Verbs and Adventure Games
I was chatting with a friend the other day and the conversation turned to modern point-and-click adventure games and there was much lamenting on how the UI (the way you interact with the game) hasn't changed that much.
I'll be the first to admit I don't play a lot of adventure games these days. It's an occupational hazard. I usually rage quit or eye-roll quit within 20 minutes. I spend too much time analyzing puzzle structure.
While I love making adventure games, I love playing RPGs (I use this term loosely). If I have free time I'll go slaughter enemies in some dungeon or log onto Wow Classic and... go slaughter enemies in some dungeon.
I do quickly look at new adventure games but as soon as I realize they aren't doing anything new or interesting I'll bounce off. Occupational hazard.
Thimbleweed Park used the maniac mansion/monkey island style verb interface mostly because of nostalgia reasons (see Kickstarter), but I'd never use that for a new game. It's a very functional interface and there is a lot I like about it, but it looks old and dated and a simple screenshot can turn off a lot of people. It's a problem we had with Thimbleweed Park. I don't regret using it, it was there for a purpose and it served that purpose brilliantly.
It seems like most new point-and-click games op for the "use verb" interface. Maybe you have "Look" and "Pick-up", but after that everything can be done with just a "Use" verb. "Push?" "Pull?" just use "Use". It's probably better called the "Poke" verb. Just poke at everything and see what it does.
Much of the puzzle solving then falls to what is in your inventory. How do I "use" this thing I'm carrying with something in the world? Now the game becomes an exercise in dragging everything in your inventory to everything on a screen to see if it does anything. The only friction is how tedious that is. The "verbs" interface didn't make this any better, so I'm not trying to defend it with regard to using everything with everything in desperate frustration.
So I turn to my esteemed readers and ask the following:
Name a point-and-click adventure game that has come out in the last few years and had a novel and interesting way to interact with the world, your inventory and solve puzzles. Something that really felt new and fresh. Something that made you say "Yeah, that's the way I wish all adventure games worked."
I have a small list of my own, but I'm curious what you've found.
I mean, I kinda enjoyed Unavowed. But that game didn't really have puzzles, so I'm not sure that it counts. It was mainly just about clicking the next pixel in some of the available scenes, that made the game progress.
But, if I expand the view of adventure games a bit, then I think that Firewatch is the best example. That game really showed that the game should have UI that fits the scenario, rather then established view of what fits the genre. Firewatch's use of an interface consisting of a radio, map and compass was absolutely lovely, and was such a great match of the scenario for the protagonist. In the end, they didn't make us of it as much as they could have (like making more routes optional, having different objectives available at the same time, etc), and they said as much themselves. But as an example of a interface suited for a modern game, it was great.
But, if have to only go to point&click adventure games, I would look at Broken Age. It's main flaw was that it didn't have look/interact on all hotspots as default. Which I presume was because of smartphone/tablet considerations. But other then that, I think that look/interact is really the only alternatives you need to have on objects on modern adventure games.
There's also this game The Low Road, which is mainly a classic point-and-click adventure (and not a great one), but there's one part where you have to make a phone call where you get answered questions you have to figure out the answer to with information in an unsorted folder on your screen. There is a time limit. It's a bit similar to what Papers, Please does.
Zak Phoenix McKracken
Anyway, one of the latest adventure games I liked is Machinarium. The interface is object on object, but even the configuration of the main character (The robot) is important. And there are mostly funny and clever puzzles.
Besides that there are some games that are interesting more than anything, like Tacoma. I've also heard good things about Return of the Obra Dinn but I haven't checked it out yet.
The new Tomb Raider games also still have some good puzzles in the "optional" challenge tombs. Basically you don't have much inventory there, but you just deal with a self-contained set of objects in the world that you rearrange to some goal. It appeals to me in a similar way. (This isn't fundamentally different from classic Tomb Raider, of course.)
Still I wish more adventure games would go back to text parsers.
