The Predictability of Backlash

I’ve been waiting for a topic to hit me today, and one finally did: critical backlash. I recognize that it is both inevitable and yet pervasive throughout the creative/design/engineering/software development worlds. I could probably talk endlessly about all of these, but I think I’ll stick to the area that got me thinking about it today: video games, and in particular, Adventure Games. These are the games I’m most comfortable with (for certain values of ‘comfort’), and I spend a fair bit of time shooting my mouth off in the AdventureGamers.com forums these days, so it’s my default setting right now. That said, this could just as easily have been about writing or art or comics or music, the other areas of my life that I feel some expertise in.

What prompted this is that, after several dismally fallow years in the Adventure Game field, in which we have seen innovative game design concepts hampered by the slimmest of budgets (thus almost guaranteeing a mediocre final product), or a critical lack of acceptance of certain high profile games because the developers chose to go in an untried direction to create a new, more (hopefully) dynamic experience (Heavy rain, I’m looking at you), we are experiencing something of a renaissance in the AG world. Many developers, inspired newcomer and seasoned pro alike, have jumped on the Kickstarter/Indiegogo/Rocket Hub etc… crowdfunding model of financial backing to get AGs made. AGs are a genre of storytelling game that, in the last decade, couldn’t get arrested, because production and distribution companies had either died off funding a string of lacklustre knock-offs, or or wouldn’t dare to fund a new AG project simply because said producers had bought into the accepted wisdom that Adventure Games Are Dead.

Well, 2012 proved them arong, to the tune of several million dollars’-worth of crowdfunded projects in the works. 2013 and 1014 will either see many of these projects fall by the wayside, or we will be up to our necks in brand new AGs screaming to be played.

Amidst all of this, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that the AG community would be giddy with anticipation. Many of us, in fact, are delirious with high expectations for many, if not all, of these amazing new projects. And therein lies half of the problem.

You see, there are a number of enthusiasts who are underwhelmed by what they are seeing in these Kickstarter Backer previews, which is to say, they’re seeing unfinished and partially finished screenshots and animations and thinking the games are dismal and utterly failing in their attempts to revitalize the creaky AG market. All based on the fact that the projects don’t look much like the classics.

The thing about those classics was, they were created using limited technology, and had to accept significant drawbacks and limitations to the final gaming experience because of that.

First off, in order to make those games more interactive without creating an action gamer engine and interface and using weapons to sort out the stated dilemma of the game, AG developers had to devise something pretty crafty to make the story more like a traditional game, even though you couldn’t interact with it through anything other than a keyboard (and alter a mouse). There were a number of experiments (mazes, word games, jigsaw puzzles, etc), but the final solution that everyone could agree on was that there had to be lots of environmental puzzles; what I refer to as artificial problem simulations. There was no challenge to clicking on a drawer to retrieve the keys to the locked door, but what if the locking mechanism was governed by a sliding puzzle, or a circuit puzzle, or some other logic-based mini-game that made the act of unlocking the door interesting? This seemed to be a pretty happy compromise, and in its original iterations, this philosophy made a corny sort of sense, because many of the original adventure games involved travelling around some drafty old castle or mansion, which television and the movies have trained us all to believe have numerous hidden passageways, trap doors and trick locks.

The problem is, other than a few happy exceptions, it’s really a load of bollocks. And anyone coming into an Adventure Game for the first time could be forgiven for giving up in frustration as the increasingly labyrinthine and Byzantine logic applied to devising more fiendishly clever puzzles-as-problems started to infiltrate every Ag on the market. the reasoning was no longer understood; it wasn’t about substituting a mini-game for a problem; it was about linking one puzzle to the next in a dizzying array of stages, simply to confound and possibly punish the player for not being as clever as the developers.

And that’s where things remained for a long time, as AGs continued to stagnate into a morass of efforts to impress and stump an ever-dwindling crowd of puzzle-holics, and without any regard to whether the actual stories being conveyed by all this prestidigitation-as-problem solving was really any fun any more.

Developers knew there was a problem; they knew the games had ceased to be a draw. They knew something had been lost. They thought the missing ingredient was novelty. They figured that all of the teaser trailers, concept sketches, screenshots, walkthroughs, gameplay clips, and especially the advent of gaming demos, were diluting the novelty factor of the games when they finally released. It’s a reasonable assumption.

There was also the little problem of internet piracy, which producers were quick to identify as the main reason AGs were suffering. Forget that many of these games were overpriced, over-produced, underdeveloped, glitching hazards. Forget that the demos themselves were often glitchy pre-production demos in disguise, and that they were often almost as big as the games themselves, and could only be accessed by those with fat enough pipes to download them without blowing their bandwidth caps. Given the choice between a demo and the actual fully-functioning game as a taste tester, many people hit the P2P sharing programs and torrent sites instead, figuring they’d buy the games that they enjoyed playing after the fact. Interestingly, this line of logic is still refuted, and yet the gaming industry appears to be as healthy as it ever was.

