Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jonathan Blow Interview

Jonathan Blow is the creator of Braid, a time-twisting platformer that combines puzzles, a mesmerizing art style and even a sort of general idea that wraps it all up nicely.

PC Gamer had an interview with him about his next game and his views on game design. The point that roused my interest was the one he made about adventure games.

He says:
"Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.” "

I had to read it twice to grasp what he was saying. I don't think he is being very clear, and his interview is sourly lacking in examples. This is why I wanted to bring the point up, clarify it (assuming that I got it right), and offer my own insight. Because I believe that he’s right in a way.

In adventure games, even the best ones, we often go around solving puzzles for no real reason. I can bring many examples from my own experience - from The Secret of Monkey Island to the recent Back to the Future: The Game. You usually know what you need to do to advance but the playing field is large (such as Mêlée Island) and so the way isn't clear. For example, in The Secret of Monkey Island's first act, you know you need to pass the three trials to become a pirate but there's no real notion of how to do that - you just go around finding puzzles and then solving them, often doing something for no real reason (like following the shopkeeper to get to the Swordmaster) and then you 'solve' the game.

I think this is what Blow means when he says adventure games aren't streamlined, because this central mechanic is still here. In Back to the Future, I know that I need to somehow switch the keg of soup with the keg of liquor, but I randomly try things until something works. Of course, the game does give clues how to get that done (I’m not referring to the hint system), but ultimately – if you didn't notice the hint – your puzzle solving consists of mainly trying to click everything that is clickable and combining it with everything else.

However, even though Blow says that adventure games have stayed this way since their heyday in the early 90s, I do believe that recent adventure games have been heading in a direction of streamlining the experience. There are rarely cases where you wander aimlessly in TellTale's adventure games. There is a much stronger sense of knowing specifically where you need to be and what to do, just not how to go about doing it.

But that's also the problem. One of the greatest issues which plague modern adventure titles is that they are reduced in detail and scope, and I believe this is the result of what Blow refers to as streamlining. This has been the major critique of Telltale's Back to the Future game and I think it's a flaw with many of their titles.

Maybe my opinion simply comes from me being an avid adventure game fan myself, but I don't think they're only about solving the puzzle: they are about exploration, character; they're about doing things at a slower pace, soaking in the atmosphere. The obscure puzzles actually enable us to enjoy everything else in a much more profound way.

You can check it out for yourselves: the first playthrough of an adventure game, without a walkthrough, can take weeks. Once you've finished it, however, the game can be completed again in under an hour. It's those nonsensical puzzles that make the player walk back and forth, talk to people, look for clues, and so on. These puzzles help flesh out the world and enrich the player's exposure to it.

If Blow can make his new adventure game streamlined (in the sense that as players we’re not going around solving random puzzles but actually thinking about how to advance in relation to the story), and at the same time manage to keep the feeling of exploration and atmosphere… well then, I daresay his game will be amazing. But we just have to wait and see.

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