Oops, You Got a Little Game In Your Story

Syp has a nice post up about the latest Adventure Game from TellTale Games – The Wolf Among Us.

To preface this, I have not played the game, I have only Syp’s description to go by. But give that its an accurate description, I know exactly what he is talking about:

Telltale is starting to specialize in a type of adventure game that’s almost adventure-lite. It’s heavy on dialogue, character development, storytelling, and nuance, but light on puzzle-solving or really anything presenting an obstacle to progressing the tale. There are a few scenes where you have to investigate an area, but that means you just click on all of the context popups. There are a couple of quicktime events, which are the only ways that you can “fail” the game (although you immediately start the quicktime event over).

To each his own, but for me, what he is describing falls outside the boundary lines of “game” and into something more like “choose your own adventure.” For me growing up, I enjoyed, for example, the Lone Wolf line which is described as a gamebook. Technically the Choose Your Own Adventure Series also called itself gamebooks, but there was a clear difference between the two. One involved dice rolling, combat, skills – actual game mechanics, if you will. The other used only one game mechanic, user choice, and I can’t even really bring myself to call that a game mechanic. The end result was that the COYA series, while good in its own right, was never popular with me because it wasn’t a game for me to play – it was just a book to read with some alternate endings and deleted scenes. I consumed – but I never really felt all that participatory. And while there are certainly games that are “on rails,” the good ones layer interesting mechanics over the rails in such a creative way that you can’t see the forest for the trees. COYA doesn’t bother covering the rails – in fact it seems to revel in them.

Isn’t this fun! Is even more fun when we reach the junction! Then you can decide if you want to turn left or right!

And there are more and more products like the Telltale Games, like “adventure-lite” as Syp says. That you can purchase on Steam and GoG and so forth, which to me personally is irritating. Its like somebody slipped The Fray into my hard rock station and then acted surprised when I pointed out that this wasn’t in fact hard rock. I know why its there (its commercially successful and has the potential to draw a new audience spectrum) but I don’t appreciate its presence.

Again, to each his own I guess, and I’m aware that to some people I probably sound like the grumpy old gamer who is set in his ways. But if that’s what I am, I understand the terror. I’m scared to death that the out of touch publishers are going to get the wild hare that they can make way more money if they start giving us less game to play and more “game” to watch. That move absolutely ruined the Final Fantasy franchise years ago, and the spectre of it still haunts the gaming industry. Any success Telltale has, in that regard, just makes me all the more grumpy.

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15 thoughts on “Oops, You Got a Little Game In Your Story

  1. My reaction to Syp’s write-up was “oh that looks really interesting”. Just about the only video games I have any interest in other than MMOs are adventure games and probably the one thing that would make me more interested in them is getting rid of all those annoying puzzles.

    As usual its mostly an issue of semantics, I think. We’ve ended up using the word “game” as a catch-all for a whole range of activities and entertainments, some of which are games pure and simple but many of which only have game elements and often not many of them at that. Terms like “interactive fiction” are clumsy and never seem to gain traction, either with the public or commercially, so both producers and consumers find it more convenient to go on calling everything that isn’t a book, movie or comic a “game”.

    As usual, we need better language to discuss these things. I’m certainly in the market for a genre of entertainment that offers me the narrative drive and depth of a novel or a movie while allowing me much greater control over the pace and direction of that narrative. I wouldn’t describe something like that as a “game” though and I think that labeling it as such risks putting off most of the people who might actually enjoy it.

  2. This is true, and there has always been something of a minefield with the word “game” when that narrows the genre down to the wide open spetrum of Monopoly to Call of Duty and everything in between.

    I think for the intelligent buyer its probably fine in the end. I do my homework before I buy, and twice now I’ve gone to buy a game that I thought was a great premise only to have online reviews reveal (purposely or not) that dialogue was the only real gameplay. For those who aren’t doing that kind of research, well they are probably less picky and will enjoy the game so long as it is well done, which is something Telltale has an excellent reputation for, even if its not quite my style.

