10 Things I hate about adventure games

secret of monkey islandAdventure games are one of my favourite game genres, but despite their simplicity as games, they are susceptible to annoying design flaws and sins. In relation to the 10 Things I Hate About RPGs, I also wanted to show that even in genres of gaming which I like, I do recognise flaws and there are certainly things about these games that annoy me consistently.

I am indeed planning on redoing my Top-10 Adventure Games list in the future, though I want to wait until Broken Age Act 2 comes out because I see it as a potential candidate for that list. Once again, these entries are not in any specific order, but I’ve encountered them enough in adventure games for them to be worthy of mentioning. And while these problems are very common place, I also feel that they are all easily addressed and fixed, which is something you’ll notice in most of the entries.

But let’s get on with this one…

Not sure if the sign is subtle enough.

Not sure if the sign is subtle enough.

1. Hint Systems

This might seem odd to most people since you would think that Hint-systems would be an acceptable alternative to forcing a gamer to run to a walkthrough when they can’t figure out a puzzle. And true, it’s not the concept of Hint-systems that annoys me so much as how artificially they are now part of modern adventure games.

Adventure games in their very nature offer plenty of opportunities for giving players clues to solving puzzles. You can either drop a hint directly through character dialogue or in the player character’s description of an item. Or you can be even more subtle and use context clues, such as a cutscene or just by laying out other hints into the immediate surroundings of a puzzle. What I really don’t like is a game where I have to artificially go to a different screen to read a hint given by the game.

If you want to include a Hint-system, you should make it part of the game. A good example is Gabriel Knight 3, where the Hint-button (whenever active) triggers Grace into saying something which puts the player’s thoughts in the right direction. This is the sort of a hint-system which I feel works the best.

GK1_menu

They were going to include Larry’s fly and the kitchen sink, but then there wouldn’t have been any room for the lion.

2. Overly complicated menu-bars

This is mostly a problem with older adventure games. By the time of the late 1990s, most companies making adventure games realised that, at least point-and-click adventure games only needed two commands: observe and interact. There of course can be some minor nuances of those, but essentially most adventure game commands boil down to variations of the two.

In earlier times, perhaps because the genre was seen as possibly developing to a more complex direction, you could be sure to find at least half a dozen commands. Simon the Sorcerer 2 is one such notorious example, where things like Use, Give and Wear are all separate commands and you may become easily confused if you forget that. I equally found the command-bar in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers to be irritating in this regard (on top of which the game had a very counter-intuitive inventory system).

This answers a long-standing question: Is it possible to fuck up the controls of a point-and-click game? Yes. Yes it is.

just-shut-up3. Infinite dialogue loop & dialogue activated puzzles

Talking to characters is actually one of my favourite things to do in adventure games. I especially love it when they have interesting stories or funny lines. It’s really what brings the world of the game alive for me. Therefore, badly designed dialogue trees tend to get me really frustrated. A particularly annoying feature of adventure games is the infinite dialogue loop.

This refers to a topic or line of dialogue you can feed to a character, which seems to always result in the same meaningless conversation to happen. This is particularly frustrating if the dialogue takes a long time to play out and if you clicked on that line of dialogue by accident. Where I think infinite dialogue loops are particularly infuriating is in games with dialogue activated puzzles. That is to say, a game where you need to talk to a character in order to know that something in the game is a puzzle for you to solve. In these instances, you’re tempted to go through all dialogue options systematically, so you don’t get stuck just because you forgot to talk about something with some character, and it’s also when an infinite dialogue loop just starts to get on your nerves.

More importantly, this problem has an easy fix which even many modern adventure games ignore for some reason which is the “I have nothing else left to say”-line. When you’ve expended all useful dialogue options, the game should just flat-out not let you talk to a character at all, since it helps you not waste time talking to someone you don’t need to talk to.

blender4. Blending

People often talk about pixel-hunting being a problem of adventure games, but the problem isn’t hunting, it’s a simple issue of layout and hot-spot placement. And some adventure games are really terrible with making important items stand-out in the background.

