Let’s get something straight: old-school adventure games suck as a platform for story-delivery.
That’s the kind of sweeping generalization that makes a lot of people really angry, but fuck it, we’re all adults here. They suck. They do. Call the cops; I said it. The design of an old-school adventure game is fundamentally antithetical to pretty much every modern instinct of what makes for compelling narrative design, and every classic like Siberia or Monkey Island succeeds IN SPITE of its genre, not because of it.
Is your blood boiling yet? Are you shaking your head in disgust? Well it’s not gonna get much better from here on.
Look, here’s what adventure games want to be:
A fun sandbox where you solve puzzles and progress through a tightly-scripted linear story that rivals a good book or movie.
Here’s what they wind up being 99.9% of the time:
“Nope, that doesn’t work.”
That’s the string a player sees, over and over again when playing a classic adventure game.
“That doesn’t work.”
“Nope, it’s no good.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re trying to do.”
It’s literally inevitable, when the design of your game meets the following specifications:
– Dozens of inventory items
– Dozens of environments
– Each with dozens of objects you can use your inventory items on
– Progress forward is gated with lock-and-key puzzles (i.e. the player must use item X on object Y to progress, but doesn’t know what item X or object Y are)
The result is unavoidably the same: the player stumbles around, rubbing their inventory against the background and waiting for A Thing to happen.
Classic adventure games (particularly the work of Tim Schafer) get around this unfortunate reality by utilizing their failure strings as a mechanism for humor. So instead of answering “Use bucket on tree” with “That doesn’t work”, you might get something like, “In Canada, this would get you some maple syrup. But you’re on an island in the tropics, so nothing happens. You idiot.” It’s funny, and it makes the rough edges smoother. But the actual narrative meat of these games is still hidden behind the lock and key puzzles. You use the right thing on the right object, and it unlocks a new cutscene, a new area, new npc’s. The humorous failure strings paper over an ugly hole in the wall, but they don’t fix it.
So, of course, modern adventure games DO try to fix it. And this can be done in a variety of ways. Maybe you only have a few inventory items, so the number of item/environment interactions never has the opportunity to exponentiate and run away. Or maybe you highlight The Right Item and The Right Object visually for the player, so there’s no ambiguity. Or maybe when a player tries to use the Wrong Item on the Wrong Object, the game just straight-up doesn’t respond. Nothing happens. An empty click, huh, welp, guess that doesn’t work.
But any of these tweaks introduce new complications to the design (chiefly, a really boring experience that only feels interactive in the strictest technical sense). Telltale’s games, like the early Walking Dead, often brush against a design like this, but they make up for the shortcomings of their mechanics in other ways, like strong narrative design.
But Hiveswap does something different. Something amazing. Something I’ve never seen before.
Hiveswap EMBRACES the shitty qualities of old-school adventure games in a great big angry hug. It builds exactly the kind of game that could have come out of Sierra in 1995, but then—then—it says, “Okay, our players are going to spend 95% of their playtime rubbing stuff against other stuff and reading failure strings. So let’s put the entire story in the failure strings.”
It sounds easy, but I promise you, it’s not. What they’ve accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. This is a story that is told almost entirely through short-form, twitter-style worldbuilding — and not just that, but world-building that is nonlinear, because a player can use any object on any thing at any time.
If that didn’t hit you between the eyes, let me say it again, more clearly:
Every single inventory item in Hiveswap can be used on every other environmental object to receive a UNIQUE line in response.
If you’ve never written a game, that feels minor. It’s a bullet on the back of the box. “Huh. Neato.”
But if you’ve ever written a game before, or just studied game writing in depth, you realize that THAT IS FUCKING INSANE. That’s the adventure game equivalent of how Scribblenauts lets users type in a word, any word, and then spits out a fully-drawn and coded in-game object that does cool, unique, funny things. And that seems like, “Haha, neat,” a fun little magic trick, or some clever twist of code, but it’s actually just an insane, inadvisable, batshit-bonkers butt-load of painstaking, handmade, iterative work that most individual players will never even see one quarter of.
To demonstrate how much work this is, I’m going to give you a homework assignment.
Here are ten inventory items:
- Left shoe
- Old crappy book
- Rotten egg
- DVD copy of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”
Now here are ten environmental objects:
- Hole in wall
- Your sister
- A cockroach
- The dog
- Coffee table
- Bowl of wax fruit
Now I want you take just the first item, the rope, and do the following:
Write a single failure string (for a total of 10) that displays when the player uses the rope on each of the available environmental objects. Every string must be completely unique, preferably containing at least one pun or joke, and should convey some detail about the world, characters, or plot. Most important, no string can be longer than [let’s pick an arbitrary number, because it’s always arbitrary] 173 characters.
That exercise will probably take you about 10-20 minutes (or longer, if you’re a good writer and really agonize over it).
Now do that for all the other items. That’s 100 failure strings.
Now write strings for what happens when you use the items on the other items. That’s another 100 strings, for a total of 200.
Whoops, we just realized this room doesn’t have a light source, so we added a lamp. Can you add another 10 strings for using each item on it, and one for when you first examine it? 211.
Also we just added another seven items. Can you write another, let’s see, what, 70 environmental lines, and I guess…112 item-on-item lines? What does that bring us up to total now? 393? Unless my math is wrong. And oh god, I hope my math isn’t wrong, or Mike’s gonna have to COMPLETELY redesign his Gantt chart, and our ship date is gonna push back like three weeks minimum. And that’s gonna totally screw the budget. And we’re already behind.
Oh and shit, did I forget to mention we have TWO POV characters? Also this is just the first room, and we’re gonna have like twenty rooms. Also, there’s a UI element that looks like an eyeball, and if you use THAT on objects…
You see my point. At the end of the day, that is LITERAL THOUSANDS of unique lines, each of which someone had to take the time to write, and rewrite, and proofread, and integrate, and rewrite again. “You can use anything on anything else and get a unique result” is one of those design goals people toss out casually in a Kickstarter video, and then halfway through production, it fucks their whole shit up. It is a monumental challenge, necessitating a monumental amount of work, but Hiveswap does it.
And it pays off. The experience of playing Hiveswap is utterly unique; a kind of whirlwind interactive prose diorama where every interaction observes the relationship between two things in the world, and the character observes something about that relationship, and the player learns something from that observation, and that’s the story. The Plot just happened. It advanced by one single node, as soon as you finished reading. Hiveswap knows how adventure games work, so instead of swimming upstream, it just goes where its players are, and puts the story in the place the player will spend most of their time. And then it closes its eyes and trusts.
In videogames, a lot of work is like this: seemingly miraculous, but actually just backbreaking work by some crazy sap clacking away in a dark room. Chrono Cross has 40-sumodd party characters, and you can bring most of them with you into most scenes in the story. Mass Effect has a dozen possible romantic interests. Destiny has a thousand unique guns. In Skyrim, you can visit any mountaintop you can see. In No Man’s Sky, you can fly to any point of light in the sky.
Now that’s not to say that a cumbersome design is necessarily good (and as always, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between “complex” and “convoluted”). There are plenty of people with Strong Opinions on the success-or-lack-thereof of the various games and key features I’ve mentioned above. But there are just many people for whom that one feature is the game’s single greatest asset — the thing that made them love the game, the thing that inspired them, or the thing that made them get into game design. And you bet your ass that the original “funny failure text” of the adventure games of yesteryear was one of those batshit-crazy features, and involved just as much work, and faced just as much friction in its implementation.
So the next time you’re playing a great game, think about which aspects of the design make it great. And if there’s a single standout feature, ask yourself:
Was this an easy magic trick? Or just a lot of really hard work?