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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16 Comments

  1. on February 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Your assumptions about my knowledge of adventure games are incorrect. I’ve played a lot of the modern IF games, including Blue Lacuna (as an Indiecade judge, and a while before that just because the buzz was going around that it was interesting). Before it was clear that I was working on The Witness, I was working on an RPG, and I started a conversation with Emily about whether she wanted to co-write it (clearly we did not end up doing that!)

    For some reason it still bothers me how often people have a knee-jerk reaction of accusing folks of ignorance, but I guess it prevents one from having to consider whether the viewpoint is actually valid from perspectives other than one’s own.

    I suppose I just have different ideas about what is “playable” and what isn’t, and different standards for how much interference and noise I am willing to accept when building a gameplay experience (and of what kind). None of the problems I see with adventure games are fixed by the approaches you’ve listed above. Partially-addressed, maybe.

    Well, I suppose when the game comes out, you’ll actually know whether it is good or bad.

  2. on February 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to hear that you’re more familiar with modern IF than what I gathered from that interview.

    If we’re going to trade pushback on accusations, why assume that I haven’t considered your position? Given your response on Emily’s blog, I expect that we’d be in violent agreement on many points. The parser is a major impediment, and it makes the games unplayable for many people. I’d love to see revolutionary fixes to it.

    That nuance was absent in the interview, and where I get my back up is at your absolutist and rather condescending comments in that interview. “Adventures haven’t changed since then” is both absolutist and incorrect. “I’m not satisfied with the incremental improvements” is understandable and, for me, far more defensible. As expressed in that interview, your position was “things haven’t changed, and I’m going to fix that.” I considered that view, thanks, and reject the first part.

    I’d love for you to prove me wrong! I don’t want The Witness to be a bad game, or to fail. If you do indeed turn adventure games on their head, more power to you.

  3. Laroquod
    on February 18, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Enh, give the dude a break, I say. When developing a head of steam for a game, your brain has a tendency to distort the pre-existing field to maximise your concentration on the things that you’re betting on to differentiate you. This kind of ‘dissing the history of games as a motivation for designing something new’ is the best, most nobly motivated sort of criticism, and I think it’s pointless to tilt back at it. I would favour the personal quest to fix misperceived flaws over the general image of the IF community, every time, because to do otherwise is to drag down new artists in the field in order to preserve the field, and that’s backwards. Great artists arrogantly dis the new field they are about to enter. It’s usually what they do, if they are any good. It is actually more important that they feel free to opinionate at will about the past than that the community’s sense of self-respect or propriety be preserved, because those things aren’t worth anything in terms of art.

    I’m not saying this as Jonathan Blow fan or anything; I had never heard of him before today and had only played (and enjoyed on some level) Braid for about half an hour. But to Jonathan I would say: Give them hell. Show us how it’s done. Completely dis everything that’s gone before and go in half-ignorant, I don’t care. None of these things are going to hurt the quality of a truly creatively inspired game, but taking community pushback might, so just don’t. 8)

    Paul.

  4. on February 18, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Laroquod, I can understand wanting to differentiate yourself from what’s out there. I’m also not interested in covering up the shortfalls of adventure games (either graphic or text based). There’s plenty of fodder for good discussions, and Jonathan’s follow-up reply about interference and noise gets to the heart of where adventure games struggle. You have these problems in other types of video games, and I’d be up for talking about the opacity of mainstream video games and the rise of casual gaming.

    But to say that adventure games haven’t changed in twenty years is both incorrect and obviates a lot of really good work done by really smart people. I’m someone who wants more people to know what the community is doing. Having all of that work swept aside without even a passing acknowledgment of its existence pushes my hot buttons.

  5. on February 18, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    In that interview I was not trying to say that adventure games have not changed at all. As I’ve said in some lengthy postings on Emily’s blog, yeah, they have gotten better! But it seems to me that these improvements still have not changed the fundamental core of the adventure gameplay experience, and that is what I was talking about in the interview. When I ask myself “what is the core gameplay of an adventure game?”, the concept is almost an oxymoron. That’s a bad sign!

