Adventure Games: Not Always Very Adventurous

Adventure Games

Hey there, what’s up, folks! Let’s go on an adventure!

For the longest time, I’ve been musing about the game design of adventure games and what a lot of them do inherently wrong when presenting you with your journey and the world you inhabit and while I don’t think I have anything groundbreaking to say that will reinvent the wheel, I do believe my thoughts warrant mentioning.

Simply put, I hate it when adventures in games are centered around me and the world follows suit. Of course, this is a bit silly since hey, games are supposed to offer you an experience and make sure you go from A to B so freedom in a sprawling world with no limits is not achievable but just an illusion but how exactly this illusion of you going on a journey in adventure-centured games is constructed does make a big difference. And I do think a lot of games get this part wrong by making a game’s universe revolve around you rather than you just being part of it.

Adventure Games Girls' Last Tour

As such, I loathe it when games tell me I’m the chosen one and reinforce that notion every step. And they just love doing that.

I’ve written about this before in my post about isekai anime since the principle is very similar but just take Skyrim. Skyrim does itself a major disservice for letting you pick who you are right down to the details only to have all of that overshadowed by you being the chosen one right after ten minutes, therefore completely denying your actual existence. By that point, you don’t even know yet who you are – and it doesn’t matter – but everyone else in its world already does. And that bores me and reduces myself to a prop for the game to give me the endless gratification and shallow flattery experience. Stop giving a shit about me, world. Don’t make me the chosen one. Let me choose. Let me work hard to achieve something. The Urbz: Sims In The City for NDS starts by making me clean bird poop and ends with me getting my own statue and becoming the hero of the city for chasing the corrupt rich out. There, that’s what I want. By comparison, these other games make me feel like a spoiled brat who inherited massive wealth from his parents and everyone sucks up to you. What did I do to deserve this? Making it from nobody to someone feels rewarding. Being KING OF THE WORLD from the get-go does not.

Adventure Games Progress

Or, for a better use of contrast, let’s compare the first Pokémon games with the newer entries. I thought the first four gens were good, though Gen IV is the one that started with the garbage designs and Gen III is where the franchise became sanitized and felt pretty different to what came before. The first two gens are a neat, rewarding and inherently coherent package. Starting out your new adventure in this entire new world back in 199X and then returning to the same region and getting to battle what has become of your original childhood hero at the end of Gold & Silver was a magical experience like no other.

What, however, also significantly helps is that the first two generations were adventures for a younger audience but not necessarily adventures where the content is 100% railroaded for those. With elements like the mafia, gambling, references to war and experiments or a Pokémon graveyard tower, it felt more like you were a youngling in a world that didn’t accomodate you whereas the newer games make sure you always stay on track and everything exists for the purpose of you, a child and there are no elements not fit for you, the child.

Adventure Games Pokémon Generation 1

Now, of course, this might sound silly at a first glance since hey, these are games targeted towards kids. And, of course, nobody sane would demand for Pokémon to feature content that would get it an 18+ label. But to neglect any thought that’s not from a children’s playbook? The downsides of this world? The parts that aren’t good? Why should we ignore those? It’s exactly these elements that are not specifically designated towards a target audience that give a world an edge and make it feel more real and interesting.

The first gen is about a kid heading out into a world, going on an adventure. Everything from the third gen onwards is increasingly more about a kid heading out into a kid world, going on a kid adventure. Which is to say: there is no world worth exploring and no adventure worth having. Because these adventures cannot surprise you but just navigate on autopilot through a consumer-friendly bubble.

There is no line, no stone, no model not fit to whatever the latest market surveys had to say. And that is no longer an adventure. Adventures become simulations and players become consumers.

Adventure Games Soul Sacrifice Delta

“How do we make an interesting world drawing from various inspirations and experiences?” has long since lost to “How do we make a target audience-friendly, sanitized world that fits as much of market research into the experience as possible?” It’s what happens when business suits take over and creativity is lost. This kind of kiddy-fication is of course not just a thing of games. Take original Yu-Gi-Oh! for instance. What would happen if Jounouchi was dumb enough to bring a Duel Disk to school? It’d get confiscated by the teacher. What would happen in newer YGO!? The teacher would be a mean bully and they’d duel over the Duel Disk. Because we can’t show kids that there are limitations and things other than gratification.

So when all of the adventures and worlds you create depend on and cater solely the target audience, this is where all appeal of these universes is lost on me. These worlds are not self-contained, they are perfectly rearranged to guide me and fulfill my needs. These worlds do not exist outside of my adventures. They are 100% player-adjusted and protagonist-driven. They are no longer worlds, just your personal theme parks, wherein everything is controlled. Just take Pokémon’s new rivals, always there to heal me alongside the way at every step even though they’re supposed to do the opposite.

