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March 27, 2008

Better Than Free (or Pirated?)

I read a couple of interesting blogs recently, and began to wonder how they might be related to the indie game scene.

The original piece was written by Kevin Kelly who, among many other notable things, helped co-found Wired magazine. On his "semi-blog" The Technium, where he posts thoughts on his next book, he authored a piece called "Better Than Free" back on January 31st -- and it triggered an avalanche of discussion, all of which I naturally missed since I have no sense of these things.

In the piece, he discusses how to approach the creation of product value in a digital world, where free copies proliferate in the "super-distribution system" of the internet:

Yet the previous round of wealth in this economy was built on selling precious copies, so the free flow of free copies tends to undermine the established order. If reproductions of our best efforts are free, how can we keep going? To put it simply, how does one make money selling free copies?

I have an answer. The simplest way I can put it is thus:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.



He goes on to discuss his eight categories of "intangible value" that we can buy when we pay for something that could be free: things like immediacy, personalization, authenticity, and so on. Some very interesting thoughts, and if you're an internet hermit like me and haven't seen or heard of this piece before now, I recommend checking it out.

I was directed to the piece by an entry on Jason Scott's blog, ASCII. Jason is the creator of the BBS Documentary, an awesome DVD set that archives the history of the electronic BBS (which I highly recommend). He's also currently working on a new documentary, GET LAMP, a similar work on the history of text adventures, and one which I'm really looking forward to.

In his blog, Jason talks about how he applied some of the principles discussed in Kevin's blog to his projects. For instance:

His version of Immediacy (the ability to get the stuff hot off the presses from the content people) is basically what I exploited/used for the BBS Documentary, selling pre-orders by the bucketful and ending up with something like 400-500 DVD sets ready to go out the door as soon as they arrived at my house. In fact, I ended up having to hand assemble these things to get them out quicker. We're talking tens of thousands of dollars of pre-ordering, so I took that stuff seriously.



He's doing a similar thing for GET LAMP, but in the blog he also brainstorms new ideas for the project. One he seems to like is an "ultra-deluxe" version of the film, which buys you a special code. When you e-mail the code back to him with your phone number, he responds with a personal telephone call. You can chat with him, praise him, yell profanities at him, whatever you like; that's the added value you get, a brief period of access to the creator of the film.

While this method seems more appropriate for getting the customers who would normally pay for the product to pay more than they might have originally, the system in general is trying to push "things which can not be copied," which in this case is a one-on-one conversation with someone with whom you might not otherwise have access.

Just as with music and movies, of course, games suffer from the problem of "super abundance" from pirating, and it makes me wonder if indie game developers have or could use this type of strategy as a response -- providing value where there is otherwise none. It might not be very successful at converting pirates into paying customers (such a thing likely does not exist), but it could be an approach that indies might take advantage of to improve sales and revenue in a difficult marketplace.

It seems to me that indies are better suited for this kind of approach than the big developers; better positioned to provide the kind of personal service that is apparently the key to this strategy.

I haven't paid close enough attention to the business side of indie games to know if there are developers out there who have tried approaches like this that would qualify as ways of providing "intangible value", but I would be interested in hearing about those who have done so or are thinking about it...

March 24, 2008

More on Game Writers, Game Designers

As expected, the response to Adam Maxwell's opinion piece that I mentioned previously has been swift and zealous. The article continued to elicit powerful responses on GameSetWatch, including an impressively long entry from Era, with this excerpt:

"Interactivity does not have to suffer from linearity. Interactivity does not equate to choice. Very common misconceptions plaguing both designers and people on the outside looking in. Our medium can be used for more than point/goal based competitions. We don't have to have everything fit into the standard control schemes for platformers, action games, racers or shooters. We can restrict control just as the director restricts a camera to a specific scene. We can restrict the camera on top of control too, but don't remove any of that for the sake of narration."


The piece was also reprinted over on Gamasutra, where, naturally, it triggered a shitstorm of response. I suggest flipping through the comments for fun and entertainment, but for those with better things to do with their time, some of the more interesting responses include:

"To my mind, this is a lot like someone working in the movies saying "Why hire a costume designer when I can just hire an actor who can sew?" Writing is clearly not the art of paramount importance in a game. Bad to mediocre writing will seldom ruin an otherwise good game, much like bad to mediocre costume design will seldom ruin an otherwise good movie. But really good writing will add to a game, just like really good costume design will add to a movie."


