Monday, July 09, 2007

April Ryan and the Dead Genre

Sometimes I'm a little behind the times. Seriously... who was playing original Xbox games this summer!? Not this 360 fangirl. But the long-awaited sequel to 2000's The Longest Journey has been on my wish-list ever since its April '06 release. And when my boy pulled through and bought it for my birthday, I finally had the means to match the motivation.

Tell me more.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey takes place 10 years after the original. April Ryan's continuing story is complimented by the derring-do of our new super chick, Zoë. Dreamfall is nearly a straight-up adventure game, though the usual dialogue trees and puzzling is loosely supported by some rough action sequences. (Also known as the slightly awkward slashing around and pseudo-judo of the game's fight system.)

Even as a puzzling adventure game, Dreamfall wears thin. There are a few strong moments, and plenty of good adventuring early on, but gameplay eventually gives way to pure story. Thankfully, awkward combat and petering puzzles don't detract from a quality tale that truly lives up to our first trip to Arcadia.

Death of Adventure.

There are plenty of us who mourn the death of the adventure genre. My earliest gaming addiction was Infocom's Zork masterpiece. These games were so hard, especially for a 5th grader! They key was my mom. My only female gaming role model for years to come, mom had an unending devotion to Infocom text adventures. While I went on to idolize platformers, RPGs, and FPSs, there will always be a place in my heart for Zork. To this day, I love telling my mom how a game is or isn't like Zork—and how so many games owe their existence to Infocom.

But now I'm afraid that the days of the pure adventure game are coming to an end. King's Quest has come and gone and even the popularity of Myst has fallen away. The Longest Journey may, in fact, be one of the last great adventure games, unless the style comes into fashion again. I loved Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk, but even those are seen by gamers as Japanese oddities, rather than possibilities for breathing fresh life into the genre.

Not that there aren't options. Zelda will continue to persevere as a sublime action adventure title. Capcom's upcoming Zack and Wiki will bring puzzle adventuring to the Wii. And most RPGs are just character-developing adventure games. (Isn't a turn-based RPG a lot like typing "hit thief with knife"?) Even so, the tacked-on fighting sequences in Dreamfall make me think no one believes in marketing a "pure" adventure game anymore.

I just need to talk about storytelling.

Many gamers hold a special reverence for Final Fantasy VII. But even if you don't adore the game, you have to recognize the place it holds in gaming history and the bar it set for cinematic videogame storytelling. The loose, simplistic hero tale just isn't good enough anymore. And whether you're making Rainbow Six or Halo or Zelda or Final Fantasy, gamers expect a story. A good one. With intriguing characters and unlikely story arcs.

I don't believe the last hour of Dreamfall has a single combat sequence or puzzle. There is plenty of walking and button pushing—a little bit of dialogue progresssion. Mostly, you have an interactive storytelling experience. A completely engrossing interactive storytelling experience. It's so fascinating. Would I buy a game that promises me intriguing story if all I did was walk around and push a button to advance cutscenes? Apparently, if the story is good enough, I will!!

Throughout grad school, I was constantly battling on behalf of videogames. You won't find a more anti-gaming crowd than prospective educators and the educators who are educating them. Time and time again, I found myself falling back to the comparison between videogames and television. As parents and teachers, wouldn't we prefer the interactive, thought-provoking world of videogames to coma-inducing television? There is certainly some great TV out there, but the medium itself is far less conducive to engaging your brain.

It brings to mind the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read as a kid. My mom loved the idea of these books. Being able to make choices and understand consequences. And I think she appreciated videogames for the same reason. No one talked in the 80s about games improving eye-hand coordination... but having played Zork herself, my mom knew that grappling with Mario or even driving a virtual car was more likely to get me thinking than The Facts of Life.

I've played through thousands of hours of videogame stories in my life. I'm grateful for the time spent with each one. But especially for my days in Arcadia. Here's hoping the 360 DLC expansions come to fruition.


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