    Anyway, I am also not claiming to modernize adventure games. The Witness can not quite be said to be an adventure game, as in the process of designing the game it became something a little outside the boundaries of that genre. It is really more like a puzzle game with a story. So I am not trying to “show adventure game authors how it’s done”, or make adventure games better, or whatever. I am just making something inspired by adventure games, but that goes off in a direction that I think solves many of the problems endemic to the genre.

    It only adds, it doesn’t subtract!

  6. on February 19, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I’m very interested in seeing The Witness, and I don’t mean as a chance to bring out the long knives. I’m always up for seeing new and potentially boundary-pushing games.

  7. Kate McKee
    on February 19, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. ”

    Guess it depends on what you mean by “fumbling.” I find myself fumbling through a real time first-person shooter interface, frustrated, bewildered, and overstimulated. Does this mean that the “core gameplay” of Team Fortress is learning to click reflexively at 16 Hz? Because that bit hasn’t changed much since my 5th grade arcade experiences in the ’80’s, either.

    I totally agree with Jonathan in that people have different standards about what’s playable, but I suspect the “noise and interference” to which he refers look very different to me.

  8. on February 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I see that as a separate issue. There’s fumbling that happens because a particular player isn’t good at a certain kind of game, and there’s fumbling inherent in the genre.

    Someone who is good at FPS games won’t fumble. Someone who is good at IF games probably still spends most of the time fumbling! That is the difference.

  9. on February 19, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    There’s something interesting there I’d like to unpack, in that there are different reasons for fumbling. What do I do next in a game? I know what to do at a high level, but how do I do that thing? Now that I have an idea of how I want to do this thing, how do I translate my intent into action via gameplay and interface?

    FPSes can involve fumbling about where to go next, or how to pass a tricky set of enemies, almost regardless of skill. Games that involve puzzle-like exploration, like Braid’s differing world behaviors on different levels, will have players flailing until they get how the puzzle works.

    Where adventure games suffer in comparison to other genres is that the interface is not necessarily completely explained, especially in text games. “Am I looking at a puzzle?” can be dealt with by explicit signposting or geographical limitations on player movement. But if the interface isn’t fully spelled out, then you have the possibility of fumbling with making the game understand what you want to do.

    I’m a fluent IF player, and the flailing I do is very seldom with the interface, save with poorly-constructed games. I flail at puzzle solutions, depending on how well clued the puzzles are. But isn’t that a function not of genre but of design? Portal is a puzzle game whose design was iteratively tweaked after lots of playtesting and recording how long players took to notice clues and solve levels. Give a good IF author Valve’s level of playtesting and player feedback and I’m confident similarly smooth puzzle feedback is doable.

  10. on February 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan writes: “Someone who is good at IF games probably still spends most of the time fumbling!”

    Not in a game that’s any good, I don’t. I think the parser’s an issue, but I think it’s an issue because it’s hard to learn and demands some authorial skill to avoid pitfalls.

    Having “fumbling with the parser” as a significant aspect of my play experience tells me I’m dealing with a bottom-tier piece of work. Outside the IF Comp or some other play-to-judge context, I’d drop that and move on to something else. On the contrary, I can think of several recent games that impressed me by how smooth the experience was even when I did something dumb or screwed up — typo correction in some of Aaron’s work, some nice error recovery in One Eye Open, etc.

    If we include “having trouble with a puzzle” as a kind of fumbling, that widens the field a bit, but there are quite a few puzzle games lately that presented an entertaining challenge without leaving me stuck for any memorable period of time. “Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home” managed to teach some completely new and conceptually alien vocabulary, but it flowed extremely well. “Hoosegow” and “Fragile Shells” also stand out for me as pieces with strong parsing, direction, and hinting, where I moved quickly through a situation that was really engaging and memorable. There was only one bit in “One Eye Open” where I couldn’t figure something out, and that was an optional easter egg, not a mandatory feature for plot progression.

    Not every game is like that, but if your assertion is “someone who knows IF well still always inevitably has an experience that’s mostly about fumbling around and not knowing what to do next,” then I can say definitely that that is not true at all.

  11. on February 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    When I say “fumbling with the interface”, I don’t mean just the parser, but the whole way that talking to an IF works. Stuff like “why the hell can’t I pick up this tin can and put water in it, it’s right there” is what I am talking about.

