116: Information Complexity and the Downfall of the Adventure Game

Information Complexity and the Downfall of the Adventure Game

"To further complicate the situation, CD-ROMs are now the primary medium for games. This means game developers have virtually no restriction on the number of screens they can put into a game; often, clicking on one part of a screen yields a close-up shot of the area, and some areas are shot from multiple perspectives. Several screens are purely cosmetic. While this is all quite pretty, it also requires the user to sift through even more irrelevance."

Atul Varma looks at the clash between photo realism and user interface in adventureegames.

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The central point made in this article will doubtless strike a chord with anyone who - like me - has spent hours searching for tiny hotspots in adventure games.

Still, I think a key point is being overlooked here. With a text-based interface, the player always knew what objects were in play, but would often have to struggle to find the right wording to enable an action even if the action they were attempting was conceptually spot on.

This problem remains unsolved. The best way to give control to the player is to give them a menu of options. The downside of this being that seeing the list of other things the game allows is likely to present them with solutions to problems they have not yet solved, quite possibly including the one they're currently stuck on.

I think multiple perspectives could be argued here. In my opinion, locating 'actionable' objects is a kind of talent in and of itself in adventure games.

I personally find early Sierra games frustrating precisely because of the limited color palette. A chair with a broken leg doesn't seem any different from the other three chairs in the room. How much information can you really give with 9 pixels? The text parsers in these games don't help much, either. I can recall a couple games where even leaving a room was problematic:

go door (fail)
go entry (fail)
leave room (fail)
east (fail)
out (fail)
exit (you quit the game)

Also, in the later 256-color adventure games, actionable objects simply looked different than the other objects around them. Interactive elements had to be manually drawn on top of the painted static backgrounds, making inventory item or lever stand out. Weirdly enough, the higher the production values, the easier this distinction was to make. Anyone remember Phantasmagoria?

Also, hotspots make great barometers of game design. The quality is in how these locations are placed: is the coin hidden in one of fifteen different cups in the room that you have to hover over, or does one in particular catch a flash of light, drawing your eye? Does the narrator hint that an object can be examined further, or are you expected to examine every object in your inventory individually?

While hotspots may be annoying, their proper use is without a doubt the sign of a good adventure game!

I have to agree entirely with this article. I loath hotspots in games. RPGs suffer from this problem too. I was playing Astonishia Story yesterday for hours, with no idea how to advance in the game. Finally I got fed up and looked at FAQ. Hotspot. An area that didn't look any different from other areas was hot and clicking on it arbitrarily gave me an item I needed and things flowed like silk from there.

This isn't fun, nor is it good design. And just because you've gotten good at spotting them just means you've gotten used to a lousy gaming convention. However, that doesn't make it less lousy. These are adventure games, if you like hotspots there's an entire subgenre devoted to it. Or you could pick up a Where's Waldo book. Frankly, if you need to arbitrarily extend the life/difficulty of a game by making an object barely visible there probably isn't that much of a game there. It's the Adventure equivalent of grinding.

Even the new Sam and Max games suffered from that occasionally. Every single time I was stuck, (Every. Single. Time.) was because of a missed hotspot. On one occasion the hotspot was intentionally hidden as part of the puzzle. The worst part was, I had looked EXACTLY where the game wanted me to (by paying attention to the hints in the game) but because the object blended into the background I didn't realize it was there. I ended up clicking on the thing accidentally.

The problem with adventure games has nothing to do with slow-pacing or complex puzzles (issues I often hear cited by "adventure snobs" as to the reason the genre is on life support) but the fact that you can solve a puzzle within minutes of being presented with it and then spend hours trying to determine how to manipulate the interface in order to get the game to do what is you want it to do.

And as great as some adventure games are, none of them are worth that kind of frustration.

I agree to an extent. My family grew up playing adventure games until the day space quest II got us stuck. It turned out we never looted the crashed space ship and the countless hours spent trying to analyze everything exhausted my fathers patience and he quit gaming with my brother and I. It wasn't till my brothers friend gave us a walkthough that we finally solved that game and I suppose I always held the pixels responsible for not showing me glass around the crash site.

However I have always loved adventure games, especially all things Lucasarts. In fact, I recently picked up Grim Fandango having never played it and fell in love with the genre again. I plan on playing the Sam and Max episodes once the entire game is completed - I don't really like episodes.
I wanted to reiterate, though, that simplicity can often lead to great puzzles or adventures. An interesting take on modern puzzlers comes from the grow games I've been fiddling with at www.eyezmaze.com. They are simple click games whose completion depends upon the order in which you click the selectables. Quite easy but devilishly fun and reminiscent of games from my yesteryears.

