A response to “Cargo Cult Nostalgia” by Peter Silk (maker of the amusing nautical exploration game “The Wager”). You should read that article first (edit: and be sure to read Peter’s comments below), else this probably won’t make any sense.
I essentially agree that the Cargo Cultists might be sometimes fooled by the feeling of nostalgia and focus on the ‘trappings’ as a proxy for the real attributes that they enjoy in a game. But I also think it’s unfair to dismiss all their requests as driven by purely ‘nostalgia endorphins’. Some of these requests no doubt come from their dissatisfaction with design decisions taken for many modern point-and-click adventures that aim to broaden their target market and as a result fail to satisfy a certain type of player.
The Cargo Cultists are conservative and are simply asking Kickstarter projects to produce a game with all the attributes that they know work well for them. Some may not know how to clearly express this, so they ask for ‘more verbs’ instead of a ‘world that feels rich with possibilities’. Others have been burned by recent efforts in the genre that have trivial puzzles, which, in a effort by some developers to not alienate the most casual of players, amount to mindless busywork or a ‘you win’ button. They’ve been burned by stories that feel cut short after the first act.
Peter lists four not-favorite things he remembers from Monkey Island 2 and focuses on aspects of the game design that were not particularly memorable or made it less enjoyable for him. I think it’s worth considering what effect it would have on the game if these features were changed. I don’t believe that the art style, interface, difficulty and length are any more ‘trappings’ than the characters, jokes, music and atmosphere. Every aspect comes together to build a world that players enjoy interacting with, and each of these things were (and are) important in making the overall result compelling and ultimately memorable. Different players will value and remember the game fondly for different reasons, but I’d wager that the reason we remember it at all is because the overall design, while not flawless, worked well as a whole.
Here’s my equivalent list, focusing on the positive contribution these features made to the classic Monkey Island games, and how changes to these features often manifest as failings in many modern examples of the genre, at least for me as a player:
1. Rather than “Must have pixel art”, how about:
A simple art style that fits with the mood of the game, and is simultaneously clean, lush and detailed, such that it lends itself to the point-and-click interface. I’ll be honest: my visual arts vocabulary isn’t big enough to properly describe why the 2.5D pixel art of many early Lucas Arts games holds a certain appeal over, say, the more clinical 3D style of recent Telltale games (eg Sam’n’Max, Back To the Future and Tales of Monkey Island). But I much prefer the former to the later. In this case, the obsession with pixel art could be just pure nostalgia – since I find the vector art style of the Strong Bad games appealing, and the more detailed cartoon style art in Jolly Rover is beautiful. But then take Gemini Rue .. a relatively recent game that is heavily pixelated, but it totally works with the gritty noir feel. Pixel art isn’t an essential attribute for every point-and-click, but it can do the job where more ‘technically superior’ styles often fail, so it’s no surprise people have an affinity for it.
2. Rather than “Tons of verbs ! Look, kick, lick !”:
Diversity of options for interaction with the characters and the environment make the world seem rich and full, and bristling with possibility, rather than a confined space on rails. Like good parser-based interactive fiction, the best point-and-click adventure games have non-generic responses to many off-pathway interactions, so even if you are actually ‘on rails’ the main character feels more like a real person rather than an automaton. Some of this richness is lost when the number of verbs is reduced, and the world becomes less of a place to explore and more of a pipeline to be pushed along. In the extreme, you end up with things like “The Walking Dead” (which I’ll admit I haven’t played), and comments like this.
3. Rather than “Puzzles where the brute force search is tedious and annoying”, how about:
Challenging puzzles where the answer wasn’t just spoon fed, but the effort was ultimately worth it. Sure, occasionally the only way to solve them is to brute force test everything along a particular hypothesis, but the amusing responses to crazy object combinations along the way keep it a little more interesting than it could have been. The process also forces the player to discover some of the richness to the world they might otherwise miss. In the end you get that ‘ah ha’ moment and laugh out loud when you discover the answer – especially if it involves an unorthodox use of a rubber chicken that nobody in their right mind would attempt through logic alone. Some players enjoy this, and the absurdity is the payoff. One of the better solutions to cater to players that don’t enjoy this search is to provide a hint system. I’m certainly not opposed to hints, as long as they are optional and not forced onto players that gain satisfaction from exploring themselves.
4. Rather than “A long game is a good game”, how about:
Well written dialog and plot twists, such that a lengthy game doesn’t feel too long, and an epic is an enjoyable most of the way through. When you are finished, the story should feel complete, not cut short waiting to cash in on a sequel. I don’t remember Monkey Island 1 & 2 for their excessive length, but you can bet that if they felt short, I would remember being left unsatisfied. (PS. Jolly Rover … please cash in on your sequel … I’m still waiting !!)
5. Choose any combination of the above, in various degrees, or ignore these features altogether and find another way to make the game world come alive.
You can build a rich and interesting game world in a myriad of ways, but fans of the classics are familiar with at least one way that works, so they might suggest (or demand) it.