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More On Adventure Games

Robert Bryant, one of my design teachers, often asserts that "the essence of fun is surprise."  During the late '80s and early '90s, adventure game developers pushed this idea as far as they could -- and adventure games eventually became so surprising as to be nonsensical (Gobliins 2 stands out in my mind as a prime example).

Developers simultaneously discovered that such designs boosted demand for game guides, and so a new pre-internet business was born.  The guides had higher profit margins than the games themselves, and it was only a matter of time before adventure games were specifically designed to sell guides.  This mild form of cheating eventually became the only possible way to get through the games, and it was common practice for pirated copies of the games to be distributed along with .txt walkthroughs or even barely-legible photocopied game guides.

Alternatively, you could ask one of your friends who had played through the game for advice on how to get past a certain sticking point -- a rudimentary precursor to the internet forum system we all leech off of today.

Perhaps the format of all media is determined by the constraints of its funding, presentation, and consumption.  Is adventure gaming a valid storytelling mechanism, or merely a peculiar technological oddity that arose with and was only appropriate for a simpler age?  An age of limited hardware, when there were few PC gaming options and adventure gaming was really the only show in town?  When there was no internet to subvert companies who earned their keep by peddling the secret keys to their elaborate digital puzzles?  When fan devotion to the pluck and humor of the folks at Sierra generated enough surplus of goodwill to offset all the are-you-f#@%ing-kidding-mes they put us through?

It is my fervent hope that torch-bearers like Telltale Games can continue to adapt and innovate this formerly beloved genre of mine.  Otherwise, should adventure gaming go extinct within the next 15 years... you heard it here first, folks.


H2G2 Remake review: We Apologize For The Inconvenience

I was raised on graphic adventure games --they were the first video games I ever played and have profoundly influenced my approach to games ever since.  I was also raised on The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, so naturally I jumped at the chance to write about the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Remake, or H2G2 Remake for short.  Unfortunately, it seems you can't turn back the clock.

One of the original "transmedia IPs," there is no definitive version of the Hitchhiker's Guide story as such.  It has existed in various incarnations as a radio play, a novel, a TV series, a stage play, a comic book, a feature film, and of course, a text adventure game.  Released by Infocom in 1984, the text for the game was written by Douglas Adams himself -- allegedly a process Adams found frustrating, which is why the game ends abruptly near the story's midpoint. 

H2G2 Remake is a lovingly executed point-and-click adaptation of the original text adventure.  Credit is due to the developers for their obvious devotion and fidelity to the details of the original, but on the whole the experience left me questioning the wisdom of the game's premise, and even whether or not the adventure gaming genre is still at all viable. 

Text adventures are designed to be difficult and puzzling because, gameplay-wise, that's all they've got.  The joy of unraveling a text adventure comes not just from moments of insight arrived at by clever reasoning and deduction, but from the simultaneously rewarding, humorous, and annoying experience of exhausting every logical action, getting stumped, feeling like you've hit a dead end, and typing in something completely absurd that turns out to be the solution.  Many of the early graphic adventures added illustrations to the process, but remained largely text-based in the sense that gameplay consisted of reading and typing responses.

Although they were often maddeningly difficult, puzzles in text-based adventures could sometimes be easier than those of later point-and-click graphic adventures, because the text was there to clue the player in to everything he or she needs to know about the current situation.  If you walk into a room and the game mentions that there's a knife on the table, it probably has some significance -- otherwise, they wouldn't have mentioned it (unless it's a red herring, of course).

In point-and-click adventures, graphics have replaced text descriptions, and such previously explicit clues are no longer possible.  To balance this, most point-and-click games include some sort of mouse-over feedback that lets the player know which objects in the environment can be manipulated, which eventually led to the core mechanic of systematically exploring all of the game's essential and non-essential animations by clicking.  Moreover, where the player previously enjoyed apparently unlimited action options, point-and-click games simplify player choice by constraining it and abstracting all activities into standard touch / talk / look clicks.  The resulting evolutions eventually brought us the sort of brainless click-through interactive storytelling adventures that dominate the genre today.

Bearing in mind the interface and format discrepancies between text adventures and point-and-clicks, does it really any make sense to port the one to the other?  As a case study, H2G2 Remake seems to indicate that a radical design overhaul is necessary for such a translation to be viable.  Adams' recycled one-liners here feel tired and outdated, and fail to drive the story forward.  The game's word puzzles, especially the so-called "dark" sections, do not translate and handle quite awkwardly.

Alas, these are only the beginning of this game's problems.  The inventory interface is clunky and counter-intuitive, and the game's instructions / help section is so badly written as to be incomprehensible.  Though mostly stable, one of the game's prevalent bugs is that the cursor fails to flicker when held over certain interactable objects, an infuriating and almost game-breaking flaw.  With all due respect to whoever worked very hard on the artwork, the graphics are lacking to the point of having an adverse effect on the experience -- unless the designers mean to intentionally increase the game's difficulty by, for example, depicting the crucial knife on the table as only one of several misshapen, unrecognizable blobs of pixels on screen.  I wouldn't put anything past an adventure game developer.

Whether you're a bigtime Hitchhiker's Guide fan with nostalgia for the text adventure, or just curious about what it was, check out  It's the BBC's better-illustrated, browser-based version of the original text adventure without any point-and-click nonsense.  Just don't forget to pack your towel, and perhaps this IGN walktrhrough. 

Rest in peace, Douglas Adams.  We love you and miss you.