Review written by Andrew Plotkin
Those of you who occasion my review collection will have noted that I'm missing a lot of well-known adventure titles. What happened to Grim Fandango? What happened to Day of the Tentacle and Discworld? What about that peerless (or so I am told) pinnacle of pirate-based puzzling, the Monkey Island series?
In truth, there are two distinct strands of graphical adventure gaming. One is the Myst genre, of which I have voraciously devoured every possible example and reviewed many. The other is -- I generally say the "Lucas/Sierra" group, but if we persist in naming these groups for their type specimens, I think it would have to be the King's Quest genre. (If an earlier example exists, let me know.)
The L/S group (as I will refer to it) has a long and proud tradition: from the King's and Space Quests and Leisure Suit Larry to a bunch of Star Trek games, from Loom to The Dig, and so on. And I know barely more about them than their titles. You want to know how many games of this sort I've played? Well, there was Loom, and Grim Fandango, and, mmm, The Ward, and now The Longest Journey. Four. Why just four? Because, by and large, I don't like them.
Which is really strange. I enjoy, and I'm going to be blunt about this, a lot of real crap. I'm pretty good at saying "Okay, aside from all the miserable parts of that game, I had fun." And here we have literally dozens of games, from dozens of development groups and several major publishers. They all rub me the wrong way? The same wrong way?
I've tried to enjoy some of these. Loom is by Brian Moriarty, an Infocom Implementor and author of some of my favorite text games. Grim Fandango kicks around a story-concept -- deadpan Mexican afterlife bureaucracy -- which I purely love. So why, every time, do I walk out thinking "Wow, some nice stuff there. Pity the game drowned it out with a tidal wave of No Fun"?
There must be some commonality here. I want to investigate it.
Let us consider the interface. The most obvious distinction is the appearance of the hero. Literally: whether he appears. The Myst games give a first-person perspective ("through the eyes of the monster", as one subtitle has it); you are a void, a Cartesian observer. The L/S games are third-person; they put your character on the screen, a puppet which you lead around and make to dance.
Is this it? Perhaps. Conventions of viewpoint do matter to me. In text adventures, I am a traditionalist: I strongly prefer the second-person construction ("You are in a small cavern") to the first-person ("I am on the bridge of a spaceship") or the third ("Harry is in his bedroom"). I've played third-person text games, and while I can enjoy them, the viewpoint bugs me throughout. I want to be the protagonist, not command him. Maybe I'm just reacting the same way to graphical games?
But no. The hypothesis does not hold, and I disprove it thus: Ico. And Soul Reaver. And several others. Yea, even Tomb Raider and Super Mario Sunshine.
Those aren't adventure games, of course. They're action games, with some proportion of exploration or puzzle content mixed in. I bring them up simply because they're all third-person interfaces, and I've never had any trouble identifying with the little character image running around the screen. I've had a great time with these games. Whatever problem I have with the L/S clan, the visibility of the avatar is not it.
So what is the problem? I ask myself this, and I feel two answers floating around -- only they may be intertwined. Let's not worry about that yet. The answers are: "telling", "range of action", and "convention".
Damn, they really are intertwined, aren't they. I can't even distinguish them well enough to count reliably.
Okay, let's try this. I'll start talking about The Longest Journey -- remember The Longest Journey? This is a song about The Longest Journey -- and when any of this starts making sense to me, I'll get back to the wild theoretical crap.
(Don't all cringe at once.)
TLJ is a story about April Ryan, an art student in 23rd-century America. How do we know this? Because there's about two hours of voice-over text to listen to, as you examine every object in the game world. And talk to all of April's friends. And plumb the depths of their dialogue menus. Maybe it's three hours. Oh, dear, I've gotten bitter already.
I don't (much) want to get into the history of conversation interfaces in interactive fiction. But I've never liked the menu system. Games use it because it's easy, and it's interactive, right? It's not like a cut scene, where you sit back and listen to pre-scripted dialogue. Everyone hates cut scenes, and dialogue menus are better, right?
Wrong. I call bullshit on that reasoning, now and forevermore. In TLJ, when you talk to a character, you get three to five choices of things to say. If you get a little farther into the conversation, you might get a submenu of four or five topics to ask about. And you know what? The right answer is always to ask about all of them. They're all important clues -- or important background information, or character-building, or some other carefully crafted message from the designers.
And that means each conversation is a cut scene. It is not interactive. I can't put it more clearly than that. You sit back and listen to the pre-scripted dialogue, occasionally clicking a menu option to hear the next paragraph. You could skip some options, or leave early, of course -- but why bother? You're just going to come back later and listen to the rest. It's the shallowest kind of interactivity.
