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Information Complexity and the Downfall of the Adventure Game

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In the beginning, adventure games were pretty straightforward.

Bedroom
The bedroom is a mess.
It is a small bedroom with a faded carpet and old wallpaper.
There is a washbasin, a chair with a tatty dressing gown slung over it, and a window with the curtains drawn. Near the exit leading south is a phone.

The bedroom of Arthur Dent, one of the 35 rooms in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from 1984, is an elegantly simple construction. A few years ago, as I played this game along with a slew of other Infocom titles for the first time since my childhood, I quickly realized how much more fun they were than any adventure game I’d played since. They didn’t necessarily have a better story, perhaps, but they involved virtually none of the tedium and frustration I’d often experienced with the newer entries into the genre.

I started wondering why that was, and it occurred to me that the problem was one of usability.

The thing is, aside from having a reasonably evocative description, Arthur’s room presents the player with a very limited amount of information. There are at most nine different objects we can interact with here: the carpet, the wallpaper, the washbasin, the chair, the gown, the window, the curtains, the phone and the exit leading south. Examining some of these objects will reveal that there appears to be “nothing special about them,” which basically means they’re decoration and don’t influence gameplay. Assuming you know how to touch type, it’s easy to quickly discover what’s important.

The graphical adventure games of this area – the early King’s Quest and Space Quest games, for instance – were constrained by the limited technology of the time. Even the most advanced computers could only display 16 colors at a time, and the resolution of the games was limited to 160×200 pixels. But these constraints meant the amount of information they could present was quite limited – probably more complex than Arthur Dent’s 47-word bedroom, but still navigable. Furthermore, these games didn’t have point-and-click interfaces, because computer mice weren’t widespread at the time. So, like text adventure games, the player had to type his intent at the bottom of the screen. This meant the player could ignore anything onscreen that he couldn’t associate a word with, which made the information space even easier to navigate. For instance, take a look at this screen from Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter:

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The objects with which you can interact are obvious; the player, on the left side of the screen, and a dead guy and a soldier on the right side.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the early 1990s. At this point, computers could display 256 colors, and the screen resolutions of most adventure games had doubled in area to 320×200. Take a look at Gabriel Knight’s bedroom, from Sierra’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.

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This one’s a little more complicated than Arthur Dent’s bedroom. There’s a mask, some beads, books, a toilet, a bathrobe, some shirts, a bed, three lamps, a rug, a poster, a chair and so on. To further complicate things, this game uses a point-and-click interface, which means even objects on the screen that the user can’t identify – a tiny, colorful 3×3 blotch of pixels, for instance – could still be relevant to gameplay.

What this means is the player must systematically move the cursor across the entire screen to determine what is relevant to gameplay. Manually sifting a cursor through the non-empty parts of this screen – a 320×124 area, or about 40,000 pixels – isn’t a whole lot of fun, but it’s manageable.

Still, most games at this time were distributed on 3.5-inch disks, which could each store 1.44 MB of data. This space restriction meant the game’s developers had to significantly limit the number of screens they could put in their games.

Then came the mid-’90s, when the resolution of adventure games quadrupled to 640×480. We’ll take a look at the bedroom of April Ryan in The Longest Journey:

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April’s bedroom is a little sparser than Gabriel’s, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of things the player can potentially interact with; there are at least 25 distinct objects in this scene. The non-empty area of this screen is about 640×365, which means the player needs to sift through about 234,000 pixels of cluttered photorealism to cover the whole area. Kind of daunting.

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.

Now, imagine the horror of real-time, 3-D, first-person adventure games like King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. No longer does the player need to rake through a 2-D scene; he now has to carefully examine every part of a scene from every possible perspective to discover interactive objects.

Fortunately, those kinds of adventure games were short-lived, and for good reason. But even today, the trends continue: Games like Syberia display photorealistic, full-screen scenes at 800×600 resolutions, which means the player needs to sift through a whopping 480,000 pixels of information to find what he needs. It’s a lot easier to process the information space in Arthur Dent’s bedroom and figure out what’s important than it is to process the dozens of distinct objects in this complex scene from Syberia II:

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But spaces can still be high-res and good looking without being overly complex, as shown in Facade:

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Despite the fact Facade isn’t an adventure game, the large areas of solid colors in this cel-shaded image make the visual space much easier to navigate than the turgid photorealism in games like The Longest Journey or Syberia II. There may be a lot of pixels in this image, but because the picture is geometrically simple, it wouldn’t be hard to identify what’s important. The use of simpler spaces is fundamental in making adventure games simple but engaging.

Adventure games, at their core, are about solving puzzles. The fun lies in figuring out how the pieces fit together, not going through mind-numbing tedium to figure out where the pieces are. As adventure games ascend to higher resolutions and more complex, realistic environments, players have to spend more time figuring out what their tools are rather than actually using them to play the game.

Of course, all this isn’t to say visuals are bad; it’s rather that today’s adventure game developers don’t usually understand the difference between making an adventure game that’s just pretty and one that’s fun to play.

Atul Varma is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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