Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adventure Games and the Training of the Creative Writer

Adventure games are interactive stories that are played on computers. My first adventure game I was King’s Quest. My father bought me my first computer around second grade and I think the game came with it. I loved it despite its poor graphics and its awkward way of controlling the character where you have to type in commands. If you do not type in a command that the game’s creators programmed the game to understand, a typical response that you received was “You cannot do that.” Often I would have to figure out the correct way to phrase a command because what I typed should have worked and communicated what I wanted my character to do in an accurate way, but the game just wasn’t programmed to understand the words that I used. Another annoying thing about the game is how easy it was to die. You could fall into a lake and drown, fall of a seemingly bottomless cliff (which is akin to Super Mario Bros), accidently press the wrong arrow key while you’re trying to climb stairs to get up to the land of the clouds and accidentally fall to your doom. Also, a monster could appear out of nowhere and eat you unless your character was near the edge of the screen when the monster appeared and you escaped to safety by going to the next screen, where the monster ceased to exist as if by magic. Despite these difficulties, I still loved the game. Another aspect of adventure games worth noting is the games make you confront problems and your job is to solve the problems. If you do not, you cannot proceed in the game and you will wander around aimlessly and get very bored. This is the primary reason why adventure games are not as popular as they used to be. The problems are akin to solving puzzles and are most often resolved by using items that you find while you play the game. Also, unlike video games, you only have one life. So once you are dead, YOU ARE DEAD, although later adventure games would eliminate this possibility. But the death scenario did not make game playing completely impossible because there was a feature where you could save your game from any point during it and restore your game whenever you wanted. Back during the early days of King’s Quest, this meant you had to take out the game’s floppy disk, insert a blank disk, save your game, and remove the saved game disk to replace it with the game disk. Same thing when you wanted to restore your game. This process would later be more efficient when they changed it so you could save your game directly onto your computer.

The term “adventure game” was usually not an appropriate classification for most adventure games besides King’s Quest and the sequels that followed. The reason why the genre of games is called that is because the first adventure game was simply called Adventure (although its alternative title was Colossal Cave Adventure). This was came out a decade before King’s Quest, which was one of the first adventure games that used graphics. Before, they were entirely text based and “before my time,” although I tried a few of them out later on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game was of particular note because it was nearly impossible to play without dying every few minutes and was co-written by Douglas Adams.

So fast forward maybe a decade and adventure games went through a major change. No longer did you have to type in commands for your character. Instead, the games became ‘point and click’ based. You could choose certain options such as LOOK or TALK or PICK UP or USE and manipulate objects in your inventory to interact with objects and characters that are on the screen (or combine your inventory objects to create an object that is entirely new that can be used for a different purpose). So with these advances of game play, the difficulties of controlling your character via typing in text commands ceased to exist. But instead of this, solutions to solving puzzles became much more difficult. Nothing was ever simple. You could not quench your character’s thirst by obtaining water from a body of water or a sink. Instead, you had to participate in a long process of actions to solve the problem which were often incredibly absurd in nature. Because of this, I feel playing adventure games during your youth (and perhaps now) is an excellent way to train yourself to become a creative writer. They teach you to think laterally and are akin to the kinds of movies that wouldn’t have lasted beyond its first few scenes if the protagonist made a sensible decision rather than a wrong decision that caused their life to spiral out of control and created the setup for the rest of the movie. But unlike these kinds of movies, adventure games never give you the option to act sensibly and solve puzzles using the most sensible and effective means.

Let’s use a game as an example. Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was the last adventure game produced by Sierra, who produced King’s Quest and was one of the top two companies in the adventure game industry. You play Gabriel Knight, an occult detective. The game occurs in Rennes-le-Chateau, France, and its plot is inspired by the same source material as The Da Vinci Code. Both the game and the novel took elements from the alleged non-fiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which in turn was based on what may be the greatest hoax in the twentieth century.

So anyway, you are Gabriel Knight and your objective during one point in the game is to rent a motorcycle. For some reason that I cannot recall, you cannot simply rent a motorcycle. Instead, you must first disguise yourself as a police detective (whose voice is provided by Mark Hamill) who followed you from New Orleans for a reason that I cannot recall. Here is a condensed solution to the process of obtaining the disguise (Credit goes to this site: http://www.oldmanmurray.com/features/78.html)

