31 – Preparations For A Trip To Kyrandia

I probably still have the original CDs–frankly, I hope I do, given that my appetite to play Hand of Fate has been awakened–somewhere at my parents’ house back in Jersey. I know for a fact that I’ve got my copy of the third game, because I happened to find it the last time I visited; it’s still there, but the back of the case blurb: “Remember that you’re one small trickster in a very large world.” Book Three: Malcolm’s Revenge, in which the primary antagonist, the mad jester, becomes the playable character in a chance to prove his innocence–

I am getting ahead of myself. But it feels unfair, to me, that Good Old Games–I am about to speak ill of Good Old Games and it kills me, fucking kills me to–should only be releasing the first Kyrandia game, because when I bought them, oh, let’s say I was thirteen, I bought them in the trilogy rerelease, that is, all three games on CD-rom. And there was no way, no way I’d play the games in order, from start to finish. And so I ended up experiencing the Legend of Kyrandia as three time periods, three distinct voices, three distinct characters, all at once. The first, where you play as the unwitting heir to the throne and the most traditional of the three, a good and heroic, if slightly bland and clumsy, character who goes on a quest. The second, where you play Zanthia, one of the greatest adventure game heroines of all time (no mean feat considering the sheer number of excellent female leads that adventure gaming, as a whole, featured in the 80s and 90s), in a comic epic. And the third, where you’re Malcolm, and where you’re now suddenly the only sane man in a world which is demented and hypocritical, and in retrospect a fairly bitter social satire.

Well, the rumor is that releases of the next games will be impending, and so either way, I think it’s time I take a trip back to Kyrandia.

Because I fucking loved these games. Hand of Fate, Book 2, that was by far my favorite. Malcolm’s Revenge had some finicky bits, some pixel hunting bits, but I remember the game allegedly had its share of alternate paths and endings.

Book one had death.

Death in adventure games–ooh, it was totally a controversial subject by the time I grew old enough to appear on the scene in ’94-ish. Sierra, in particular, was so famous for its many, many deaths and unwinnable situations that it’s still a byword for overly-unfair games. My favorite example, because it is one of the cruelest jokes ever played on a player by a developer, occurs in Space Quest II. Making your way through a series of mazes–oh, yeah, mazes, there used to be a shitload of mazes, mappable mazes, blind mazes, gimmick mazes, oh boy were there mazes!–you could come across a Xenomorph-looking thing. Oh ho, you say, because this is a Sierra game and you know what’s up, if I touch it it’s gonna kill me. So you save, and you walk right up to the Xenomorph–one of the reasons players not only tolerated but sought out Sierra’s many, many deaths was because they were often somehow ironic or funny or dark or in any case perversely rewarding–and, instead of killing you, a text box pops up describing how the creature simply gives you a big, sloppy wet kiss. Ha ha–and here you thought it was gonna kill you. And you go on your merry way, solving puzzles and getting through mazes and finally, a bit later, the egg that the creature implanted in you when it kissed you hatches and burst through your chest and you die. Hope you still have a save file from before you met the creature.

In the 80s, this kind of shit went unquestioned. Again, remember that Back In The Day, the simple economics surrounding a computer meant that if you had one in your home, you were probably Into Computers–which meant that you probably programmed. The frustrations of programming–spending time and effort to produce something which, as it turns out, contains some sort of flaw which causes the entire thing to break–are reflected in the unwinnable videogame state. Neglecting to pick up a key in the first room and needing that at the end of the game–is that any different from forgetting a semicolon in line 50 and seeing ramifications in line 500?

And so while early gamers got immense pleasure from untangling the particular sequence needed to beat King’s Quest and all of that, when the 90s started to hit, computers became more widespread. This is when we got Lucasarts Style–that is, games which had no death and which had no unwinnable situations. Look: All I’m saying is, if we had had Twitter back at this time, entire covens of friendships would have been fucking ended over Sierra Style vs. Lucasarts Style. Is including unwinnable situations too cruel to the player? Isn’t taking out death the equivalent of rounding off the corners and taking the stakes out of gaming?