"He's right that talking to people takes time away from "balancing weapons." And that as a designer, he's probably got a lot of different teams to talk to. But isn't that just part of his job? If he doesn't like managing people, shouldn't he go do something else?"


"Anyone who says "The work of the writer is inherently linear" has neither read nor thought widely enough to comment on writing."


"This article assumes that game writers have no idea they are in the game industry--that they just one day woke up and started working on a game, while yesterday they were still writing screenplays for film or prose for a novel. If a company is hiring writers that have no understanding of how video games are made, or how important the gameplay experience is, then it's the company's fault for hiring the wrong kind of writers."


"If your point is that a good writer/designer is more valuable than just a good writer, point taken... but if your point is that good writing in games has no value, then you couldn't be more wrong."



And on and on and on. Still, despite Adam's assertion that his piece was intentionally provocative, and not to be denied the last word, GameSetWatch has provided a rebuttal from Brainstem Games' Ron Toland, which formalizes many of the comments being spewed about on web sites across the intertube. To wit:

"Game development teams give us new games to play. You can't have a game without programmers. A game without artists is going to look terrible. A game without designers won't have good mechanics. A game without sound designers is going to sound cheesy. A game without writers (or someone acting as the writer, even if they're called a designer or narrative designer or scribbler-in-chief) will probably be full of clichés. Just like movies, games require a lot of different disciplines to come together and make something fantastic."



Interestingly, Adam gave some additional thoughts on his personal blog afterward, clarifying some of his impressions about why writing in games isn't where it needs to be. He puts the blame on linear narrative, and specifically, "conventional writers and their influence on our chosen medium of expression." Not exactly new thoughts, and neither is his main point, that games can excel by collaborating with players to create the narrative of the game:

"I am sure there are specialist writers out there who can do this, but I also know there are plenty of people working in the industry already who can do it – these people tend to be designers, engineers, scripters, or artists… They are people who understand what games are and how you can use them to collaborate with the player to elicit narrative not from some artificial story channel, but through the act of play itself."



There are a number of people who already subscribe to this approach, although I still have a tough time getting past a disturbingly vague notion of its representation in the real world. It's an ideal that I want to believe in, but without knowing for certain what it really is or might be, I find it difficult to make that leap.

What I did find most fascinating about this dialogue is that it brought out an abundance of posts on the topic of linearity vs. non-linearity in game narrative, and I'm finding that perhaps what many people believe is non-linear (in gaming terms) is actually a form of linear narrative. Sounds like it could be a good discussion. More on this later.

March 21, 2008

Game Writers, Game Designers

There's an interesting blog tête-à-tête underway, triggered by a (perhaps intentionally) provocative opinion piece by Adam Maxwell over at GameSetWatch on "The Case Against Writers In The Games Industry." In it, Adam makes an argument that writers are perhaps an unnecessary part of game development, and that game designers offer more bang for the buck, at least as far as he's concerned:

"For the same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad to say), you can hire a designer who is also an unsung writing hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants to give the industry credit for) and when the story is done, that same designer can be there to throw his lot into the fire with the rest of the designers and actually make the game fun. He can be re-tasked as needed, and he can be useful at every stage of development.

"For those reasons, and maybe even a few more, my money is on the designer over the writer, every time."



Needless to say, it has provoked a number of opposing comments on the GSW site, with which I mostly agree. A good example to summarize them would be this excerpt from steve:

"This kind of thinking is prevalent in the industry, and while it certainly has some legitimate points (the last one being perhaps most important), it also explains why so many game stories/plots/bits of dialogue suck."



Adam really misses the mark on this one, but I suspect his piece was at least partially intended to raise a few hackles. It was actually an adaptation of a post he made on his own personal blog site, where he is essentially playing Devil's Advocate; in the comments section there, he notes:

"As expected, I annoyed, infuriated and challenged a lot of people with this. To those people I will say: I'm glad.

"The point of the article is to challenge the assumptions made by many in this industry about the point of writers, the role they fill and what they bring to the table. To be more effective and, honestly, more useful to this industry the world's writers need to focus more on how games work and learn to adapt their writing to accommodate that."



He goes on to make some important points about writing for games, which are really the points that a lot of us have been trying to make for some time; that there is a big difference between static writing and game writing, and that a truly successful interactive experience requires a frameshift in the approach to game writing. Still, I can't help but be frustrated that so many of us seem to grasp the notion of what we want, without having any real idea about how to get there.

