Non-linearity in adventure games – the only way forward?

Objectively, what is an adventure game today? A story-driven game in which the character talks to others, picks items up and solves puzzles. The same thing it was back in 1984, when Roberta Williams created “King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown”. Or in 1987 when Lucasfilm Games released “Maniac mansion”. Or in 1993 when “Day of the Tentacle” came out. Or in 1999 when “The Longest Journey” was released. Or in 2004,  when adventure games don’t seem to have made any progress ever since they were invented.

Of course, many of you will say that the aforementioned games brought the genre to a new level – technically, yes. But not game-wise. The graphics were shinier, the interface was better. The music became General MIDI, then digital. There was even voice acting. But apart from that, nothing has changed. Still, the concept was the same – write a story, put some puzzles in and let the character solve them in order to progress in the game. Well it’s about time that that concept should be broken and a new one should take his place.

Once asked why the adventure games don’t sell as well as they did, Jordan Mechner, creator of revolutionary games such as “Price of Persia” and “The Last Express” answered “The question isn’t why they don’t sell; it’s why they aren’t fun anymore.” Or something like that – you get the point. My answer is that, to the mass audience, such games have been done, and done to death. I consider myself a hardcore adventure fan, I’ve played all Lucasarts and Sierra titles, and I still discover more and more adventures – but they are pretty much the same to the average gamer. So, what next? What can bring adventure games back to life? Or rather, what can make them move forward? There are two ways – the first one is to make the story exceptional – as games like Gabriel Knight, King’s Quest VI and Grim Fandango already did. However, I consider the adventure games at this stage – great stories, but limited interaction, and that means that this will not push them further.  


The only way forward is to make adventure games with immense interaction; in other words – non-linear. Let’s now take a look at the common types of non-linearity:

The first and maybe most often used method is to create a false freedom of action to the player by giving him the chance to visit 20-30 locations at once. Games like Monkey Islands used this – however, I hate being hit with a large box of puzzles on the head, and that I know that I must solve ALL of them to proceed. Not really non-linearity, do you not think?

The second type is to create optional puzzles. It was even in games of the mid-80s like early King’s Quests, but then it was more like ‘go get full score’. In my opinion, if used as in a Gabriel Knight III-type structure, it could help push the adventures one step closer to perfection.

The next type is multi-linearity. As in Fate of Atlantis, you had to make a choice, and depending on that, the puzzles were different. This gives more replay value, but less freedom of action.

Alternate solutions – something that has also been known for quite a while, but nevertheless it somehow doesn’t really get implemented into today’s adventures – can’t tell you why, come to think of it, really.

All of the above, however, cannot make a game non-linear; they just add to replay value. Now let’s take a look at what has been done that can make an adventure game really non-linear:

Adding life to the characters. Come to think of it, a character that sits on one place doesn’t seem too realistic, does it? Well apparently Jordan Mechner was thinking the same when he created “The Last Express”. In it, every character was doing something at every moment, and they talked to each other.

Adding events that depend on the character’s actions. This was also implemented in “The Last Express”, and in an overlooked game from Konami named “Shadow of Destiny”. It is a vital part of the  truly non-linear game – it actually gives the feeling that the player can weave the story himself.

Sadly, that is all that has been made to make adventures non-linear. Let me propose some ideas of my own:

Make some kind of a realistic dialogue system – not just the ‘ask menu’, but one that has moods of characters in mind, one that can change events; one that could make the player spend hours talking to the same person – the text parser seems the best way to do it, and it will need a lot of effort.


Reduce the inventory puzzles. I know that this won’t make the game non-linear but I will say it anyway – no-one picks up the last piece of junk to use it on the keyhole. The main reason that I think they should be reduced is that they are overdone – in games considered classic inventory puzzles were 90% of the whole games.

And last but not least, make as much as possible interactive, and interactive in many ways. In the most non-linear games I have played, “The last express” and “Shadow of Destiny”, it was either a smart-cursor (yeah right) or an action button.

So, if those games that were non-linear didn’t sell why would a new one do so? Well, action games now are like adventures in mid-90s. Many, many clones and just graphical and sound improvements. Pretty much the same applies to strategy and RPG games. It is about time for the gamer to look for alternatives. And this alternatives can be adventure games. That is, if they evolve from the state in which they have been for the last 15 years and bring the genre to a new level. Whatsmore, the limitations that existed for Jordan Mechner in terms of graphics and disc space are now gone, with 3D and DVDs. I sincerely hope that there will be a game creator smart enough to understand that. If not, we can say good-bye to adventure as a genre – it will slowly, slowly fade away.


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