Adventures in games research
First posted on 04 October 2010. Last updated on 16 April 2011.
About the author
Clara Fernandez-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her current research focuses on the potential of storytelling in videogames (especially adventure games) and the design of player's experience in videogames with the aid of storytelling.
For more information, visit GAMBIT: Load Game: Rosemary.
The academic study of videogames has become an interdisciplinary research field. Game studies scholars come from a variety of disciplines, such as education, sociology, game studies, and computer science. The objects of their studies are just as diverse: specific genres (e.g., casual games (1) or role-playing games (2,3)), players, formal aspects of game design, to name but a few. Adventure games are also part of this rich research landscape, and their status in the field of game studies remains to be defined. This article is an introduction to the study of adventure games and how research can inform not only scholars but also game developers and fans of the genre.
Adventure games are notably overlooked in game studies. Some game scholars, such as Espen Aarseth (4), consider adventure games to be closer to stories than games. In general, game studies often focus on popular commercial games, which facilitate creating a common ground for discussion. The more the audience knows about the game, the easier it will be to discuss it. This tendency to discuss popular games may be one of the reasons why adventure games are often absent from game studies. It also explains the coincidence between the rise of game studies in the late 1990s through the early 2000s and the decline of adventure games as a popular commercial genre (5).
There is much that can be learned from adventure games and their long history (by videogame standards). Developed between 1975 and 1976, Adventure (Figure 1), also known as Colossal Cave, is commonly cited as the first adventure game (6). Decades later, adventure games are still released both commercially by development studios and non-commercially by dedicated enthusiasts. Computer technologies have evolved, and adventure games along with them, going from text to mouse input to touch screens. The evolution of the genre has not been linear, but rather has branched into different subtypes of adventure games. This has led to new interactive fiction (also known as text adventure games) being released along new point-and-click adventure games, both by commercial developers and by aficionados of the genre.
Being a games researcher means playing a lot of games and knowing them very well. Researching adventure games requires going through all types of games: interactive fiction (such as Zork, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), point-and-click adventure games (such as King's Quest, Myst), and games that take advantage of new types of controls, such as Hotel Dusk: Room 215, or Indigo Prophecy (also known as Fahrenheit). Being an adventure games researcher requires playing both the popular (e.g., Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle) and the obscure (e.g., Avon, Rorschach) titles: good games as well as bad games. Being a diehard adventure game player does not automatically qualify oneself as a games researcher, though. Adventure games research requires being able to play games critically and, more importantly, knowing the field of game studies in order to situate the work. This helps making clear what the contribution is and how it relates to pre-existing literature.
What can be learned from adventure games?
A recurring concern of game studies is dealing with the problematic relationship between games and stories. There is an inherent conflict between a story, which is a pre-set sequence of events selected by the author, and a game, which is a system that the player participates in to bring about different game states. Greg Costikyan (7) put it succinctly, "Stories are linear. Games are not." In a story, the author decides what happens; in a game, the choices of the player while interacting with the system decide the outcome.
Adventure games have dealt with the issues of reconciling stories and games longer than any other genre. A main attraction of adventure games is their stories, in which the player becomes a participant. Plundered Hearts, for example, was inspired by romance novels, while King's Quest was inspired by children's fairytales. There is much to be learned from adventure games: how they have evolved in order to balance the exploration of the fictional world of the game with facilitating the player traverse the game successfully.
Playing according to a pre-set sequence can be a pleasurable experience, and adventure games are proof of it. The adventure game player is like an actor in a play who has not been provided with the script. The enjoyment derives from exploring and experimenting with the simulated world of the game, which helps the player figure out what to do. It constitutes a different type of gameplay, driven by discovery and experimentation, which encourages the player to learn more about the world.
Adventure games have also pioneered the creation of simulated fictional worlds that the player can inhabit and explore. The Great Underground Empire of Zork is not only the setting to a series of puzzles, but it also has a history that the player can learn by interacting with the world and examining every nook and cranny. The town of Rockvil, South Dakota, in A Mind Forever Voyaging (Figure 2) is a textual version of what Grand Theft Auto has done graphically decades later, offering a large urban space that the player can walk around in and explore.
The fictional world is the key to reconcile games and stories. It is both the space where the game takes place and the space where the events of the story unfold. The simulation in an adventure game encourages exploration, which can consist of talking to the characters in the game, reading documents, and examining or manipulating objects to figure out how they work. Exploration can also take the form of traveling through different spaces, be it island to island (The Secret of Monkey Island), country to country (Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars), and even planet to planet (Space Quest).
There are 2 complementary approaches to adventure games research: the theoretical approach refers to the study of pre-existing games, while the experimental approach means learning more about adventure games by making them and following a specific development method.
