Looking before one leaps

Posted by Peter Rootham-Smith.
First posted on 15 October 2006. Last updated on 15 October 2006.
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Playing is only part of the fun adventure games can add to one’s life. Aside from playing adventure games, one can also talk and write about them. Depending on one's definition of fun, one can even try to create an adventure game, though the latter may be more fun than some may want!

It is interesting to compare notes with other adventure gamers or read reviews written by game reviewers when the crawl through the Egyptian pyramid is over... when the Titanic has sunken beneath the waves... when the universe is safe from a lack of sanitization... when the white birds fly... when the purple tentacles are confounded... when the ghost pirate is frozen out... or when Genghis Khan does not return again...

I read reviews of adventure games to see what other players have thought and to find out what I have missed. I may not get every reference given in a game, thereby missing out on levels of its meaning. Sometimes I only realize in hindsight that there are clues given about a puzzle that I have solved only by chance (or by resorting to a walkthrough). Some reviewers are like artists when writing reviews, and some reviews are like works of art in their own right.

How many gamers use reviews to guide them as to what they want to play next? Before one invests money (and, more importantly, time) to play a game, it is only sensible to check the game out first. What is the game about? Are there puzzles in the game of a kind that one may find difficult or impossible to solve? What do other gamers think of the game? These are all questions that lead one to check out a review of the game in question. It is only smart to do a bit of background research before adding the game to one's to-play shelf.

Conversely, just how well do reviews guide their readers as to what games to avoid? It is a bitter experience for me to play a game, get into it, get nearly to the end, then hit a type of puzzle I cannot solve. I admit that what is impossible for me may be child's play to others, as there are types of puzzles which I find acceptable but are intolerable for others.

Let us look at a list of issues which one may wish to know about a game before playing it. Undoubtedly, this list is going to be biased toward issues that I find difficult or objectionable. It will miss out issues that other gamers may find vital. Moreover, the issues that are important to me may not be important to others. For each issue, I have taken an example from an adventure game and surveyed reviews of the game posted on major adventure gaming websites. The (very subjective) score given in parentheses to each game describes my scoring of these reviews on how well warned I feel from reading them about the issue.

1. Bad language

An example is the foulmouthed technogeek in The Longest Journey. The character feels more out of place to me in this game than in other games. (50%)

2. Combat or arcade puzzles

I imagine that many gamers differ on what is considered acceptable. I am at the extreme of incompetence in hand eye coordination. An example is the combat in The Last Express which has prevented me from finishing the game. (66%)

3. High bandwidth puzzles

Many gamers (including myself) are limited on how much information can be taken in a given time. The last (or nearly the last) puzzle in Obsidian requires the player to spot and remember all the movements of a number of sliders in only a few seconds. (10%)

4. Sound or tone matching puzzles

Some games (and kudos to these) have sound puzzles but they are optional. Sentinel combines sound puzzles with the need to move around quite a bit. (50%)

5. Timed puzzles

Voyage: Inspired by Jules Verne (also known as Journey to the Center of the Moon) starts with timed puzzles which have me trapped into seeing the death scene over and over again! I have to resort to using a walkthrough in the end so I can avoid seeing that death scene again. (0%)

6. Color matching puzzles

This is a staple problem for any gamer who has color blindness. Sentinel has some such puzzles. (50%)

7. Pixel hunting

Paradise is a game generally known for its pixel hunting. (100%)

8. Overly fiddly puzzles

The organ note puzzle inside the spaceship in realMyst is a nightmare puzzle for which I bet many beta testers for the game must have used a cheat. (0%)

9. Orientation intensive puzzles

Gamers (like myself) who get easily disoriented often find timed puzzles involving repeated changing of directions very difficult. A certain maze in Tex Murphy: Overseer stops me in my tracks. (0%)

10. Tedious puzzles

I remember with less than affection the Towers of Hanoi puzzle in Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned for Danger. (0%)

11. Ethnocentricity

The Cassandra Galleries (a rare game with the worst ending of any game I have ever played) has a number of quizzes where being American is a distinct advantage. (0%)

12. Impossible puzzles

My champion is the infamous mandala puzzle in Beyond Time, where only a single solution out of many other valid solutions is allowed. (33%)

Are these scores going to be meaningful to every gamer? If the reviews from which these scores are derived are proper scientific analyses, perhaps they are. However, is it not the point of any review for a gamer to simply find out what a particular reviewer feels about the game? Finding a reviewer whose taste seems to match one's own usually means that reviewer's opinion is a good guide to what games to try. Alternatively, one can read a wide selection of reviews to determine an average rating for the game in which one is interested.

Personally, I find that reviews do not always cover the minor details which I find to be major. Even when a review mentions a problem issue for me, the issue may be buried deep in the text of the review. There are game reviewers who consciously try to cover the fine print and even summarize the issues neatly (good for them).

For me, another reservation about reading reviews is the fact that, although I want to know about what the gameplay is like in a game which I am thinking of trying, I do not want to know beforehand other players' detailed opinions about the game. Somehow, this makes the act of playing the game a second-hand experience for me, as if I am following in someone else's footsteps, the pages are creased, or the spine has been broken.

Do reviews exist on games which are objective summaries of the gaming experience rather than subjective opinions? If there are, I will use them. Yet, I think I am yearning for what does not or may not exist—being objective about the objectionable is a difficult object.

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