Nov 28, 2012

A System of Interaction

I've been thinking about game design, lately. This is nothing unusual for me; usually at some point during my day, every day, I will think about game design in some way. Lately I've been thinking about systems, and how they affect the way we play and design games.

To me, a system is the rules and structure of the universe that the game takes place in. It is the interface, the objects that we can interact with and the things that prevent our progress. In Tetris, the system allows us to move blocks, rotate blocks, recognizes when we've created a complete line, continues to spawn blocks and ends the game if the blocks reach the top of the screen. A game's system can be simple or complex - from the basic interaction of judging jumps in Canabalt to managing dozens of different factors in Jagged Alliance 2.

Being fond of both creating and playing point and click adventures, I've been looking and thinking about the systems they use quite a bit lately. Adventure games are often quite similar in terms of what systems they throw at us. We're used to picking up items and having them in our inventory, we're used to selecting a choice from a list of dialogue options, and most of us are used to having a range of verbs to use on the game's world. This system has been around for as long as I can remember - I grew up in the post-parser era of adventure game design, and I cut my adventuring teeth on this style of gameplay.

Instant gameplay - just adverbs!

That's getting a little bland, however.

There are games that push the system further. Disworld Noir (and the Blackwell games) give you a notebook with clues you can combine. You could fight your way past obstacles as Indiana Jones (and had to in Gemini Rue). Full Throttle is regularly criticized for its motorcycle riding and demolition derby puzzles, and Resonance is regularly praised for its use of memories as items (this was also done in long lost AGS adventure Diamonds in the Rough). Day of the Tentacle, Beneath a Steel Sky and others give you multiple characters you can control to figure solutions out. But I feel the potential exists to do so much more.

As a designer, I am absolutely guilty of creating game ideas based around the interfaces I've become comfortable with playing and creating with. It annoys me that I don't push myself to design more interesting interfaces. I've built a few prototypes around new ways of interacting with a world, but these rarely amount to anything more than an interesting gimmick. There must be a secret I am missing, somewhere.

I will always remember the very first time I played the genre-spanning behemoth that is Deus Ex. I was a fan of first person shooters but generally preferred other genres because I found the systems were often quite bland - rewarding reflexes rather than logic. Playing Deus Ex caught me off guard - suddenly I could do more with a barrel than just shoot it and watch it explode. I could pick it up and move it somewhere else, and use it as a platform to jump onto a roof with. I could stack barrels. I could carefully watch a robot's patrol route, pick a barrel up and move it into that patrol route, retreat and shoot it as the robot went past, exploding and disabling it. I could throw the barrel off to one side, distracting a guard and letting me sneak past him. Or sneak up on him.

Planescape: Torment - the only game that gives a guy who looks like a dead man the ability to dress up as a guy who looks like even more of a dead man.

The act of adding something so simple to a game's system as being able to pick up items and move them around added so much to the game itself. Locked doors could be bypassed if you were willing to carry an explosive crate all the way across the level. Building rooftops became instantly accessible. You could move a crate into a part of the map missing a decent hiding spot and hide behind it - or hide the body of a downed enemy behind/beneath crates and boxes so that nobody would see them laying there and become alerted. Suddenly, the things that previously existed to give a bit of visual flavour and variety to a level became a toolbox with which the player could make his way through the levels. Actual gameplay was born from this simple addition to the system.

That's beautiful. I believe it's called 'Emergent gameplay' (I've since learned that this term applies to gameplay that takes place outside the rules of the game, and that this is actually referred to as 'Systematic gameplay'), where gameplay can emerge as a result of the player's interaction in the world. It was an absolute revelation for me when I played the game for the very first time.

I haven't found my revelation in adventure games, yet. I thought I had found it when I first played Resonance, and realized that I could talk to anybody about anything by simply dragging the idea of the object in question to them and my character would ask about it. But the limits of the system quickly became clear - trying to write a unique response for every object in this way is no different than coming up with a different response for trying every single inventory item on a character. It's a lovely addition to the genre, but it doesn't change the way I think about adventure games. It does, however, remind me how much potential there is for experimentation in the genre (and with a track record including games like What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed, I look forward to seeing what new ideas Vince Twelve comes up with next).

