But at the same time adventure games are very difficult to pull off. The story has to be just right--not too simple, not too complicated, not dropped on the player all at once but revealed gradually because of the character's actions.
The puzzles have to be just right--not too contrived, not too difficult, not too easy. It takes a lot of effort to create puzzles that are relevant to the story and the environment, and not just copied from Myst and dropped on the player to delay him.
There are so few good adventure games it's no wonder the genre has declined. Hell, it's been demoted! I see the games touted as "hidden object games." That's right. Take the worst kind of puzzle possible in an adventure game, build an entire game around it, and hey, it's a genre now! No. Pixelhunting is not a style; it was one of the great evils of adventure gaming. The best puzzles in adventure games require insights to solve, not leaps of logic.
First I want to thank the author of this amazon list for giving me pointers of which games to seek. It was because of this list I tried such gems as Morpheus and Timelapse. In lieu of making a duplicate Amazon list, here are my
10 - Dare to Dream (Epic Megagames, 1993)
The first adventure game I ever played. Tyler Norris has lost his father and is dealing with the pain the only way he knows how: by going into his dreams and destroying the nightmare at the source.
The graphics are laughable by today's standards, but in the early 90's it was all computers were capable of. It represents a transition period between text-based and graphical adventure games. The sparse graphics are supplemented by written description.
I remember playing all three episodes of this when I was a kid. It freaked me out. The first episode is short and weird. The second is complex and happy. The third, however, is downright creepy.
The puzzles are largely inventory-based, but there aren't any "hidden" objects. Everything you need is out in the open, you just have to pick it up. There are some great "leaps of logic" puzzles, like the fishtail in the keyhole. Then there is the dream logic insight in episode 2's daisy puzzle. I'm very proud to have figured it out, and I did it before there was an internet to search for walkthroughs.
I blame this game for getting me started.
9 - Alida
Here's an impressive little gem.
I have to admit that this game is tough. Very tough. Thank God for alidagame.com, which provided well-worded hints but still made me figure things out by myself. I had to take a few of these hints, but I never needed a solution spoon fed to me.
Okay, setting (it's a weird but strangely believable one): Australian band invents new form of music, becomes rich, builds an enormous guitar to be remembered as the creators of the eighth wonder of the world. But financial trouble sets in and to protect their wealth they seal it in a vault and convert the guitar from a world wonder to a combination lock.
The environment is rocky and barren, a lot like Riven. The puzzles (also like Riven) are really, really tough but logical most of the time. I say "most of the time" because there are a few that didn't make any sense to me at all. One of these I solved accidentally without really understanding the clues. And the first "flashing light" puzzle I encountered flew right over my head. I didn't even notice that it was a clue to a puzzle until I got a hint. I was expecting to find symbols, and a technical glitch kept me from seeing the flashes. But the ending made everything worth it...
...except for the guitar. There is no sound difference after you tune the guitar. I expected to hear different notes, but it sounded exactly the same as the first time! It scared me, because I feared I missed something and I'd have to scour the entire island to figure it out, but then I was rewarded with the ending. That is my biggest complaint with this game. All that work, and the guitar doesn't sound any different. A couple of the puzzles are obtuse, requiring a little too much of a stretch to understand.
The rest of the puzzles are fair, if not a little mean at times. The most difficult one requires using the same device for the solution to two different puzzles! Figuring out which is which is mind-stretching.
The story is solid and everything makes perfect sense at the end. I had that rare sense of pride and accomplishment when I got the true ending the first time. I do wish we could've gotten to know the rest of the band, but what we have is outstanding because this was created entirely by one man. You gotta respect that.
8 - Timelapse
Before the History Channel began airing Ancient Aliens multiple times a week and the expert "ancient astronaut theorists" actually made the idea less believable, the concept that aliens could have created our civilization was new and intriguing.
Apparently one man has found proof on Easter Island that aliens had a hand in creating all the advanced civilizations of the past, and these aliens happen to be from Atlantis.