It's no secret that Vespers follows a fairly linear path, as far as games go, but I think the fact that it is based on a game written by a writer of interactive fiction gives it a stronger literary base than most games out there, and because of that I think it works really well. Nevertheless, it's uncertain if or how it will contribute to this frameshift.

My first thought on reading Adam's piece was the impending maelstrom of responses, particularly from the game writers out there. My thoughts immediately turned to the Writer's Cabal blog from Sande Chen and Anne Toole, two writers with a great deal of experience with writing for games, and they did not disappoint. They came back with a point-for-point rebuttal, with some great insights such as:

"Adam seems to misunderstand the writer’s role. The best writers don’t just throw some story and dialog over the wall and go home. Games create emotion — you can’t escape that. The developer’s job is to identify what emotion the game should elicit, then use every tool at his/her disposal to get there. If you want the player to feel heroic, you can design it in, draw it in, write it in, sing it in, or all of the above. This is what great writer/narrative designers can do: help you create this emotion across all disciplines. After all, are you in this industry to make okay games, or to make great games?"



I expect we'll be hearing about and reading a lot more responses to Adam's piece, so in that respect I think he will have succeeded in his likely goal of getting the attention he desired -- but also, to be fair, of casting a brighter light on the topic of writing for games and the ultimate goal of figuring out just how exactly to maximize its impact in this new medium.

March 20, 2008

Vespers: Adventures with NPCs, Part IV


This is the fourth installment of my blog series introducing the six NPCs in Vespers, detailing the development process from text to functioning 3D characters. The three previous installments can be found at Part I, Part II, and Part III.


Once again it's time to resume my efforts to bring our NPCs to life, beginning with bits and pieces of text from the IF version of Vespers and ending with a modeled, animated, and voice-acted 3D character. It's been a while since my last entry, which described Lucca, the youngest monk at St. Cuthbert's. This time I discuss the development of Ignatius, perhaps the most mysterious of the brothers at the monastery, and the one most distrusting of the Abbot at the start of the game.

Ignatius: From Concept to Character

Each of the characters in the game has their own challenges, and Ignatius is no exception. In addition to his bad eye, Ignatius has to have a particularly suspicious appearance, which can sometimes be difficult to model in a convincing way. Again, we didn't have a lot to go on initially from the text version of Vespers, aside from a short description:


"A fiery man, whose devotion to God is rivalled only by his devotion to protecting
God's people, Brother Ignatius was a soldier before joining Saint Cuthbert's.
After losing an eye against the Turks in Nicaea, he came back to Italy, and
started fighting for God in the only way he could now: with prayer."



Aside from a middle-aged, slender built man of above-average height, Jason Devlin (the game's author) and I didn't have a lot to give N.R. Bharathae, our lead artist, to go by. Nevertheless, N.R. did a great job capturing his appearance with his initial concept:

Ignatius concept sketch.


This looked like a perfect starting point. Using this, N.R. designed Ignatius's 3D model and then applied some of his amazing textures -- where he gets these from, I have no idea. As with the others, we were going for a more realistic appearance for our characters, and I think N.R. really outdid himself this time...

Ignatius textures.


The Ignatius model.

As with the other characters, while N.R. modeled we continued in our task of finding and recording a voice actor for the part. Matching a voice for a middle-aged man would not be as difficult as for some other parts, but the real challenge was finding someone who could play the part convincingly, given that Ignatius needs to be portrayed as dark and suspicious. The man we found to play the part was Bob Richardson.

Here's a shot of Bob alongside with his character, as well as a short bio and a shot I took during his recording session:

Bob and Ignatius.


"Bob Richardson is the father of three gallant sons, one princess daughter, and two wonderful step-daughters. He has been involved in acting for about 40 years, although not in anything you've probably ever seen before. Starting in the theater at age 11 and moving to film and video productions about 10 years ago (mostly local projects), he studied Theater and Cinematic Arts at BYU for a while and now continues to dabble in entertainment as time and schedule permit. He has developed a wide variety of vocal talents; being able to speak with a variety of dialects, accents, and caricatures (He does an amazing Yoda). He has sung bass in a number of choirs and small ensembles. Bob's primary occupation is in financial services, but he also does some contract technical support on the side. His hobbies include riding his Honda Goldwing, SCUBA diving, and playing a few FRP computer games." -- B.R.

Bob recording the lines for Ignatius.

