16 April 2011

Defocusing puzzle adventures and Jane Jensen's Gray Matter

What a heavy heritage recent adventures have to take on, that of Lucasfilm cult games. But someone didn't agree with that scheme, back then.



During the 2nd half of the '90s many "puzzle adventures" were experimenting with the concept of time progression, with the concept of crime stories investigation and as we all know, with real actors. But with the new millennium's bell toll, for some reason videogamers didn't enjoy "graphic adventures" anymore. The genre went back to its roots, and the roots were those of Lucasarts puzzle-centric games.

The essence of these games is that to proceed you have to use the right item in the right spot of the environment. There's nothing else to it, basically. I remember Revolution's Broken Sword featured a system of progression with dialogue icons, but that didn't really make a difference, the important moments were all about items!

There's nothing wrong with it, the player has to squelch his mind out to imagine possible combinations and functions and so on, it's interaction 101... it's one of the best degrees of interaction especially when compared to FPS... in an adventure you have to analyze the possible functions of a, let's say, a sink by mentally relating it to the gameworld, to the story, to the character, even to the game's spiritual mood. In Crysis a sink is good out of its throwing value, your interaction with it, or functional considerations is just its weight and killing value, it's the cerebral level of a primate, or the scientific level in the 1600, when all scientists believed that the whole world's phenomena could be explained by the objects' weight and speed(Newton's law).

But i digress, sometimes i can't contain my despise for those players who justify playing dumb videogames by shouting "it's just entertainment!"

So as i was saying, "item-o-centric" adventures were the norm but a beloved software company of mine whose headquarters were south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in Oakhurst, founded by Roberta and Ken Williams, had a different idea concerning story and gameplay... and it's kind of sad that even though their idea was spectacularly different, their games are equalled to Lucasarts ones.

One of Sierra Online's most ingenious games, one that today would be considered absolute avant-garde, called "Laura Bow: Colonel's bequest", featured a thriller story which plot would proceed fluidly through the game's internal clock, almost to the player's unawareness, while he/she had to struggle to collect all possible informations about the non-playing characters that roamed the gameworld(a dark villa lost in a bayou), until the final act, so that the player could "control" the situation out of her/his obtained informations, and conquer a happy ending. The same basic structure was used in the sequel. Also Colonel's featured a final lengthy "score" listing all the informations that could be grasped by the main character's investigation: subplots, disturbing secrets, illicit affairs and so on.

It's an extraordinary game concept, open to hundreds of uses. The game still included an inventory and many item-related interactions, but it wasn't the fulcrum of the game, not at all. That's how you developers can defocalize and reinvent not only puzzle adventures, but many games.

Jane Jensen's Gray Matter features a score, apparently. But although i would definitely call it a tribute to(her friend, I think?) Mr.s Williams, i'm not sure it has the same gameplay depth. I'm willing to bet Mr.s Jensen struggled with the game design, and wanted to come to a similar result... i fear commercial reasons prevented her from going the whole way, but i was wondering just how close the comparison can go. I played the demo, and i sort of enjoyed it. The game is NOT exactly focused on items: when the character has to use one, you're informed by the cursor's shape, and i bet you will always know what item you're going to put there. So the game is centred around getting informations about people and stories, i believe. But is that enough to reach Laura Bow's height? I don't think so because there's no time progression, and because there's no time progression there's no non-linearity(no difference between the plot's progress and your investigation's progress), which means time will pass only if the score goes up, and the score goes up only if you get the right actions. That's the limit of Gray Matter's design, so done because of(i guess) commercial reasons, user-friendliness.

But i'm glad Jane Jensen paid homage to her former company and to an immortal masterpiece... who knows, it may inspire others.

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I teach history, literature, linguistics, philosophy and psychology. I believe in a cosmic order. I love each place on Earth because everything has its unique attractions. I worship the God of progress and That of biomechanics. I try to write novels in a strongly interaction remainding formulaic fashion. As i'm progressist, i am a socialist extremist. I wanna open a social library art chocolate house. I write lyrics for my musician metal-crazed friends. I wanna be a theatre master. I believe Star Trek vision of society can be realized, but people are afraid of change and Power frightens people because they are afraid of loosing their privileges. I am incredibly dense in astronomy but i philosophically love it. I can't live without spirituality. I try to find the the key to happiness, investigating, exploring the way nature works, understanding its mechanisms, its secrets and mysteries. I believe one of the goals of living is to make life better for everyone.