    A while back it became a thing in game design to have this idea of affordances and communicating affordances to the player. Most IF is explicitly about not knowing affordances until you try! That is part of the fumbling I am talking about…

    Yes, if a designer works really hard then these problems can be addressed to an incomplete degree. But even if one were satisfied with that, this is significant — the genre is requiring the designer to work hard to address these problems in order to make a good game! You could see that as being true in many genres of games, but in IF the amount of work to be done to backfill this kind of thing is huge, in fact if done thoroughly it’s most of the design work of the game! And because the result still doesn’t manage to fill the pothole in a solid way, I don’t find it an area that I can work in to achieve subtle things, generally. That said, if I wanted to make a game about language, IF would be high on the list of genre options.

    (I don’t mind hard puzzles; I think if someone is stuck on a legitimately hard puzzle, that is actually core gameplay. All the better if they are not stuck in a linear rut and can do other meaningful stuff while they are figuring it out. I actually don’t like “easy” puzzles that are heavily hinted, as they leave me wondering what the point is of doing this.)

    Anyway, I think there’s just a difference of opinion here about what constitutes fumbling and what constitutes smooth gameplay. I haven’t played Hoosegow or Hoist Sail but I can almost guarantee that if I did, I would find them to have the same problems.

  12. on February 19, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    When I say “fumbling with the interface”, I don’t mean just the parser, but the whole way that talking to an IF works. Stuff like “why the hell can’t I pick up this tin can and put water in it, it’s right there” is what I am talking about.

    That is another kind of experience I expect not to have much of in a well-designed game. I’ll accept that it is a kind of genre literacy to be good at understanding how a game is directing you, but the examples I gave above mostly did a good job of letting you know what the game world was like and therefore what sorts of things you could usefully do with it. Andrew Plotkin’s games are especially good at this kind of thing. The text of the game, the objects in it, and the verbs you’re taught suggest a consistent mode of interaction, whether that’s movement as the sole means to manipulate the environment (“Delightful Wallpaper”), interstellar sailing (“Hoist Sail…”), or reconfiguring a toolkit of espionage devices (“Spider and Web”). When the author does this well, I very rarely have “but why can’t I fill this tin with water?” sorts of experiences. I may occasionally make some wrong guesses about the world model, but they’re often informative in themselves and lead me back towards what I’m supposed to be doing. Then they constitute as little of my overall conscious experience than, say, discovering that children are friendly and I can’t shoot them in Fallout.

    This is the sort of thing I meant about the puzzles in the games I listed above. They weren’t all necessarily trivial puzzles, but for the most part they involved a clearly comprehensible set of rules, using verbs I had been taught and understood, and with lots of good feedback on failure attempts.

    A while back it became a thing in game design to have this idea of affordances and communicating affordances to the player. Most IF is explicitly about not knowing affordances until you try!

    I partly agree. In interface, certainly: the parser is unclear about affordances and this, I grant, is part of the reason it’s hard to use for those who don’t know it well. It becomes clearer when you’ve mastered the rules.

    Beyond that… yes, a lot of IF is, as I said elsewhere, about coming to understand the game world and how it works. But this is a conversational process. The world gives you some pointers — what the text emphasizes, the way it describes things, the responses to failed actions, the actions that other characters take, even the spacing of paragraphs are working hard to tell you what kind of world this is and what bits can be manipulated. These are the text equivalent of the lighting, coloration, object highlighting, architectural direction, and similar tricks that clue the player in to the affordances in a 3D graphical game.

    So, guided by all that, you try some things out and see how they work. The responses help you refine your understanding. You try some new things. Eventually, you master the system.

    It’s a pedagogical process, with the player as learner, first grasping how to do the most low-level tasks (“how do I form a command? what verbs does this game use?”), then moving up to mid-level affordances (“what parts of my environment can be manipulated, and what sorts of things can I do with them?”) and challenges (“how do I solve this puzzle as a whole?”).

    That is, incidentally, also a description of my experiences with Portal, Braid, the gravity gun in Half Life 2, and just about every other solidly designed progressive puzzle game.