Which, when I play a lot of games, leaves me just with one conclusion: I don’t care about this world because it cares too much about me.

Adventure Games Pokémon Friendly Rival

See, this is the thing with the first-gen Pokémon games: you’re confined in your home town for the first 15 or so minutes, are told in basics about the world of Pokémon, how to encounter them, how to battle, who your rival is, then get to make it to the first town but need to retread back to your home town and only then does the adventure start and guess what, once you’re back in the first town, you find out that the Gym is locked so you’ll have to make it to the next one! Damn, that sucks, but now you’re fired up all the more. Buuuut, there’s a huge forest inbetween you and your goal, you make it to the first gym only afterwards, you cross a mountain, come across the concept of fossils, it turns out this world is plagued by its own mafia, you make it to the next gym, you get a bicycle and the list goes on. The game essentially progressively opens up and rewards you with new experiences for overcoming challenges. Your once small first steps in your starter town culminate in something huge as you take on the world’s elite at the end. These games open up and increase upon their scale. As they should.

Then there are Sword and Shield wherein you meet your first legendary Pokémon right at the beginning. You might essentially quit here. And then everyone compliments you for it and tells you how you’re special and the chosen one for… not really having done anything? Being the player? Nothing will feel special after this. Heck, when you were halfway through Gen 1, you didn’t even know what a legendary Pokémon was. These were the climax of the game, not the starting point. Telling the player the world is there to please them makes everything else inbetween the starting point and finishing line just look like filler. Everything is trivialized and the small-scale, bumpy journey is lost in the pursuing of the Epic Goal Of Awesomeness That You Won’t Be Allowed To Miss Out On™.

Adventure Games Instant Gratification

This is something that perseveres a lot with games of constant gratification that put you on a pedestal for existing. You don’t accomplish anything in these games yet they reward you anyway. Hello there, free blowjobs, I guess? It cheapens everything about these worlds and adventures. It’s dishonest and just market research-driven. Rivals that don’t want to win, obstacles that are just pseudo-hindrances, stepping stones adjusted to your size, everything is geared towards you owning the world rather than trying to navigate your way around it and interacting with it. It’s one long string of ego-stroking. You might as well just let the players be rats attached to a feel good-button at this point. Heck, looking at how gacha games work, maybe we’re already really close to that.

These types of games don’t show your players any hard-hitting limits, they don’t ground your adventures, they don’t give you walls to contextualize these worlds yet at the same time, they make sure you get to experience things in very specific ways with no input of your own. You are the greatest and unlimited in your greatness and never let the world tell you otherwise. And this is assured of because you are railroaded so hard nothing can ever go wrong and detours don’t happen. You are boundless but because of that, you are also bound. It’s seemingly contradictionary: Anything goes but nothing unexpected really happens. In Perfect World, samification is all that matters.

Adventure Games Kino no Tabi

When your journey is just a constant high without any lows or the natural imperfections, it is not a journey. Being in control of everything is just a one-way trip to boredom.

Of course, game slogans pride themselves in boundlessness and hyperboles and superlatives but the execution is always very one-note and shallow. “You can be anything” is a line not to be taken literally, it’s just a sales pitch for a power fantasy. You will always be a hero, never the town drunk who just likes to chill at a bar.

Likewise, the world you inhabit in most adventure games is not a world you are part of; the world is part of you. The you that business men want you to be. And man, is that boring. I really do think that Kino no Tabi got it right: The world is not beautiful, therefore it is. Someone tell game designers that their sterile plastic fantasies mapped out to be inoffensive, safe and stereotypical actually have no fantasy at all. This is the death of individuality. Everyone is the same and gets to be perfect all the time in tailor-made experiences.

This is why the progress of technology has not done so much for the evolution of games as that it could outdo good game design. A three-dimensional environment can still lead to one-dimensional adventures and a very limited amount of pixels can have an unlimited amount of imagination behind them.

And I don’t know about you but I’d really rather be a sidekick in a fascinating world of wonders than a hero in a universe of boredom.

1 thought on “Adventure Games: Not Always Very Adventurous

  1. Have you ever played the first DarkSouls?
    What you descibe is one of the reasons why it is so good. It’s not about being hard, but about overcoming a challange. And the story ties into it: Yes you are the chosen one, but you are not THE chosen one. If you fail, just another chosen one will be chosen. Like so many countless before you (You get litterally laughed at for being the chosen one in the beginning of the game). It’s a world of respawning undeads and much like the (un-)mortals, the (demi-)gods also just try and try and try again.

    Like

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