Why has adventure game design stagnated?

That’s the question asked in a long, fascinating, complex post on the Frictional Games (Amnesia, Penumbra) blog today. The problem according to the writer, is that modern adventure games have fallen into two categories – the Puzzle Approach and the Linear Plot approach – and each presents nagging limitations.

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The classic example of the Puzzle Approach is Monkey Island. These games

are made up from a set of interconnected tasks that need to be completed. In order to get to A you need to B and C, C requires that D and E are done and so forth. The entire game basically becomes a big puzzle for the player to solve…Because the focus is on constantly providing riddles and quests for the player, the game must have a story that support this. There must be a reason for the player to question characters, ways to provide clear goals, plenty opportunity to set up obstacles and an environment that support clever puzzles.

In other words, there are severe limitations based on plot because the plot must be structrued around the game’s puzzles. The Linera Plot approach, of which the best example is probably Heavy Rain, has far more latitude in terms of storytelling, but total story scripting puts major constraints on gameplay:

The main issue is that there is not really much interaction, especially when it comes to building a sense of presence…it is very hard to have some sort of consistency in interaction, partly because activities can be so diverse and partly because they happen so rarely. Heavy Rain went the route of QTE’s and the result is not that good…much of the sense of exploration evaporates. Whenever players are given a space to explore it is very confined and static. The cause of this is that the game always need to make sure that you can go back into “cut scene mode” after an interactive section is over. There is a bottleneck that needs to be reached with very specific requirements met.

Frictional’s solution is something they call the “Scene Approach”, which is a sort of hybrid. They define as follows:

The basic idea is that you give the player an area, a scene, where they are free to roam. When appropriate players are able to leave and enter the next scene. Each scene should have a strong focus on some form of activity and/or theme and be self contained. Moving on to the next scene should be evident, either by a very simple interaction (e.g. opening a door), some form of activity (e.g. starting a generator) or by reaching some sort of state (e.g. waiting for a 2 minutes). The same underlying base mechanics should be used throughout the game and interactions should behave in a consistent manner. The wanted end result is to have an experience where the narrative flows throughout the game, but retains a tight interaction loop and a strong sense of agency. It is basically about taking the better interactive moments from the linear plot approach and stretching them out into scenes with globally coherent interaction.

Thinking back to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I can picture this approach in action. The different sections of the game – not quite levels – are quite self-contained and each features its own activity or theme that arises naturally from the setting. The storytelling mostly comes out of discoveries in each scene. So is this the future for adventure games? I can’t think of a better adventure in the past few years than Dark Descent, can you?