    If you’re lucky, there can be another layer on top of the puzzle-solving level of agency. That’s where we get questions like: How do I use this world’s rules to express myself? To articulate a choice? To roleplay a character? Do I like these rules? Do they seem socially and morally right? Should I reject them? Are there ways within the game to challenge or test the rules?

    Anyway. Like I said, my experience with the best IF isn’t an experience of fumbling. The word I’d use is “discovery.”

  13. on February 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    (Hm, some editing errors in the comment I just posted, sorry — that should be “they constitute no more of my overall conscious experience than, say, discovering that children are friendly and I can’t shoot them in Fallout.”)

    But one other point occurs to me, pertaining to the tin can example. I assumed you meant fumbling with the world model and failing to understand what was implemented and why. As I said, I don’t usually find this to be a huge problem in top-tier IF, because part of what it does is clue the player about active nouns and verbs.

    It’s possible you meant something else, though, namely, “I resent it when the game refuses to do something even when it does understand me.” Like

    >FILL THE TIN CAN WITH WATER
    Ew! Reuse such an unsterile container? Just the thought of all those germs makes you feel sick.

    In other words, the game understands some commands but disallows them and uses them for characterization and narrative rather than for progress. Some players have mentioned finding this kind of thing frustrating, but it’s a whole other axis of discussion, I think. IF is more willing than many another genre to say that the protagonist is a different person from the player and to use the friction between player and protagonist for aesthetic purposes. I like that, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  14. on February 19, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Yes, if a designer works really hard then these problems can be addressed to an incomplete degree. But even if one were satisfied with that, this is significant — the genre is requiring the designer to work hard to address these problems in order to make a good game!

    That strikes me like saying, “You mean if I put together a physics engine with breakable objects and stackable objects, I’ve got to make sure that stacked objects when broken behave like I expect? This is making me work hard to address these problems in order to make a good game!” You choose the behavior you want to model and then have to make sure that the game’s world model holds up.

    Many adventure games take on a large challenge: modeling what appears to be the entire real world, complete with doors that open, tables that can hold other things, etc. But some works have ruthlessly narrowed the scope of what you can interact with, making it obvious that you can only interact with certain objects and restricting those objects and their combinations so that incidences like your referenced tin can example just can’t show up. It’s akin to how, in Portal, you’re never able to create a portal that abuts a liquid, so that Valve didn’t have to worry about handling flowing liquids in the game. Other works dispense with even the pretense of being set in a world where anything can be interacted with. It’s not all of a piece, and it’s only a limitation of the genre if you intend to make one in the style of Colossal Cave or (on the graphics side) the 1980s Lucasarts/Sierra games.

  15. on February 19, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    But some works have ruthlessly narrowed the scope of what you can interact with, making it obvious that you can only interact with certain objects and restricting those objects and their combinations so that incidences like your referenced tin can example just can’t show up.

    Even if you’re not doing Portal-style narrow focus, there are a lot of games that heavily direct the player towards specific action sets (Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Suveh Nux) or present a series of self-contained set piece puzzles (Shadow in the Cathedral, The King of Shreds and Patches, a bunch of others).

    I had some issues with a couple of the manipulable objects in The King of Shreds and Patches, but they were more about how the text communicated the operative verbs and objects on the printing press and the rowboat. (I’m comfortable saying that’s a specific design failure, not a thing IF categorically couldn’t do right.) But it did do a pretty good job of indicating what to work on next and what to ignore. The puzzles were strongly correlated with major plot events, and the implementation and descriptions were tightly focused on operable objects rather than useless ones. As I recall it, anyway.

  16. on February 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    “Outsiders to a field can make original contributions, but more often they end up going over old ground and repeating past mistakes.”

    Heck, for some of us it’s basically our mission statement to do so 😉

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Parsers and Prejudice | Spectacle Rock on February 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    […] Something of a furor has erupted over some brash comments by Jonathan Blow in an interview with PC Gamer: 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. […]

  2. […] of the IF community has been getting a lot of attention (Aric, Chris Klimas, Robb Sherwin, Stephen Granade, indiegamer, metafilter), and that may be why we got a spin-off Metafilter thread on the topic of […]