Ignatius also marked the debut of two new animators, James Allan and Marc Schwegler. Both of these guys generously offered their help after seeing my last blog, when I was lamenting the loss of yet another animator. Thankfully, both James and Marc are Torque Game Engine pros, so we didn't have to go through the painful process of reviewing the entire exporting process, and we've been able to make some good progress on the character animations.

There was nothing particularly new for us about the process of animating Ignatius, since by this time we had covered most of the approaches with the previous characters. When the game begins, Ignatius is sitting in the church, staring intently at the candles and praying, so much so that the player surprises him when he speaks. In the text game, Jason had Ignatius sitting in the pews; later, we realized that pews didn't exist until much later in history, and we switched instead to choir stalls.

Here is a short portion taken from the beginning of the text version of Vespers, with the player's commands in bold caps:



Church (in the pews)
Cedar pews line the path from the chancel in the north to the cloister to the
south, their surfaces cold. The ceiling towers above you, its frescoes dim in the
candlelight.

The Saints smile cheerfully down upon you from their colorful windows.

The font glows warmly in the candlelight, not a ripple on its water's surface.

Brother Ignatius sits in one of the pews near the front, staring intently at the
candles.

>EXAMINE IGNATIUS
The scar through his left eye having left him half-blind, Ignatius makes up for it
by staring twice as hard at the candles with his good eye. The eye refuses to blink.

>TALK TO IGNATIUS
"How are you, Ignatius?" you ask, laying your hand on his shoulder.

He startles, whirling around, his bad eye twitching and shuddering. "Oh, father.
You spooked me." He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, what did you ask."

>AGAIN
"I was just wondering how you were doing."

"Oh, fine." He relaxes, turning back to the candles. "Just fine."

>AGAIN
"Shhh, father." He holds a finger to his lips. "I am trying to pray."



We thought to have Ignatius idle using a cyclic sequence, showing him very subtly rocking back and forth as he prayed, with a very slight movement of the fingers of one hand rubbing together. We also wanted to implement his eye twitch as a separate animation sequence, one we could call at random intervals separate from other currently playing sequences.

With the arrival of our two new animators, we also went about making some changes in the way we designed the characters. We went back to a biped skeleton for greater compatibility and simplicity, for one. In addition, James wanted to take our animations a step further by including more realistic lip sync, so Ignatius also marks the debut of this feature. At first I was a little hesitant to include this much detail in our characters, but James convinced me that it would be worth it for a game like this. Plus, with some of the software he uses to generate the lip sync animations, it actually turns out to be less work than I had imagined, and the results are really smooth and natural. The process of creating these sequences is really fascinating to me, so more on this in a future blog.

Here is the same portion of the game as above, as we developed it in 3D with animation and sound, along with a few other sequences mixed in afterward.


So that's how we went through the process of developing Ignatius from a text character in an interactive fiction game into a 3D animated and speaking NPC model -- a good combination of writing, modeling, texturing, animating, and voice work. That now covers four of the six characters in game -- only two left! Next time, I'll cover the development of Drogo, one of the most difficult characters to capture for a variety of reasons.

Thanks for reading...

March 17, 2008

Gun Mute: A Text Shooter


Recently I came across a notice on IndieGames.com about a new IF game called Gun Mute. It was written by Pacian, who had previously authored the IF games Snowblind Aces and Poizoned Mind. I don't think Gun Mute was part of any of the recent IF competitions, and it didn't really get much mention on rec.games.int-fiction, but regardless it seems to have garnered a bit of publicity around the net -- in addition to IndieGames.com, it has also appeared at places like Gnome's Lair, TIGSource, IFDB, and Mobygames. Rightfully so.

Mobygames provides a nice one-liner about the game:

Gun Mute is an interactive fiction game set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic western environment, mixing traditional gunslingers with mutant cyborgs and toxic lakes. The player controls Mute Lawton, a man of few words who wants to prevent Sherrif Clayton from hanging his friend Elias.


I thought I would bring up this game for a couple of reasons.

First, it's a fascinating little game. It's short, and can probably be finished in about a half hour, but it seems to do a lot in such a small package. It unabashedly pronounces, "It looks like you’re going to have to shoot some people," and it is true to its word. But although my first thought on reading this was that it would probably just be a dull translation of a shooter game into text format, Gun Mute suprised me by doing a lot of things right. Even though the game comes across as very simple with a focus primarily on shooting, the game still spends a good deal of its time on characters and puzzles -- and although neither is very complex, I was left with a sense of satisfaction about both. The multiple romances that were included added a nice (and unexpected) touch as well. Interestingly, the location structure and movement mechanics gave me the sense that Gun Mute was almost like a text version of a rail shooter, as the player proceeds linearly from one location to the next, advancing once the bad guys are dispatched. That's something that I hadn't really experienced before in an IF game, and I thought this game did it well.

