Thursday, 26 May 2011

LA Noire: Not as good as Kings Quest 1

The adventure game was officially buried on February 22, 1999. On a day which is now referred to as ‘Chainsaw Monday’, Sierra Entertainment - the company behind legendary adventure games such as Kings Quest, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry - axed a third of its workforce including some of their top creative talent. Scott Murphy, co-creator of Space Quest, was one of the many to be given the boot. In this interview, he speaks openly about the price the employees paid with the companies growing success; like being paid less despite incredible success of the games they worked on. But what is most apparent from the interview is the deep hurt that was inflicted by the company heads on their brilliant team who invested all they had in producing a revolutionary series of games.
Although the adventure game was buried in 1999, its demise began before that with a crucial decision made by the company executives against the advice of its top game designers. This decision was to replace the parser interface with a point and click interface. The original parser interface was a text input interface where players would have to type commands into the game to get their character to perform an action. This forced players to think and invest their own powers of deduction to solve the game puzzles. The balance between challenge and reward was perfect in the early adventure games, making the game play entertaining, rewarding and, I would suggest, beneficial to our cognitive powers. Moving to point and click eradicated this dynamic and changed the essence of the game play from challenging, rewarding and entertaining to just entertaining and ultimately monotonous.

This segment from the interview is fascinating insight into bad company ethics and game-changing (yes, I’m using this phrase in its proper context) decisions.

Scott Murphy, Co-Founder of Space Quest.
Here's a little tidbit about how the parser interface went away and how management worked us. One day when we're literally halfway through Space Quest 4, Mark and I were called into Ken's office. We were asked what we thought about using the (dumbass) point-and-click interface that they were using, in I guess it was King's Quest 5 then, and what we thought about putting it in SQ4. We said we wanted to keep the parser. Ken and Bill Davis asked us to talk about it together and then tell them what we wanted to do the next day. After the meeting, Mark and I agreed without hesitation as we walked out Ken's office door that there was absolutely no way we wanted the point-and-click. The next day when we came in, Bill Davis tracked Mark down and asked him what we'd decided. Mark told him that we'd decided to keep the parser, to which Bill instantly replied something to the effect of, "But you can't do that. Ken has already decided that you have to use the point-and-click!" Apparently they figured they had a fifty percent chance that we would make the decision and wouldn't realize that they'd already made the decision for us. That kind of mentality was another straw on the pile of last ones.

So how does all this relate to LA Noir?

LA Noir is, at its heart, an adventure game with a point and click interface. Much like the later versions of Space Quest and Kings Quest. There isn’t much change in the game dynamic. You run around a world, click on things, connect a few dots and slowly weave your way through the main narrative.

I would venture that in LA Noir, the game dynamic has been simplified with a repetitive pattern of search for stuff, ask about stuff and chase stuff. The elements of this dynamic which are new are the interrogation scenes where Rockstar/Team Bondi have made the most of their revolutionary facial animation technology with the challenge to figure out if a suspect is telling the truth or lying. This is genuinely challenging - sometimes to a point of being impossible - and an absorbing gaming experience. Up to a point though. One problem is that it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to the outcome of your cases i.e. you get through even if you fail miserably. This coupled with the games repetitive context makes interviews frustrating and monotonous after a lot of game time.

The investigations also suffer from this where you end up walking around the perimeters of the room waiting for a vibration to alert of of one or objects that can be examine. You then click click click through them accruing clues which you don’t ever really use or fail to use properly in the interrogations.

The other issue is when the game moved into action sequence mode, the action sequences are very easy, give you the option to skip through them and lack variety. Run after a suspect. Drive after a supsect. That’s pretty much it. Again and Again.

In short, the game didn’t require much of an investment from me. Without a real challenge (that made a difference to the games outcome anyway) I stopped caring and found myself getting less and less absorbed and just going through the motions. Even the spectacular performance given by the actors, the great dialog and wonderful score didn’t stop this happening. In the back of my mind, I wanted to play a game, not click through a script.

There were a few brief moments where the patriarchal hand let me go and  allowed me to exercise some lateral thinking. For example, when I had to solve poetic riddles left by an academic psychopath and try locate locations in the city alluded to in the poems. This freedom and genuine participation in the game turned it from being quite passive to active and fully immersive.

Just like those gold days of adventure gaming where I would type in things “open chest”. “look in chest” and “drug prostitute”.

* the last was a reference to Leisure Suite Larry 3 and not because I am worthy of interrogation myself.

Article first published as LA Noire: Not as good as Kings Quest 1 on Technorati.

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