Delores (not that one)
I think the focus on the specifics of UI mechanics is misplaced anyway. Classic adventures games like Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones III, Monkey Island etc. had this interface for a reason: it was a straightforward way of mapping what happened in-universe to ex-universe actions that the player could take. You wanted Guybrush to open a cupboard and pick up a box of cornflakes? The UI allowed you to tell him to do precisely that. The game would have been considerably less rich if all interactions had been reduced to "use", or "poke at": much more tedious, too, since *now* all you'd be doing was clicking "poke at" until something fit.
With the classic verb system playing the game felt closer to telling a story. IMO this made those games more immersive, more relatable, and more fun. You could get into them more, you would feel for the characters more; you'd suspend disbelief for a while and interact with the in-game world, rather than being a person in a chair in front of a computer moving a computer mouse or hitting keys on a computer keyboard.
What I found vexing - frustrating, even - in classic adventure games wasn't so much the UI but rather the difficulty. Adventure games are wonderful - until you get stuck, then they suck. It's like reading a book, and coming to a page that, no matter how you try, you find yourself unable to turn, so you can't see how the story continues. That's no fun.
Quite a few classic games had moments like that. Sometimes these were due to untranslatable puns (like the "red herring" in Monkey Island, or the "monkey wrench" in Monkey Island II), sometimes they were just due to the game requiring a very particular and non-obvious solution to a puzzle that the player might well be unable to come up with. Balancing the difficulty of an adventure game so it's neither all-obvious nor too hard is tough, but it's not impossible.
What I think I'm trying to say, in any case, is that the "old" verb-oriented UI isn't bad, and a new game isn't made better solely by replacing it with a generic "poke at" or so. Whether a game is enjoyable or not is due to factors that are largely unrelated to its UI. (I say largely because a poorly-implemented UI that impedes gameplay will still make a game stink, of course.)
I thought Thimbleweed Park was a great game, FWIW: carefully modernized, with a lot of "lessons learned" implemented, while staying true to the spirit of the classics instead of trying to reinvent adventure games as something entirely *new*.
(I don't mind games doing *that* either BTW. But quite a few titles called adventure games these days aren't that in my book, anymore than a newly-created board game could reasonably be called "chess".)
> Every Hotspot, not necessary for the solution of a puzzle, vanished after you interacted twice with it. This minimized the phase of trial and error.
I prefer the way this works in Phoenix Wright, where the hotspot itself doesn't disappear but it shows you a checkmark on hover so you know you've been there. That way you aren't arbitrarily locked out of reading the text again. This could easily be applied to a MM/MI/TWP-like interface as well.
- Being vulnerable to repetitive, brute force puzzle solutions, which means you end up getting to advance in the game without understanding *why* what you did was the right thing to do.
- Being resistant to brute-force attacks, at the cost of potentially blocking progress even if the player has worked out the right thing to do because they didn't guess on the right way to express that.
The former issue is what happens with the "just reduce everything to use" system, and which as you point out the verb systems tend to be similarly vulnerable to. The latter issue is the Sierra Syndrome, and is a problem inherited from text adventures, where because you are using a text parser you are less vulnerable to brute force attack, but unless the text parser is very clever it might not recognise a perfectly valid puzzle solution just because the user phrased it in a way the designers didn't expect.
It then comes down to a matter of gatekeeping progress, and how important you consider that to be. There's an argument that given a choice between blocking someone from progressing in a game and allowing them to get progress despite not having "earned" it through puzzling things out, it's better to just allow them to progress - then at least they get to see more of the content and the story and aren't turned back by a bottleneck. I'd say that's particularly true for adventure games putting a very strong emphasis on storytelling and character decision-making as opposed to puzzles for puzzles's sake.
I have seen more promising game mechanics arise away from the immediate sphere of the character interacting with the environment, and more in the realm of what to do with the information they get from the environment. The Sinking City, whilst it is largely not an adventure game, had an interesting mechanic in here which could very easily be applied to adventure games. As you investigated a case, you'd gather clues about it, and from those clues derive information about what is going on. Then you had a screen where you could take the facts you have uncovered and combine them in different ways to come to different conclusions about what is going on and what you should do about it.
