Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part II)

In Part I, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fern├índez-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.  In Part II, she explains the impact of those decisions.

Solving the puzzles is not a matter of “a thousand deaths” any more, but of learning more about the world. There is a lot of information that we can obtain by talking to characters or exploring the objects. One of my favourite examples is the Important Looking Pirates at the SCUMM bar at the beginning of Monkey Island. You can talk to them and get a lot of information about the island where the game starts. These characters inform you of what your immediate goals: become a master of thievery, sword fighting and finding treasure. The player does not have to talk to them to advance in the game, but since it’s one of the first accessible locations, it’s also one of the first things the player will do.

Even if there is a specific sequence of steps that the player has to follow to advance in the game, the player is free to explore the areas of the world that are open. At the beginning of Loom, for example, the player can explore the different tents of the weavers before going into the temple, where the events of the story will be triggered off. It provides the player with the impression of false freedom that other genres strive to achieve. Yes, there is one path that the player must follow, which usually coincides with the preset events in the story. But the player can take her time to explore the world, probe it, and be surprised (any shop or a cluttered room in a SCUMM game is guaranteed to have a couple of fun Easter eggs).

The absence of “game over” states before the story has actually been completed has its downsides as well. The first and more obvious is that for some players it may be easy to get lost in the world, forgetting what the short and long term goals of the game are. Dying in the game provides immediate and clear feedback to the player: “you shouldn’t be doing that.” It may be frustrating, but it is very effective. In adventure games, the player progresses by solving a series of problems in a specific way, which is one of the keys to bring together the story and the game design. If the player can explore the world, the pacing will slow down, to the point that it can also be very easy to lose sight of what to do next. Day of the Tentacle, with all its fantastic puzzle design, has a bit of this problem, since there are so many threads the player can and must pursue simultaneously.

Point-and-click adventure games are notorious for often turning into clickfests, where players click around try every verb with every possible character or combining everything with everything. The SCUMM games are not impervious to having players clicking around, since it is almost natural player behaviour once one feels stuck in a game and does not know what to do next. Many adventure games seem to have been designed under the assumption that it’s what players will do. SCUMM games, however, often do an great job of letting the player know what may be clicked on and what not by giving visual cues. More importantly, the design of these games tries to prevent clickfests by actually providing clear goals to the player at the beginning of the game. Bernard, one of the player characters of Day of the Tentacle, has the following exchange with Dr. Fred:
Bernard: “Now what am I going to do?”
Dr. Fred: “I think I made myself perfectly clear. Step one: find plans. Step two: save world. Step three: get out of my house!”
The first step is the immediate goal of the player, finding the battery plans, which must be sent back in time so Hoagie, the character trapped in the past, can build it and start up his time machine. Saving the world is the ultimate goal in the game, and getting out is the end of the game.

The SCUMM games are usually good at giving cues to the player to the right solution to a puzzle. The cueing is very subtle, and requires the player to read the text attentively, which is part of the challenge. The game design thus depends a lot on the writing. The text is not only fun, it must provide the information the player needs. There are few “hunt the pixel” puzzles, and more “pay attention to what you read”, thus rewarding observant players. In The Secret of Monkey Island, the prisoner Otis has halitosis, so the player character Guybrush will not talk to him. Otis says “It’s hard to keep my breath minty-fresh when there’s nothing to eat in here but rats.” The player gets a hint right there about what to do: finding breath mints (which can be found in the general store nearby). Once his breath is refreshed, Guybrush will talk to Otis, who explains that he’s in jail for tampering with certain flowers in the forest, called Caniche Endormi. The player can find those flowers in the forest; a basic knowledge of French will make the player realize that the name of the flowers means “sleeping poodle.” There is indeed a pack of fierce poodles guarding the mansion of the Governor, and the player has to get them out of the way. Flowers do not have the inherent property of putting people or dogs to sleep, so it’s not knowledge the designer can expect from the player. That’s why the game provides the player with the (subtle) information needed to solve the puzzle.

Adventure games where the player character did not die have become the norm nowadays. From Myst to the recent Machinarium or Ceville, thanks to SCUMM adventure games discovered the potential as games which encourage exploration and let players figure them out at their own pace. It’s a different type of gaming, more suited for players that enjoy story-driven games and thinking their actions through rather than using twitch skills. In the end, their enduring appeal comes from a set of generally solid game design.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Her work concentrates on adventure games, as well as the integration of stories in simulated environments.

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