Second, I think it's a timely game given Emily Short's recent blog about ideas for IF games. In that post, she talks about how new avenues in IF can and should focus on developing new mechanics for gameplay, rather than on new content per se. One way of doing that would be to center the game around new IF actions, or even standard ones that haven't been explored very deeply in previous games. Gun Mute does this to a certain extent in a few different areas. For one, it focuses on the verb SHOOT as the main mechanism for advancing the narrative. And even though there is no hand-eye coordination involved, unlike what most gamers are used to in games that center around shooting, it makes up for it by presenting simple puzzles that act as "gates" that need to be solved in order to achieve the ability to fire. For another, it presents a variation on the typical IF room structure, in that each individual room (or location) in the game represents an independent, complete puzzle that stands on its own. As such, the game de-emphasizes the typical movement (compass) commands, which are so integral to most IF games, and replaces them with the simplified FORWARD and BACKWARD commands. Initially, I thought this would be a detraction by forbidding exploration, but in the end it makes the statement that the player is on a singular path towards his goal and I found that it worked really well. Finally, by presenting the player character as a mute, the game also eschews any of the common conversation mechanisms and instead forces the player to communicate with physical gestures such as NOD, WAVE TO, and POINT AT. Even though exploration through movement was deliberately left out of this game, this alternative mechanic for communication did, in the end, allow for some exploration of hidden content, and I found it to be clever.

This is not to say the game did not have some weaknesses -- I had some trouble figuring out what I needed to do at the end, for instance -- but there are few and they are easily overlooked by the overall quality of the game.

Gun Mute is a short, concise game that is cleverly constructed, well-written, and fresh. I enjoyed it, and would recommend playing it even if you're not a big IF fan, and even if you haven't played a lot of IF.

Download here

March 9, 2008

The Quest for Story in Games, Redux

Over on Tales of The Rampant Coyote, Jay Barnson decided it was time to revisit the problem of stories in games, taking a decidedly pessimistic stance. It generated a great deal of lively, insightful discussion. I'd say he made some reasonable points, summarized nicely in (and by) the section subtly titled, "You'll Never Find a Game With a Great Story":

"...the quest for "better story" in video games is doomed for failure. The very criteria and tools we use to judge story is based on linear storytelling which is at odds with nature of our medium. But this dead-end warning sign seems to be lost on most designers and publishers."

I agree for the most part. It's a topic that I've enjoyed thinking about and discussing since beginning the Vespers project some time ago. Stories in games is a hot topic these days, it seems, with panel discussions at GDC and opinion pieces in the mainstream media, like the op-ed last fall by Daniel Radosh in the NY Times, in which he makes a point similar to the one above:

"Many games now aspire to be 'cinematic' above all else. In Halo 3, as in most games, the plot is conveyed largely through short expositional movies that are interspersed throughout the action. These cut scenes undermine the sense of involvement — of play — that is games’ authentic métier...Because game designers rely on the language of cinema, they have not sufficiently developed a new form of storytelling based on the language of video games."

People love stories -- we love experiencing them, and we love telling them. We love books and movies and theater, because they draw us in, entertain, make us feel and care and think. They connect people in these ways. Game developers have always felt that we can do that in games, as well, in a way that better engages the audience, draws them in more closely to the story -- presumably because now they participate in its creation, development, and telling.

Sounds nice, but the medium is fundamentally different.

Michael Matteas, of Façade fame, summarized it well in his 2002 dissertation entitled "Interactive Drama, Art and Artificial Intelligence", in Chapter 2, "Interaction and Narrative":

"The ephemeral quality of gameplay, the experience of manipulating elements within a responsive, rule-driven world, is still the raison d’être of games, perhaps the primary phenomenological feature that uniquely identifies the computer game as a medium. Where gameplay is all about interactivity, narrative is all about predestination."