  3. Here’s my two-cent monkey wrench: “Game Theory” doesn’t even involve the use of skills, dice or other randomizers at all, and instead focuses on the *choices* made by “players” with incomplete information. Of course, this is a case of scientists using a term in a slightly different way than regular people, like “theory.” 😉

  4. @flosch: If so, this has to be my first time arguing the hardcore side of things! (-:

    @Rowan: Games Theory can’t exist without the mechanics that define the choices, they are inseparable. And those mechanics must be more involved than simply limiting a set of options, because if that’s all they do, choosing your meal at a restaurant is a “game.”

    1. I didn’t say “Games Theory.” Think Nobel winner John Nash, not Richard Bartle. Besides the fact that, since you’re including Monopoly and Call of Duty, you have to include schoolyard games like tag; and sports, where you’re truly using skill. And what about the backyard fantasy worlds of Cowboys and Indians or Wizards and Warriors? (Yes, I played fantasy-themes pretend with friends as a kid.)

      And depending on the restaurant, choosing your meal might just be an adventure into the unknown. 😛

      1. From the very page you cite: “Game theory is a study of strategic decision making. More formally, it is ‘the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.'”

        RNG and the other game mechanics you mention are not addressed by formal Game Theory, exemplified by zero-sum and “The Prisoner’s dilemma.” I was originally being facetious, but there you go. While I’d say elements of Game Theory are present in strategic endeavors like football and poker, anything heavily involving odds and chance (e.g. craps or roulette) is not covered by Game Theory. They fall under statistics and probability.

        Richard Bartle pioneered game design as a discipline and categorized gaming personalty types: achievers, explorers, socializers and killers. I personally am an EASK.

        This link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_studies may lead to what you were thinking of. But it is thin on the study of game mechanics design, as well. And FWIW, I wouldn’t consider CYOA books to be games either.

      2. Mechanics are indeed addressed in games theory, they are the very assumed foundation upon which it stands. The wiki page, for example, cites twelve different types of games, all of which use their own set of mechanics to influence decision making, some of which can even overlap providing more complex rule sets.

        You can not study decision making in games without first providing a game which will have a discrete rules set. So, I reject your two cent monkey wrench. (-:

      3. Sure, smartypants lol. When you were battling Oscar in TSW you had to determine what skills to use in what order in each phase of the battle. That is a combinatorial game.

        I will admit, though, that I’ve lost the thrust of your argument. That Game Theory provides evidence that games can exist without mechanics? That Game Theory has nothing to do with how we define what a game is? Something else?

      4. I got lost, too. I think it had to do with your discounting “user choice” as a game mechanic, when I would consider it the preeminent game mechanic. (Not that that makes CYOA books games.) Games are about choices, even RNGs represent so-called Moves by Nature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Move_by_nature In the larger context, Game Theory isn’t really about games at all, any more than Economics is about money. The games are really models for assessing strategic behavior. Of the games in this list: list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_games_in_game_theory , Rock-Paper-Scissors is the only one I’ve heard of actually being played, and also happens to be a common element of MMORPGs and RTSs (what is WoT?). Since both fields of study hinge on choices and models, it’s understandable that eight Game Theorists have won the Nobel Prize in Economics over the years, not to mention work in biology and other sciences.

      5. Hmm…I think from my viewpoint, Game Mechanics are the artificial influences on choice, rather than including the choice itself. Mechanics are the reason you can’t bring a Shotgun to a Rock/Paper/Scissors fight (at least, not without bringing Spock along as well) and the only thing that differentiates R/P/S from the random coin flips that start off so many sporting events, which are not a game in themselves but a simple choice – Heads or Tails.

        Nobody plays Heads or Tails for fun, but they do play R/P/S for fun. Because the mechanics transform the choices into a game. Or at least, that’s how I see it playing out in my mind’s eye.

  5. It’s mostly interesting to me because I remember, towards the end of the The Great Era of Adventure Games(tm), there were arguments that they had become so “hardcore” that riddles had jump the shark and were totally random, arbitrary, and frustrating.

    I remember a long polemic dissecting a part of Gabriel Knight 3, claiming that it was a universal example of how ridiculous adventure game riddles had become. The text became quite famous. You can find it here, though the site is down at the moment:
    http://www.oldmanmurray.com/features/77.html
    If you search for “Death of Adventure Games” (maybe add “gabriel knight”), you should at least find a cached version on google, though.

  6. I read the article – it reminded me of the ones I played – when they were good they were fun to unravel, and when they were bad, they devolved into a checklist of clicks for each moveable object.

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