Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ironically, I forgot 90% of how to play this game. (Deja Vu)

Any signifier as overdetermined as "Mother" is, due to the dense nature of semiotics, going to be linked to some oddball concepts. For instance, the fact of the matter is, when I think about my mother, I think about arbitrary and capricious punishment followed by death.

This is not a bad thing. Really, it's down to the fact that I grew up playing adventure games with my mother. Adventure games are one of a handful of genres of video and computer games to be, for all practical purposes, completely dead. Actually, off the top of my head, I can't think of another major genre of game that just upped and died, although, to be fair, I'm not actually spending too much time on the issue in favor of provocative generalizations.

There are many reasons the genre died - some of which I'll deal with later. But one of them, surely, is the fact that they are among the most fiercely abusive games to their players ever. I complain that MMOGs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft are based on a system of play that involves delaying and deferring the actual fun parts of the game for as long as possible, making it, in effect, so that the player pays for the privilege of expending their labor to be allowed to have fun. I consider this unethical and abusive gameplay. It has nothing on adventure games.

There's an old joke of famous last words in Dungeons & Dragons. The first two items on the list are "I open the door" and "I don't open the door." The joke being that death comes without any real warning or ability to prevent it in D&D. D&D, as a historical phenomenon, evolved in tandem with adventure games, so the comparison is apt. Here, entirely from memory, is a collection of staggeringly easy or stupid ways to die in adventure games. I reiterate, this is from memory. I haven't played most of these games in over a decade. Some of these are clear obnoxious design flaws. Others, however, are just plain funny.

  1. Taking a cutting of a plant instead of digging it up. (Return to Zork)
  2. Failure to meticulously and carefully navigate a spiral staircase positioned such that you can't actually see what you're doing. (King's Quest IV)
  3. Failure to get back to the house in time, or failing to adequately cover your tracks while doing so. (King's Quest III)
  4. Walking in the water (King's Quest I)
  5. Failing to light a new torch quickly enough. (Shadowgate)
  6. Failing to save a mouse from a cat that only appears once on one screen, giving you exactly one chance to do it, and no clear warning that you screwed up. Both this and #1 instead penalize you far later in the game, requiring you to replay most of it. (King's Quest V)
  7. Making the mistake of thinking your sword can actually defeat anything in the game. (Any game where you have a sword.)
  8. Failing to adequately dodge a fireball that is launched at you while you are on an incredibly narrow platform with no possible way off of it and out of the path of the fireball (The Pandora Directive)
  9. Using your lockpick on yourself (Quest for Glory)
  10. Starting the car (Deja Vu).
OK, that one I didn't remember until I did it just now. In other words, there is basically now ay to predict that you are about to lose the game. The ethos is simple - save early, save often. I don't think there's a single adventure game I played with my mother without a save file called "We who are about to die" - a save file to be utilized whenever you are about to enter an area of such obvious danger that the odds of your not doing something that randomly kills you are basically zero. Somehow, improbably, we mistook this for fun.

I've done some (still unpublished) academic work on this genre, focusing on a sub genre of the adventure game, the narrative puzzle gallery. My contention in that work is that the genre existed because the games served as an effective allegory for the acclimatization of the culture to widespread digitalization. Once that moment passed, the games were strangely obsolete.

Add to this the fact that the bulk of the genre has not aged well at all. With the exception of Cliff Johnson's puzzle games, which are oddly undying, most of the genre is tough to love these days. The 7th Guest plays like the complete misunderstanding of CD-ROM technology it was, the Sierra and LucasArts games have largely become too esoteric, relying on a style of thought that is utterly foreign to contemporary players, and the rest of the genre wasn't even that good in the 80s and 90s to begin with, little yet today.

Today's game, Deja Vu, is the Nintendo port of a Macintosh adventure game, one of three in its series (the other two being Shadowgate and Uninvited). In a world of games that have not aged well, this game stands out for its complete lack of contemporary playability. Part of that is that a NES port of this game was staggeringly foolish.

I played the game with my mother on an original Macintosh - a black and white all-in-one in resplendent beige. This was in the earliest days of the sort of Macintosh interregnum. Steve Jobs's initial vision for Apple, which was more or less wholly responsible for the platform mattering at all, was partially abandoned when he was forced out of the company. Absent Jobs, Apple spent a decade or so collapsing. The original Macintosh was hugely influential - a shift in computing so massive that it actually took a decade for the rest of the world to catch up in the form of Windows 95. But absent the driver of the revolution, the Macintosh had no next move. Once Microsoft finally caught up with them, it was game over. The revolution was finally revived when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, launching the iMac and getting Apple to at least be moving again. It wasn't until the iPod that Jobs actually got Apple out ahead of everybody else, and not really until the iPhone and iPad that Apple finally returned to the position it had been at in 1984 or so, whereby its major product was not actually a given piece of electronics, but rather the very future of computing.

I mention this massive tangent because the central innovation of the MacVenture series that Deja Vu was a part of was the integration of the Macintosh's UI revolution into the gaming interface. Deja Vu was defined by its use of windows. Your inventory was a window on your desktop that you dragged and dropped to. A second window offered your character's viewpoint (the game was played in the first person). A third text window offered commentary and explication. Windows could be rearranged, drop down menus were in use, and you could even "clean up" your inventory a la the Finder in the Mac OS. The game was, in other words, a Macintosh game not just as an accident of release but in a necessary way.

