Great Article on Adventure Game Interfaces

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Matt Barton's picture

I wanted to share this link I found today browsing Slashdot. The article is "Searching Under the Rug: Interfaces, Puzzles, and the Evolution of Adventure Games" and appears to be one of the most comprehensive treatment of adventure game interfaces I've seen yet. The author, Mark Newheiser, introduces some technical terminology while providing plenty of examples from actual games.

Check it out--I know this will be useful if and when I get started on my adventure game book. :)

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Matt Barton
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I just wanted to elaborate

I just wanted to elaborate on some points made in the above article. For one, I really like Mark's advice about how to solve some problems in adventure games--such as making many puzzles optional to increase replay value. I want to add an idea to the mix--not only optional puzzles, but an achievement system. Nancy Drew already does this to some extent; you not only "win" the game, but can receive bonus awards for doing certain things well, doing them more than necessary, or being particularly thorough. It's a good idea, but unfortunately players don't learn about these achievements until the game is over; it'd be more fun if they could learn about at least some of them in-game, to give them the incentive to do that puzzle once more faster, etc.

Here's an example of what I mean. Let's take the typical sliding block puzzle (ones where you must slide blocks around to make a picture). Let's say the game randomized the puzzle each time. Okay, so the first time you do it, you may be just getting the hang of it; if you manage to solve it after 15 minutes, you might get to advance to the next plot point, but not receive the achievement you'd get it if you solved it under 5 minutes. Or maybe you could get an extra special achievement if you solved it in the minimum number of moves.

What needs to happen is more unlockable content to make such achievements worth it. It's a bit tricky in the context of ND, but these could consist of special items, decorative changes to the interface, etc. They really don't have to affect the gameplay directly to be effective.

I recently played the game (Luckless John) that was very heavy handed, though. If you didn't solve a puzzle quickly, the narrator would jump in, call you stupid, and solve it for you. I didn't like that at all. What would have been nicer is an option to skip the puzzle, but a tangible reward for actually solving it. Many modern games let you "buy hints," for instance, though it's a bit of a scam since some of the puzzles are so poorly designed you need the hints just to figure out what to do next.

Also, one thing I'd add to the interface discussion is context-specific menus. For instance, in many modern games, the interface changes if you're zoomed in on a puzzle or the like. This is particularly handy with the Myst-style games, though I like what he said about how those puzzles were challenging (since you had to make inferences and could never rely on pure trial and error).

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Calibrator
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Scores & Achievements

I never really understood the score system in adventure games but then again I never was a "highscore gamer" or an obsessive completionist.
Perhaps it's that I'm less competitive - or rather: I'm not that terribly interested to compare myself to other people - to have the incentive to reach certain goals ("Wow! I got 1000 points at Leisure Suit Larry!").
On the other hand I like achievements - and even better: Surprise (or accidental) achievements.
All of them can be gotten through cheating in adventures, though, and many people will undoubtedly do that - for various reasons and by various means (hints, walkthroughs, inbuilt help system, clue book etc.). You can usually get helpful hints even for puzzles with a random element like with sliding pieces, number combinations etc.

Of course you can often cheat in a twitch game, too, but without some "mad skillz" you won't get certain achievements or higher scores at all.
This makes achievements in twitch games a competitive element - in contrary to plot-based achievements in adventures or similar games. Of course some things could be constructed - based on statistics: "Blood achievement! You dealt the most hitpoints in a single fight!" etc. Good for RPGs, perhaps, but for adventures things like "Minimum amount of steps!" are pretty pointless if you have a walkthrough.

What I really like in games (or movies - for that matter) is the element of surprise: A game doing something unexpected - in a good way. And this can often be combined with achievements or bonus objectives.

Example 1:
I recently played some custom levels for the venerable Deus Ex and got some funny bonus points for "Decimating a rat infestation" (or something like that).
What I really did was accidentally (unintentionally!) trampling those little critters to death as I crouched through a vent. They simply couldn't escape and the kill came swiftly and automatically - nothing noteworthy, really, but the bonus signal and the points given showed me that the designer clearly was aware what would happen and had some sense of humor. This is a sign of competence and I loved a) the idea in itself and b) the competence of the designer!

