Nostalgia vs. narrative: A series of adventure game letters

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When freelancers Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith strike up a correspondence, they aim to analyze games in the context of their own lives. Which means talk of babysitting, electronic music and Braid-creator Jonathan Blow.

Below, they take on the adventure game genre.

To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: adventure games

Dear Leigh,

You want to do a letter series on adventure games? Oh, man. You're not going to come through this in one piece.

I'll start small: It is 1993. I am sat before the beige pomposity of my family's Amiga 600. Legs dangling off the chair, a heady 7 MHz of processing power beneath my eager fingers. I am in pain.

I'm playing Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, and have reached the infamous spitting competition. A puzzle that sees you not only having to distract the attendees with Ship's Horn and re-arrange the planted Flags, that not only has you combine Crazy Straw with Green Drink to get the right consistency of spit, but where you must spit when the area's background animations indicate that the wind is blowing in the correct direction.

It's this last part that stumps child-me, that has me roaming the game's world like an avatar of misery, for hour after hour until finally, my eyes bloated with tears, my mum informs me it's time for bed.

This happened a lot. My name is Quintin Smith, and I fucking hate adventure games.

I hate them for their byzantine mechanics. But they're not mechanics. They're not even puzzles. The adventure games everyone remembers most fondly, those sacrosanct stories handed down from the palace of Gilbert and Schafer, are defined by rubberized obstacles cut from the world's own cartoonish logic.

The key isn't intelligence necessarily, but in first hoovering up every object from the painted scenery into your bottomless pockets (better not miss any!), then inserting them into your situation like keys into opinionated locks (better have the right syntax!). A strange, dead-end evolution where success comes from intuition and common sense, yes, but moreso from clicking around, forever, like a blind man feeling their way down the designer's own gaping colon. Use Baked Potato with Subwoofer. Use Sitar with Cow.

I hate these games because I played so many of them, with no fond memories to show for it. But mostly I hate them because in gaming, a field I'm desperate to evolve, so many people hold these ancient pieces that made a joke of their own obtuseness in high regard. And so long as I'm squatting in my favorite stinking hate-pit I'll add that I hold unparalleled disregard for Monkey Island 2 because I was really fucking scared of LeChuck. I had to get my mum to play the game whenever that horrible bag of slippery pixels came on the screen.

The older I get, the more the point'n'click feels like the most unfathomably unimaginative use of our medium. But it's OK! Because adventure games faded away. And while I'm afflicted by something not unlike temporary rabies every time I see an article asking "Whatever happened to adventure games?" I can rest easy in knowing they're never coming back.

So. It's 2012. I arise in your living room, rendered hot and peculiar by a quick, clothed nap on your air mattress, to find you, Leigh, playing The Walking Dead. You were casting about a plainly-rendered train for the arduous combination of buttons and levers required to turn it on.

No. No. I said goodbye to this fucking genre 12 years ago! And look at you! You're not even enjoying it. Knitting your brow as you trundle a sedated protagonist very ... slowly ... between ... three ... screens ... trying to complete something that's still not a puzzle, but a tough struggle towards first identifying the solitary solution to the problem, the one the designer decided on, and then applying an obtuse control scheme to complete it, like inserting a square peg into a circular hole.

Here's what worries me. People think The Walking Dead being quite so good heralds an adventure game revival. I think you have to know better than that. The Walking Dead is good for all the reasons around its flinty core of point'n'click. It's good because it sates all of our current love of morality and story, with little of the padding in between, offered in an equally-timely episodic format.

You're with me on this, right? You're not going to defend adventure games, right?

Aching with anticipation,

Quinns

Far Cry 3
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge Far Cry 3
The Walking Dead Far Cry 3
The Walking Dead
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead Sam & MaxSam & Max Monkey Island 2 Special EditionMonkey Island 2 Special Edition
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: adventure games

Dear peculiar, aching Quinns,

Yeah, we're going to need to talk about adventure games, and how puzzles where a giant cotton swab goes in a giant ear have proven too obtuse for you in the past. I mean, it sounds like you were too young to be grasping that stuff when you tried it! But first, music.

Recently I had to explain to you why I hate genre labels. You keep trying to play me these techno songs where sterile machines tick tonelessly underneath all this migraine noise. Usually there's some scenester howling melodramatic vocals intended to imitate the 80s. There are about a thousand bands doing that. All these people with middling taste competing to be the most enthusiastic about it on Twitter. It's gross; it's trendy.

And when I beg off — nah, that's not for me; it's kinda shit — people have all kinds of defenses at the ready: Why do I hate joy? What does it matter if it's just "fun;" it's just "fun stuff"!? Then they can't really articulate it beyond that.

