One of the earliest forms of PC games was the “adventure” genre, which featured a fixed set of puzzles, a linear plotline, and a focus on telling a story. You played a clearly-defined character in a very particular set of circumstances, and the core of the gameplay revolved around collecting items to solve puzzles and talking to characters to advance the story. The Monkey Island series or the Quest for Glory games would be classic examples in this vein. Once you’ve played one of these games through once, they have the same replay value as a novel: worth revisiting to soak in the details again, but fundamentally a very similar experience.
The other big genre at the dawn of PC gaming was the Roguelike. Rogue (and its inheritors, like Nethack and ADOM) is a lo-fi dungeoncrawler game where nearly everything is randomly generated. Your character is a spreadsheet represented by “@” and you wander a cruel, merciless wasteland of punctuation until you die all too early when the Random Number God spontaneously births a foe far too scary for you to kill. The focus of roguelikes is on outsmarting a complex set of algorithms through careful tactics and calculated risks. These games are rarely won; they invite you to challenge yourself in new ways and to best your previous records.
My personal tastes tend to favor games on one extreme end of the spectrum or the other. My formative years were spent with King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and LucasArts adventure titles like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. These days, I spend most of my time playing games like Dungeons of Dredmor (my favorite roguelike ever), Dota 2, and Civilization V. I’ve transitioned from one end of the spectrum of the other, partly because the game industry doesn’t make many games on the “adventure” end of the spectrum (Telltale Games are the only high-profile studio making them these days) and partly because I have developed a love for games that emphasize mechanical design over storytelling. My needs as a gamer and as a person have changed with me. Once I was a child who thrived on structured narratives and puzzles with explicit solutions, now I’m an adult with a need to explore variations on the tactics and personas I learned from my youth.
In one of my earlier articles, I described art as a category of tools that we can use for understanding the world around us. While I don’t want to cling to this as a dogmatic definition, I do believe that art is one of our foremost methods of making our shared experiences intelligible and communicable. Great paintings capture our most tumultuous or serene moments as concrete and discrete experiences, making them accessible to anyone who spends time absorbing them. Songs let us live and rework pieces of our lives as patterns to be worn and rewoven at will. In a related vein, games give us a chance to live stories that aren’t our own, and to explore the challenges of situations we might never find ourselves in otherwise. Games help us learn about ourselves and the wider world through impossible stories and improbable challenges.
Adventure games were invaluable to me as a child. They offered a self-paced exploration of slices of fantastic lives. I could spend days learning what it was like to be Prince Alexander of Daventry or hardass biker Ben Throttle. I could play through stories time and again, sifting for new details or giddily anticipating a favorite moment. On the first playthrough, adventure games gave my young mind a series of delightful puzzles, stimulating my critical thinking skills and encouraging me to read more to get a richer understanding of what I was playing. On subsequent playthroughs, I was afforded new chances to think about characters in light of events yet to unfold in-game, or opportunities to vividly relive favorite moments in a way that we never get to revisit the times that form our most treasured memories.
Confronting new people, new ideas, new perspectives, and new places is a huge part of growing up. Many of these functions in an adventure game are similar to reading books, just presented with a differently realized interface. As an adult, I’m a more experienced reader with a broader familiarity with different tropes, archetypes, and classic tales, but I can still gain from exploring and embracing new stories and characters. Many games, even those not explicitly in the “adventure” genre, are built largely around this linear structure.
I won’t be so crass as to suggest that a linear narrative is a good but immature method of structuring a game. Great stories give games context that make the player’s actions meaningful and satisfying, but I have also stated before that this is a challenge to good game design because clearly defining all the elements of a story severely restricts the player’s sense of agency. I believe that a good story has to be designed in every detail, but that delivering options purely for the sake of having options limits the narrative and moral value of a story even though it pads gameplay time. The entire adventure genre depends on a linear narrative to reinforce the traits of its characters, and major events need setup details to have any sort of impact on the player.
