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Lee enters, stage left

July 15th, 2008 @ 9:03 am
by Vince Twelve

I didn’t know who “Lee in Limbo” was until I read a terribly insightful post by him on the AdventureGamers forums where I really should spend more time.

Forgive the long quote, but there’s lot’s of good stuff in here:

I know that folks who play these games are kind of conditioned to expect puzzles, but frankly, I could live without them. Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m all for problem solving. By ‘puzzles’, I mean that I could do without what I refer to as ‘arbitrary problem abstractions’, where the designers decide that the logical solution to an immediate problem is too mundane to feel like an accomplishment in the virtual world.


Personally, I think the reason Adventure Games are still in a sort of cultural ghetto is because the developers don’t trust interactive storytelling. It’s understandable that interactive storytelling has such a bad rap, because a lot of games in the last twenty or thirty years were written by programmers, and thus lacked finesse and narrative shape. It takes a lot of resources to create an interactive plot, and no two gamers can agree point for point on what makes good interactivity in a game. We all like and focus on different things, and ‘good story’ is still this foregone conclusion, but is often treated as an afterthought by game developers.


[P]uzzles have their place, but I don’t believe that place should be at the front of the line. I think Adventure Game devs need to learn other ways to create conflict in their games, if the story/immersion factor is ever going to win folks over who didn’t come just for the puzzles. I’m not calling an end to puzzle gaming as a whole. I just think it’s a poor substitute for conventional problem solving, and it breaks the immersion for anyone who was actually interested in the story as opposed to just looking for the next puzzle. There has to be a better way to do this.

It takes a well-written post like this to kick a wanna-be designer like me in the nuts and make me reexamine my own games.

Anywho, the point of this post is that this Lee Edward McIlmoyle is hooking up with the fab Deirdra Kiai to work on a new and interesting looking piece of interactive storytelling called Stage! And yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.

Lee has posted two posts so far to their development blog which I will be watching with interest. And so should you.

6 Responses to “Lee enters, stage left”

  1. Lee Says:

    Yay! Thanks for the plug, and believe me, I know there are plenty more views on this whole game design thing than little old me has to offer. I just talk way too much, so it sounds like I know something.

    Incidentally, I’ll be keeping a closer eye on you folks, too. Take care, and good luck!

  2. John Says:

    Gah! I was writing a lengthy comment on puzzles/story in adventure games and lost it.

    I was basically stating how my position is somewhere in the middle: I like adventure games to have good characters and a compelling story that drives the player to complete the puzzles, but I also believe that since it’s a game, the puzzles should come first and foremost (and by “puzzles” I mean any obstacle in the game the player must overcome to progress – they don’t have to be inventory puzzles or physical puzzles, but it must be something that requires the player do or solve something in some way.) A great story with poor gameplay is a great story but a bad game. I recently played a game that started out great. It had a two-minute intro that established who I was and what the story at hand was. I knew what I had to do. But the next twenty minutes of “game” was just walking around and talking to people who had massive amounts of dialog to click through. I had yet to encounter a part where my character actually had to do something, other than just listen to people. This wasn’t a case of a game with bad puzzles, this was a case of no game. Maybe I was being impatient, but my interest waned. Not because the story wasn’t interesting, but I was looking for an active entertainment experience, not a passive one.

    To me, the story is the context in which the game takes place. Take a game like Risk. You could create that game without the context of world domination. Just plain pieces on an fairly nondescript board with sectioned areas. The game would still work. But if you do the reverse, and take away all the pieces, you’re left with a board that’s a map of the world. Now, a map can be incredibly fascinating to some people, but it’s not a game by itself. All you have is the context.

    Now, I suppose the argument against my position is the success of games based on licensed properties. Most games based on movies are incredibly bad games, but they sell pretty well. Clearly, people are buying them because they like the characters and the story, and the gameplay isn’t the primary factor. When the games are reviewed, the story never saves it from low marks. Sure, they’ll say “the story was great” but give it a 5 out of 10. But it is more likely that really awesome gameplay will make a reviewer gloss over a poor story (provided the story doesn’t impede gameplay.)

    Gee, I guess this still ended up being a long post! I’m bad at summing up. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re going to start with a story and from the get go state that the gameplay is secondary… why make it a game?

