To Verb or Not To Verb in Adventure Games

A while ago I put up a post showcasing adventure game GUIs, without really going into much details about them. But if you want to make your own adventure game, one of the first questions is how you want to control it. And that means, deciding how many Verbs there should be. If you ask “old-school” gamers, you will hear a lot of complaints that modern games are “dumbed down”, while game designers talk about “streamlining the experience” – both positions have some truth to them, because it is important to differentiate between complexity and depth.

Let me make a non-adventure game related example: The game of Chess. The game isn’t terribly complex – there are only 6 different pieces, and only a few special rules. However, the game possesses a great depth due to the many different options to play it. The game of Go is even simpler, but comparable to Chess in its depth.

Simple/Complex describes the amount of rules/actions to do, while shallow/deep describes the combinations you can achieve throughout the game. Which brings us back to adventure games. Have a look at Maniac Mansion:

There are fifteen verbs available. If you play the game, you will notice that you use verbs like “Use” and “Give” quite a few times, while “Fix” is used possibly only once or twice during a play-through, if at all. There is complexity, but do “Unlock Door with Key” or “Fix Phone with Tube” really add more depth than “Use Key on Door” and “Use Tube on Phone”?

I’d like to quote Goldmund from a thread on the AGS Wiki:

I click “use” on a furnace and I have no idea whether the protagonist will open it, push it, sit on it, piss on it, try to eat it… Of course, there are GUIs with more detailed actions, but still it’s nothing compared to the Richness of Interactive Fiction. In IF you really have to think, not just click everywhere with every item from your inventory. The solution could lie in the text input, like it was done in Police Quest II

The problem with that is that it’s not just a matter of thinking but also a matter of creating enough content. Having a lot of different verbs – or even the mentioned text parser – means that the game needs to have a lot of responses for invalid actions, or risk boring the audience. If I can “kick the door”, I should also be able to “kick the mailbox”, “kick the window”, “kick the man” and get a better response than I can’t kick that. Otherwise, you add complexity, but not any perceivable depth and the game is back in “guess the parser” mode.

LucasArts decided to trim down the verb list to nine in the nineties – then even changed the original Monkey Island from twelve Verbs on the Amiga to nine Verbs on DOS (removing Walk To, Turn On and Turn Off).
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Removing Verbs removes complexity, but it doesn’t have to mean that it removes depth. Depth is created by meaningful interactions of the verbs you have. This means that you should create a lot of dialogue – if I push something I can’t push, having a more specialized message than “I can’t push that” goes a long way, but that’s still not actual depth. Actual depth stems from the ways I can solve the game. Do I have to solve the puzzles in order or can I pick which ones I solve when? And are there multiple solutions? Can I Use golfclub on Man to solve the puzzle by force, while also having Give golfclub to Man in order to bribe him as an alternative option?

A lot of games these days have a simple two verb system – “Interact” and “Look”.
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These games work nicely with a mouse but also on a tablet (where “Look” is usually a long tap). A lot of the puzzles are inventory or dialogue puzzles, which may make these games more “realistic” (they mirror real world problem solving closer), but also are often shallower. Often, there is only one path through a dialogue tree, or one inventory item that works. I can use hammer on nail, but usually not use screwdriver on nail or use book on nail – even though these are valid real world options in a pinch. And for dialogues, often there are only two outcomes, “fail” and “pass”. The bouncer in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is one exception that I can think of, where dialogue can lead to him letting you in, him fighting with you, or him dismissing you.

In the end, it’s important to strike a balance between usability, immersion, and design complexity. Especially if you add translations and voice acting, having more responses and possible solutions increases the required time and money, just to create content players may never see. On the other hand, having more variety and truly different solutions makes the game feel a lot more alive and higher quality.

And that’s one of the reasons I still think that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is the perfect Point and Click Adventure.

The Dig

One of the more strange LucasArts adventures, The Dig is essentially a science fiction movie with some interaction. Originally released in 1995 during the “CD-ROM Multimedia” craze, it features writing by Orson Scott Card and is based on an idea by Steven Spielberg. All ingredients for a great experience?

The interface is a radical departure from LucasArts’ previous verb interface, a trend that started with Sam & Max in 1993. There are no verbs, just a single “interact” action when clicking on stuff with the mouse. The inventory has to be opened by clicking on the little [i] box, and it contains an “examine” action. In a way, this foreshadowed the trend in the 2000’s of only having two actions, “Interact” and “Look”. I’ll talk about verb design in a later post, but in general, this works well for The Dig because the cinematic experience is first. Michael Land’s music helps with that as well – it’s a true movie soundtrack, very atmospheric and while not driven as much by melody as e.g., his work on Monkey Island, it is an awesome support for the game.

The Dig

Now, I keep talking about The Dig as a cinematic experience. But how is it as a game? Unfortunately, it suffers from a bunch of issues that make it not nearly as much of a classic as most other LucasArts games. First, the writing. As said, Orson Scott Card had a large part in it. Whether you like him as a person or not, there is no doubt that he is one of the best serious science fiction writers, and as a result, The Dig has really great writing. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of it. Characters often ramble on for way longer than welcome, leading to long periods of watching instead of playing. There is also no way to skip single sentences like in more modern games – you can skip whole conversations, but you can’t just skip the current sentence after you’ve done reading it. I’m pretty sure there is enough writing in there to make it a full blown movie, it’s just that often it gets in the way of the gameplay.

Speaking of the gameplay, The Dig is not an entry level adventure, its puzzle design is obscure and (ha!) very alien. One reason is the art style – it’s another radical departure from past LucasArts adventures which were comic-like. The Dig looks very realistic (for 1995), with some pre-rendered sequences. As a result, some things are somewhat hard to see or obscured by the background. You are also almost immediately thrown into a series of complex puzzles (for those who played it: The power generator puzzle felt way too hard for how early it was in the game. For those that haven’t played it: 5x purple, 2x yellow, 1x red, then 5x purple, 5x blue and 1x red) with very little guidance. In a way, this fits the setting well because after all, you are on an alien world and your characters don’t know anything either, but on the other hand it made it hard for me to hook me and make me want to keep playing.

Getting hooked is something LucasArts was really good at, mainly because of the world and the characters. In The Dig, neither is immediately interesting, but to be fair, I’m looking at this in 2015. The characters in the game are actually really well done, it’s just that they don’t start out very sympathetic and it takes a while to feel for them. Brink should’ve had more character development before a pivotal moment early in the game.

None of this is truly bad, but some of it really limits the appeal. It is more a like a science fiction movie that every once in a while remembers that it is actually supposed to be a game, and if you give it a chance it shines with some great (albeit not easily skippable) writing and (for the time) great voice acting. It deserves a lot of credit for showing how CD-ROM Multimedia can be done good and if anyone is planning an HD Remake of the game, adding skippable dialog lines, putting “Examine” on the right mouse button, and offering a slightly gentler difficulty slope would make it a true classic.

It’s sold on Steam and GOG for six bucks at the time of writing. It reminds me a lot of Rendezvous with Rama and even though I have my gripes with it as a game, it is a fantastic experience.