Example 2:
There is a mission in "Thief 2" where one has to sneak a pretty linear path into the mansion of a VIP in the game to get some information. The guy gets unexpectedly murdered, however, and the player has to get out by using the same way he went in.
Along the way in or out he could discover a hidden grave and he could (!) get the idea to drop the murdered guy into that grave (which apparently was really intended for him: to lie next to his parents at some point in the future) - to tidy things up.
Then a hidden bonus objective would become visible get and checked off instantly. Slim chance that the player would do that on his first playthrough? Yup! Incredible feeling if you did? You bet!
The Thief games are full of this stuff (hidden loot & sights, bonus objective and "secrets" completely independent of solving the game) and make themselves highly replayable through it - even though the whole story remains the same and the succession of the levels is linear. In fact lots of fan-built mission incorporate this kind of stuff, too, so a certain popularity can be assumed.

Getting these kind of achievements usually brings no real advantage except a good feeling, though, and not every player will be motivated to get them (some are very motivated to get them as countless postings in forums proove!).
IMHO, achievements with a real "earning" like funds that can be used to buy better weapons etc. will likely motivate adventure gamers to cheat more often...

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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That's an excellent point

That's an excellent point about cheating, Calibrator. I like that a lot. The more I think about it, the more it seems that achievements should be about you, not some other standard. If you are really good at some aspect of a game--especially something that most people haven't practiced or aren't any good at--the right achievement can really make you feel special. Even if, let's say, you don't last very long in a game like Space Invaders, you might be really good at some aspect of it, such as hitting the bonus saucer or never hitting your own bases.

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Bill Loguidice
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Achievements
Matt Barton wrote:

That's an excellent point about cheating, Calibrator. I like that a lot. The more I think about it, the more it seems that achievements should be about you, not some other standard. If you are really good at some aspect of a game--especially something that most people haven't practiced or aren't any good at--the right achievement can really make you feel special. Even if, let's say, you don't last very long in a game like Space Invaders, you might be really good at some aspect of it, such as hitting the bonus saucer or never hitting your own bases.

That's the basis of the universal achievement system in all Xbox 360 games, be they retail or downloadable. That's what makes it so fun, hitting the often dozen or more achievements in each game, be it survive for one minute without firing a shot, reaching a certain level, playing with someone online, etc., it's all that little bit of extra incentive that makes the game all that more fun. Sony is trying to implement something similar on the PS3, but it's not as elegant and nowhere near universal, and the Wii has it in only one or two games, which kind of defeats the purpose if you ask me.

Vintage Games book!
Xbox 360: billlog | Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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GeneralDebacle (not verified)
I remember the score system

I remember the score system on the arcades. Different guys would have their own initials or handle, and this would show up on the machine from time to time, so you always knew who you were trying to beat.

I never really understand scores in adventure games...

Anyway, love the picture of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I was really into lucasarts adventures back then, and especially loved the type shown here. Zac McKracken and the Alien mind benders, Maniac mansion, etc. Never really got into Kings Quest or its spinoffs. The last Adventure game of that type I remember playing was Maddog Williams before the Army took all my time away. Good times.

Matt Barton
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I think the points systems

I think the points systems were primarily so that you could see how much of the game you had actually seen, as well as the elegance or efficiency of your solution. However, I think just a numeric score isn't sufficient. The beauty of achievements is that they can have names and designate particular things, often in a fun and creative way. They'd have been perfect for a LucasArts game, since those were already light-hearted and fun to begin with.

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Calibrator
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Forty : Love
Matt Barton wrote:

I think the points systems were primarily so that you could see how much of the game you had actually seen,

Then a percentage would suffice - like in the Spyro jump&run games where it is indeed possible to see 110% of the game! (at least in the first one ;-)
I also don't remember games having exactly 1000 points (which would nicely resemble 100.0%) but for example "342" in the first Gabriel Knight game...

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as well as the elegance or efficiency of your solution.

In the context of an adventure game I don't quite see the efficiency of the player in a score. "Why did I get these 50 points and not 100?"
And more importantly: "What were those 300 points? What did I do to get them?" You simply don't see for what you got your points - especially bad for all kinds of plot-based games (adventures, action-adventures, rpgs...).

Of course modern games sometimes offer a log to see how far you progressed - which is really an achievement log. But achievement of course can be disconnected from the main plot line and the player may not remember them very as well as the main quests.

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However, I think just a numeric score isn't sufficient.

Exactly!

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The beauty of achievements is that they can have names and designate particular things, often in a fun and creative way.

Good point!

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They'd have been perfect for a LucasArts game, since those were already light-hearted and fun to begin with.

An adventure with the player impersonating a serial killer could have some fun and creative achievements also ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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