And you said to me something like "maybe you just don't like electronic music," and I proceeded to play you about 20 different artists that are sort of "electronic music" that I do like.

When it comes to these games, you don't like the mass nostalgic rally toward something you don't relate to. You don't like that most people refuse to look critically at the kitchen-sink puzzle design you find problematic (and you're onto something, there!) You don't like LucasArts games the same way I don't like that trendy wannabe-80s electronica. I remember you telling me once you had no interest in writing about things people had already heard of.

But just like there's electronic music outside of that garbage that's popular on Twitter right now, there are adventure games that are not LucasArts and Telltale (those two share a sort of similar spiritual/tonal 'thing,' I think).

I mean, I loved LucasArts games, and I'm surprised you don't, actually. You love running board games and roleplay sessions with warmth and wit; they're "all about the talking," you told me. So are the Monkey Island games, theoretically: an amused person having a little laugh with, and sometimes at you.

But even still, there are other adventure games. The stuff you don't like is bigger than genre.

Ask me about LOOM,

Leigh

"Walking Dead looks like what one would expect a modern adventure game on console ought to look like."
The Walking Dead
To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: adventure games

Leigh,

Call me a contrarian, sure. I'll put my hands up and take that bullet square in the chest like a good little dissident. I don't like Jane Jensen or Ragnar Tornquist's work either, but whether I'd be half as resistant to a Gabriel Knight or Longest Journey game were they not talked of in such awed tones, I don't know.

But adventure games are not about talking. They're about reading. In a medium defined by nothing more than its interactivity, the adventure game is about basking before a CRT monitor and the static wit of a distant creator like some pallid starfish. Games are the medium that tell us "Yes," but Adventure Game is the genre that tells us "No." No, you can't do that. No, that doesn't work. No sir!

People often hold up an adventure game, something like Grim Fandango, as the pinnacle of storytelling in games. Of course it is! It's fucking cheating! It's not trying to create a game, but offering riddles that link together its conversations and cutscenes. The point'n'click makes us laugh, it makes us cry, but it casts no shadow in the greater landscape of games.

I'm not a total monster. I understand that in solving problems and picking your own way through conversation trees, you're taking on a sense of agency over the plot. But if we're going to learn from this genre, we need to learn from the right games. The popular "classics," with their glittering writing, are paving over the adventure games we need to pay attention to. Games like 1994's Snatcher.

(This is the part where I prove your point by screaming about a game nobody talks about.)

(This is also the bit where the label of adventure games might start to lose its stick and peel away.)

Famously, Snatcher was what Hideo Kojima created before donning the billion-dollar sneaking suit of the Metal Gear Solid series. It's noteworthy for two things: One, being adored by the eleven people that played it. Two, showcasing Kojima's tendency to be "inspired" by films, before he learned tact.

Snatcher's world is Blade Runner, making it yet another much-loved Blade Runner adventure game. Snatcher's blade runners are "junkers," the replicants "snatchers," but it's all there, down to the future-noir tone and the protagonist's flappy brown trenchcoat.

What's worth noting about Snatcher, though, is how it knitted its plot threads into the game you were playing. The outrageous opening dips your balls into hot bathwater when you arrive at an abandoned factory, your very first day on the job, to discover your company's best junker with his head literally torn off. Your character's as horrified as you are. You can feel the game sidling up to you, gesturing at the corpse with a cigarette, and saying "We're playing for keeps."

Puzzles in Snatcher demand you call back to clues from hours before, or, excellently, what looks like a puzzle is solved by an NPC as you're trying to work it out. Or perhaps it has no solution at all, as in one scene where your car begins accelerating wildly and the game screams "WHAT DO YOU DO?" Conversations routinely snap into gunfights which can and will kill you if you're not quick enough — which is in turn elevated through my favorite-ever use of a peripheral. The Sega CD version of Snatcher lets you draw a lightgun in real life to save yourself QUICKLY QUICKLY SHOOT.

In other words, Snatcher was entertaining because it never let you know what the rules of its game were, but you trusted that if you paid attention, you'd scrape through this shift in one piece. That's something it has in common with the other adventure games I enjoy, like It Came From The Desert or KGB. Adventure games that are actually — wait for it — adventurous.

You could argue that The Walking Dead is trying to do the same thing, and I should be happy. A game trying to hide its fustian puzzles, like an elderly magician sucking in their gut, to instead shock us. It does, in fact, pull the same trick as Snatcher, with that conversation in Episode 2 that's interrupted by a zombie attack.

