What works in an adventure game

Last summer I played a whole bunch of adventure games… I mean a whole bunch… check out that link and look at Summer 2005. Old school games, newer games. The whole gamut. BTW, I think Still Life had the most engaging story of them all and the best presentation. Indigo Prophecy has been touted as a great way of reconceptualizing the mechanics of the genre, and it is a great game, but the story fell apart, and honestly the story is king in an adventure game.

Anyway, I typed up some quick notes in August of what works and what doesn’t work (at least for me) in these point and click third-person games. I recently uncovered this document and tried to clarify it a bit… I wish I could say more, but my memory sucks. Here’s what I have.


Here are some ways mouse control was used in some games:

  • Right-click on an object to look at it, left-click to perform a context sensitive default action. Select verbs besides “look at” from a menu of verbs, then click on an object to perform that verb. This is like the later SCUMM games from LucasArts.
  • Right-click to cycle through verbs, left click to perform verb on an object. This is like the later LucasArts games.
  • The older SCUMM (pick-up, look at, etc.) games worked well, too. You have more options as to what verbs to use, but you get less screen real-estate for presentation of game-world. It’s a toss up. Sometimes, those extra verbs do you no good (lack of polish on the designers’ part, I’d say), and, sometimes, not having those verbs is constraining.
  • Single-click to perform the only action available with an object. This is like Syberia. It felt rather limited.

I would argue that the LucasArts games got this right and games like Syberia got it wrong. In a game, we have no tactile sense, no sense of smell, and no balance/location/slope sense. We also cannot easily tell how hot or cold or humid something is. Please make up for this by letting us examine or look at things even if those things are not interactive.

But… it only works if game makers actually provide context specific information on those objects. I can only listen to Guybrush saying, “I can’t move that,” a few times without rolling my eyes.


Related to this, lots of games have huge inventories for characters to store stuff they’ve collected over the course of the game. A lot of puzzles are based on combining certain items with other items. I don’t mind so much trying to combine every item with every other item so long as there is contextual feedback. Broken Sword did this really well. Asking about every item with every person you meet actually works and is not tedious because there is some sort of humorous response to every single combination. By contrast, Broken Sword 2 “smartly” limited which items you could ask certain people about. It was not as satisfying an experience.



Game screens

Screens of nothing but pretty scenery kept to minimum please. Syberia suffered from this a bit. A game may have really incredible artwork, but when you have to run through five screens to get to where you’re going repeatedly and when those five screens don’t have anything in them that you could interact with… that really bites.


Changing camera angles within the same scene makes it extremely frustrating to navigate when not done well. Furthermore, it’s completely unnecessary to change the camera angle when the first showed what you needed to see already. Moment of Silence did this and it was very frustrating. To some degree this is the same issue some players have with the earlier Resident Evil games.

No indication of where the exit locations are and/or no indication of when a scene scrolls further than what is visible in the initial screen. Also annoying.

Broken Sword had a cool feature which I call the “home base” where players could go between places and reflect and talk about situations with an in-game partner (Niko). This was a good way to center yourself, I thought.

Future of adventure games

I wish more games had a branching story where player choices determine where the story goes. This is getting into RPG territory. For that matter, I wish real moral and ethical dilemmas came up to challenge players, too.

As far as controls go, I think using the mouse-wheel to select a verb would work really well… but on other hand, these old-school third-person adventure games are few and far between, so I guess I’ll just take what I can get. Still, with so few coming out, you’d think they’d try to progress…



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