    Oh, and Vince, I hadn’t forgotten about your pitch, I’ve just been very busy on Dave’s project!

  3. Vince Twelve Says:

    Good comment, John! The gameplay is definitely important to make a game different from a movie. I think what Lee is advocating is twofold: 1) Favoring conventional problem solving for arbitrary or illogical problem solving and 2) focusing more on giving the player control over the story. Of course number two is easier said than done, and number one runs the risk of making the game too easy or mundane.

    But the alternative, puzzles for the sake of puzzles, with illogical guess-the-designer’s-intention solutions, I think we can all agree, is not the way to go. Sadly, that describes most games that come out of both the amateur and commercial developers these days.

  4. Lee Says:

    I think it’s the problem of game devs (amateur or pro) trying to be too clever by far with their puzzles. The reason I like traditional problem solving is that, even if it ‘seems’ easier, it at least works with the story, and doesn’t knock people out of the narrative. I still think you can make some pretty interesting problems to solve. However, as soon as you start devising terribly clever and totally pointless conglomerations of inventory puzzles, or make someone stop to do a mind-bendingly surreal mechanical puzzle just so they can open a door, you break down the credibility of your story universe, and your audience becomes painfully aware that they aren’t in the story; they’re just playing a game.

    Playing games is all fine and good, but it’s a brush that all AGs get tarred with, and most can’t avoid it because they play too close to convention and try to appease expectations which have ghettoized a nascent medium for interactive storytelling. If no one braves the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations, we’ll never get anything new and interesting in the hands of people who aren’t traditional ‘gamers’, and we’ll watch this medium drift off into obscurity, as fewer and fewer developers want to take a chance, or frankly can’t afford to produce anything that people will actually buy.

    Game Devs need to keep in mind that their traditional audience is so minuscule that they’ll never be able to make a respectable living creating anything of social merit in this field. It’s in their best interests to learn to think of these things we create as something more than games; mere toys for the Acne Set. Only by thinking of potential buyers as an audience rather than players, and learning to understand what this medium can do that could conceivably appeal to more than just inveterate hardcore gamers, can we hope to elevate the industry to be given its proper critical due.

    Ebert may be a pompous @$$, but he’s not the only one who has been calling these things juvenile and amateur, or pompous and misguided. People who play these games have been known to denigrate any attempts to argue for the validity of interactive storytelling. I’ve had several arguments with very intelligent if short sighted people about how valid a creative medium this is.

    Okay, I’ve talked too much. I’d just say that pure puzzle logic for its own sake can be a fun diversion, but so long as the medium continues to bow to this expectation of mind-bending puzzle logic at every decision gate, the full power of the medium will never be realized. Careful integration of puzzles into the story isn’t enough. There have to be new ways of interacting with these virtual universai aside from abstract inventory management and device manipulation problems.

  5. Tommy King Says:

    I agree with both Lee and John – in that there is a happy medium that can also serve to push the boundaries of the formulaic.

    It’s a given that an Adventure Game IS an interactive story (or story that’s interactive) – in order for it to be immersive, the GUI and conflict/resolution process has to be as [organic] as possible, and one aspect of the game should never sacrifice the other, but compliment one another (okay, I just described perfection – but the loftier the goal, the better the game).

    I would love to play an adventure game – amateur or otherwise – and be surprised by even a small innovation that felt organically woven; i.e. your character progresses from a narcissistic ne’er do-well pimp to a philanthropic altruist within the context of the game and you suddenly realize this even though it wasn’t part of the marketing blurb (and I don’t mean in the convention of “you have two paths, which will you choose?” via Fable, etc)

    Just because that’s how the story arced through your actions. Not the greatest example, sure (okay not even a [good] one) – but that just highlights the “easier said than done” maxim as being too true.

    I was last listed with an IQ of 145, but honestly I will stop playing an adventure game when a “guess the level of this devs cerebral convolution” puzzle forces me to Google. I mean, unless you have a tiny netbook on your character and a coffee house in your game vicinity, how organic and immersive is it REALLY to sacrifice immersion with this kind of stuff? It creates game dichotomy, splits it into two competing parts. I want one seamless [experience]. Oh but that’s just me. :)

  6. Tommy King Says:

    And yes I realize I’m posting on something written three months ago. I’m retro like that..heh