At which point I sigh, turn up the collar of my junker's trenchcoat against the rain and say that I just don't think The Walking Dead is very good at it. The writing, directing and visuals are all so flat that the game plays like a pinball table. Holding you attention with the fluorescent bumpers and paddles of MORAL CHOICES and SHOCKING TWISTS, but the ball doesn't get anywhere, it just ... stops.

I'm going to remember none of those characters fondly, and you're the same. The most fun I've seen you have with The Walking Dead is selecting protagonist Lee's "..." conversation option as much as possible. The actress in you laughing as you refuse to play along with a dumb script.

I'm glad you chose to become a games writer instead of an actress. I love writing these letters to you.

So much so, I'll be sporting and do what you said. I'll "Ask LEIGH about LOOM."

xox

Quinns

Snatcher
Grim Fandango Grim Fandango
Snatcher Blade Runner
Blade Runner The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
KickstarterKickstarter The Colonel's BequestThe Colonel's Bequest Gabriel Knight 2Gabriel Knight 2
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: adventure games

Quinns,

It is the rare correspondence we get through without you bringing up the things you dip your balls into. Sigh. You think if you bring up Kojima to me I'll let you get away with anything.

It's actually quite a big topic we've bitten off, here. I wanted to talk about adventure games because they are both specific and bygone, traits that have interesting implications in the crowdfunding age. People want them back to the tune of however many million Double Fine raised, and then their contemporaries all came 'round, too.

Of course citing Kickstarter as evidence of a genre's viability is imperfect, given that none of these successfully-funded titles have shipped yet, but cult fandom for the likes of Telltale and Wadjet Eye suggests there's something there.

And then there's Walking Dead, which looks like what one would expect a modern adventure game on console ought to look like. I do like that game, on the whole. Like you, I didn't like the puzzles, inasmuch as they were "puzzles" (more like following an Ikea furniture assembly manual). Nor a lot of the action sequences. But while it's no masterpiece of fiction, I think you're underselling how well the writing works, given the challenges of interactive dialog.

Maybe it was imperfect, but it was a pretty good run at something it seems very hard to get right. Adventurous, even. People can build on this, now.

It's strange you don't like, say, the Schafer/Gilbert-voiced style of adventure game because you feel its "static wit" is holding you at a distance, but you like Snatcher. You know how much I love Kojima, but if design is a conversation, he is definitely a big over-talker. There is not much room for the player's voice within his vision. You have agency, but the message is always his. I think maybe you do like to be at the mercy of someone else's wit — it just has to be someone you like, and someone who isn't so popular it triggers your contrarian urges.

I wanted to tell you about some of my favorite adventure games, but none of them invalidate your criticisms, alas. King's Quest 4 has some mean staircases, some pixel-hunts, some obtuseness. The Colonel's Bequest — oh, god, great game; please let me show it to you — delights in providing you with no information, no reason to fulfill certain goals. Why dislodge a church bell with a discarded cane? Why not! The Space Quest games love to trick you into killing yourself, and then they laugh at you about it. Haha. Oh man.

When I became a young teen Gabriel Knight 2 blew my mind. It had real history, German castles, romance. I felt taken to another place; I learned all about Ludwig of Bavaria from that game! I mean today I'm sure it looks ridiculous, part of that horrible live-action game phase of the '90s, with all the bad acting and chunky special effects.

Like you, I spent swaths of my childhood sat at these things. Pulling my little friends along to sit beside me, help me solve the puzzles (or to accompany me when I got scared, like you and your mum). We've talked about how as close as we are in age, there was a brief window of time, say, when you were eight or 10, that I could have been your babysitter (!!).

I would have made you play adventure games with me. Aw, imagine little us, sat at some Gateway PC running Windows 95, falling in love. With the swoopy-haired, square-jawed man that plays Gabriel, that is. He has just a touch of sweet Southern accent, if I recall. Yikes. I'm feeling nostalgic. I think we both heavily dismiss nostalgia, like it's some adulterant that clouds any proper assessment of a thing's merit. Yet if these things were terrible and we just didn't know any better, why are they so memorable?

OK. LOOM. I have a hunch you'll like this one. It's one of the right ones. Let's put our little heads together in front of your computer and play. I will help you if you get stuck. I will even let you stay up past your bedtime.

Yours,

Leigh

"We finished LOOM that night, leaving me high on the oxygen rush of a game that offers itself up to you in a scant six hours."
Loom
To: Leigh Alexander
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: adventure games

Dear Leigh,

So, we did it. We played LOOM. You came over to my house with box wine and a smile like a loaded gun, and we polluted my PC with SCUMM. You cracked your knuckles and peeled old code from the internet, while I watched my hard drive fill with crumbs of data I'd never totally clean up. I didn't tell you this, but all I was thinking at the time was "If code could smell bad ..."