(A game could, of course, have critical choices in its menus. Options which have irrevocable consequences. That would make the interactivity important. But TLJ, like most graphical games, forswears all critical choices. You can never truly make a mistake. There are no wrong options, only options which are not yet the right one. Thus, not interactive. End of tangent.)
(Or, a game could have so many branching options in each conversation -- with certain choices excluding others from the tree -- that no player could explore them all. I'm told that Planescape Torment works this way. But TLJ doesn't. There are just a handful of choices available, and you can run through them all -- except perhaps for a few tiny divergences that are meaningless to the storyline. Thus, not interactive. End of further tangent.)
So: in this here game, the first time you meet a character, you get a ten-minute non-interactive cut scene to listen to. And you meet several characters in the first chapter -- because that's how the designers feed you background material.
It's copious. It's slow, because it's spoken text. It's boring and (effectively) mandatory. What part of this sounds like good game design?
This is what I mean by "telling". In the L/S style of game, most of what you learn about the world is told to you. Printed text, in the older games; spoken text in the recent ones.
Whereas in Myst style games, most of what you learn is shown to you; you see images of the world -- detailed images -- and you must interpret them yourself. Myst itself was nearly wordless (except for other characters and their diaries). Some of Myst's imitators have had voice-overs, or smartass sidekicks; but the bulk of the interaction is still what you see.
"Telling versus showing" is a cliche in narrative, and I don't want to wield it too simplistically. (After all, I'm the text adventure freak, and those are all printed text!) What bugs me here is a matter of degree -- the degree of interpretation which the game provides.
You click on graphical objects in Myst. You click on graphical objects in TLJ. In Myst, the object reacts. In TLJ, a pop-up window tells you what the object is, and the narrator tells you what you can do with it (or why you can't do anything with it). Do you see the distinction? In one case, you act in the world and learn from the result. In the second case, you are told how to act in the world in order to produce a result.
It's a subtle point... or maybe it's just another convention of viewpoint that I'm freaking out about. But I don't think so. I think there's a real difference in the sorts of choices and decisions that these games present you with. When I'm playing a Myst-style graphical adventure, I'm always thinking "What is that? What am I surrounded by? What in this room is important?" Even after I pick up an object, and thus identify it as a discrete manipulable thing in the game world, I'm asking "What is it made of? What shape is it? What properties might it have?"
My options of investigation are limited, yes -- I probably can't do more than click on the object, indicating my desire to "use it somehow". But then, the game designers know that. They make the object visually interesting. Or they make it react in an interesting way, which hints at where else in the game I might use it.
In TLJ, those questions just don't arise. I know what's important in the room, and what everything is, because there are pop-up labels. What the labels don't mention, the protagonist explains. There is rarely any important information illustrated by the game art. A graphical adventure in which you never attain your flash of insight from the graphics! That's it; that's what bugs me. If the graphics aren't critical, what are they there for?
This is not an inherent distinction. I do not think that a L/S game must be shallow and mechanical. I certainly don't think that every Myst-like game is deep and engaging.
Heck, look at text adventures. They're all narration. When you examine an object, the game prints a block of prose -- more or less in the protagonist's voice -- telling you about it. Ideally, that prose leads you to consider certain actions, without blatantly telling you what to do. You try a few actions; they may fail, but you learn more from the reactions. Eventually you understand the object deeply enough to think of the surprising-but-logical approach.
There are text games which do constantly tell you what to do. We call these "boring games". And there are Myst-style games in which every object in the world is blatantly visible, and reacts in a trivial way. Those are boring too.
It's just the conventions of the genres, I think. (Oh, this is going to sound rude. I'm still going to say it:) The games I like, text and graphical, try to be challenging. L/S games try to be easy. L/S players expect clear and simple ranges of action. Clues should be laid out in a line. A puzzle should be solvable, at worst, by trying your entire inventory on the (clearly-labelled) hotspot in front of you.
It's only a convention. It's not a universal truth. You know how I know? Because TLJ has interesting, challenging, engaging parts. The designers went every which way they could to get away from the "conventional" L/S puzzle structure. They have alien machines and symbols, they have computer interfaces, which you must comprehend by studying the game art. They have a particularly nifty set of alchemical potions. They have a three-way popup menu for using objects, which they stretch in as many directions as possible. They have an on-and-off NPC who you can send off on missions. They have monsters that chase you around (though not in a time-critical way). They have an Escheresque labyrinth where nothing reacts as you might expect. They have many puzzles that are entirely beautiful, by any adventure gamer's standards.
