This is not the greatest adventure in the world. This is just a tribute.
Something that has occurred to me is that there are an awful lot of adventure games on my list. While some of this can be chalked up to the fact that I foolishly bought the Telltale Everything Pack for reasons that even now are unclear, it does maybe indicate the esteem that I hold that general genre in. Playing these two has made me remember the reasons for this.
Adventure games, more than any other genre, make me feel stupid. In most games, when you fail, you can hazard a guess at the reasons why. In an FPS you might be using the wrong gun or being too gung-ho, in a strategy game you might be being too cautious, in an RPG you might not be using your party effectively, and so on. Point is, something bad happens and you can think about how you could improve or adapt your existing methods. This iterative improvement, I like a lot. There’s no greater feeling in a game than improvement and honing of skills, dispatching enemies with ease who would have flummoxed you hours before. Adventure games are different. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t do what the designers wanted you to do. At the start you can sort of get by with clicking every object on every other object, but as the number of locations and objects multiply, this isn’t really a sustainable or fun strategy.
I feel a bit like I’m being forced to do a cryptic crossword, or make anagrams out of a person’s name that describe them, it’s just not how my brain works to figure out what the hell a designer wants me to do. Consequently, I have extremely little patience for the “puzzle” part of adventure games. If I’ve looked at everything once and I can’t figure out what to do, or even worse, if I figure out something that should work only the game won’t let me do it, I become very frustrated. And frustration leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to walkthroughs. Walkthroughs are my indispensible inventory item, something without which I would not have finished a single adventure game. Even in those little two hour Telltale episodes, I seem to end up needing to look up something. Ultimately it’s unfulfilling I suppose to just be reading a solution in a game where the only challenge is finding the solution, but in the here and now it prevents me getting completely pissed off with the game, a tolerable sacrifice to make.
The fact remains though, that Grim Fandango holds a steady place in my all-time top five. I loved the Strongbad adventures. I loved the Tales of Monkey Island. But I hate the core gameplay. What the hell is going on here? Well, Characters and Dialogue, those twin pillars. Because there is no requirement for reflex-based challenge, because there is no time limit as such, you can wallow in the dialogue, in the phrasing and characterisation. You can explore, properly, gently wafting the environment over your palate rather than the standard gaming approach gulping down quick breaths of exposition before you plunge back into the icy depths of gameplay*. They tell great stories, as far as games go. I just wish I didn’t have to wade through so much annoyance to enjoy them.
So how bout ‘dem games den
The games were made in Adventure Game Studio, which is a free tool that Sinny once started to make a Pedantique adventure game in. You can’t help but be impressed by how the somewhat clunky interface has been wrestled into something approaching an accessible game, though right clicking like six times to pick “Investigate” can get old. The environments are stylized and it’s generally easy to see what’s what, which is quite an achievement for something basically drawn in paint. So it’s got a decent base, but where these games distinguish themselves are the writing. You are essentially playing the two people who wrote and coded the game, people steeped in adventure game history, and everything revolves around that. If something can’t be used, they won’t just say “I can’t do that” and leave it there. Ben will say “I can’t use this to remove that nail”, Dan will immediately question this and they’ll get into an argument. Ben fancies himself the protagonist and will demand Dan pass him any items that he picks up. Only he can handle the pressure of the inventory! Dan wants to be the protagonist but flaps under the pressure. There’s a memorable bit where Ben gets knocked out and Dan has to revive him and a whole new set of dialogue with objects is set up for him. “I could use this to, uh…shit, I have no idea what to do”. Dan is me, playing an adventure, and I warmed to this partnership immensely.
Having you play a duo, rather than one guy, is excellently used. It adds a pace and a zing to your exploration, to your descriptions of objects and interactions with others. It allows some original running jokes to sort of occur organically, and they’re actually quite funny. I shouldn’t be surprised at it being funny, the dialogue for this game is immense. There is so much of it, so much contextual stuff, so many off the cuff responses, one-time gags, that you barely ever hear a line repeated. The world they are in evolves at a ridiculous pace, as you solve puzzles in alternate timelines and dimensions and the story never takes itself seriously, just being a vehicle for more knowing winks about adventure gaming and general wackiness.
The only complaint I have is that towards the end of the second game, the puzzles get more and more convoluted and less and less accessible. You solve adventure games within adventure games, travel forward in time through a portal that sent you back… I found myself resorting to the dreaded walkthrough more in the last hour of play than in the rest of the two games combined, and the proliferation of inventory items meant I was carrying around a lot of stuff that should really solve the tasks I had, but didn’t because, well “the designers say so”. I don’t care if you’re making a snarky comment about that, parody is only funny if you’re not doing exactly what you’re parodying. By the time it ended, I wanted it to end.
But on the whole, a light, fun adventure with some excellent writing, and well worth your time. Which really surprised me. I would add that the second game is everything in the first, but times two. So, double the length, double the items, locations, dialogue. This can lead to the second maybe losing the “madcap” adventure feel of the first and getting a lot more sloggy. But the writing stays tip top and there’s twice as much of it.
4 Stars/3 stars for BTDT and TGP respectively, 2 hours/4 hours played
* Most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written, yeah.