These questions have been pretty much resolved–even the most hardcore adventure game nowadays is not nearly as cruel as Sierra enjoyed being, and in fact it will most likely use its extreme difficulty as a selling point. When I think back on Kyrandia, however, I think of its three games as detailing three very specific snapshots of evolving design. Book One has death, Book One has a maze, Book One has a death maze. Book Two broadens its world and, recognizing that its audience is also broader, takes out death. Book Three involves an obsession with morality. In fact, the series–I hope I am not reading too much into my memories–is extraordinarily socially aware. It may begin with a traditional foundling narrative–a normal boy finding out he’s Special and eventually growing to claim his birthright from its usurper–but it’s also savvy enough to give the distaff a much more interesting and much more fun game, and to abruptly shatter the games’ moral compass entirely for the finale.

But that’s where the series goes, and how it can be read as a whole. Right now, we’ve just got access to the first game. I’m going to be very interested to see how my memories dovetail with what the game actually is.

23 – Me And Alice

Uh, spoilers because my dislike of this game is at least partially related to certain specific plot points. That Richard and Alice is actually pretty decent is a surprise to me–I dislike Ashton Raze’s writing; that it’s not as good as it ought to be is a disappointment.

I’ve gone back and forth on the concept of adventure games for a while now. I was a huge Sierra kid back in middle school and was totally the type of guy who’d thrill a little bit at the very word “Adventure”; years of playing really bad ones soured me entirely on the genre…until a couple months ago, when Cognition, Primordia, and Resonance made me fall back in love with it. I haven’t figured out what, exactly, makes a good adventure game as opposed to a bad one yet. Story is a lot…but it’s not everything. The Longest Journey has a genuinely awesome story…and yet it’s filled with so much adventure game bullshit. There are entire arcs in that game which are necessary to the plot but which are actively miserable to play. The duck puzzle is one famous one–but when I think about that game, i think about that awful communication system puzzle on the island where you have to wake up a giant. I have never completed that puzzle without a walkthrough, and that’s less because it’s a difficult puzzle and more because it’s an unrwarding one which requires a lot of extremely tedious backtracking.

I’m just gonna throw this out there: Richard and Alice isn’t really a great game.

The shame of it is that Raze has written a genuinely excellent premise for his characters. The world has more or less ended due to weather related reasons; characters mention that there are areas so exposed to the sun that the land is scorched and barren; in the area where the game takes place (Raze’s England?), it’s been snowing for years with no signs of stopping. As is appropriate, no one solves anything or figures out why this is happening; everyone’s more concerned with the societal collapse that’s happened as a result.

And so the titular Richard and Alice are prisoners in a mysterious prison. Their situation turns out to be a lot more literal than the Sartrean situation it initially appears to be–there are some absurdist, existentialist elements present at the beginning that nothing really gets done with–but their situation is fairly opaque to the player for most of the game. Makes sense: Neither Richard nor Alice need to talk about the world situation much more than getting the updates that the newly-arrived Alice has learned, and neither quite trust each other enough at the outset to tell the other why they’re in prison.

There are a lot of fascinating issues that the nature of the prison brings up.  As the game goes on, it becomes clear that Richard and Alice are part of a sort of pilot program. The prison is a test to see how well people can live in underground bunkers; once all the kinks are worked out, we’re told, the more wealthy people are going to be moving in. That’s a fascinating premise. And while things ultimately go wrong, Raze becomes bored with his own premise and decides that sentimental Old Yeller bullshit is the way to go. I don’t like tearjerker games; doubly so when the object of my sadness is something I am pathologically incapable of giving a damn about.

For a change, some Momfeels: Alice–whose sections of the game are flashbacks to her time before the prison–is equipped with an irritating little moppet, her son Barney. (As a guy who was too old for Barney and Friends but at the perfect age for “let’s team up and kill Barney” parody songs, I can neither love nor ascribe any intelligence to anyone with that particular name, a fact which has made watching How I Met Your Mother fairly difficult.) Barney is…

…well, he’s five.