Predestination. Traditional narrative is linear, tightly controlled, deterministic. Interactivity is non-linear, unpredictable, stochastic. By adding interactivity to narrative, we introduce unpredictability to something that is, by design, predetermined. As Jay said in his blog, "In some ways, I think game developers are trying too hard. They are over-applying the rules of linear storytelling to a degree that it distracts from the point of a game - to be interactive. The stories need to be interactive, too." That's the fundamental difference, I think. The stories we are typically trying to shoehorn into games are the traditional, linear, deterministic kind.

Some of the things that work so well with traditional narrative don't lend themselves well to the unpredictable. Many of the strongest moments in literature, movies, and theater are those that are subject to the direction and vision of the artist, and which rely on tightly controlled elements like timing and framing. For instance, timing is critical to so many things in traditional narrative; the pace of the words as they roll off the page, the sequence of camera shots during a movie scene, the timing of comedic and dramatic dialogue. Interactivity can disrupt much of these effects and reduce the impact of the traditional narrative.

As we know, the results of this are games where the player's role is to gradually reveal portions of a predetermined narrative. The narrative may have multiple, exclusive branches and different endings, but these are all still preprogrammed and predetermined; the actions or choices of the audience merely link together different sections of coded narrative to create a particular path. The result, too often, is still an overall sense of linearity. And while linearity itself is not necessarily undesirable, the interactivity of games gives players the impression that their actions can and should have more of an impact on the resulting narrative. In the end, players often see through this simple mechanic, and sense that the narrative experienced, despite all of their choices and actions, was still predestined.

What I think a lot of people are seeking is the concept, as described by Matteas and others, of emergent or player-constructed narrative, where players fabricate their own narratives, or groups of players engage in the shared social construction of narratives. I think this is what Jay refers to when he speaks of how "the stories need to be interactive, too." The drawback -- and benefit -- of this type of design is that it sacrifices predetermination for unpredictability. The former is easier; it's what writers and designers are used to. The latter is considerably more difficult. Games need to be designed to respond to the input of the player; that's the nature of interactivity. The more this input is constrained, the less satisfying the interaction is for the player. The more freedom we give to players, the more difficult it is to design the game such that it responds in ways that are coherent and desirable for the resulting narrative. That's a tough task, and obviously one that we haven't figured out yet.

Still, I'm not quite as pessimistic as Jay. I think players can have a satisfying and enjoyable experience with games that provide some interaction within the framework of a (mostly) predetermined narrative. I think a number of IF games do this well, as well as some graphical adventure games. I think at least part of the problem we're seeing is the lack of prioritization of writing in game development; once writing begins to be taken more seriously, I think the quality of the narrative experience in games will improve, even if they remain largely linear experiences.

It remains to be seen what that "new form of storytelling based on the language of video games" will be, and what developers will do to make stories (as opposed to games) more interactive. Is truly emergent narrative an attainable goal? Or better yet, is it really a desirable goal? Is it the answer to better stories in games? I'm not so sure about that.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we only have a vague notion of what it is that we want as gamers.

March 6, 2008

Adventure, Atari style

Not long ago, there was an article on Gamasutra, one of a continuing series, on the "History of Gaming Platforms." This one was on the Atari 2600 VCS, one of the memorable old consoles I used to have as a kid. I had seen and enjoyed their previous article on the Apple ][, so I checked it out, and overall I thought it was well done.

On the first page of the article is an image reproduced from a 1981 catalog for the VCS:



While glancing it over, one thing barely caught my eye: in the top row of game cartridges, second from the right, the game "Adventure".

I had completely forgotten about this game, although it has a relatively important place in history -- the first graphical adventure game, the first "action-adventure" game, and the first game, apparently, with hidden back doors and an Easter Egg. I remember having played it, although I must have borrowed the cartridge from someone else because I don't recall playing it more than a couple of times. But given that I'm in the process of creating an adventure game, and focusing a great deal on the origins of the adventure genre and adventure game interfaces, I thought it would be interesting to go back and explore that game in more detail.



Of course, the intertubes are filled with all kinds of good stuff on Adventure. In addition to a pretty extensive Wikipedia page, which tells you just about everything you ever wanted to know about the game and gameplay, there are YouTube walkthrough videos, a couple of authentic browser versions you can play (here and here, for example), and some good info from the creator himself, Warren Robinett, including a map of the Adventure world with all 30 rooms:



Of particular interest, he includes a link on his site to his Powerpoint lecture for computer science students at the University of North Carolina. The lecture covers the hardware architecture of the Atari 2600 and the design of Adventure, and it has some really interesting technical information. But what I find most intriguing are the slides discussing the development of the game, how it was directly inspired by the original Colossal Cave adventure by Crowther and Woods, and the problems in adapting the adventure game idea to the video game medium -- particularly since they had only 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM to work with (Colossal Cave, in contrast, reportedly required hundreds of K).

