Somewhere, somehow, adventure games have lost their way a bit.
Nearly every other genre of video game has found away to grow and evolve in a relatively meaningful fashion, using the advances in technology to their advantage. But the products of the adventure genre, and I include cerebral mystery titles in that umbrella category, have been inconsistent of late to say the least. It is perhaps telling that many of the best adventure titles in recent memory have been those that hark back to simpler times.
I say this because I've been playing a fair bit of Murdered: Soul Suspect for review of late -- a straightforward, ghostly detective adventure title that's all about observation and aligning clues and evidence with predetermined deduction options, combining bits and pieces of found information to unlock the next section of the narrative. It has all of the hallmarks of a classic whodunit adventure, but with none of the risk that such games as Still Life, Blade Runner, and Tex Murphy managed to convey.
It is a mystery game without consequence, and thus far I can't say that such a combination works.
All of the recent big names that have sought to try and build upon the template exemplified in a multitude of PoC titles in the 80s and 90s have made promising strides but ultimately fell short in some significant way or another. The most high-profile, contentious and divisive title on the list might well be L.A. Noire. For what it's worth, I loved the detective side of things -- combing crime scenes for evidence, attempting to read the facial expressions and behavioural tics of suspects for clues and leads. In eschewing combat for something more cerebral, L.A. Noire managed to capture at least the illusion of being a 50s detective on the beat.
But for all of its promise, the game was hampered by ill-conceived uneven pacing, forced action segments, a visual engine that frequently stuck detailed heads onto drab and lifeless bodies -- characters that bore striking resemblances to silver screen favourites sent flying off into the uncanny valley, breaking all immersion and turning an engrossing detective narrative into a game of "Name the Mad Men episode that actor was in".
Moving further afield, it's impossible to talk about this stuff without mentioning David Cage, but in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Cage is a game director far more in love with another medium than this one. Heavy Rain had moments of thrilling consequence, where you questioned your deliberations and your thoroughness (helped by a multi-protagonist approach that kept players guessing), but Beyond was a patronising mess of an experience that purported to engage the mind even as it kept players at arms length.
This is arguably not really anything too new, I suppose. After all, the games in this genre have never exactly been mechanically "adventurous" if you'll pardon the pun. More often than not, such titles have little to fall back on to engage the player but storytelling. However, and we've said this about RPGs too, although the tools by which creators are able to deliver stories have grown and expanded thanks to advances in graphical capabilities, sound engineering, processing power etc., this can be a burden to a certain extent. Back when all you had was text, the written story had to be brilliant (whether dramatic, thrilling, humorous or all of the above) as there was nothing else to fall back on.
But that's not really an excuse. Games have to be games -- that interactive link between player and plot is crucial. Dreamfall, for all of its splendid qualities, struggled to create gameplay that was particularly meaningful, its fighting and stealth elements simplified and sterilised to an unfortunate degree. You can argue that judging Dreamfall by such elements would be a mistake, and you'd be right. But we shouldn't have to make excuses for underdeveloped aspects in our games. The point is that adventure games stand somewhere beyond visual novels in terms of interaction.
This is why studios continue making point-and-click adventures. They're cheaper, for starters, but the template is already there, and the lack of cinematic bells and whistles means you can focus on the important stuff without distraction. But readability is still an issue in many cases, and when you've already had a decade in which the genre hit an absolute peak (so much so that it rather defined PC gaming way back when) subsequent games have to be excellent in order to have any chance of standing out.
Adventure games have always been about interacting with worlds and narratives in ways beyond simple violence, and as an industry we've often struggled to deal with that. It's easy to facilitate that feeling of purposeful interaction in a game with a trigger for a gun or a button press for the swing of a sword.
But there is hope, and the games that I've mentioned above all have fine qualities to them, even if they are let down in other areas. Telltale have enjoyed their biggest success to date by giving us a feeling of ownership over the story, making us feel like our decisions can shift the narrative significantly. Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes games (particularly the recent Testament of Sherlock Holmes and the coming follow-up Crimes and Punishments) and the best bits of L.A. Noire made us feel like we were detectives ourselves, and culpability had much to do with that. Then there are games like Gone Home that empower us to piece together stories for ourselves, delivering exposition through exploration.
I'm not sure yet where Murdered: Soul Suspect fits into all of this just yet. The mechanics of mystery are slightly undone when you can't fail and there are no real consequences for slipping up. But I am enjoying the little side stories and the environmental storytelling. There are some really interesting elements here, wrapped up in a high concept game, but so much hinges simply on the quality of the story, and that's inconsistent at best.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is already out in the US, and releases here on Friday for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PS4. The review is on its way.