Every review you will read about Richard and Alice will talk about how, out of all of the characters, Barney is the best written. Barney is a living, breathing 5-year-old. The only five-year-old I have spent any time with since I turned seven was my friend’s son, who was visiting and who, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the least interesting people on the planet. I cannot speak with any accuracy to whether Barney is a good example of a five-year-old or not; as someone who greatly dislikes children, I will point out the following:

1) Barney sings, loudly, while someone hostile to Alice is within hearing range. Alice tells him several times, calmly, to be quiet; when he idiotically refuses, she snaps and yells at him and he begins to cry and feel Sad.

2) Barney, during many occasions, refuses to move on, even when he’s in the middle of a snowfield and Alice could use some help solving the puzzle to get them shelter.

3) Barney doesn’t seem to realize that strangers, in this world, are dangerous and has at least one conversation with a pair of them; it is only his own goldfish-style memory which leads him to not think to mention his mother’s existence.

Throughout the entire game we are told how smart and cute and adorable Barney is. I am not qualified as far as the “cute and adorable” parts; as far as “smart” goes, every action that Barney takes is one which puts himself and Alice into deeper danger. He is, quite literally, a millstone around her neck.

Alice’s crime becomes very clear the moment that Barney begins to have The Sniffles. A series of fetch quests and slow backtracking form her attempts to cure Barney of The Sniffles, but being told how much of a Sad Game Richard and Alice is means that the ending is in no doubt: Faced with the fact that her son is suffering from an illness that she can’t cure, Alice shoots the boy. That the narrative addresses that Alice might feel a small amount of relief from this act is addressed by the narrative; that the narrative doesn’t go into much detail, and seems to think that shooting the idiot load resource drain isn’t something Alice should have done much, much sooner says a lot about Raze’s and my differences of opinions as far as cold equations go. I recognize what that says about my humanity, I suppose.

Look: I didn’t like the videogame that was ultimately about how sad it is to make difficult choices about five-year-olds because the five-year-old is about as interesting to me as the billboard with the ironic slogan about the snow not actually being the end of the world. (Less: The billboard is a lot quieter and is not uncomfortably unpredictable.) But I didn’t like it because it’s not a very interesting game. It’s a game which strives for realism and grafts a bunch of adventure game puzzles onto it. Lewis Denby is credited with the game half of it; Raze, for all of his story’s faults, is the more talented member, because Richard and Alice is a goddamn boring, ugly slog. The graphics aren’t pretty, the movement speed is slow, the puzzles are annoying. It’s not a fun game to play by any means, and the story ultimately doesn’t fulfill its early promise, and I’m left wondering: Why the hell did I just play that?

It’s not uncommon for games to end long before their plots do, by which I mean the story isn’t finished but the designers have run out of interesting things for the player to do. LA Noire was the most egregious example of this in recent memory: Most of the way through the Arson chapter, the developers had taken the engine for their investigation and interrogation and put it through a good number of permutations without bothering to resolve the game’s main plot. And so the final few hours of LA Noire, a game notable for its city exploration, interesting dialogue, and unusual interrogation mechanics, become a series of corridors where you get to Shoot Dudes. A lot of dudes.

Richard and Alice has elements of this. We are dealing with that unfortunate case–a decent story which is an adventure game less because of anything the developers want to do with the genre and more because that’s the easiest genre to make plot-centric. (Or second easiest, if you count JRPGs, and I do.) Raze realizes that the game has run out of ideas, and so his story’s resolution is extremely rushed. The problem is that the game runs out of ideas about five minutes in and so we have scenes where you have to duct tape poles together to hit a switch because that’s something to do, where you knock down and blow up a statue of Mary in a church to open a trapdoor because that’s something to do, and where you finally escape the prison by combining the last few items you didn’t get to combine because that’s something else to do.