Thanks for the great read guys...keep em coming...

What the author wrote is basically not true. The downfall of Adventure games is not caused by graphical complexity, but its a eventual paradigm shift in the industry. When the downfall began, people were demanding more "action" in their gaming titles, therefore you get games like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, which are adventure games with heavy action elements. You get dumb kids that want to just shoot things and chop things up instead of just solving puzzles and not having any action to do, the industry demanded action. You can see the evidence of this in King's Quest 8: Mask of Eternity, where the game shifted toward action game play, even games like Ultima IX, which earlier predecessor of the game looked nothing like a graphic adventure now looked identical to King's Quest 8.

As for having too much info on the screen, this was all solved by the excellent adventure Grim Fandango, which adopted the Resident Evil / Alone in the Dark movement system and the character looks at the object of interest when he travels so u instantly know where you would pick up an object. And for adventure games like the new Sam and Max series, the game is widely known to be too easy, with limited items and location you can use them on, only a person with single brain cell would have trouble not solving the game.

Also as longevity of games becoming more important, like role-playing games claiming 60 hours of game play, people want more for what they pay for. With the advent of the Internet, you can find solutions to adventure games right away, and most of them won't even last more than 2 hours if you followed a walkthru. You needed the action to breakup the adventure and stoy-telling part of the game play, and perhaps games like Quest for Glory would have been quite popular today if they looked like games like Onimusha and God of War.

And Paradigm shifts happen all the time. We are again facing another shift of the casual gaming industry blooming, and with that, also the return of adventure games with the episodic download of Sam and Max. And at the end, graphics complexity has nothing to do with downfall of adventure games, I think I have proven that with my points. The advance of technology has only let us tell more immersive stories, from Zork we advanced to Gabriel Knight 2 and to Quantic Dreams' Farenheit, all better and better storytelling for adventure gaming platforms, as graphical complexity increases.


Wolfrider-- were you replying to me? Not sure if you were.

I think good design transcends gameplay quirks. Hotspots are included in this. If you remember back to when the mouseover brand of hotspots started appearing in adventures (King's Quest VII) they were criticized for *simplifying* gameplay too much. Purists didn't want to have the interactive objects on each page pointed out to them and others complained it made games less "gamey."

Now look: almost every modern game has some version of the mouseover hotspot technique implemented. In some console games a character's head will look at objects he/she can interact with. In first-person games a label will appear in the targetting reticule.

If I had to pick my biggest frustration with the idea of complexity and hotspots, it would be import games, especially those derivative of Final Fantasy. In these titles there is rarely an audio or visual reminder for actionable objects, so you run around clicking the A button on ever. single. barrel. you run accross. In fact, you spam the A-button the whole game, because there's always the off-chance you'll discover something that can unlock a "secret" item.

It's games like those that inspire gigantic FAQs. I had a friend who could not finish Final Fantasy VII without printing out the entire 200-page guide. He felt alienated by all the things he'd 'missed' by going to where the game pointed him to.

That's where the bad design is, IMO!

This is why Dreamfall's focus field was a good thing.

I recently got round to playing both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, having intended to for years. The longest I was stuck in TLJ turned out to be down to a broken mirror that turned out to be two hotspots despite appearing to be one. The only time I got stuck in Dreamfall was because of a musical puzzle I couldn't solve due to being tone deaf. I can live with that. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, even if I had to consult a walkthrough eventually. In TLJ I was just wandering aimlessly looking for the one thing I'd missed.

Text adventures certainly aren't dead - interactive fiction is still around, and with tools like Inform 7 making their construction (though not necessarily their design) so simple, it hardly seems that it's going to go away.

The problem is, text-only adventures don't have a lot of assets to them. There's just the text. That text may be amazing, but there's still the perception that it's easier to make than a text-only game than a graphical one (which is accurate if the games have a similar amount of content, but that's not necessarily the case). Consequently, you can't sell them for as much as you can sell other games for.

However, they're still perceived as a game, and in the minds of many, a game without a lot of assets means a game without a lot of content. Which means the game is short. You can't sell a short game for more than a long one without some serious flash to make up for it, and text really doesn't have marketable flash.

Between these two things, the fact of the matter is that it became economically unsustainable to make text-mode adventure games. There's just no price too low as long as people are comparing them against software at large, despite there being a very real audience for them, and no real barriers for growth. That's why the name "interactive fiction" has caught on more of late, I think. They don't stack up well by the traditional game metrics, so they've rebranded.

