What These Adventure Games Need is a Jonathan Blow

Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness is going to modernize adventure games. The creator of the hit indie platformer Braid claims that his new game will avoid what killed off adventure games in the 1990s.

As you might imagine, his comments have raised hackles in the adventure game community. Some of that is a reaction to a perceived outsider riding in and saying, “I know what you lot have been doing wrong all of these years!” as if he were starring in Dances With Adventure Games. My negative reaction, though, comes from Jonathan’s apparent lack of information about what’s happened to adventure games since the 1990s.

He starts out promisingly enough, talking about how video game design has gotten better as time has passed.

If you go to conferences, designers are always talking about how they’re doing things and how to make games more fun. And that’s true, it’s pretty obvious. If you go back, get an emulator and play some games from the eighties on home computers, they’re kinda unplayable. You know, people say, “Games were just as good then as they are now.” It’s just not true. Things are way better design-wise.

Where he goes off the rails is when he then turns his eye to adventure games.

[Streamlining gameplay] happened to all the genres, but it never quite happened in adventure games. The core gameplay of a racing game, for example, has been refined. It’s way more interesting than Pole Position was in the arcade, you know. Much more sophisticated. A first person shooter is a lot about knowing what’s happening on the map. Especially if it’s multiplayer, like, who is where? And all this stuff. It’s been iterated and refined.

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.”

Adventure games are all confusion. If it’s text, it’s “Why doesn’t the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that’s coming out. And there’s a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it’s true for all these games.

Gameplay in adventure games can certainly be improved, but it’s not all confusion. Adventures aren’t what they were in the 1990s. Jonathan claims passing familiarity with the modern interactive fiction community, and yet has missed how it’s been addressing this confusion. Games like Blue Lacuna and Aotearoa use keyword highlighting to make it more obvious what you can interact with. Ones like Lost Pig and Violet respond to a tremendous number of commands to make it less likely that a player will type commands that the game doesn’t understand. We’ve got better help for learning the command pattern a parser expects, Emily Short and others deconstructing the parser and whether or not it’s necessary for interactive fiction, and Aaron Reed researching how to make the parser more user-friendly.

These are not obscure, hard-to-find developments. Blue Lacuna has shown up on everything from G4 TV to Gamasutra. Violet and Lost Pig were on JayIsGames and PlayThisThing and are often cited as games newcomers should play. Aotearoa won this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition. Emily Short is one of the two best-known names in all of interactive fiction.

Meanwhile, in graphic adventure games, you’ve got Telltale Games refining what can be done with episodic graphic adventures and Dave Gilbert at Wadjet Eye Games exploring what can be done with adventures intended for casual game players.

But what gets Jonathan excited? Riffing on Myst, especially the idea of a player with amnesia.

PC Gamer: That’s presumably why Myst is an inspiration?

Jonathan Blow: It’s a classic video game trope. I mean, you start the game. You don’t exactly know who you are –

PC Gamer: Or you’ve got amnesia.

Jonathan Blow: Yeah, or you have amnesia or whatever! And then through the course of the game you find out who you are. Like, BioShock did that. Tons of games do that. This game does it but in a very self-conscious, self-referential kind of way.

So the most over-used adventure game trope, the one so prevalent that it’s the name of a 1986 text adventure written by someone who wasn’t familiar with adventure games, is what gets Jonathan excited?

When I entered physics graduate school, I had big plans. I was going to learn a little physics, but not too much, because that way I could see clearly what others had missed about physics and then perform world-changing research. Later I realized how cutely naive I’d been. Outsiders to a field can make original contributions, but more often they end up going over old ground and repeating past mistakes.

Look: you don’t have to be full to the brim with adventure game knowledge to want to design one, or to take elements of their gameplay and use them in other games. But if you’re going to claim to be fixing what’s broken with the genre, it’s best to know what the genre’s been up to since you solved Myst.

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