Saturday, July 17, 2010

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration (Part I)

In Part I of this article, postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernández-Vara elaborates on the influential design decisions that have made SCUMM adventure games just as engaging today as they were a decade ago.

The release of Maniac Mansion in 1987 became a milestone in the history of videogames. Although the game itself was quite popular, what is important for us is the framework developed for it: the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, more popularly known by its acronym, SCUMM. The significance of SCUMM is not the scripting itself, but a series of design decisions that have had a tremendous influence on adventure games, even to this day.

The two first Monkey Island games and Loom have been re-released for modern platforms, with new graphics in the case of Monkey Island, and they are as engaging as ever. Why are these games so good, even today? One of the obvious answers is that they were well written, had memorable characters, and were fun, even though not all of them were comedies (see Loom or The Dig). Some of their stories are as engaging as a good movie. However, just focusing on the writing overlooks their actual design, which is what we care about. The SCUMM games created a design model that encourages exploration and experimentation in the game world, a model whose influence extends to games currently released.

The SCUMM games are distinguished by a lack rather than a design feature: the player character cannot die. This was not completely true of their earlier games (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure), but soon it became the design statement of the Lucasfilm adventure games. Loom explained this in its manual:
“We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. Unlike conventional computer adventures, you won’t find yourself accidentally stepping off a path, or dying because you’ve picked up a sharp object.

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering, not by dying a thousand deaths.”
This design decision was a reaction against the traditional adventure game model inherited from Adventure and Infocom interactive fiction, amongst others, and perpetuated by contemporary Sierra adventure games. These games had “game over” states, like arcade or console games. The player had to die a lot to learn how to solve a specific puzzle, often without forewarning. Although the death messages could be fun (think if Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sierra’s Space Quest series), dying just because the player was examining something or you entered a new room could get very frustrating. Adventure game design entails a contract between the player and the designer, the designer poses the challenges, and the player must have all the information needed to solve them; that information is usually obtained by exploring the world. It’s a matter of fairness: if the designer is forces a game over state to provide information about what not to do, it is somewhat abusing the position of power. On the other hand, if the player has the information and makes a mistaken choice, it can encourage the player to decide what to do more carefully.

Knowing that the player character cannot die in the game encourages players to explore the world. One of the reasons why players remember the writing in the Lucasarts games is not only because it’s well executed and funny, but because the overall design of the game encouraged the player to talk to everybody and examine every object. The game provided fascinating worlds that the player was encouraged to explore by the design of the game.

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.


mark said...

My favorite example of this is from one of the Monkey Island games where you could make Guybrush fall off a cliff, only to be bounced back up by a rubber tree. :)

Post a Comment