The missing links between IF and the graphical adventure went extinct in the graphics arms race, and the demise of that genre's later examples is widely documented. Although, as with any kind of game that becomes unsustainable in the marketing department, indie enthusiasts are there to pick up the slack.

No, you're all still dancing around the issue.

Adventure games are dead because they were all based on the conceit that players should be able to read the designer's mind.

That user interface and pacing didn't matter so long as they could be amused by using every item in their inventory on each other to create some unimaginable amalgamation required to open a door or some other ridiculousness.

I peek over at Manifesto Games and there's apparently a really popular adventure game called The Shivah, which purports to be a wonderful and culturally relevant story that goes so far as to re-use a classic game mechanic from another game (the "insult duels" from Monkey Island are now some kind of challenge system to religious dogma) and there's a bunch of great reviews.

Except when you get to the bottom of the review and people are stuck on some random quest.

I guess they're all just morons, right? Can't think sideways enough to complete the game? Guess you need a walkthrough or a strategy guide. Bet you're still curious enough to see how it ends, aren't you, you brainless fuckwit?

Adventure games are good for one thing, though, and that's inspiring people to become game developers. Never mind that Grim Fandango sold like mouse nuts, it's a classic! I want to dazzle minds and punish the unworthy with my horrible walk-around-and-mutter-useless-things-about-what-I'm-looking-at mechanics! FEAR MY GENIUS.

That's not a fundamental flaw of the genre, that's just poor design. It's like a mystery novel which doesn't give the reader enough clues to solve it on his own.

Name me an adventure game that isn't 1) a hybrid of some other genre or 2) well designed in regard to pacing and having puzzles that most humans can be expected to figure out with the clues available and without the need of a hint book.

Even Psychonauts had a help feature where Ford would just tell you what you had to do (except if you made it all the way to The Milkman Conspiracy without the cobweb collector and then you were screwed.)

Peasant's Quest, for one. The Ace Attorney series. I hear good things about the recent Sam & Max games, but haven't played them yet. Going back further in time, we find The Neverhood, Loom, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. It's ludicrous to suggest that it can't be done. However, it has been done so rarely that we would do well to consider why not.

I seriously miss adventure games. The last one I enjoyed was Zork: Grand Inquisitor which I can't believe is already 10 years old(By the way how did the author fail to mention Zork at all?). Before that was my all-time favorite, Zork: Nemesis. What's great about these games is you play (or Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person) and despite being this AFGNCAAP you still feel like you're part of the world and are affecting it vastly more so than if you're playing a Master Chief or other well defined person. Which was my problem with Dreamfall and other 3rd person adventures.

I don't want to be this girl, guy, or talking dog, I want to be me. Perhaps that's one reason adventure games are waning. Not totally because of gameplay issues like hotspots but because they fail to involve the player on a personal level.

I understand and somewhat agree to the points you make in this article, but plenty of counter-arguments can be made.

like some people have already commented, while text gives you a small amount of objects you can interact with, you may spend a long time and plenty of typing figuring out HOW to interact with them. Pet dog; touch dog; grab dog; feed dog; kick dog; kick dog; kick dog....

In a graphics game you would generally just need to click the dog. But then again, in some games you may need to try to give every damn item in your inventory to the dog to find the 1 matching puzzle piece. Arguments on this topic can definitely go both ways depending on the specific games involved.

Thanks for the article. I'd love to read more about adventure games.

Bongo Bill:
I hear good things about the recent Sam & Max games, but haven't played them yet.

I have. They're all read-the-designer's-mind quests, albeit with listen-to-the-wacky-animals-yammer while you plug-everything-into-everything.

Bongo Bill:
Going back further in time, we find The Neverhood, Loom, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. It's ludicrous to suggest that it can't be done.

It isn't done much. Those games are really goddamned old, and none of them were financial successes (part of why Infocom closed and LucasArts closed the "cleverness division".)

I don't think anyone brought them up but Yahtzee Crowshaw's Chzo games he made were absolutely brilliant examples of how good adventure games could be without flashy graphics. The games can be downright spooky at times and when they aren't giving you a good chuckle they're puzzling you at a moderate amount. I think only once in the entire series did I run across the "Oh shit that was a post-it note? I thought it was a piece of cheese" sort of situation in which the graphics bite you in the ass.

Any one played this game, Bad Mojo (click on it for review)? A fine example of a perfect conglomeration of complex graphics and simple interface.