This was a neat way of both flagging what the potential major decision branches were, and also gatekeepimg them (you aren't told a particular option is a viable way to end a case if your character has not encountered the information necessary to come to that conclusion).
But what I thought was really interesting, and the game could perhaps have done more with, is that the process also flagged what you/your character consider to be the important factors in making a decision.. Often (perhaps always, it's been a while since I played) there was no one optimum conclusion to an investigation which gave equal weight to all the facts - instead, arriving at a conclusion required you to decide that some particular factors had more weight than others. Then, when you as the player enact that course of action which led you to that conclusion, you're doubling down on that decision. That strikes me as a really nice storytelling tool.
It was important to experience a great world, with many hidden details and layers of stuff to find out. Like in TP.
TP was absolutely great, but what would also be cool would be an adventure like Maniac Mansion, Zak or Indy 3 again: One where you can get stuck and where there are lots of different ways of solving it. Lots of redundancy, dead ends and stuff to play with. Dead ends can be very funny and interessting: What exactly happens later if you let the edsel go to space early? What happens if you kill the plant?
A great adventure should present me an interessting world with many twists and possibilities.
In the TP blog it was written that the elevator was very complicated and should have been simplified or how difficult the bus in Zak was.
Elsewhere you wrote that it was a bad idea to have so many characters for Maniac Mansion and that you almost could not complete it.
TP might have had more people walking around the town, didn't it?
But these things are the best parts! Playing with that world, with characters, manipulating them, etc.
Have you played Hitman and Hitman 2? For me this is in some way even a new form of adventure game (the interface is of course more the one of a 3D shooter...)
This game has an incredible amount of replayability. It has a few adventure like elements with inventory and manipulating things, but it also has >200 NPC in each world all walking around, interacting, being manipulated.
It's so great to set something off, place an object, let chain reactions emerge, or follow the many challenges and prepared actions.
If you miss ceratain events or kill certain people, some solutions become unavailable until you restart.
The game has ton of alternate paths and you should replay each level many many times, always trying something new, but this way uncovering more story, more characters, more hidden elements.
Maybe at one point we could have an adventure with maybe ultra low production value (like Manian mansion would be today), but endless alternative solutions and hidden puzzles, easter eggs, characters with their own agenda and scenes which can fail, e.g. missing Weird Ed's parcel.
Regarding RPGs, I really liked Disco Elyisium's gameplay and narrative and the lack of murdering enemies in a dungeon in this game.
On further thought Bill Tillers' A Vampyre Story was innovative because it let you encapsulate ideas as inventory objects. And to a lesser extent Wadjet Eyes' The Blackwell series of that let you create dialogue options from components was neat too. Neither of these games are recent however.
There's a new AGI based game called The Crimson Diamond that looks really intuitive though. It makes me think that it's kind of a shame that no one has created a voice interface for those old games, that you could use with something like Alexa; ScummDM-- The Scumm Dictaphone Machine. It'd be the best party game yet!
I can't find a new game with real new interface but the crimson diamond has a text parser, which isn't a perfect solution nor is it a new UI, but I liked to have a game with no dead ends that use this method and was light on inventory.
The best system I can think of was the magic spell in loom which replaced both verbs and inventory and I really liked it but it is still an old game and spells required memorization.
I was trying to make my on ideal UI (just for the fun of it) but the best I got was to replace the verb system with a text parser that only serves for verbs but you can click on anything else to interact with it. Now days we can make better text parser but I think it is best to limit it to where it is needed - to give you the ability to use deferent operations without the need of 100 of inventory objects and the challenge of figuring out what to do and not just what to use.
I really hope for more modern and refreshing system because I am getting tried of use.
If you want something hardcore like MM check out 'The Castle':
It started after a long and inconclusive discussion on the forum about how many verbs for "use" you should have in the verb grid... or on a coin interface.
They were text adventures, but with the new interface they feel (and behave) like point and click adventures. The interesting thing is, that I (as a player) still have more possibilities and more freedom compared to the old "look/pick up/use" point and click interface. And I really like that. The old Legend text adventure games used a similar approach but they are not that intuitive like the new Magnetic Scrolls interface (IMHO).