He notes that his boss told him it was impossible and to not work on it -- and yet, in the end, it sold 1 million units at $25 each. Hmm.

He also covers how he approached solutions to questions like how to display rooms and objects, how to move from room to room, how to pick up, drop, and use objects, and how to represent creatures. You know, those same questions the solutions for which I've been searching since the beginning of the Vespers project, some 30 years after Adventure was published.

What I find amusing is that, when I first remembered that old Adventure game, my initial gut response was that it really wasn't an adventure game, at least not the way I think of adventure games. I guess it mostly had to do with the oversimplification of the visuals, interface, and gameplay -- the fact that there wasn't really much to make it look or feel like a "real" adventure game, whatever that is.



Of course, on closer inspection that's really not the case. Adventure games, generally speaking, tend to focus on things like investigation, exploration, puzzle-solving, interaction with game characters, and narrative. And really, aside perhaps from the precariously thin narrative, Adventure had just about all of those features. Granted, there was not a lot to investigate or explore (the castles and catacombs), the puzzles were relatively facile (finding the keys and chalice), and the character interactions were not very sophisticated (the dragons and the bat). But all the elements were there, not to mention an inventory (of only one object) with items to pick up and drop (keys, chalice, magnet, bridge, sword).

Also, when you think about it, the "verbs" represented by the game included things like movement, take, drop, unlock/open, and attack, even though just about all of these were performed a similar way (through collisions or the joystick). Many modern graphical adventure games do essentially the same thing with the same general mechanism, just perhaps more explicitly (but often not).

In any case, I found this to be an entertaining and enlightening detour into the early history of adventure gaming triggered almost accidentally by a glance in the right direction.

March 3, 2008

On graphical adventure games & awards

Switching gears for a bit...

A short while ago TIGSource made note of the recent 2007 Adventure Game Studio Awards. These are annual awards for excellence given to freeware games made with the AGS system. The awards have been handed out since 2001, although I admit I haven't been an AGS user or player and didn't know much about the awards or community. Still, for those who like LucasArts-style graphical adventure games, there are a lot of good games out there, and I thought I would check them out for once.

This year's two biggest winners are Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! (5 awards, including Best Game, Best Gameplay, and Best Dialogue Writing) and A Tale of Two Kingdoms (4 awards, including Best Puzzles and Best Animation).


Nelly Cootalot is a medium-length game, and the download is 15MB in size. The graphics have a nice hand-drawn quality and are very polished, and the interface utilizes a "verb coin" that appears when you hold down the left mouse button. You play the protagonist, Nelly, a "fearsome pirate and lover of tiny and adorable creatures," charged with investigating "the mysterious disappearance of a fleet of birds known as spoonbeaks". It should take a few hours to play, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.


Two Kingdoms is a longer game ("full-length"), with "an atmosphere of fairy tales, magic, and intrigue." It has been described as a very large game with an enormous amount of detail, especially hidden goodies -- and it's a huge download, coming in at 96MB. I have read about some inconsistencies in the world model, but the graphics and animation look excellent from what I have seen so far. Given my own time constraints, I probably won't be able to play the whole thing, but I'm definitely eager to dig into it.

It's interesting to put this into context with Indiegames.com's recent "Best Freeware Adventure Games 2007", which lists A Tale of Two Kingdoms at #9 and Nelly Cootalot at #11.


The top spot was occupied by "Fedora Spade", a game in which you play a detective attempting to solve complicated cases by gathering evidence and questioning crime suspects. I haven't tried it yet, but it appears to have a simple menu-driven interface and retro-style graphics. Given that, I'm interested to find out what worked so well to give it the top spot.


Of note, at #2 is "Covert Front", a Flash-based spy game which has you investigating the disappearance of a general Karl von Toten. Per the web site, "the plot takes place in 1904 but in a different reality-line, where the first world war has already begun due to earlier technical revolution that took place in the mid 19th century." The game is supposed to take place over 4 episodes; only the first two are currently available. It's a simple game with a point-and-click interface; despite some pixel hunting, the artwork and sound effects work really well. I enjoyed it and would recommend it for a few minutes of idle time.