No, what was lacking was faith. Too much hype for too many lacklustre games had left most AG players far too wary to simply buy sight unseen, and with the increasing use of 3D modelling and cinematics, it was getting hard to discern what games were worth taking a risk on until it was far too late. Producers would like us to believe the broken faith issue was entirely the fault of the gaming community having too much information thanks to that darned internet thing. And yet, the internet has become the saviour of the gaming industry in later years, in no small part because gamers started voicing their opinions loudly on forums and gaming sites.

It’s taken a long time for the industry to start turning around, largely because the right tools didn’t exist yet to enable the actual developers to get in there and make the games they wanted to make without interference or demographics or focus groups dictating how the games should work. Now that the change is coming, I’d wager a number of producers are wrestling to come to grips with what the small but growing numbers are telling them.

But all of this is beside the point. The real problem at the moment is, despite all of this evolution and rebirth, the biggest problem remains that these new games require word of mouth to achieve critical mass, and while there was a fair bit of that in the wake of the first successful Big Name AG projects to come out of the Kickstarter program, still there are doubters. Which is only natural, I suppose. I know I’m skeptical of all this new activity, knowing full well that one in ten games are top quality, and knowing s well that the gaming enthusiasts that remain with the genre are a pretty jaded lot after a decade of hit and miss. Their worries are justified, whether they can afford to back these games or not.

But the excuses I’m hearing for dismissing many of these new productions comes down to a rather specious set of criterion, based mainly on whether the gaming graphics look enough like what we expect AGs to look like. This is NOT a new problem. It’s the bogeyman that has haunted the industry for the last decade, ever since the last of the big classic AG companies folded or went into other gaming genres. The look and feel of AGs had to change, because old player were dismissive of anything that merely aped their favourites, and new players wanted something that wasn’t as esoteric as the cat fur moustache or rubber duck clamp puzzles of yore. Many new developers fell by the wayside trying to find this holiest of grails; the instant classic AG that manages to reinvent the genre while remaining true to its roots. There were a few, to be sure, but even those were derided by fans that yearned for a sequel to some hallowed franchise classic that had died off a decade before. Still Life would never be as good as Tex Murphy. Tales of Monkey Island would never live up to the magic of The Secret of Monkey Island. Syberia would always feel stiff compared to The Longest Journey. The Longest Journey would never be as truly classic as Gabriel Knight. And nothing would ever be as immersive as MYST or as innovative as The Last Express.

And that’s where we are now. Game developers are wrestling to appease this clique of jaded gamers who have a decade’s worth of duds to point to, exclaiming that they know full well what is wrong with the industry. Kind of like me. Only I’ve identified where the current problem lies: Faith.

We have to have regular production updates and video documentation now to be even remotely convinced that the games are going to be produced, and when we see the results of these videos, we immediately rush to our favourite forum and start spouting off about how MEH the whole thing looks. We compliment the music, and we might even be onboard with the story information, but we take one look at those cinematics or those screenshots and we automatically know what we’re getting, and more importantly, what we’re NOT getting.

You want to know what’s going to kill the AG crowdfunding revolution? Too many advanced promo pieces meeting the increasing cynicism of the jaded followers of the genre. They gripe about anything that threatens their precious past experiences of the genre, as if there can ever be another virgin experience.

Here’s a tip: it’s never going to be like the first time. Ever. Almost everyone takes something different from their first experience anyway, and no game developer can ever manufacture the exact circumstances in which you discovered your first AG. The novice experience, the feeling of elation you experience when you are immersed in a new world, can only be regained from the deliberate refusal to hold on to the previous world as the paragon of all adventure experiences. You have to set aside all expectations, or have the good sense to forgive the new game for having arrived after the one you fell in love with.

This goes for every genre and every television show and every movie and every book and every comic, play, musical, album, or meal you will ever experience. Nothing ever lives up to the memory of the original, but you can learn to love the new experience by letting go of the old and moving on. Easier said than done, I know, and it doesn’t come with instructions, but you can try, or failing that, maybe stay away for a while, until the hunger for a new experience overpowers your need to relive the old one.

In the end, the only cure is to know yourself, and to know what you need from the entertainments you divert yourself with, and to forgive and forget just enough to dare to have faith in something new every once in a while.

And when it gets too hard to forgive and forget, to take a vacation from your passion and go find something else to do for a while. You may not ever be able to go home, but you can at least move away and find a new place to call home.

Lee.

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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