And yet -- I can always sense the pull of Grandpa Same-Old-Same-Old, pulling the designers back into the rut. In between the clever puzzles -- and outnumbering them -- are acres of tedious hoops to jump through. Talk to the character to learn the clue. Listen to the blatant pointer on what to do next. Collect the arbitrary piece of junk. Use your inventory to rig the incredibly contrived scenario which just happens to divert/satisfy/scare the utterly implausible NPC. Watch the sense of realism dribble down the tubes, as you follow the designers' monkey dance of plot contrivance.
It all turned into cliches ten years ago -- and everyone forgot to quit. Most of these games have long since passed into self-parody, right? I only saw bits of the Leisure Suit Larry series, but I remember a lot of mockery of its own genre. Certainly Grim Fandango had plenty of winks and nudges. I missed the first three Monkey Island games, but the fourth one had a terrible fetid air of jokes run into the ground. (For the two hours I managed to play, before flinging it across the room.)
And those are games which are supposed to be funny. The Longest Journey is trying to be serious work -- but half the time, it's buried in the same hackneyed game structures! Escape from Monkey Island foists these puzzle formats on us with a wry, "look how silly it all is" shrug. Now I'm supposed to take them seriously? When I'm buying a flute to play for the superstitious sea captain so he'll sign a delivery slip? When I'm cheating the gambler to win the talking bird to give to the lonely sailor so he'll get me a berth on the ship? I'm sorry. It's bunk. If that's what the audience wants, the audience is not on my planet.
It doesn't help that, by and large, TLJ is lousily written. I got through Grim Fandango, despite my annoyance with the game format, because it had a witty and interesting, satirical worldview to get across. TLJ doesn't. I'm sure the authors wanted to invent a rich and detailed fantasy world, but the fact is, it's all stock. There's barely an original note in the whole thirteen-chapter story; and the writing is nowhere near strong enough to breathe new life into the classic elements. Every character is a walking cliche. A walking, talking cliche. Oh, lord, how they do talk. In cliches.
(Okay, not every one. Burns Flipper the geek had a voice -- you know, an actual living character. I could listen to him. And the talking bird had a few good moments. Everyone else -- actors regurgitating lines. One adjective of personality, and a pet name to call the protagonist. Weirdly like Animal Crossing, now that I think of it. ...Niblet.)
The protagonist herself doesn't have the worst speeches of the bunch, but she's not very inspiring either. Her voice work is mostly bland, with occasional patches of bad acting. But then the actor doesn't have a whole lot to work with. The storyline develops her character only in the shallowest strokes -- aside from a family-history thread which leaps onto the stage at the end (and then stands there, looking awkward and embarrassed).
I don't know. I don't usually complain this much about bad writing in games. The field has so much bad writing to choose from. As I said, I enjoy a lot of real crap...
I think it's the sheer duration. TLJ is a long game to play. I don't say "large game", because there are many ways to measure size: number of puzzles, number of scenes, number of rooms. Comparing games of the same type is difficult; comparing games between genres is impossible.
But you can measure total playing time. I spent a whole lot of hours on TLJ. And most of those hours were spent listening to narration or dialogue... and it just wasn't that pleasant.
Look. I prefer big games. Even if the quality is shaky, the sheer weight of determination is impressive; effort and attention to detail always shine through. TLJ embodies great effort and attention. The designers put in all the little details and customizations that I could desire. Objects have long descriptions the first time you examine them, and shorter summarizations on later examination. Labels on NPCs change as you learn their names. Wrong guesses on solving puzzles produce interesting, informative failure messages. Random NPCs wander in and out of areas as the game progresses. The art is evocative, distinctive, and full of tiny detail -- often animated detail.
And I liked some of the imagery, and some of the events, and some of the puzzles, and some of the clever twists. The bit at the end, it did make me smile. Honest.
But... if you're going to spend days of my time building up a world and a story, and the world is just another fantasy mash, and the story is uninspiring... then you have a problem. If your dramatic events leave me saying, yeah, what next?... then you have a problem. If all your political, philosophical, and artistic ideas are sophomoric and soporific, delivered in bowling-ball-sized lumps by cardboard stooges who practically have quotation marks tattooed on their foreheads... then you have a problem.
I am focussing on the negative here, I admit. I have written much on what I disliked of TLJ, and little on what I enjoyed. I did enjoy the game quite a bit. Just... not enough.
Put it this way: If I hadn't spent so much time wincing at the dialogue, muttering about the puzzles, and flat-out bored with the game, I would have said "Nice game. Large and detailed. Nothing brilliant in there, but entertaining." Contrariwise, if there'd been brilliance buried in the game, I would have forgiven the flaws. But as it stands? No thanks.
I hear a sequel is coming out. I might even buy it. Optimism says, the unanswered questions from TLJ might turn out to be more interesting than the answered ones.