First, you return to a museum and steal a red hat from the lost and found box (the game did not allow you to take the hat earlier, but it does now because your character somehow knows that the hat is essential to his disguise). Next, you go to a church and wait outside of it while its Abbe is spraying plants. Eventually, he will go indoors and leave the spray bottle outside. You snatch it. You turn the corner and walk down a street. You will see a black cat. You pet it. The cat runs away, into a small opening in a nearby shed. You take masking tape out of your inventory and attach it to the shed’s hole (if you do not have the tape, you must return to your hotel room and obtain it from inside your dresser). Walk away from the shed. The cat will now crawl on a ledge and is too high for you to pet or grab. Select the spray bottle from your inventory and use it on the cat. This will cause him to jump off the ledge and run back inside the shed through the hole, leaving a piece of its fur stuck to the masking tape. Grab the fur. Return to the hotel and collect the items that are needed for your disguise if you missed them the first time around (they include a black marker, a piece of candy, and a packet of syrup). Knock on the police detective’s door. He’ll let you in and you’ll have a conversation where he mentions his passport. Leave the room and put the piece of candy on a table in the hallway. Go downstairs to the lobby. Buzz detective’s room (I guess the concierge is not around to stop you) to get him to come down. Walk up the stairs to the hallway outside the detective’s room. Watch him leave the room and bend over to grab the candy on the table. While he is occupied, steal his passport. When he goes downstairs, enter his room and steal his coat. Open your inventory. Use the black marker on the photo in the passport to draw on a mustache. Then combine the cat’s fur and syrup to create a fake mustache. Then combine the red hat and the mustache and the detective’s coat to complete your disguise. Then go to the motorcycle rental shop.

So why the fuck do you need to be in disguise in order to rent the motorcycle? I do not remember.

Why the fuck do you have to concoct a fake mustache when the person who you are impersonating does not have a mustache? I have no idea.

Why the fuck did you have to make a fake mustache out of cat hair when head from your character’s head or body would have worked perfectly fine? This defies logic.

And then using maple syrup to attach the fake mustache to your upper lip is just the icing on the cake.

So this is an example of a solution to a problem in an adventure game that is carried out in an extremely indirect way. It is doubtful that anyone figured out how to solve it without looking up the solution on the internet. If they actually solved it without assistance, it obviously would have taken a lot of trial and error.

This solution to the problem is not good writing. Do not do this in your fiction. But nevertheless, it is a good example of a quirky way that your protagonists can overcome conflict.

Other adventure games are more humor-oriented and absurd. I would suggest you play them if you’re interested in writing that sort of thing. I would recommend the sexually perverse Leisure Suit Larry series, the Space Quest series, and my personal favorite, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle (which is the sequel to another great adventure game, although it’s old and very primitive). Actually, the games that I just mentioned are all fairly old and you will probably have a lot of trouble getting them to work on a modern-day computer.

Oh, and I just want to mention that you play three different characters in Day of the Tentacle: one of them ends up stuck in the past, one in the future, and the last remains in the present. There is a toilet in the mansion where you can flush items that your characters obtain throughout the game through time so the other characters can receive them and use them in their own settings. Time machine toilets=awesome.

So it’s been like forever since adventure games were actually popular, although I hear they are still well-liked in Europe. But there is one particular company in the U.S. who produces really great adventure games: Telltale Games. Much of the staff who formerly worked for LucasArts (the creators of Day of the Tentacle) work for them. I would recommend their Sam and Max series of games. They are about a two “freelance” policeman: a bear in a suit and his partner, a psychotic rabbit-thing. They solve cases. The solutions for the game puzzles are completely absurd and require lateral thinking, but are not difficult to solve like that Gabriel Knight ridiculous. Each case plays out over a “season” and you buy an “episode” to play at a time. It is fairly cheap. You can try out demos to see if you enjoy the games before buying. Check them out. They are worth it. Your brainstorming skills will thank you.

1 comment:

Shane said...

Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max: Hit the Road had a huge impact on me when I was growing up. They were frustrating, but so weird and funny and clever and amazing, really. I think quite a while later I played a puzzle adventure game on the more educational side of things called Dr. Brain. It was no where near as bizarre or clever as Day of the Tentacle or Sam & Max, nor did it have much of an emphesis on lateral thinking, but from what I recall, there were mutants, robots, aliens and giant spiders, and some of the puzzles involved collecting different coloured crabs and with different numbers of legs and making a bridge out of them, and stuff like that. Sometimes the puzzles came down to guesswork, but there was always some logical connection linking the puzzles together. Other games I remember playing as a kid that weren't specifically point and click adventures, but were still strange and mentally stimulating were the Commander Keen games and Lemmings. But I don't think I've come across anything as lateral, as you put it, as those point and click adventure games I played as a kid.

When you link this lateral logic to creative writing, I think definitely, when I was starting to get into bizarro fiction, I was thinking of the connection between bizarro and those games. Not so much adventure games in general, but Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max, specifically. I wouldn't say my writing style is shaped on those games (I certainly don't write with that much humour), but I think it's definitely benefitted from my having played those games and developed my day-to-day logic to be open to those lateral ideas, those quirky things that no one ever thinks about.

That's something that bugs me with games or tv shows or films, or even books. It's easy enough to find a formula that works and milk that for more than it's worth, and keep making sequels and such, people like a particular style or genre and it gets flooded with mediocrity. I'd think it'd be much better to get those creative cogs spinning and figure out how to create something that's unique, inimitable. I'm not really much of a gamer, but I've noticed (and it's hard to not notice) that first person shooters have been done and redone so much it's hard to distinguish one game from another. I think a few more original concepts are starting to bleed through, but nothing's quite had that uniqueness that made games like Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max so special.