The downfall of the adventure game? This conversation might have been apropos ten years ago ("now we have CD-ROM technology!"). In 2007 we have the Nancy Drew series, Sam and Max, a small army of DS games... Adventure games take up a third of the shelf space of the PC section at my local Best Buy. The genre is as big as it's ever been -- it's just a smaller proportion of a much bigger and more diverse ecosystem.

I wish the article did something a little more than just elaborately point out one of many well-known issues with adventure games (and a very simple and rather minor one at that). I found the comments in this thread generally more interesting than the article itself (though the latter does get credit for spurring the discussion).

For my part, I certainly don't think that information complexity is what's killing adventure games. It may way be killing some portions of the IT industry, but that's a different story entirely. As pointed out in several previous posts, there are plenty of effective ways of dealing with information complexity in games (and graphical information complexity in particular). This is by far not adventure genre's biggest problem. Some of the other issues mentioned hit a lot closer to home. One that I'd like to bring up is the fact that many adventure game designers seem to be confused as to what exactly they'd like their game to be. As I see it, a good adventure game has to have its priorities straight, and there are normally two main contenders: 1) storytelling and 2) puzzle solving. If your main focus is trying to tell a story, and you design with that in mind, and do a reasonably good job, you end up with a game like Dreamfall. It's linear, and it's pretty easy, and it rarely makes you stumble, but it tells an incredible story that leaves a receptive listener in awe. Or, if you prefer to focus on puzzle solving, and design with that in mind, and do a reasonably good job, you put out something like one of the Leisure Suit Larry games. It's not really about the story, that's just "glue"; it's about cleverness, and good puzzles, and a little trial and error (of the fun kind), and a good reward system so people can feel good about all that hard puzzle-solving work.

The trouble comes when you try to create something in the middle. Then you invariably end up with puzzles that frustrate the player because they pop up all of a sudden and interrupt the telling of a story. All the player wants to do is see what happens next, but instead they are forced to move blocks around on the screen. If they can get rid of the puzzle quickly, great, but if it takes longer than two minutes, it's usually a disaster. Or conversely, you have a person looking for a good challenge, some interesting ways to use their head, and what they get instead is some dumb oversimplified minigames and incessant cutscenes and dialog that they keep swiping away in hopes of finding a real challenge, only to stumble into more "filler". Another disaster.

And if designers are confused, what can be said of the players themselves? The adventure genre features probably the most misguided player expectations ever. Players expect story and get puzzles, expect puzzles and get story, and every variation in between. Perfectionism drives us to try to create the perfect medium between the two, yet that sweetspot is so elusive that the number of games that have achieved it over the entire history of the genre can probably be counted on one hand. I believe the genre would be better served by designers who would stick closer the two extremes, and clearly communicate to the players about what kind of adventure game they are making. Then we'd have storytelling adventure games (essentially interactive movies) played by story lovers, and puzzle adventure games (essentially contextualized brain teasers) played by puzzle lovers. As is, we mostly keep stepping on each other's feet in the middle like a bunch of blind sheep.

Is anyone else really optimistic about zack and wiki? Despite the terrible name, it seems to be getting positive previews across the boards. I especially like the fact that its puzzles seem to be all self contained with the levels. Nothing annoys me more than having to find an item in one place and then use it somewhere completely different several hours later without any clues or warning *cough* monkey island *cough*.

When I heard about the pointer nature of the wii remote, the first thing I thought was adventure games. I really hope that Z&W shows that it can be done, and done well, and other developers start getting on board.

Yeah in general complexity in information only enhances the adventure experience, and its up to the designer to not fall into a trap to give us too much info for the player to play the game. Things like highlighted objects that stands out from the background or the character looking towards important objects all give us a better and easier playing experience. I see no way that more realistic interactive story telling actually can possibly be a worse experience than a text adventure.

Have you guys tried any games made by Adventure Game Studio, there's a cult following of these fan-made games (just like text adventures) and they give out awards every year, some of these are very professionally made games, including the remake of King's Quest 1 - 3 VGA version (with speech), Maniac Mansion, original Series like Ben Jordan and Apprentice is especially good (check the list of award winners).

Many people still love adventure games. And I suggest people who enjoys LucasArts adventures download ScummVm (which let you play in current system in a window) and replay many of the great old games.


Well summarized. In adventure games, one has to feel like a detective, searching for the tiniest clues on a crime scene to find the murderer. That's exactly what those screenshots seem like. In games, people want to play, not have a second job. Well, that clears up the popularity of Halo.


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