Studying adventure games from a theoretical perspective constitutes the foundation of the other types of research. This approach ranges from studying the history of adventure games, their production and technological evolution, to the formal aspects of adventure games, such as the different game design elements or interface design. The very first dissertation on adventure games (and on videogames) was Mary Ann Buckles' Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure (8). This dissertation compared Adventure to different literary forms and genres, such as folktales, detective novels and riddles, as a way to connect what was then a new narrative form with traditional storytelling.
Theory can provide the tools to understand adventure games, such as frameworks and vocabulary. For example, in Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort identifies 2 different types of player input in interactive fiction (9). Diegetic input refers to the instructions the player gives the player character ("take brass lantern"), and it is called a command. By contrast, extradiegetic input is directed at the program itself (e.g. save and restore the game), and it is called a directive. This distinction, which can be extended to graphic adventure games, allows us to understand the 2 basic levels in which the player's actions can operate in interactive fiction: those that operated in the simulated world, and those that operated on the program itself. Defining these basic parameters consistently and systematically is the foundation to understanding games better.
Theoretical frameworks thus provide the vocabulary to articulate how the adventure game can be analyzed as well as create a common ground to discuss it, establishing different approaches to the object of study. Academic jargon needs not create barriers between the scholars, who are experts on the object of study, and the rest of the audience. Theory is supposed to provide the means to understand games and communicate ideas about them, whether the target audience is comprised of academics, journalists, game designers, or game fans.
The research of adventure games also requires being able to play critically and analytically, taking a certain distance from the object of study. Analyzing a game is different from writing a review. The primary goal is not so much determining the quality of a specific game but exploring its formal qualities and, if applicable, its sociocultural or technological implications. For a formal analysis, it is important to take notes as the game is being played, while asking oneself how the game is designed and how it is being played. Some of the questions that can be asked are: How is the fictional world presented to the player? How is the player informed of the goals of the game? How clear are those goals? What types of conceptual connections is the game expecting the player to make? Researchers can only hypothesize the causes for certain design decisions. Interviews with designers and developers are an excellent resource to learn the justifications of those decisions.
The context in which the formal analysis of adventure games is conducted is also relevant in order to gain insight about the object of study. Twisty Little Passages, for instance, defines the formal properties of interactive fiction within a historical context, which allows for an understanding of the evolution of interactive fiction as an art form. Adventure games also relate to other types of media, and they may reflect the particular cultural background of their creators. Mia Consalvo's analysis of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney studied how its fictional world, its game design and localization process would encourage players to perform, persevere and be thorough in order to complete the game (10). The cultural context of Phoenix Wright is particularly rich: a Japanese game, inspired by Hollywood courtroom drama, set in Japan with many of its cultural traditions, which then had to be localized to the rest of the world. The analysis highlights the importance of understanding the culture portrayed in the game in order to be able to play it.
The experimental approach to researching adventure games refers to the methods of learning by doing. It is a less common way to carry out games research, although scholars such as Michael Mateas are strong proponents of this method. In the case of adventure games, this approach is essential to create new technologies and to understand the genre better. Knowing how a game works helps being a good critical player, who can appreciate the attention to detail (or lack of it), how the information is integrated in the space, and how the game is written. Thinking like a designer helps recognizing the work that others have done in other games. It takes away some of the magic and wonder of playing games, but that is also what differentiates a game fan from a game designer or a games researcher. This is the approach that I have followed in my games research project called Rosemary.
The researcher starts with a premise, a research question or a hypothesis that can be put to the test by making a game about it. The phrase "experimental games" takes new connotations in an academic context, since the development process becomes an actual experiment. Practice-based research requires explicit methods, careful documentation of the process, and, most importantly, a critical analysis of the resulting game. The problem is that games are also an art form, so trying to come up with strict methods that will produce a uniform effect seems to miss the point of artistic creation by discounting the elusive nature of inspiration. Games are art indeed, but they are also heavily dependent on the affordances of technology. Understanding how technology imposes certain limitations, what the computer can do, and what tools are available to the designer, are capital to gain insight on adventure games.
The goal of experimental game development is to understand how games are made in order to make them better, or in order to innovate. The innovation in adventure games does not come from the audiovisual design, or even the stories written for it: it is the game design that is the focus, finding new ways of shaping the player's experience or simulating the world. For example, an issue that can be explored through experimental game design is new types of conversation engines, or improving on the behavior of non-player characters, particularly when responding to the interactions of the player.
In the case of my work, I started by choosing a specific model of adventure game, such as interactive fiction or point-and-click, first-person adventure (like Myst). The adventure game model selected was from games using verb menus (Figure 3), as exemplified by Maniac Mansion or Simon the Sorcerer. Then, I proposed a variation, which would be the innovation within that specific model. For Rosemary (Figure 4), the research question was "How can we make an adventure game which models how memory works?" The intended variation was including a set of mechanics that modeled memory: remembering could not be another verb in the menu but rather a set of mechanics in the game. During development, these mechanics became 2 related systems in the game. The player could compare how the player character remembered the space of the game with how it would currently look like (Figure 5). By spotting the differences between the memories and the present, the character would remember new details, and make sense of the current world. The other system modeled the storage of memories, where the player could help the character remember details by associating different memories.
