Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Agent and the Narrator

According to an old joke about Talisman, the first prototype of the game was actually a single six-sided die. The players would sit down staring at it for four hours, and then roll off to see who won the game.

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Obviously, the joke is still being told by the people who do not enjoy the overall experience offered by the cult classic. They seem uninterested in the heroic stories created by hours of rolling dice, moving around the board and then either drawing a card, or... rolling more dice. And it does not necessarily mean that they hate wizards, dragons and magical swords (although some of them actually do). What it does mean is that they are unsatisfied with the level of agency offered by the game.

Last week I said that a certain level of randomness seems to be a required element of any adventure game. I think we can agree now that if everything can be weighed and measured before the game, there will be no adventure – only an exercise in optimization or, in other words, a German style game. Randomness is, obviously, not only an element of an adventure game. Even Agricola randomizes some of its elements, but only up to a certain extent. The players are first treated to a random distribution of cards, and during the game they have to take into account the fact that the appearance of some action spaces is random – although this randomness is also very limited.

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It is actually quite easy to get randomness right in a Eurogame. Just remember a simple rule: randomness first, decisions later. Shipyard introduces this element by giving players scoring tiles before the game, just like Lords ofWaterdeep which – although plagued with the quest cards random draw which felled many a strategy – supplies each player with a lord card that tells them what they will score points for.

Adventure games are, however, slightly more difficult to calibrate. In optimization games agency is king – but it is narrating a story that adventure games are all about. And here, it seems, erring on the side of caution means that it is better to make a game more random, than one that can be fully planned from the first turn and then flawlessly executed. Does that mean that all adventure games will inevitably boil down to, more or less, Talisman clones?

Certainly not, as some designers have already proven – with Mage Knight being the most recent example of an adventure game that really puts the player in the driver’s seat, while sometimes heavily taxing their little grey cells. What is important to take note of here: randomness is not gone, but it still precedes all decisions made by a player on their turn – just like in many Eurogames.

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As a fan of games with a clear narrative arc, I enjoyed my time with Mage Knight, just as much as I enjoyed a few dozen games of Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where a random card draw created challenges for players to deal with using their custom made decks and (on a more turn-by-turn basis) their hands of cards. I was, however, surprised that many adventure game fans had a completely different view of those two games, finding them dull, too complicated or simply “not really adventure games”.

All in all, getting an adventure game design right is not only about creating a set of working mechanisms, but about (and perhaps even more so) balancing the player agency and the game’s narrative aspect. It is obvious a single design will not satisfy every gamer, which makes this balancing act, ever interesting from a design standpoint - and exciting for gamers open to experiencing new ideas within their favoured genre.

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