Over the last month I’ve played through The Walking Dead Seasons 1 and 2, Life is Strange, and Until Dawn, and in the past I have also played Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and The Wolf Among Us. I don’t know what this genre of games is, or should be called (I guess I’ll suffice with “graphic adventure” for now), but I find it fascinating both from a game design perspective and because of its implications for the entire aesthetic medium of video games.
The first important aspect I want to point out about the above listed games is that nearly all of them are quite good. With the exceptions of Indigo Prophecy and Beyond: Two Souls, all of the listed games are rather remarkable achievements in video game design and I’d recommend them to any casual or hardcore gamer.
What’s significant here is that the graphic adventure genre is both new and rather small, yet seems to consistently produce games of high quality. I can’t think of any other video game genre which I have enjoyed 75% of the time. Sure, the games I played were largely selected in accordance to my expectations of quality based on my analysis of reviews and past experience with particular game developers, but my selection criteria is still pretty broad within the genre. Of the eight games I played, four developers, arguably three or four genres, and an expansive variety of tones are represented. So I do find it rather remarkable that so many games in such a small and experimental genre have been so damn good.
I don’t think the genre’s ongoing quality has been coincidental, or even just a result of good game developers making the right design decisions. Rather, the genre’s success comes from its natural inclination towards a merger of mechanics and narrative, which really should be the focus of all video game design, but rarely is in conventional genres.
Video games are inherently interactive, I would even argue that interactivity is the defining characteristic of the medium as a whole, but traditionally video games have been oriented towards mechanical interactivity to the exclusion of narrative interactivity. The result has been the classic design formula seen in games like The Last of US wherein the gameplay is periodically interrupted by movie-like cutscenes which carry the bulk of the storytelling weight. While these games can be functional, the segregation of mechanics and narrative in separate spheres, the first of which has a large degree of player control, and the second of which has little to no player control, naturally hinders the game’s sense of interactivity, and thus the product as a whole. What graphic adventure games do so well is break the narrative-mechanic wall, and merge the two parts together, so the player’s input is integral to both the mechanics and narrative simultaneously.
This isn’t to say that the graphic adventure genre is inherently superior to all other game genres, only that its basic format tends to push developers to utilize interactivity more than other genres. Western RPGs, grand strategy games, or FPSs can all use interactivity to great effect, but the expansiveness of those genres in comparison to graphic adventures tend to allow their games to falter towards mechanical-narrative segregation, or even the complete exclusion of decent mechanics (ie. Bioshock) or sensible narratives (ie. Destiny).
To appreciate how truly remarkable the success of graphic adventure games has been, we have to recognize the inherent difference between mechanical and narrative interactivity. Mechanical interactivity has been the bread and butter of the video game industry since video games were first created. Games developers design mechanical systems in which the player controls components to steer some element of the system towards a win state. In Pong, the player’s control extends to moving a paddle to block a ball from scoring on his own goal while he tries to knock it into another goal. From that simple beginning, mechanical interactivity has scaled up along dozens of parameters from the massive scope of managing thousands of individuals and abstract forces in a grand strategy game like Crusader Kings II, to the sharp microsecond deviations of player-character movements in Super Smash Bros. Despite whatever mechanical differences have emerged between games, the goal of developers has always been to give the player a sense of efficaciousness within a given system so that the player’s interactivity has or at least appears to have a significant impact on the outcome of system’s events.
By effectively merging mechanics and narrative, graphic adventure games are forced to accommodate player interactivity with both mechanics and narratives rather than primarily or entirely one or the other. The mechanical interactivity tends to be pretty simple in these games; quick time events and basic puzzles make up the bulk of mechanical systems in graphic adventures, and the most the developers can do with them is balance challenge with severity of outcome in a way that creates a sense of excitement and fairness to the mechanics’ impacts on the narrative.
On the other hand, how player choice effects narrative is not only the most important interactive component of graphic adventures, but also a vastly more undeveloped form of interactivity in video game history. Narrative interactivity is essentially similar to mechanical interactivity in that developers must focus on designing systems which make player choice efficacious, however, the components of narrative systems are at this time relatively undeveloped compared to their mechanical counter parts.
For the sake of comparison, consider how the FPS has mechanically evolved over the years. An important component of mechanical interaction in FPSs is weapon choice. The player must choose a weapon based on a variety of factors including available ammo, enemy type, personal skill, and expected future obstacles. The player has to calculate risks and trade-offs between each option. Pistols have good range but low damage, shotguns have high damage but a low rate of fire, rocket launchers have AOE effects but ammo is scarce, etc. Second only to the player’s raw shooting skills, weapon choice is probably the most important interactive element of an FPS by the standard of the player’s effect on the game’s content and outcome.
In the early days of the FPS, the great pioneer, Doom, offered eight useable weapons for its players to choose from. In 2012, Borderlands 2 offered the player… 17.75 million useable weapons. OK, admittedly Borderlands has unique procedural generation properties, so a more reasonable comparison might be the latest Battlefield, which has 54 useable weapons. While the variance between all 17.75 million Borderlands weapons, or even Battlefield: Hardline’s 54 weapons is nowhere near as wide on average as the variance between Doom’s eight weapons, the overall complexity created by the modern FPSs’ options is far greater. The player doesn’t just choose between broad weapon types like a shotgun and an assault rifle, but between numerous varieties of shotguns and assault rifles, each of which contains minute variations in firing speed, damage, recoil, etc. Hence players have more options with more subtleties and more potential impacts on how their player character interacts with his gameplay system. As a result, the overall result of this weapons development is that modern FPS players have much greater potential to mechanically impact their games through their own interactivity in the modern day than in the Doom era.
Given how much focus has been traditionally paid to mechanical interactivity, narrative interactivity is much closer to relative Doom levels of complexity than Borderlands/Battlefield levels of complexity. Granted, games based on narrative interactivity have always been around in some form, including some of the first video games ever which were essentially computerized text-adventure games. However, the level of scale, polish, complexity, and player efficacy offered by the likes of Until Dawn and The Walking Dead is a new development which only emerged in 2005 with Quantic Dream’s Indigo Prophecy. The old text-based games were basically choose-your-own-adventure books offered through a computer instead of a book, while the new graphic adventure games are closer to multi-layered movies written and performed with numerous forms of the script which the player can switch between at will.
With this context in mind, the consistent success of the graphic adventure genre over the past few years has been all the more remarkable. The earlier Quantic Dream games (Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls) were inconsistent but apparently paved the way for Telltale and then a second wave of developers to capitalize on the genre’s strong narrative focus and ability to make connections between the player and the story’s characters. These developers are working in relatively uncharted waters. Unlike the endless stream of FPSs, open world games, 2D platformers, etc. which pour out of AAA and indie developers every year, the graphic adventure genre doesn’t have an extensive template of past successes and failures to work off of. Sure, old school adventure games have similar DNA, but the combination of movie-quality production values, complex plots, deep characterization, and player choice is a novel cocktail which has proven to be a runaway success in the right hands.
Part 2 of “The Success of Graphic Adventures and the Necessity of Choice Illusion” will focus on the dynamics of narrative choice in modern graphic adventure games and the crucial component of “choice illusion” in both their development and success.