-mail), but I hope all’s going well for you. I know you said you were busy, so no worries if you can’t respond.

    I have very minimal-to-non-existent interest in video games, unfortunately, though I’m sure some of them are great fun. I do like the stories, though, and like reading them at times. (I remember lapping up several stories they wrote based on Indiana Jones video games, but I never “got” the games themselves. Also, I’m interested in having learnt that some of the Agatha Christie games changed the plot around–probably a big no-no, but it interests me, as I’m trying [for the blog] to work out alternate solutions to famed mysteries.)

    With all that said, have you ever played The Dagger of Amon Ra (’92)? When Nick Fuller had his “Escape to Adventure” blog, he recommended it as possibly the best Egyptology-based mystery of them all. I love the story set-up, but I know virtually nothing else about the game other than what the Wikipedia page says. Just wondering if you know of it…

    I have played a few of those click-and-point (point-and-click?) games; there was a Sherlock Holmes one that came out a few years ago that was OK–The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes 2, I just looked up. Not all that great, but some of the plots were fine.

    Again, hope you’re doing well,

    Karl

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