Mon 12 Apr 2010
There are many types of games. Many different ways to provide the player with a gaming experience. Each genre of game provides the player with a different route to a different experience, the gaming medium isn’t unified. In Physics, a Grand Unified Theory is some model of the universe that combines all our theories into one. At the moment, Physics works by switching between different perspectives in order to explain different events – relativity for the large, quantum for the small. This made me think: could gaming be unified? What if we could design a game that captures everything a player could want? Then we wouldn’t have to switch genres, like Physicists switch theories, in order to have different experiences.
Why would we want to do this? Obviously I’m not suggesting that this new genre replace all others but what if a game was designed that puzzle gamers and role-playing fans could equally enjoy? As game designers, especially indie game designers, this would be an exciting aim – to design a game to bring players together, rather than supply more of the same, to the same people.
Where would we start? Why would I be here if I didn’t say the Adventure Game? The Adventure Game ticks quite a few gaming boxes, it is characterised by a distinct setting, dialogue and story. Its most famous aspect is its use of puzzles. Anyone could agree there isn’t much missing… I haven’t always been an adventure gamer, however. My love for gaming was solidified when I played Knights of the Old Republic, the Bioware RPG. The game sported the strong characters, unique locations and great writing that I later found in Adventure Games but there was something else it had: a sense of investment in the characters. As a player you could directly influence the fate of our own character and their companions, providing a connection to the game world distinct from what I experienced in adventures. For example, in Beneath a Steel Sky, when I was fond of the characters purely because they were well written.
So, the RPG provides the first addition to the Adventure Game: character progression in the hands of the player. Which other genres can contribute to this vision? How about strategy games? You might wonder how on Earth I’m going to blag this one but there is something Adventure Games can learn from the strategy canon. Traditional strategy games put the gamer in a non-static game world, a game world that progresses due to the player’s efforts. In Age of Empires for example you can build a civilisation, its nature and success dependent on your decisions throughout the game. What if, rather than the player affecting the local environment i.e. escaping a room or solving a mystery, they affected the game world globally, deciding the fate of a city or the outcome of a war. Why could an Adventure Game not be developed where the solving of puzzles and interactions with characters built and shaped a civilisation?
There is one concept that many game genres have employed and must therefore be a key ingredient in our Grand Unified Game: the open world. RPGs have used it, with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind boasting one of the largest, most atmospheric game worlds for players to freely explore. The Grand Theft Auto series is defined by it, providing the player with a sand box city to manipulate and again, explore. So why has this exploration of huge open worlds not been utilised more in the Adventure Game? Adventure Games tend to be confined to discrete locations that the player progresses between, presumably to keep the storytelling nice and linear and controlled. But with games becoming more complex and studios becoming more capable of handling this complexity, why not have the story take place in a huge world free to explore?
This issue brings us neatly to the subject of linearity in Adventure Games. Story has always been important in Adventure Games but the less linear this story becomes, the more one would have to rely on side-quests and content not essential for the main story. You could easily argue that the inclusion of side-quests in an Adventure Game would make it an RPG but remember RPGs have other more defining aspects, for example the levelling-up mechanic. In fact, side-quests wouldn’t just add an extra dimension to Adventure Gaming but build on what’s been done before. In his article for Hardy Dev, Making History, Volume III: Constructing an artificial history Jan Jacob Mekes talks about ‘minor historical events’ that can be used to enrich the game world. Think about how enriched your game world could be if the ‘events’ were extra puzzles themselves.
Many readers will have realised before now that I’ve left ‘the big one’ until last. What can the Action genre bring to our Grand Unified Game? If its treatment is going to be balanced, one can expect it to bring a lot! After all, it is a very popular and successful genre. The Action genre includes games from the traditional platformer to the more modern Action Adventure right through to the First Person Shooter and online Deathmatch titles. At a basic level, the platformer really isn’t that different from the Adventure Game. There is often a quest on which the player finds themselves, with obstacles to overcome along the way. The first game I ever played was Prince of Persia. In my mind, it plays like an Adventure but the puzzles follow a different format. You are on a quest to save the Princess from the evil Jaffar, however instead of combining the key with the gate to open it and progress to the next area, you have to active a switch, scale a wall and jump over some spikes before the gate closes. Could the collapsing tunnel sequence in Beneath a Steel Sky have been extended, with the player using precise timing to dodge falling debris?
What about the Shooter, then? It would be ignorant to exclude one of the most successful genres in gaming history. It’s not as if combat hasn’t be done before in an Adventure Game, either. Blade Runner (1997) used it and the recent trailer of Boryokudan Rue hints at something similar. However, serious integration of combat elements in Adventure Games seems to have died out in recent years, to make way for comedy or investigation titles like Tales of Monkey Island or Sherlock Holmes. The original Alone in the Dark trilogy relied heavily on action, whilst remaining an Adventure Game and Realms of the Haunting provided an interesting mix of first person Adventure and Doom clone.
For Action, then, it is most important to remember what Adventure Games have already achieved in the past. That just leaves the online game: will we ever see an Adventure Gamer wearing a headset? I’ve always been interested in the idea of a co-op Adventure Game, where two or more players have to work together maybe combining their inventories, to solve a puzzle. What if, in Ben There, Dan That! the ‘Dan verb’ was your real life best friend?
To summarise our Grand Unified Game:
- Basic Adventure Game principles: strong characters, unique setting, well written story and dialogue, ‘logic’ bases puzzles.
- From the RPG: player and non-player character progression.
- From strategy games: a non-static game world. Some essence of the player ‘building’ the world around them.
- The use of an ‘open’ game world, free for the player to explore. This would lead to a non-linear story.
- The use of side-quests to enrich our new, open game world.
- From the platformer: obstacles that have to be overcome through precision and timing.
- Re-unite the Adventure Game with Shooter mechanics it’s used before.
- Incorporate some kind of online co-op puzzle solving.
Note to Physicists: I know, I cheated a little with the Grand Unified Theory (GUT). What I talk about is more like a Theory of Everything (TOE). Then again, if it offended you, you probably just need to GAL (Get a Life) 😉
About The Author
Mark Richards is a physics undergraduate, making games with AGS in his spare time. His big project is called The Longevity Gene (a dystopian sci-fi game) and he has a couple of collaborations lined up that will happen with a bit of luck. The Longevity Gene’s progress, vids, screenshots & other goodies can be followed here.