After a thorough examination…

Adventure games might be on the rise again, but they are still very much a niche genre that is ultimately living only through their devoted fan base and nostalgia. There are many reasons for the death of the genre, and most of them are related to the insane puzzles that felt very out of context. But one of the things adventure games do well, and what really separates them from being simply films with puzzles or visual novels, is the examine function.

It’s a strange thought to have, but many of the better adventure games can and have given the characters and world more personality and detail than would be possible without it. It would be possible to include all of this potential exposition, but you would bog the main plot.

While not without its flaws, The Longest Journey uses the examine function to really give the main character April real personality, without having to divulge her long and surprisingly detailed back story. Examine a toy monkey to find it’s her childhood toy, look at books to find she doesn’t read them, and look at her old drawings to find she ran away from home and kept them as a memento without having to force it into a conversation.

What works about this approach is that you aren’t forced to sit through all that every time you play though, even if you can skip it. A movie or a comic would be forced to give a close up cut and a voice over, which would really destroy the pacing (or if skipped makes you feel like you miss out on content). An adventure game can have a hugely detailed world to look at while other games would bog you down with masses of exposition, adventure games make it optional which helps keeps a much brisker pace if you want it that over detail.

If more games could introduce an adventure game examine function, we might be able to make some compelling characters and worlds, without masses of forced exposition, creating a world as detailed as the player playing wants it to be.

A current trend that enables this in many modern games is the use of the audio log. Find a log and hear the recording of a person, some trivial, some important. While these logs might not help the characterization of the main character in the same way an adventure game might, they do an excellent job of fleshing out the world The System/Bio shock series are some of the best examples of world building through these logs.

Other games use journals, reports and many other things that give you this optional detail. So what makes the examine function of adventure games more unique? In an adventure game the played character describes it themselves, showing you their connection with an object. Over the course of examining many objects you’re able to develop a much more rounded idea of what the character is like, and many facets of them that normally would be difficult to tell without such a function.
I think that if more RPG or Sandbox games had an examine button, we’d be able to make these characters that you spend tens or even hundreds of hours with much more rounded and rich, while at the same time not needing a great deal more ‘real content.’ The Elder Scrolls games put so much effort into writing books that flesh out the world so much, if we have a similar effort put into a character examining all those things, you’d certainly know the character extremely well.

And so I ask that more developers give us the option to examine objects as the character we are playing, a feature which while partially covered by the audio log, has not quite been replicated in many other genres to the same degree of interest.


3 Responses to “After a thorough examination…”

  1. […] adventure and a great example of why the genre is both amazing and terrible at the same time. Using examination fantastically to both help characterize April and her own world. Her book shelf of books she […]

  2. I like the connection that you’ve drawn between the examine function and pacing. Audio logs, such as the ghost radio in Project Zero: Crimson Butterfly, are not as successful. The problem imo is that ‘some [are] trivial, some important.’ Players simply looking to finish the game must wade through the “trivial” audio logs in order to get to the “important” ones. I think the same criticism can be made of NPC dialogue boxes in RPGs. FFXII, for example, forces you to talk to townspeople who are closer to encyclopedia entries than they are to characters. They are lazy devices for expounding game mechanics, such as, ‘Did you know you can buy Gambits with gil?’

    Perhaps the point I am making is that if game developers want to hide vital plot/gameplay information among Easter Eggs, they must bring their writing up to par. FFVII, for example, put a lot of heart into its NPCs – in particular, I loved the ticket officer at the train station who tells you how he became a guard because he didn’t have the guts to travel anywhere – yet watching travelers come and go has taken its toll.

    • A really great example of townspeople is actually the NPCs in Final Fantasy 4 Heroes of Light. Where they contain enough interesting information.

      But I do agree with the point that the story should be deep enough without looking through all these things, but merely strengthened.

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