Once again, I’ll give an example from a good adventure game: Runaway: A Road Adventure. Pendulo Studios seemed to have a very bad habit of making every inventory item in the game blend perfectly with the background, to the point where you wouldn’t even think you can interact with them. I’m sure there are some game designers who feel like they’re belittling the player by making inventory items big. shiny and prominently placed – but honestly, I think it’s just decent of a game designer not to actively trick the player.

Also, item blending happens occasionally because the hot-spots for items are way too small for a casual pass over it with a cursor to pick up anything. This is another thing I wish adventure game designers would understand, the hot-spots can and should be fairly generous in girth. That’s how you prevent people from missing items and prevent situations where gamers have to meticulously inspect every inch of every screen.

Death5. Sudden Death

Again, this is more of a problem with older adventure games, but it’s still infuriating, unfair and generally just a terrible thing to have. I don’t mind death as a possibility in an adventure game. But like with everything else on this list, I believe in giving the player fair warning that something bad might happen to them.

Obviously, I’m referring to the old Sierra games. The first Leisure Suit Larry is actually a really fun game, but it’s one of the prime examples of “One fuck-up and you die”-type of games. And in Larry’s case, the things you can do to get killed are fairly innocent. All you have to do is wander off from in front of buildings to the side-streets (where you get mugged) or step off the sidewalk where you will instantly be driven over by a car (without any indication that it’s actually something that can happen in the game).

These types of deaths were of course designed to prolong the gaming experience. But I can say that when you manage to kill yourself trying to walk down a flight of stairs (King’s Quest 4) it’s hard to justify to yourself why you would endure such unwarranted punishment any longer.

6. Layout

Item blending is one thing, but general layout is also a thing some adventure games seem to struggle with on a regular basis. 3D games have a little bit more wiggle room since moving camera-angles and such tend to reveal a lot more of the game area and you don’t get tripped up by things you ignored as easily. 2D adventure games, however, run into this problem way too frequently.

This refers back slightly to what I said about items blending into the background, but I would also assume that designers have the common sense of never placing important items off to the sides of a screen. Or if they do, they should know to plan out the layout of any location so that players will focus on the correct part of the screen. Layout is also important for things like mobility. I think it’s just common sense to make moving around in adventure games (especially in ones which don’t feature a run-button) fairly effortless and not too time-consuming. With the high amount of backtracking which is a part of most adventure games, it gets annoying if you need to go through way too many steps to get to an important location.

If a player spends the vast majority of the game walking back and forth, rather than solving puzzles, I think you have done something wrong.

leap7. The Leap-of-Logic Puzzle

This is still one of the most inexcusable design sins in adventure games. Here’s an example: Say you come to a door which is locked. There’s no other place for you to explore, so you know that this door needs to be unlocked. Naturally, you assume that you need possibly a key, a lock-pick or maybe some tool to force the door open.

However, earlier in the game someone told you that there are magic doors which react to the smell of vegetables. This was an off-hand comment and maybe you didn’t pay attention to it. But let’s say you do remember it. You look over your inventory and realise that you have a carrot. So quite against your instincts you use the carrot on the door and it opens by itself. Now, were the player desperate enough, they might resort to clutching at straws (using everything on the door) to find an item that the door would react to and this would solve the puzzle. Yours truly hates this method and when I can’t for the death of me think of a way to open the door, I check a walkthrough, have it tell me to use a carrot and I’m then left with the feeling of “How the hell was I supposed to figure that out?”

This example isn’t from any specific game, but it demonstrates the importance of a logic-trail when designing puzzles. The order of events here need to be: know about magic door – do a puzzle which rewards you a carrot – find the door – think about possible solutions for the door puzzle – remember the magic door and vegetables connection – use the carrot on the door. Leaving out that first step leaves all the other parts of the puzzle in shambles from which it becomes difficult or just flat-out impossible to figure out the game’s internal logic. If you did miss that step, all you see is the carrot, the door and somehow you’re supposed to make a “leap of logic” that carrots open doors.

