A response to Cargo Cult Nostalgia

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.

8 Responses to “A response to Cargo Cult Nostalgia”

  1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I do sort of agree with a lot of it, but I think that maybe you’ve made a few assumptions about my stance that are slightly off – or that I didn’t make clear.

    Mainly it’s ‘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’

    This isn’t quite right. I didn’t find these aspects unenjoyable or unmemorable. In fact, I love pixel art and use it in my games, I have no problem with a difficult adventure game as long as it’s fair, or a long one. And while I don’t see the need for 9 verbs in an adventure game, it certainly never bothered me.

    It’s just that for all I’m fine with or even like all these things, I recognise them to be inessential. That’s why I think it’s misguided for people to focus on them, not because I don’t appreciate them.

    On verbs, here’s the reason that I don’t think taking verbs out does much at all to reduce the richness of the world:

    1) Most of the time it would just fill the world with generic responses, like ‘I can’t push that’ or ‘I don’t see anything special about it.’ You’d get some unique responses too, but not enough to justify the needless complexity.

    2) Adventure game secret: all of the inventory items you carry are really verbs – when you say Use Bucket with Door it’s a complex action, which basically means, ‘Bucket that door!’. Most people were happy enough with the 3-5 verbs that a ‘verb coin’ style interface provided. By reducing it to 1 verb, you take away 2-4 modes of interaction. But you still leave in all the modes of action the inventory provides, and can fill that with amusing responses and make the world seem plenty rich that way.

    But it wouldn’t be so bad if people were talking about how they want more verbs to add to the richness of the world. I’d still argue that the benefits don’t justify the less elegant design, but I would see their point. But mostly they talk about dumbing down and how designers are just doing this to appeal to a wider audience. Which I think is very uncharitable to the designers. A lot of times when I see accusations of dumbing down it actually turns out to be smartened up they just took out something that people were nostalgic about.

    I will concede that difficulty is one of the more controversial aspects I am calling inessential. And it’s also the one that seems to cause the strongest feelings. I guess the reason I included it is that it wasn’t until I was a little older that I started really wanting to solve the games for myself. When I first got them I was quite happy to follow a walkthrough book when I needed to, call helplines, and my first play of MI2 was even on its ‘lite’ mode.

    Yet I was no less a fan of them. But I do understand that for some people the challenge of going through the game without any hints is important.

    Briefly, as for length – Full Throttle was criticised at the time for being ‘Too Short’ by adventure fans. But I feel like history has vindicated that one as just being tightly paced and shorter than average but still ‘complete’

    Anyway, in summary I don’t necessarily think the game shouldn’t be difficult, long etc. I just think they are not the things people should be worried about.

    • @KestrelPi: Thanks for replying, this clarifies things, and I certainly didn’t want to misrepresent what you were saying, Nine verbs is likely to be too many, unless the designer is willing to back it up with content (ie non-generic responses to cover most interactions), and many games don’t. Even then, that’s a huge amount of work for limited payoff, so trimming it is likely to be a sensible option for many games. I’d never thought of inventory items as verbs, (I *should have* after pumping out a tiny point-n-click for a game jam a few month back), but it makes complete sense.

      I think there can be a fine line between dumbing down and smartening up, elegance and oversimplification. Where that lies is not the same for every player, but having played a few adventure games lately that I both liked (Gemini Rue) and others that I found dumbed down to a point that I struggle to continue playing (Tales of Monkey Island, which I’ve only given ~30 mins so far, and Back To the Future which has kept me going due to the fact that I’m a sucker for the IP, not but the gameplay), I know where my own personal preferences lie and I can see why some players are sensitive to designs that might compromise the elements they enjoy to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes that concern is misguided due to the nostalgia endorphins, but sometimes it’s valid.

      • @perry: I do think it’s sometimes valid. Like when they made universal ammo in Deus Ex Invisible War that WAS dumbing down because it removes the whole part of the gameplay in Deus Ex where you’d run out of ammo for your primary weapon and have to improvise, and I think Deus Ex was really a game about improvising solutions, so this really took a dimension away from it.

        But for a different example, people said it was dumbing down to take weapon degradation out of Skyrim. But it wasn’t really. Weapon degradation was a boring micro-management chore, and so instead of removing it completely they replaced it with a system where weapons didn’t degrade, but you could use materials to make improvements to them. It’s a solution that ought to please people who like complexity, and people who don’t want to micromanage their inventory. But I saw lots of people cite it as dumbing down. So I’m always cautious when I see that accusation now.

        Back to the Future isn’t worth your time, I think. But give Tales of MI another shot – it’s definitely easier than old adventure games, but it gets better as it goes, which is usually the way with Telltale. Episode 3 is actually rather wonderful, I think.

  2. Also, you should play The Walking Dead. It’s not a traditional adventure game. It’s not difficult and there aren’t even any puzzles, but they’ve found a different way to provide a sort of ‘resistance’ in the game, to pace it. They pace it by giving the player some key choices of what to do and say. Ultimately, the choices don’t matter to the plot, but they do matter to how you perceive the characters and how the characters perceive you, and I think that’s a very subtle approach that works.

    Obviously it’s not an approach that’s going to please someone after puzzles and challenge, but I do think it’s worth a pop, because I think it’s actually very carefully designed.

    • @KestrelPi: I will give it a go at some point. As long as I go into it not expecting anything like a traditional adventure game, I’m sure I’ll appreciate it. It sounds like the Walking Dead is to traditional adventure games as Dear Esther is to first person shooters (which I really enjoyed, for what it was).


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