This was (and is) unusual in games. The normal method these days is not exclusive titles, but multi-platform releases. A major release like Call of Duty 4 comes out for Mac, PC, PS3, XBox 360, Wii, and Nintendo DS - six very, very different platforms. (OK, five very different platforms, as the difference between the PS3 and the XBox 360 in any sort of design sense is basically nil.) Taken as a whole, the franchise adds cell phones to its list of platforms. This amorphous vision of gaming - putting the experience on any platform - is at odds with something like Deja Vu. A handful of platform-focused games do exist - the Wii, and Nintendo DS all have a non-trivial number of games that are unmistakably made for the technology they are on, and one assumes that the Kinect is going to evolve in that direction.

This was true in the NES era as well - virtually no Nintendo Games were made in a way that was conscious of the system. A handful of peripherals - the Zapper, the Power Pad, and ROB - each had a handful of games for them, but this was no more NES-centric than Guitar Hero is platform-centric - the peripheral is the thing being designed to, not the internal technology. Pouring through the NES library, one basically never comes across a game that feels as though it is firmly situated in the technology of the system. Part of this is the NES's essential lack of rivals. Once the 16-Bit era began, you got the dueling gimmicks of Mode 7 on the SNES and fast-moving, high action on the Sega Genesis, labeled as "blast processing" despite the fact that this term has no actual correspondence to any definable technological concept. But in the NES era, this sort of technological demonstration was unheard of.

What makes Deja Vu so strange, though, is that it is a technological demonstration - just not of the technology it's being played on. It's uniquely unsuited to being ported. Not only is its entire interface that of a system other than the NES, its graphics were designed to be high resolution black and white, not low resolution color. There is nothing even remotely natural about the fit of this game and this system.

Part of what is going on here is also the fork between computer gaming and video gaming - a fork that is about 90% resolved at this point. Back in the day, games tended to be either computer games or console games. A handful of games were both, but, like Deja Vu, they were ports well after the fact. Deja Vu didn't make it to the NES until 1990, five years after its release. It was old news - a legacy game. Likewise, console games would occasionally see PC versions. I remember a Mega Man game for the PC. It was, however, a cheap piece of shovelware as opposed to a game anyone actually spent time on.

These days the issue is basically settled though. With the exception, basically, of anything Blizzard puts out, computer gaming consists almost entirely of day-and-date ports of console games. The PC gaming market has more or less shriveled and died. There are a number of reasons for this, the vast majority of which are that games and PCs took opposite paths - games became more technologically complex, relying on expensive and heavy duty graphics cards. PCs became more and more cheap, moving towards the netbook or cheap Wal-Mart desktop. Such machines couldn't play state of the art games, whereas nearly identically priced consoles could. Thus those who wanted to game had virtually no incentive to buy a $2000 gaming PC when they could buy a $400 web and e-mail PC and a $2-300 console.

This is part of why the adventure game kind of upped and died. It's not a natural partner of console gaming. Prior to Deja Vu, it was nearly impossible to port adventure games to a console at all. Games like King's Quest I-IV, classics of the industry, were unplayable on consoles because they relied on text entry, i.e. on a keyboard. Point and click gaming as introduced in Deja Vu smoothed the path significantly, but even still, pointing with a directional pad is a much dicier proposition than pointing with a mouse. So when PC gaming went belly-up, so did the genre most associated with it.

These blind alleys of game design intersect heavily with blind alleys of memory in the way that always has been at the heart of the Nintendo Project. The question "what did I learn from games like Deja Vu" is actually a staggeringly difficult one, because it's next to impossible to disentangle them from the rest of my life. I still remember puzzles from games I haven't played in 20 years. They are distinctly responsible for why I still maintain a desktop computer - because they meant that I was spending hours on the computer before the Internet. The Internet was not what brought me to the life of 24/7 computer usage. It was just a significant change to what I did on the computer.

And, of course, there is my mother, which is where we began. The signifier is, without a doubt, overdetermined. The easiest split to make is this - I got my highbrow tastes and tendencies from my father, my lowbrow tastes and tendencies from my mother, and Doctor Who from both of them. Video games, then, were from my mother, and one of my major introductions was on her knee or the seat next to her, providing co-pilot instructions on a wealth of adventure games. An hour or two a night for years, we slashed our way through, by my estimate, a good two dozen of them over the course of five years or so. It was not the bulk of our interactions, but it and shopping formed the bulk of our private interactions - the things that were purely the two of us. My entire rhythm and mode of conversation with my mother is based on those games.

A wholly trivial example. Tonight there was a conversation lasting a good few minutes on the optimal way to dispose of about 2/3 of a cup of sweet potatoes leftover from Thanksgiving. The discussion consisted of much glaring, a few raised voices, and extensive analysis of whether it would be easier and neater to wrap it in a napkin or scrape it off a plate into the trash. To an outside observer (and I base this in part on the observations of my ex-wife, who found my interactions with my mother to be horrifyingly tense and stressful to watch) it no doubt looked like a ridiculous amount of energy and snark expended on absolutely nothing.

The truth is this - the sweet potatoes were no different from any of a thousand stupid little puzzles solved in adventure games. Do we do it this way or that? Which way has the lowest chance of killing us? Shall we save the game and try something stupid? (The answer is often yes, both in and out of adventure games.) And, as with any game, these discussions got animated, and still do. So yes. My mother and I are used to spending time carefully and loudly debating extreme pedantry as though our lives depend on it.

Because more often than not, growing up, they did.


  1. Don't know if you've seen this: Jared Sorensen, a brilliant tabletop RPG designer, is putting out a series of tabletop adventure games that he plays with sometimes hundreds of people at once at conventions, all based on PC adventure games similar to what you're describing here.

    The link is the bulk of my contribution here, apart from: "Fuck Kings Quest to death".

  2. This is one of my favorite posts I've read so far, especially the last paragraph. I like this project and I'm glad you're doing it.