All screens of 'Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse,' like the one above, taken from the PlayStation 4 version, due out on September 4.
The narrative power of adventure games is something of a hot ticket right now. Critics have written about the topic at great length, while gamers and award bodies alike have heaped a metric ton of praise on the shoulders of Telltale Games for the studio's ability to grip and engross players, or even reduce them to tears, with their episodic, licensed releases like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.
What's weird is that if you look back at 2010, the same critics were filling their pages with think pieces about what the games industry could learn from film, and making some damn fine cases for why developers could do better—partly because of Heavy Rain's release that year.
It was something of a bumper year actually, that saw such releases as Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Metro 2033, and Fallout: New Vegas join our piles of shame. Each received praise for its immersive story, narrative choices, and freedom to sculpt personal tales out in its game world. Heavy Rain was perhaps one of the most-debated titles of that year, though, simply because it was an anomaly in the console world.
For years the press and players yearned for the day when video game narratives would overtake those found in film, and usher in a new era of interactive storytelling. But once the initial hype for Heavy Rain had receded, the backlash began. Was this a game or, basically, a movie? Some argued it was a great blend of the two; others felt there wasn't enough player-directed control; and more still complained that the whole thing felt like one long, quick-time-event-laden cutscene.
It's funny to look at Telltale's popularity today, always growing with its Game of Thrones series and the forthcoming Minecraft: Story Mode, as the DNA of these games has much in common with Quantic Dream's PS3 debut, widely criticized for its lack of Actual Gameplay. So, where have those complaints gone?
It's a curious one, and there are plenty of people out there who still feel that Telltale's format should not be classed as "classic" adventure at all. Many still feel that titles like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and the (first couple of) Monkey Island games (at least), each of which is considered a certifiable adventure game, are very different propositions compared to The Walking Dead et al, chiefly because of their emphasis on puzzle-solving.
Charles Cecil is the co-founder of Revolution Software, a studio that's put out a series of acclaimed adventure games, beginning with 1992's Lure of the Temptress. 1996's Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars kickstarted a tremendously popular franchise for the company—the game was a clear influence on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, too—which has now reached its fifth installment with The Serpent's Curse. Naturally, he has plenty to say on the state of adventure games, and the revival of their mainstream appeal.
Article continues after the video below
"As the commercial success of adventures declined from the late 1990s, developers started looking for ways to evolve the genre in the hope of regaining the original audience," he tells me. "We did the same. Our game In Cold Blood mixed action with adventure, and still has quite a cult following.
"But to the mainstream market, the game was confusing—it was neither an adventure nor an action game. Likewise the excellent Heavy Rain confuses audiences—it is clearly an adventure, but requires the player to have manual dexterity, and in doing so breaks a core rule of the adventure genre that the interface should be primarily cerebral.
"Telltale's adventure games are excellent—but the lack of cerebral challenge makes them more like interactive movie experiences. I think that their approach has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary—I do wonder whether they are going down a cul-de-sac, or whether their approach can evolve further to ultimately create a more rounded gameplay experience."
Could it be that Telltale's format has proven so engrossing chiefly because of the lack of gameplay? Granted, we've all felt exhausted by explosions and ceaseless action at some point in our gaming lives, and when that happens, you tend to reach for something more passive that requires less brainpower. I love the Call of Duty series, but I also enjoy sitting down to play the next Tales From the Borderlands episode while my partner watches.
We recently did the same with Broken Sword 5 on Xbox One and enjoyed tackling the puzzles together, suggesting the right object to use, and conferring on what to do next. Likewise, I'm sure many of you reading this have reached a truly painful narrative branch in games series like Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls, and discussed it to reach a consensus on which choice to make.
New on Motherboard: Here's a Montage of NASA Deliberately Crashing Spaceships
Quite recently, Deus Ex director Warren Spector penned an opinion piece for Gamasutra about why narrative choices in games don't really matter—which might feel a bit odd considering his work history. "The interesting aspect of player choice isn't the choice itself," he writes. "The interesting thing—the only interesting thing, really—is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort, and money."
But he also says that choices shouldn't lean so heavily on punishing or praising players, and I think that's why modern—you might call them "passive"—adventure games appear to have become so popular. The lack of karma meters telling you how good or evil your character is means that the consequences of your choices are constantly lingering.
Whenever you see an alert that a certain character will "remember" your choice, you instantly start to wonder if you've done the right thing, and that's it—there are no other crumb trails to follow, only a nagging sense of guilt that makes your moral compass spin like crazy. It's engrossing and involving at the same time, and in some ways places you as the story's director—doubly so if there's another person in the room watching.
That's where I personally think games have started to overtake film in terms of storytelling power. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a linear narrative when done well, and award-winning talent like Uncharted writer Amy Hennig proves that the games industry is growing up fast in this regard.
Developers have been watching the film industry closely for years now and they've learned a lot, and it's worth stressing that filmmakers can still knock it out of the park with exemplary scripts that provoke real, genuine feelings of emotion or dread in the viewer—from the touching scenes in Pixar's Inside Out, to the claustrophobic stress of last year's multi-Oscar-winning Birdman.
'Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse' trailer for PS4 and Xbox One
As Cecil puts it, "cerebral" adventure games are quite a different prospect to Telltale's "passive" formula—and indeed movies as a whole—but certainly no less engaging. They simply offer a different flavor of appeal that can really pull people into the narrative. Like The Walking Dead, point-and-click games are still enjoyable as a local play experience with partners or friends.
"A lot of people tell us about meeting their partner through playing our adventure games," Cecil reveals. "Several wrote very moving messages about memories of playing Broken Sword with loved ones—and in the cases where those loved ones have since passed away, how their relationship is defined by the memories of playing Broken Sword together.
"This is humbling. The intensity of this shared experience is unique to the interactive medium—similar sustained, shared experiences could not be said of watching a film or television together."
So where next for narrative evolution in games? Have narrative choices in games like Mass Effect become too obvious with their Paragon and Renegade markers to really trigger the same kind of response that rather greyer options have in Telltale's adventures? What about emergent stories that the user creates for themselves in games like Skyrim and, assuredly, Fallout 4 when it comes out later this year?
I'd argue that we're already in the next wave of evolved storytelling in games, thanks to titles like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Betrayer. Sorry to end on a worn point, but the "imprinting" effect of these games goes right back to whole concept of players applying themselves on mute characters like Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. You own their personality, and their surrounding world offers just the basics, allowing you to fill the gaps.
These games don't have an outright lack of narrative, but they do deliberately leave the player alone with their thoughts for long enough that the mind starts to wander, and all sorts of theories and personal musings occur. In fact, you're sort of dancing to the developer's tune when this happens.
But that's entirely the intention of their creators, and I'm sure many of you agree that it works a treat by giving you a new level of control over your story that many other titles—and most certainly the movie industry—simply cannot match. That's devilishly clever and immeasurably powerful indeed. More games like these, then, please.
The complete Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse is released for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on September 4, and the game's already available on other platforms. Check the Revolution website for more information.
Follow Dave Cook on Twitter.