Like most indie games which are stories first and games as a grafted afterthought, Richard and Alice is a very underwhelming experience; in many ways, I think that its obnoxious, forced sentimentality is a way to get us to forget that. Remember that To The Moon, which is a similarly insulting story which got a lot of guilt-ridden praise, is one of the worst games I’ve played in recent memory. Seriously–did anyone enjoy those fucking picture puzzles at all?

11

For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.

6

It’s not that I want to pick on Eric Wolpaw–I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t genuinely enjoy the man’s work–but he’s at least partially responsible for some of the most obnoxious memes to hit gaming culture. I’m a little afraid to talk about cake in front of gamers because, just as how I had a friend who would chirp Monty Python references at me, I know there is a very, very good chance that said gamer will scream THE CAKE IS A LIE, at which point–

No, let’s not go for violence.

The problem with Eric Wolpaw, really, is that he was a part of Old Man Murray, and the problem with Old Man Murray is that it was responsible for “The Death of Adventure Games“, which has legitimately gone down as a fine and funny piece of game-related writing. The article, responding to a claim that the adventure game is “dead”, frames itself almost as a Hercule Poirot-esque summation of the evidence. It is, at its core, an atomistic examination of a puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3, in such a way as to highlight how illogical and absurd the puzzle is. The article ends with the conclusion that the genre has committed suicide.

If I can tell you how many times people have quoted and summarized that article to me–or, worse, how many people have described that particular puzzle to me, as if they’d made the observation themselves!

It’s hard to blame Wolpaw for this, though; after all, the article is hilarious and astute, just as Portal’s script is very sharp, and it’s not your fault if you make some thing so iconic that fans quote you so much you abandon your career and run away to Africa. The GK3 puzzle–the cat mustache puzzle, as it’s often called–and The Longest Journey’s, uh, rubber ducky subway key puzzle are often seen as two of the nails in the coffin of adventure gaming.

Middle school was Sierra and Lucasarts, college was a lot of indie shit–Reality on the Norm, Ben Jordan, Chzo Mythos stuff–and then, I don’t know, I just…overdosed on it. The puzzles were *part* of it–but although adventure games almost always feature SOMETHING incomprehensibly illogical in them, we were now getting second- and third-generation adventure games from people who’d played the genre for their whole lives and had some ideas about how to avoid some of the more cmmon pitfalls, and puzzles in general were getting better. (Certainly avoiding death and unwinnable situations were two trends which helped matters.)

A lot of it might simply be it’s just a case of too much. After a while, even good adventure game stories–stories are, after all, one of the main reasons to play an adventure–get repetitive, as do good adventure game puzzles. I find I want a more direct control of characters–rather than directing a character, as you do when pointing-and-clicking, I’d rather have the character as an avatar as you do in a platformer.

But one of my concerns recently has been the level of violence in games–after all, it’s really hard to justify Bioshock Infinite, a game in you play a violent man whose presence has placed a city on lockdown, after we all watched news reports about a violent man whose presence placed Boston on lockdown. I think it’s ludicrous when people suggest that to kill a man in a videogame may be as bad as killing in real life, or comes from the same impulses–and yet, that said, I just want to do some other shit for a while.

The relationship that adventure games have had with violence is a strange one–after all, many games–particularly Sierra’s–are loaded with dozens of ways for your character to die. And certainly there are enough horror and mystery games whose plots revolve around murder. And yet for all of that, you’re usually not able to solve your problems with a gun–King’s Quest usually even rewarded you with more points or a better story if you went out of your way to find a nonviolent option. Moral implications aside, the point of an adventure game is more to figure out, using esoteric combinations of items, how to progress–shooting is an inappropriate verb.

I also wonder if Lucasarts’s focus on no protagonist death has something to do with it–it preserves a symmetrical relationship. There’s something extremely fair about a world where you can neither die nor be killed but you’ve just got to clever your way out of things.