Padding a linear narrative isn’t necessarily unforgivable, but it’s a difficult balancing act. Quality writing suffers when the interstitial gameplay doesn’t direct its focus well. Adventure games thrived almost purely on the power of good writing, and time spent between dialogue was spent visually exploring imaginative landscapes and beautiful artwork. When I finally, years late, played the original Mass Effect, it seemed like an amazing adventure game that was constantly interrupted by a really mediocre shooter, an RPG skill system that had no bearing on anything, and an inventory interface that had all the frustration of a JRPG with none of the functional utility. The characters were subtle and well-written, the plot had layers of moral intrigue, and the plot branches had terrifically thoughtful dimensions beyond the “obvious hero” and “inexplicable bastard” options present in many games (even if the Paragon/Renegade system is often just that). Unfortunately, the intriguing decisions, crafty dialogue, and gripping development took place in between tedious bouts of running through corridors, sifting through undifferentiable items, and clicking through gunfights with all the tactical intrigue of a crossword puzzle. I loved the story for all of its delicately crafted branches, but the mediocrity of the ‘game’ portion has kept me from venturing any further into the franchise than the first title.
Where the “All Plot” style of adventure game offers many of the same enrichments of a good novel or painting, a completely different type of enrichment can be found in the open-ended landscapes of procedural and sandbox games. The three games I’ve invested the most Steam time in are Dota 2 (750 hours), Civilization V (475 hours), and Dungeons of Dredmor (246 hours). These titles do not have plots or characters in the traditional sense, but I consider them to be triumphs of artful design.
These games maintain my attention and my effort because they offer nigh-unlimited permutations. A game of Dota 2 involves creating two teams of five unique characters selected from a pool of over a hundred heroes, and the nuances of item progression, skill builds, and tactical execution ensure that no two games will ever unfold in the same fashion even if the starting team composition is identical. A Dota match is a mind-twisting, knuckle-cracking battle of wits and warfare that keeps me engaged in an intellectual fashion so different from a traditional adventure title it’s a marvel that we can consider them both games.
What Dota 2 doesn’t have is an engaging story or compelling characters that grapple with thoughtful questions. Heroes in Dota are ingenious parodies of archetypes, larger-than-life icons from TVTropes pages couched in a plot that desperately struggles to turn an absurdly incoherent game into a story. While every hero has a backstory and hundreds of lines of voice acting to reinforce their identity, the premise of the game is so removed from plausibility and coherence that most players completely ignore the lore of the game. Imagine playing a game of chess where you named your rooks after famous castles and wrote a page-long story of their construction and you will understand the relevance of story in Dota; while it might be a fun exercise that lead to a fondness for the pieces, it has no bearing on your strategy and stands completely independent of the gameplay.
Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Dota is an incredible game, a strategic masterpiece resulting from nearly ten years of modding, balancing, and community feedback. It is a gameplay experience made possible by an extraordinarily quixotic history, an engine of pure play so ingenious it couldn’t have been deliberately created ex nihilo. It is the penicillin of gaming, an unpredictable creation of serendipitous confluence.
Games are products of artifice, deliberately absurd compilations of rules, restrictions, and directives issued purely for their own sake. To paraphrase Jane McGonigal, a game is a voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles. While games like Civ V are couched in the imagery and terminology of the rise and fall of cities and cultures throughout history, the mechanics of the game are so abstracted from the arc of history that the flavor text of the game is just as irrelevant as it is in a game of pure narrative absurdity like Dota. Concepts like “culture” and “faith” with incredibly varied characteristics in our daily lives are rendered as alternate currencies that could have just as easily been called “social points” without damaging or confusing the gameplay. While the trimming is what helps us learn the underlying mechanics of the games and incentivize us to explore the rules in different patterns, the quality of a game as such can be quite independent of its aesthetic merits. We play games like Dota and Civilization to challenge ourselves because challenging our capabilities in self-directed tasks makes us feel empowered.
We play games for many reasons, and those reasons change as we change. The diversity of titles and styles presents us with a rich catalogue of stories, characters, puzzles, challenges, and amusements. Sometimes, we want puzzles, singular stories where we can trace a person or event to study and learn its intricacies, like a long session with a mirror. Even today, I stand to gain something from living the stories of heroes with finite destinies, as in BioShock or Dead Space. The difference is that now I am more likely to ask “Why am I playing this game?” in order to determine whether it is worth my continued investment, whether it be for the story and characters, or for the sheer mechanical delight of it.
What keeps you playing?