But we got it working — sorry, we got the "correct" version of LOOM working — you poured me wine, and I settled in for a long night in a deadened bedroom. And ... it's beautiful.

Here's an adventure game that's not noisy with jokes, concepts, backstory or puzzles. I find myself playing Bobbin Threadbare, last of the Guild of Weavers, journeying across a disarmingly straightforward land. Bobbin's just looking for his elders, recently (and mysteriously) turned into a flock of swans. But, with all the grace and majesty of a bolt of lightning building in a cloud, he learns to weave reality with a growing book of spells, ultimately (and accidentally) saving the world.

We finished LOOM that night, leaving me high on the oxygen rush of a game that offers itself up to you in a scant six hours. In the afterglow I'm watching the credits ("A Fantasy by Brian Moriarty") and you tell me that Jonathon Blow loves LOOM. A little cookie of validation for you, for me.

So, thanks for that. Guess what I did today!

I Googled that quote, Leigh, and I discovered an interview with Blow bringing up LOOM — as an example of an adventure game succeeding at little more than being "compelling" despite the greater flaws of the genre. He could be quoting me: "Adventure gameplay is fundamentally broken," he says. "It's about fumbling." "It's not an accident adventure games died." He describes how Super Meat Boy represents old school platforming, but refined, and says adventure games have yet to receive that refinement.

So now I'm blinking heavily, sobering up after your poison dose of LOOM. Where are you? You're not here. You must have let yourself out, without even a note. But I'm remembering now, that you were telling me what to do every time I got stuck on a puzzle. Mission control to me, the ludonaut, guiding me cleanly through this space's bad gravity, its creative flares. Letting me actually enjoy the tender plot, the postcard landscapes. You, the real Weaver, thimble-fingered and string in your teeth, fixing the genre from a distance.

No. Nice try, and thanks for the wine, but you haven't changed my mind. The Walking Dead has tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm, proving we need more plot and character-centric games, but to do that properly, we need them to transcend from this inflexible chrysalis of what we consider a story game to be. We have to forget. Then we can start again.

You said in your last letter that even if we shuck our nostalgia, the adventure games we played as kids are memorable, and therefore there must possess some merit. Tons of weird crap we do as kids is memorable! I have a crystalline memory of my friend Julian drinking tequila for the first time and immediately vomiting back into his cup. Or worse: Do I need to go around telling developers they need to learn from McDonald's Global Gladiators on the Game Gear, another vivid memory of mine?

Actually, that sounds exactly like something I'd do.

Seriously though, thank you for showing me LOOM. And thanks for copying me spells into my notebook as a substitute for the game's paper manual. With your permission, I'm going to show the people at home.

LOOM
LOOM Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy Leigh Alexander notes
Leigh's notebook
PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria PhantasmagoriaQuintin in the tube
To: Quintin Smith
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: adventure games

Hey Q (that's what your mum called you when you were little, right?)

Sorry to leave like that. You should check that back garden door, because I went out there to have a cigarette while you were asleep, and I couldn't for the life of me get the damn thing closed again.

Many times last night, you murmured, gorgeous, gorgeous. And now all you've got to say is "nice try?" Well, I swan!!

In further revisionist history, it was Brendan, not I, who told you Jon Blow likes LOOM. I would never assume Jon Blow likes anything. I mean, he certainly likes things, but I'm not going to pretend I know what those things are.

You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble by linking me those quotes of his from right off, actually, because I don't disagree with them. The adventure genre never became "refined;" it marched blindly into a corner until it stopped being pleasurable, and then it died.

I think it died because people advanced the wrong elements: visual fidelity, realism, overcomplexity (oh man, we should do a Phantasmagoria playthrough, for a laugh). But I think it's coming back because people see something there worth salvaging. We're making a cautious return to a once-loved rubble, sorting it out slowly, carefully, with the reverence an ancient city deserves.

Environments. Characters. Dialogue. Wit. Our nostalgia for adventure games is really a wish for storytelling and humor to matter again in games. Rebellious, noncommercial irreverence, intensely personal stuff. Individual dreams. You will remember playing LOOM with me and that matters, like your childhood blunders matter, like the page I drew you in a sketchbook matters.

You should cheer Walking Dead as the first game to've been broadly successful at unearthing long-forgotten design challenges, even if on an admittedly-imperfect scaffold.

I like playing games with you. Can I visit again? What will matter to us next? Hmm ... you took a picture of my notebook page; I took a picture of you in the tube. Thoughts?

...

L Babykayak

[Image credits: Armchair Empire, Good Old Games, LucasArts, Telltale Games, Konami, Warner Bros., Kickstarter, Sierra, Team Meat, Leigh Alexander, Quintin Smith]
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