A while back I mentioned the escalating cost of content creation in video games. Everything I said about the expense of developing content for first-person games goes double for adventure games. In contrast to action games, where the world passes by in a constant blur, adventure game scenery is usually sitting still and the object of much scrutiny. Objects in the game world aren’t just there to provide atmosphere – they are part of the game, and the player is going to look it over very closely in his or her search for clues about how to proceed. They will spend a lot more time looking at any given set, and so a lot of thought needs to go into what they will see, and the art needs to look very polished. In an adventure game, the reward for progress is the ability to move on to the next location. In an action game, the environment is where the rewards happen. In an adventure game, the environments are the reward.
So the main struggle in adventure games has been to fill the world with compelling scenery. To keep the player from cruising through and beating the game in an hour, the designer puts up challenges for them to overcome. Make the puzzles and challenges harder, and the game gets longer. Game design is usually a balancing act between game length and player frustration. The only way to have the best of both worlds (low frustration but a long and rewarding game) is to just add tons of content and scenery. That tends to get expensive.
But this is exactly what they did with Dreamfall. They dialed the puzzles down from “perplexing” to “amusements” and then just added endless miles of scenery and story. The gameworld is immense and richly detailed. How Ragnar Tornquist got the budget together to make an adventure game of this size is beyond me.
A side effect of this generosity of size and pace is that I brought a lot of my old adventure-gaming habits with me, and they are working against me. The old approach is to plow forward until you hit a roadblock. There is no need to examine a location in detail because you’ll be backtracking many times, and by the time you overcome the current challenge you will have seen everything and sundry. You’ll be sick of the place long before you can move on, so there is no point in digging deep on your first pass.
In Dreamfall, those roadblocks often do not exist. There are locations – huge, wonderfully detailed locations – which have not one puzzle. They are there for the sake of the story, and all you need to do to move on is have a conversation. I found myself rushing in and triggering that conversation before I’d looked around. I ended up being pulled through an area before I’d really had a chance to appreciate it. There are NPC’s I never spoke to – not because I didn’t want to, but because I expected I’d be obliged to at some point, so I ran past them. That never happened, and so they got overlooked.
This may be the first adventure game that has ever warranted an immediate replay from me. I must say this open style of gameplay is a welcome change, I just need to slow down and adjust to it. The story feels rushed right now, but I’m the one doing the rushing!
The world of video games is often likened to movies. Dreamfall is nothing like a movie. Instead, it comes very close to the experience of reading a book. An excellent book.
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