Incidentally, I’m not also a fan of “gimme” puzzles, where you receive an item to solve a puzzle later in the game even the purpose of which is not clear at the beginning.

8. Context Clueless

Even more infuriating than a leap-of-logic puzzle is a puzzle that doesn’t let you know it is a puzzle. The feeling of not knowing what to do next is fairly normal in adventure games. You could argue that it’s here where the “adventurous” side of you should take over and you start probing your surroundings for things to do and interact with. However, some games just don’t do a good job of telling you, even after some probing, what is a puzzle and what’s not.

A good example is any puzzle that requires you to independently know to combine items in your inventory. Here is where for instance a well-placed line of dialogue from the main character would save a lot of time, saying something to the effect of “If I had a pen, I could write on this notepad”, indicating and putting the thought in the player’s head that they need to combine those items. Another infuriating aspect is when there’s something you can interact with at a location, but there seems to be no obvious purpose to it. Then you realise that you have to know to combine something with said item, but if it’s benevolent enough to seem irrelevant to your goals, you’ll have basically ignored a puzzle right in front of you.

This is why creating context clues is important, especially in games which give you multiple puzzles and goals to shoot for simultaneously. A context clue will always help you stay focused on the task at hand, until you finally get it.

confused-man9. Whoa! What happened?

This is more a story-writing and transition sin, but it happens frequently enough in adventure games to annoy me. Sometimes characters will suddenly move to a new location or a cutscene plays which places you somewhere and you have no idea why you’re there in the first place. This leaves you with a sense of confusion when all of a sudden, you have no clear goal to shoot for.

A game that definitely fell prey to this sin multiple times was Broken Sword: The Angel of Death, although the cluelessness of my goals was also partially because the over-arching story was so badly written. Certain parts of some Monkey Island instalments and even Full Throttle occasionally leave the player dazed and confused, but usually someone or something will give you some indication of what it is you’re supposed to do. Probably the most frustrating this sort of game design ever got to me was in Runaway 2, where upon reaching snowy Alaska, you’re distracted from your goals by having your tag-along eat some poisonous berries that make him go crazy and after that it’s all up to you to figure out how to deal with the situation.

This problem occasionally happens in games where you can tell that they were rushing to finish the story, but it still doesn’t excuse anything. If nothing else, game designers should have the decency of adding an expositional line of dialogue to help keep the player on the map on what’s going on.

remote10. Unskippable and unpausable dialogue and cutscenes

Finally, here’s something that really gets on my nerves. Like I said, talking to characters is one of my favourite things to do in an adventure game, but sometimes reality butts in and you have to stop playing or you might get otherwise distracted. In these instances, it would be nice to be able to just pause the game by going to a menu or something like that so you wont miss anything. Unfortunately not all adventure games give you this option.

I found it particularly annoying in Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon, where the cutscenes of characters talking could go on for quite a while and it frustrated me to know that I’d probably have to replay the game in order to see that scene again fully. But just generally, a universal pause button would be nice. For pre-rendered cut-scenes, I can understand that they can’t be interrupted because of the technology behind them, but for the rest of these cases, pausing should be an option.

Same goes for skipping dialogue. The unfortunate truth is that in many adventure games you end up examining the same things and talking to the same characters many times in a row. The end result is that you’ll hear the characters repeat the same lines of dialogue over and over again. At some point you just want to put a stop to it and this is when unskippable dialogue becomes frustrating. Especially with games that have infinite dialogue loops (like Broken Sword 4) this becomes incredibly infuriating. The same way there needs to be a universal pause button in all adventure games, I also think there needs to be a skip button for dialogue and cutscenes (especially transitional ones).

A quiet, pondering and leisurely pace is typical of most adventure games and I’m not saying that’s bad. In fact, it’s very much preferred in a game that requires quiet contemplation. However, if the game’s pace is hindered by horrible decisions in puzzle activation, layout, blending or indeed forcing the player to watch certain cutscenes and dialogue sequences over and over again, then it’s easy to see why a player would become annoyed and frustrated.

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