Someone already mentioned Return of the Obra Dinn, which worked in a similar space for me.
Imagine in MI1 when you're trying to get the note of credit from the shopkeeper that instead of watching the combination, you just had to press Action after you've got rid of the shopkeeper. It seems trivial but removing that creates a far less engaging scene. Guybrush knows what the combination is whereas you technically don't. I'm going to stop here before I write an essay on Player Agency.
Loom was like a big inventory [vocabulary?] puzzle that you could similarly just try every new spell on every new problem. I think that its composition was too concise as each room or area held a spell to proceed. But that's a different discussion entirely.
The text parser was/is pedantic at times but it is expressive. SCUMM in at least its first iteration was a gui of the text parser. Where the verbosity added in describing the would from the main characters perspective; EAT Chuck The Plant? With a one button context action I wouldn't know why that's not a good idea.
I really can't think of any recent games that let the characters live outside of a per-determined context action or encourage the player to think outside of an interact key. But I'm heckuva happy that there's such a strong revival for the old ways.
Similar but not the same, there was an indie game called Mushroom 11 that had a control style I had never seen before - You deleted part of a blob and it grew in the other direction, and that is how you went through all the puzzles. Brilliantly clever and innovative in a way I haven't seen much in the game world.
And I second the Baba Is You comment above. Also innovative controls.
None of those are point-and-clicks, but I could see those controls being incorporated into a point-and-click.
I thought the radio in Oxenfree was pretty cool! You tune to different frequencies near objects and it causes them to engage with the player. Doors open, portals rip open in spacetime, etc.
I also like how Life Is Strange does it. Instead of the verb wheel you just walk up to objects and they highlight, and the appropriate action happens when you click. Your character looks at something, or picks it up, or whatever the appropriate action might be. It's a simplified UI but it makes for really smooth gameplay.
They didn't do anything new but I also think Deponia does a great job of modernizing the adventure game, check it out if you haven't already!
I'm sure it's nothing new, but it's very fluid and quick to interact with the world once you learn it!
I'm sure it's nothing new, but it makes the game fluid
One example was that you had to turn the remote around to be able to fit a key somewhere.
I'd rather have a "pick up" on an item than to be able to just click it and have the character pick it up. I know on paper it sounds better to make it simpler however then the game just ends up being a click-fest where I just click on everything. I prefer having to think about my actions even if it's a bit more tedious.
I don't know of any game with a better interface because it's my favorite one! I disliked the interface in Life In Strange... while that game was well executed, it felt clunky.
Maybe simplying the interface would work. Picking up stuff, using things, interacting / talking to people... but I like the idea of being able to push people. I like the idea of pushing something on a wall, etc.
> I'm sure it's nothing new, but it makes the game fluid
Quite the opposite in fact, since Maniac Mansion already had that. I think it's rather annoying when games don't implement such basic UX niceties and stick to just the cursor. I think the MM/TWP-style QWE/ASD/ZXC is actually slightly nicer to use than shortcuts based on names though.. Some LucasArts games used P for pick up, S for shove (push), U for use, etc. instead.
> I disliked the interface in Life In Strange... while that game was well executed, it felt clunky.
To be clear, Oxenfree and LiS (the two games I explicitly mentioned) probably play better on a controller with a stick because that's an environment where those circular motions feel very natural. This is actually a rather important point I completely forgot to mention. Depending on how it's implemented it might feel more gimmicky or even clunky with a normal mouse.
click - look at
click and hold - use (gently)
click and drag - push/pull (using force - you can apply different direction and distance/force)
double click - pick up
dragging from inventory - use X with ...
There is no special "talk" action, but that could be differentiated by the target (i.e. you could "feel", "push" or even "smack" someone by clicking on his/her body and "talk" by clicking on the head).
I also think that it could have a lot of potential in VR.
If you want to check it out here a link (I'm not the developer, I'm just following him on twitter):
@Ron what are the games on your list? I'm very curious!!!