The New Adventures of Adventure Games
No one can deny the pleasures of hitting your spent hooker with a truck and then taking back your money, sealing the deal with a kick or two to her limp head; but let me assure you, there is more to life than violence.
By “life,” of course, I mean video games. It is probably the world’s newest, least-developed genuine storytelling medium (I guess the Internet could offer up plenty of rebuttals to that one, but I’m just gonna ignore the Internet for the rest of this weblog post), but it’s still been at it for a while. Recall those old think-your-way-through-the-story classics, from Maniac Mansion to Deju Vu to Leisure Suit Larry; this style had its heyday, but it seemed to give way to falling blocks, simulated cities/people/ants, and sweet, sweet carnage. Well, I’m noticing a definite resurgence these days, thanks to various new technologies. Which is strange, because most of these games could’ve been made on a Genesis.
Sam & Max: Season One is no different in gameplay than its classic predecessor Sam & Max Hit the Road, the various later Sierra Quest games, or my personal favorites Full Throttle and Beavis & Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity: you have your avatar on-screen, you click your mouse pointer on whatever you want them to interact with. Solve puzzles to progress through the plot. These greats were all 2-D, while the new Sam & Max has included, at no additional cost, a third D, but otherwise it’s the same basic idea.
The key difference is that S&M: Season One is thus far the most successful example of something that’s been a bit of a buzz word over the last couple of years: episodic games. Season One is six separate episodes, each released a month apart, that tell individual plots while together building a season-long story arc. It’s a great fit, because sometimes entries in this genre of games can take a long time to get through, garnering a case of fatigue by the end. With each episode running about three to six hours in length (depending on how clever a problem-solver you are/how quick an online cheat you are), not only is there no risk of getting bored, but when one episode ends, there’s a serious case of anticipation for the next.
The reason for this anticipation is the writing — Never has there been so much humour, and so much of it successful humour, packed into one game. Each episode is loaded with laugh-out-loud one-liners. (One from Episode 6 that stuck in my mind: After a friend takes on a new job as the queen of Canada, small rabbit-thing Max replies, “I thought Rush was the Queen of Canada.”) On top of that, there’s great creativity in the puzzles to be solved, loads of excellent running gags and recurring characters, and a bizarre genius to the plots. Season One’s final episode was released in early May (and Season Two has recently been announced), and the entire season can be bought and downloaded pretty easily through Telltale Games (where you could also try the demo) or Steam, or even nabbed at one of those archaic “store” things. If you’ve got any nostalgia at all for Monkey Island or Zak McKraken, you must give Episode One: Culture Shock a try, and be prepared to follow up with the rest of the season.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a fine example of a game making perfect use of the quirks of its modern technology, in this case the Nintendo DS, and yet, like Sam & Max, the core of this game could’ve been produced for systems ten years ago. It uses the touchscreen to move your main character around, to interact with his surroundings, and to play the occasional minigame, but it didn’t really need to.
What makes Hotel Dusk so good is the story, probably the best one I’ve ever come across in a game. It’s billed as something of a detective novel in game form — going so far as to have you hold the open DS sideways, like an open paperback — and it deserves this comparison. L.A., 1979: Kyle Hyde, a former detective now working as a travelling salesman, checks into Hotel Dusk on business, and meets a large cast of sympathetic, well-written characters, each with secrets to hide.
The plot weaves and winds like a snake, with more than a few shocking revelations. Storytelling like this has never been achieved before in this medium, and characterization — accomplished here through a combination of perfect dialogue and simple pencil-sketch art — has never been so strong in a game. Never does it bend to the usual geek-pressure concessions, like ultraviolence, grunting machismo, or scantly-clad impossibly-stacked hotties; Hotel Dusk is a perfect example of genuine, invested artists working to create in the video game medium, and it has sold really well, to boot.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, also on Nintendo DS, introduces a gameplay mechanic that is rather simple and obvious, and yet ingenious and so, so satisfying. I’m talking about the contradiction. In Phoenix Wright you play as the titular lawyer, first investigating a murder scene and then defending the accused. The investigation is similar to most adventure games: explore an area, find clues, and talk to characters to progress. It’s when the trial starts that the game really shines.
As defense attorney, you will hear (or rather, read) witness testimony. Your job is to compare what the witness says with what you already know about the case, and with the evidence you’ve collected, and find the contradictions that will prove your client’s innocence. Few gaming logic puzzles are as much fun to dig into as these, and the thrill of cracking a difficult one is grand.
And just like Sam & Max and Hotel Dusk, there’s some great storytelling being done in this game — the five trials included in Ace Attorney are as convoluted and twisty-turney as any episode of The Practice in its best seasons, but played out with a strange, quirky, and very Japanese sense of humour (the four Phoenix Wright games are huge blockbusters in their homeland of the rising sun).
The game uses the DS’s unique technologies to great effect (especially the microphone — shouting “Objection” at your little pocket computer on a crowded bus is always a good time), but since the meat of this game is played in text and simple images, there’s no reason a game like this couldn’t have been made in 1993 on the Super NES.
These three throwback games are actually a great sign of things to come for the medium. For the most part, since its inception and its popular thrust began, advances in the creative design of video games have relied on the development of its technology. And for now that technology keeps right on developing, but eventually it’s going to reach a limit, or at least a plateau. What will be left for the form’s progression at that point? Why, the very same thing we find in all other developed mediums: voice. These three games, by stepping back from the heights of current technology, foreshadow a time when designers won’t be able to impress us by giving us something “new,” they’ll need to find their own particular way to reinterpret the old.
It’s often said that there are only five basic conflicts in storytelling; regardless of the medium, it’s how the storyteller applies these conflicts that determines the significance of their work. Video games are getting ever-closer to that point where dazzle won’t be enough; games like these suggest the form’s most creative minds are getting ready for this eventuality, and are looking to declare just what their medium’s significance will be. laebmada