I talked about how adventure games might be able to attract the casual market by giving them a good story to work through while avoiding all the issues with RPGs and FPSs like complicated combat, reflex-gaming, and abstract and confusing character building. But there is one thing that a lot of RPGs, at least, have that adventure games should incorporate into their model: the ability to make a player feel like they’re a part of the world and can have an impact on the story.
Let’s return to my previous comments on what adventure games might have over TV or DVDs, which is that it’s a game, not a static story that you sit there and watch. With the puzzles and gameplay elements, adventure games put the player into the story and make them part of it. They aren’t watching what someone else is doing, but are participating in it. This is, of course, what makes it a game.
But a lot of that is lost if all you do is follow a pre-scripted path where the characters do and say everything and all you do is solve a puzzle occasionally. That becomes an awful lot like sitting in front of a television. It gets even worse if you don’t agree with what the characters in the game are doing; it’s bad enough that characters on a TV show act like idiots, but it’s far worse when they act like idiots when you’re supposedly in the world with them.
It isn’t hard to make it feel like you’re a part of the world. You don’t need to have massive branching paths or major customization, if you set the atmosphere up right. For example, the innovative game “Missing: Since January” aimed precisely at that sort of feeling and to get you to completely suspend your disbelief. It was all aimed at making you really think that you were trying to solve a murder mystery by puzzling out clues left behind by a kidnapper/murderer, using the disk that the authorities sent you. It used websites and E-mails to make you think you were in the game, and I still remember one section where two of your E-mail contacts were both copied on one of your replies and one of them remarks that she was happy to meet the other one. Little things like that can really help you feel like you’re a part of the world.
But that’s not going to work for a game like Gabriel Knight or a game based on Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, or a game that can’t just rely on making you and your computer the whole environment of the game. For those, there needs to be a way for you to feel involved with the world without having to make you — the real you — the main character, because if you go too far with that you’re building an RPG, and no one wants that. So how can you make a player feel like they’re in the world when, really, they aren’t?
For games that are based on established or set characters, give choices as to how the story turns out. Build in a few side plots and let the player decide how they work out. Even things as simple as deciding which romantic interest the character ends up with at the end of the game can really help the player feel like they have an impact on the game, and makes it far superior to watching Smallville and griping that Clark really should have gone for Chloe instead of that Lana … woman.
If the game is aiming to put the player into the game, then you need some customization. Gender, I think, will be huge for this sort of adventure game, especially if you want to pick up the casual market since there seem to be more women in the casual market than anyone expected. And you’ll need to make sure that you avoid forcing the players to act like idiots for drama. But customization is the big thing; RPGs have survived for years by making players act like idiots to increase drama, so why should adventure games be any different?
Ultimately, adventure games have to compete with at least two different media. They have to be easier to play than your average RPG or FPS, to pick up casual gamers, but on the other hand they have to be more interactive than your average television show. If they get it right, they can slot in the middle and profit. If they get it wrong, they’ll fade away again.
Next time: making sure that adventure games are easier than your average RPG or FPS