Games are often criticised for not having any plot. What isn’t given much consideration is whether it’s possible for there to be too much story.
The Longest Journey (Funcom, 2000) made me think about this a lot.
Set in a 23rd-century coastal city, you are April Ryan, a girl who’s just moved there to go to art school. She starts having dreams about dragons and other dimensions and finds out that she’s humanity’s only hope for restoring “the balance.” The triteness of this scenario is redeemed by a few things — April’s sardonic down-to-earth personality clashes nicely with the mystical mumbo-jumbo. Plus, she’s a pretty believable character — her student life comes complete with art assignments, a job at a café and a black pal/love interest.
The voice-acting and the visuals are good, too. You can take the subway to different parts of the near-future city searching for the mysterious homeless guy who turns out to be your dimension-hopping mentor. Although quite beautiful, most locations are filled with non-interactive objects and people, which can become quite frustrating. I tended to move the mouse back and forth methodically upon entering each area to see which things were background scenery and which were “real.” It’s quite easy to miss, for instance, a broken cable on the subway track that’s critical to solving a puzzle.
The character interaction is limited to a choice of five questions you can ask. Five questions may not seem like a lot, but it ends up feeling like a chore to go through each discussion branch, and because you never know when they’re going to say something critical to solving a puzzle, you pretty much have to. Entire histories of neighbourhoods are related, incidental stories about other characters are told, and really, all you want to know is how to get into the movie theatre. And when you do get in there, for instance, you’re rewarded with a five minute cut-scene about how important it is for you to restore the balance, blah blah blah…
Thankfully, if you’re willing to risk not getting some bit of info you need, you can skip these scenes. Gamers hate (hate) cut-scenes you can’t skip. Why? On one level, if you’re playing the part again because you died the first time, it’s like penance to sit through something that you’ve already seen. But I think that on another level, it highlights the difficulty of mixing interactivity with narrative.
Although “interactive storytelling” is a common phrase, it doesn’t address the fact that an interactive audience is expected to be active, while people being told a story are expected to be passive. So when the gamer mashes her buttons impatiently as some substandard CGI animation plays out, she’s embodying the tension between these two concepts.
Despite this, Syberia (Microids, 2002) does a great job with its cut-scenes. The game begins on a rainy day in a European mountain village, with a funeral procession approaching the main character. As they get closer, you realize that the old men in beards aren’t men at all — they’re metal automatons. You’re a lawyer from America who’s come to finalize a merger between your corporation and the town’s pride: the Voralberg Mechanical Toy and Puppet Factory. Unfortunately, the person who’s just died is the owner, and you have to sort things out in her absence.
While there are too many similarities with the The Longest Journey to ignore — I assumed that it was the same company — this game, thankfully, doesn’t try to be a novel. The antiquated mechanical aesthetic is quite stunning, and there are plenty of clicking buttons to press and squeaky levers to pull. It’s charming and clever. Especially clever when you realize how the situation justifies mechanical puzzles, and how much easier mechanical puzzles are to program than puzzles that involve other characters. They sidestep the artificial intelligence challenges altogether, which is a shame, because it would be a nice complement to how other genres (first-person shooters, role-playing-games) are developing AI in other directions.
But maybe it’s for the best. There are some pretty glaring flaws when it comes to the limited human response already. When you click on a door that is just scenery, you get the stock response “No need to go down there!”
Since in an adventure game you’re constantly trying to go down unexplored paths, up ladders and over hills, this stock response really reminds you that your character is just a robot, too. It’s too bad, considering that each one is a missed opportunity to heighten tension (“There’s no time to waste!”) or develop story (“It’s not wise to barge into people’s houses since the revolution.”) or to inject some self-aware levity (“Oh. This isn’t a real door at all, it’s a painting.”)
Don’t get me wrong — both these games are good. But the fact that they’ve both been declared the Adventure Game of the Year by various gaming magazines and websites says more about the lack of competition than anything else.