Being able to instantly drag a subject from the world to the person you want to discuss it with is infinitely more intuitive than choosing the topic from a dialogue tree.

Don't get me wrong - I love adventure games. But I feel the system has under-used potential. Planescape: Torment proved that the expected formula of a game can be turned onto its head and still provide an absolutely compelling experience. I love it when I play games like Gorogoa or Frantic Franko that catch me off guard. New ideas are exciting, and get me absolutely enthused about a game.

I want to rethink the way I play games and the way I design them. Our players are amazing, creative people. They're ready for something fresh.

Let's see if we can find out what it might be.

Oh, and welcome to Fiction in the Machine. We hope you enjoy your time here.


  1. Great read! I definitely feel you on a lot of this, it really does feel like big steps in adventure gameplay are waiting for us around the corner. Keep looking for them!

  2. A most excellent read wise sir! Have been thinking about adventure game systems too lately and I must admit I'm a bit stuck myself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I still enjoy the existing ones, though I am slightly tired of the use object on object on object with object stuff.

    Food for though then...

    Oh, and wouldn't this blog look amazing with a shiny header?

  3. Oh, I wouldn't say that traditional adventures are a wrong way of doing things - I still very much enjy playing through them. What I would say is that I also hunger for something more; as greedy as ever, I want games that satisfy my nostalgia and also games that inspire new possibilities in me. I see no reason, even, why a single game could not achieve both!

  4. Good article. I'm curious myself about new ideas or enhancements in regard to the typical adventure game routine - personally, I think that the "classical" model got totally exhausted in the classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, perhaps the best classical adventure game ever imho. Adventure games' recent comeback delights me to no end, but new game dynamics would be very welcome ... Combining the open world-model with the classical approach perhaps, like some Red Dead Redemption/adventure crossover, creating an even more life-like experience, or something ...
    Anyway, good post, promising blog. You're bookmarked. :-)

    1. During my recent (absolutely enthralling) play through of Red Dead Redemption, I couldn't help feel that it'd make for a beautiful style of adventure game! The act of searching out treasure in RDR was so satisfying, I couldn't help but feel that a game with the same mechanics and aesthetics but less of a focus on combat and more of a focus on discovery and exploration would be absolutely sublime. Tomb Raider games always disappoint me when they make me fight as well - to have such wondrous exploration countered with such dull combat really does frustrate me at times. Journey, however, was something of a step in a more interesting direction.

    2. Holy crap, I would play the hell out of a game based solely on the treasure hunting from rdr. That was damn fun.

    3. Amen! Let it be known: The people want this!

  5. It does seem like in 30 years adventure game design has just been iterative. We went from text adventures to graphical adventures with text parsers, clickable verbs, icons, an all-purpose single cursor, and now analog gamepad controls. Gameplay isn't fundamentally different since the graphical adventures, though. If you ask me text adventures were the most liberating because you weren't constrained by the limitations of art and animations - the designer's creativity and vocabulary were the only limitations.

    Christine Love's visual novels (like Digital: A Love Story) are a good example of how good narrative can make a game seem larger than its technological constraints. It reminds me of a comment Richard Cobbett made recently, saying that adventure games used to "apologize" for their genre by throwing in arcade sequences and such, but that just served to satisfy no one. Maybe what adventure gaming needs is to recognize its story-heavy DNA and allow itself to rely more on narrative.

    1. I agree that Love's work liberates itself from constraints by being evocative, rather than pushing the envelope in more technological areas, and if you think about it, games such as first person shooters and racing games were just as immersive with the technology of 20 years ago as they are today with the latest graphics. It's not the technology that makes the experience, but the human force shaping that technology.

      A good book can be incredibly immersive, with the simplest of mediums, so I don't see why games can't be more so as well!