Adventure and Role-Playing – They're Better Together
A Guest Column by Corey Cole
Corey Cole co-created the award-winning Quest for Glory series of hybrid adventure/role-playing games. Now he and wife Lori Ann Cole are developing Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption as an adventure game that incorporates both role-playing and puzzle gaming. The Hero-U project is on Kickstarter to raise awareness and development funding.
Before personal computers, there was only one type of adventure game. That was the tabletop role-playing game. In these games, the game master wove a story, and the players helped tell it by making decisions as their characters.
Some of these games revolved around exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their treasure. Others focused more on puzzles, and still others concentrated on the story and character interaction. The best tabletop games combined all of those. Players tried to act as their characters within the bounds of the story. They solved cryptic clues, then used their abilities to defeat mighty foes and become heroes.
The problem with translating those games to computers is that they required imagination and flexibility, particularly on the part of the game master. One friend of mine told me that he had set up a locked room mystery in his game, but he did not want to frustrate the players, so he came up with five different ways it could be solved. The players solved it, all right... with a sixth solution the game master had not anticipated.
Software has an annoying habit of doing exactly what you tell it to do. It lacks imagination. The early computers also lacked memory and speed, so serious artificial intelligence was out of the question. When role-playing gamers migrated to the PC, each focused on one aspect of the tabletop gaming experience. That was all they could fit in one computer game.
From those beginnings were born computer role-playing games and computer adventure games. RPG's concentrated on exploring mazes – computers were good at drawing mazes, even with a limited 3D perspective – and killing monsters. All of those things could be done fairly easily with numbers and a knowledge of geometry. Role-playing games have not changed dramatically over the years. They now have more text, occasional dialogue, and much better graphics, but the game play has stayed the same.
Adventure games concentrated on the storytelling and (occasionally) conversation. Stories could be stored in compressed text files, and it wasn't too hard to write a simple language parser that allowed the player to type in short commands. Adventure games were more ambitious than early RPG's, and usually frustrating in how few player sentences they understood. A big part of the game became, "Guess what to type."
As PC's got slightly more powerful, the developers added graphics and sound to adventure games, and they improved player immersion. They also took up most of the computer resources and project budgets. In the 1990's, Sierra and other companies dropped their parsers, and adventure games became point-and-click. This made them easier to use, but took away a lot of the player's feeling that she was helping to write the stories.
Somewhere along the way, we lost the roots of both adventure and role-playing games, and forgot why game developers separated them in the first place. We have much more powerful computers now, and we can easily combine all of the aspects of adventure and role-playing games in a single game. The question is – Should we?
The essence of a good adventure game is story telling. But the essence of a great story is conflict. Characters must be faced with obstacles they can only overcome by taking risks, breaking out of their ordinary lives. That is the key to an adventure game puzzle – It is a roadblock that forces the player to think laterally, to search for an unexpected solution, and triumph.
Unfortunately, it is easy for players to become stuck on a puzzle, and that removes them from the story. They may have come up with a perfectly reasonable solution, but the game doesn't allow it.
Restructuring puzzles as conceptual rather than specific is a way to let players be creative with their characters' abilities. If a puzzle is designed as "Move these rocks, and climb up on them to reach the ledge", there will be only one solution. But if the object is just to get to the ledge, and you provide the player with general tools, many solutions are possible. The player might move the rocks, or use a rope, or a magical spell, or lure a large bird to carry him on its back.
These situations are hard to set up, and there is the risk that the player will find one ability too useful and solve multiple puzzles with it. We think that's fine – It's the player's choice, and he's probably having fun.
Combat adds another entire class of variable-solution puzzles. First the player has to work on improving his character's fighting abilities, in traditional role-playing game fashion. Then he has to "solve the monster", locating likely weaknesses and deciding which combat abilities to use. Too many monsters? Maybe a sleep spell or a net will help cut down the number. The monster is too strong? Use attacks that work from a distance, and keep moving to stay out of its reach. The monster regenerates its tentacles? Take a tip from Hercules and get your companion to cauterize each wound with a torch. There are as many possibilities as the combined imaginations of the game designer and the players.
As for that "companion", having a party of multiple characters with different abilities is a common feature of role-playing games, and rarely seen in adventure games. That's not surprising – We want players to identify with their main character. But companions are another matter. Doesn't it make sense that if your character makes a friend, they can work together to solve puzzles that are too hard for just one person? Would Han Solo have been as interesting a character without Chewbacca? Sidekicks add rich opportunities for character-enriching banter and action.
Role-playing and adventure games have been apart for too long. Why not take the best elements of each and combine them into a richer game experience? That's what Lori and I did with the Quest for Glory games in the 1990's. Many adventure gamers were reluctant to try it because of the role-playing elements. They soon found that Quest for Glory had all the puzzles they expected, but additional game play because of richer interactions with characters, and the excitement of combat. Some role-playing gamers tried out the games and discovered adventure games for the first time.
However, when Sierra and LucasArts dropped all adventure game development in 1999 and 2000 respectively, our experiment went on hold along with the rest of the adventure game genre. Role-playing games continued to innovate, some of them taking on adventure-like story and puzzle features, and others becoming more action-oriented.
It's time for adventure games to acknowledge their heritage, and bring back some of the features they abandoned to role-playing games. Adventure games become richer when we add character skills that improve over the course of the game, companion characters that enrich storytelling and dialogue, and puzzle-oriented combat. We can continue to make games that are true to the spirit of adventure, but have added levels of depth from these features. And we might just be able to attract some of those RPG players who are tired of hacking monsters without having enough story and puzzles to keep them involved.