The technology of adventure games is relatively accessible, which facilitates such a practical approach. There are plenty of game engines, many of which count on communities of fans that support them, such as Inform, Adventure Game Studio, or Wintermute. Compared to other videogame genres, the programming of adventure games is relatively accessible, thanks to a range of sample code and tutorials posted online by their creators or users. It is relatively easy to prototype and get a game running in a short period of time. In game design research, however, it is not enough to produce a game. The next necessary step is to evaluate the game with players.
For Rosemary, our lab invited individuals from outside to play the game at different stages of development, and their feedback was then incorporated to improve the game. Some of the most interesting findings during the development of Rosemary were that players who were not familiar with adventure games would pick up the memory mechanics pretty fast, but they usually had problems with the conventions of adventure games, specifically the verb menu. Many young players (under 16 years old) and older players (over 45 years old) clicked on the menu buttons and expected the character to do something automatically. For example, they clicked on "look" thinking that the character would look, without considering that they had to click on the object they wanted to examine. These were all conventions that were transparent to experienced adventure game fans, but new players tend to have trouble understanding them.
In spite of the availability and ease of use of tools, making a good adventure game can be quite complicated, particularly in the case of graphic adventure games. Building a consistent world simulation requires a lot of patience and testing. Designers must anticipate what the player will try to do, providing the player with all the information necessary to advance in the game, as well as preventing actions that may not be productive. Making an adventure game also requires producing good quality art and audio assets, which can be very time-consuming. This is a challenge in an academic setting, where researchers may only devote a few hours a week to development. Games developed for research thus tend to be shorter and a bit rough, because they are proofs of concept rather than fully developed games.
In the case of Rosemary, our lab aimed at making a game that would be comparable to a good fan game. The downside was that by aiming for polish the game also ended up being quite short. The game was developed in over the course of 7 months, 10 hours a week, with a team of 5 to 6 individuals whose members changed over time.
Adventure games can be very good for showcasing art projects, such as Samorost or Rückblende. Samorost presents an evocative space that the player traverses by solving the puzzles, while Rückblende compels the player to discover the past of the player character by exploring the space. These games, although innovative, do not constitute research. Practical research in adventure games involves careful documentation and critical analysis about the development process. Most importantly, the conclusions reached after developing a game have to offer some insight on adventure games and learn something new, which must be shared within the communities interested.
The outreach of games research is not limited to scholarly publishing or university classrooms. Many of the researchers seek to contribute to a better understanding of adventure games (and videogames in general) outside of academia. Part of the enjoyment of adventure games is being able to discuss them and share experiences with other players. Providing a vocabulary and a series of theoretical frameworks will allow the community to understand adventure games better and communicate and exchange opinions about them. Academic research may also potentially take up the slack in experimental games by finding areas of game design that commercial games are not addressing. It is part of the job of a game studies scholar to think through the process and disseminate research findings to developers, which will hopefully help expand the medium.
There is much that academic researchers can learn from professional developers, who probably are already aware if many of these findings but do not have the time or the channels to communicate them. In the case of adventure games, professionals are not the only source of reference: there is a large community of game fans who have helped keep the genre alive by developing new games (e.g., Ben There Dan That, Alabaster, Blue Lacuna), new tools to develop games (e.g., Inform, TADS, Adventure Game Studio, Wintermute), and virtual machines that can play old games in new machines (e.g., Zoom, Spatterlight, SCUMM VM, DOSBox). My own research owes a lot to these developers, who produce high quality work often without obtaining any revenue for it.
The scholarly study of adventure games helps to reclaim the role of the genre as cultural expression as well as to understand the historical significance of these games better. Although not everyone can or may want to be a researcher, it is the job of everyone who loves this genre (journalists, players, developers, and academics) to encourage together the appreciation and growth of adventure games.
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2. Barton, M. (2008). Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games. Wellesley, MA: A K Peters.
3. Howard, J. (2008). Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. Wellesley, MA: A K Peters.
4. Aarseth, E. J. (2004). Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & P. Harrigan (Eds.), First person : New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (pp. xiii, 331 p.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
5. Pearce, C. Personal correspondence.
6. Jerz, D. G. (2007). Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original "Adventure" in Code and in Kentucky (Vol. 1).
7. Costikyan, G. (2006). I Have No Words and I must design. In K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Game Design Reader : A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
8. Buckles, M. A. (1985). Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure. University of California San Diego.
9. Montfort, N. (2003). Twisty little passages : an approach to interactive fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
10. Consalvo, M. (2009). Persistence meets performance: Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney. In Well Played 1.0: video games, value and meaning (pp. 69-75). ETC Press.