Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Adventures

To start things off, I want to compare two older games I recently played: The Longest Journey and LOOM.

Both of these games are from the previously defunct but now resurrected point and click adventure genre. A player typically enters an environment, explores it to find objects and/or non-playable characters to interact with, and encounters some sort of puzzle that must be solved in order to progress to the next area or plot point to repeat the process.They also tend to focus heavily on dialogue, character, and plot.

Released in 1999, The Longest Journey was one of the last great adventure games released (with 2002's Syberia, perhaps, being the very last) before the genre's current revival. It centers around 18 year old April Ryan and her reluctant quest to save both her world, the science oriented Stark, and the magic filled Arcadia, from being destroyed by the forces of Chaos. Stark, as far as I can tell, is our world, just several hundred years in the future.

As the player solves puzzles and the plot progresses, April fulfills a few prophecies, reunites estranged races, and ends up cavorting with god-like dragons as she fights to restore balance to the two worlds. Before all that, and after a brief dream-like prologue, the game introduces us to April and her daily life. We meet her landlord, Fiona, and her partner Mickey. We also encounter her two closest friends. Emma is the hot friend who always ends up with the wrong guy. Charlie is the open minded but tragically friend-zoned companion she works with. There's the sleazy neighbor who just wants to get in April's pants and penny pinching boss who nevertheless cares for his employees. They're all painted with broad strokes, but they effectively convey April's little community and provide a human anchor for the epic events that follow.

As the game continued, I found myself hooked on finding out what the next fantastic environment would be. There's a huge variety of locales featured in the game, all beautifully rendered and in pseudo-3D. Despite that, though, whenever I was back in Stark I made it a point to try to find my friends in the game and see how they were doing and what they were up to. They tended to be my main motivation for continuing in the game.

This brings up my main point. In adventure games, I rarely enjoy the puzzle solving. What some see as the meat of the gameplay, I usually see as an irritating obstacle keeping me from finding out what happens next. I enjoy the stories and characters in adventure games more than anything else. While there is of course a certain satisfaction that comes from solving many of the puzzles, I very quickly lose patience when I get stuck on a particularly obtuse problem. Sometimes the leap in logic required is not at all what I'd consider logical. Other times, the environments conspire to make me miss a crucial item or object with which to interact. When I think back on an adventure game I played in the past, I remember two things: the writing and characters, and the puzzles I got stuck on. I may remember a puzzle's solution on a repeat playthrough, but I generally don't think about them afterward. When I'm gushing to someone about The Longest Journey, it's usually about the character of April Ryan or a particularly memorable event in the plot. Similarly, the things I remember about The Secret of Monkey Island are the great gags and jokes, and how I always seem to get stuck on the boat after getting off Melee Island.

Contrast this with LOOM, which features a more traditional fantasy world where you, as Bobbin Threadbare, learn to "weave" spells by playing musical notes with a distaff. Each spell consists of four notes, and some can be reversed to produce the opposite effect. For example, the Open spell also closes things when played in reverse.

Like all PC adventure games you click on the environment with the mouse to move around and select objects. To cast spells, though, you press the keyboard key corresponding to the note you wish to play. To turn straw into gold, press C, C, C, and E. This added an interesting tactile feel to all the puzzles. Clicking the mouse is something that long time computer users don't notice or acknowledge unless something goes wrong. Games like Diablo and Starcraft have taken clicking the mouse to almost absurd extremes, but it still requires little effort or thought to move the mouse button down a few millimeters. 

This more methodical, tactile approach reminded me of the first time I played the Wii or DS. The novelty of doing the same old thing in new ways makes quite an impression, even though that novelty wears off quickly. It seems like a silly thing to say; playing games on the computer of course requires the use of the keyboard. The WASD keys in shooters are such a standard that my fingers instinctively go to that position when I sit at my keyboard, and they're effectively invisible when I play those games. With LOOM, though, the gameplay is completely different, and perhaps because I have no musical skills in my body, entering each spell was a somewhat methodical act. The Open spell is used often so I memorized it quickly, but others required me to hunt them down in the manual where I wrote them down. Then it was a matter of pecking at each key to fire off the spell. Instead of just clicking through the puzzles, I actually felt like I was interacting with them. While I still got stuck a few times, I tended to look forward to the next time I could cast a spell and have it work.

I found out later that you can click on the notes displayed on the screen instead of pressing the keys, but I stuck with the latter. I suspect a more musically inclined person would have gone through the game quicker than I did. Indeed, there is a higher difficulty level where the notes are not displayed on screen and only by listening and knowing what each note is can you cast it. Something like that is only possible with this particular game, but it's a wonderfully unique way of adding challenge.

The makers of video game consoles have spent decades figuring out how to make good controllers, game developers have wrestled with creating the best control schemes for those controllers, and it's often said that the best games make you forget that you're holding a controller at all. The old keyboard and mouse, though, doesn't seem to get much attention. Barring flight sims and maybe racing games, it's just what you use on the PC. LOOM made me "see" the keyboard again, and it made the experience more enjoyable as a whole.

No comments:

Copyright © Alethiometry | Theme by BloggerThemes & frostpress | Sponsored by BB Blogging