I enjoyed 90% of this adventure game. The puzzles are contrived to high hell, but damn it they're fun! My favorite puzzles are in the Egypt time period. They're completely logical and satisfying to figure out because all the clues are right in front of you. The Anasazi location is also a joy to explore and a real challenge. Contrived, but memorable.
There isn't really any story; it's pretty much spelled out to the player from the very beginning, and then explained again and again in brief cutscenes.
The acting is laughable and annoying. The story should have been revealed gradually instead of explained over and over. The final area, Atlantis, is tricky because you're on a time limit--a big no-no in adventure games. We like to be able to explore the world at our own pace! We hate exploring a new world and solving puzzles on a time limit! Foul!
But the rest of the game is quite good. I enjoyed it.
7 - Uru
Damn I was so hyped up for this one. A Myst game made with a realtime 3D graphics engine. I eagerly snatched it up when it first came out.
Instead of a story, what I got was a game of "hunt the journey cloth." That's all you do. There's no story, no mystery to uncover. Your goal is to wander around each world and touch pieces of cloth. In your way are various contrived, illogical puzzles, and the need to kick objects around with your feet. (All that attention to photorealistic detail, and yet the player can't pick objects up or climb low ledges.)
The fun of Myst--the whole point!--is to believe that this is happening to you right now. It is an alternate reality and you are part of the story. You are Atrus' friend and have earned the privilege to be part of the family. Uru made all of that false. It separated the player from this beloved viewpoint. Someone in the distant past helped Atrus and now you are really exploring the ruins of a long dead civilization. It was way more fun when we were part of the story instead of just witnessing the ruins of its end. Cyan destroyed their own world by taking it out of the context Myst established.
On a more intangible level, the D'ni Restoration Counsel's (DNRC) presence ruined the atmosphere. I felt like I was exploring ages that had already been charted. Everything had already been discovered and I wasn't doing anything new. No sense of mystery, no story to discover. It's a long-winded D'ni history lesson as you move through linear ages by solving blatantly artificial puzzles.
(SPOILER) It's not enough to notice the fireflies travel with you between ages and you can use them to illuminate a dark cave to touch a button you can plainly see but can't touch. (Yeah, in this realistic world, you apparently can't grope in the dark either.) No, you have to figure out that you need to build a bridge across shallow streams by kicking baskets around with your feet; and then you must realize you only get to jump once before the fireflies leave you. That's how you make a puzzle! Force the player to make multiple leaps of logic in a row!
And now the D'ni have an enslaved race? What? Where did they come from? When did this happen?
A very disappointing experience. Eventually it went live as Myst Online, but that didn't last too long. What went wrong? I've heard the online RPG has its fans, but I think Cyan misjudged just who plays this kind of game. Adventure gamers in general aren't the social gamer type. Adventure games are a kind of personal experience. Having other players around just ruins the magic.
6 - Bad Mojo
Here's a little gem of sleaze. A man is transformed into a cockroach so he can learn just who his landlord really is. What follows is an adventure game from an insect's point of view through disgusting, decaying and beautifully decrepit environments.
Most of the puzzles are action-based, and they work very well. The one puzzle that requires brainpower to solve requires a leap of logic instead of an insight, which puts a huge dent in the game's value.
The acting is delightfully amateurish, but I barely noticed because of the unique way backstory is conveyed. You as the cockroach will walk near a picture hanging on a wall, and the picture comes to life, revealing a moment from the past. This happens frequently, and it's a clever way to tell the story.
Not a perfect experience, but very memorable.
5 - RAMA (Sierra, 1996)
Oh boy did I ever fall in love with this game. The story is basically the same as RAMA II by Gentry Lee (NOT Arthur C. Clarke!), which I hated, but didn't read until long after I played this game. I expected the book to be like the game, but it's not. The game is actually better because the player explores the ship...instead of following a bunch of pathetic characters and their petty personal dramas.
You play a genderless astronaut sent to the alien spacecraft that has entered the solar system. You join the team and help them explore the vessel.
There is a story happening in the background, and it's delivered so gradually you want to learn more. I sure did. The puzzles are all inventory and logic. I remember the math machine puzzles. Oh God do I ever remember them! There's a section of the game that teaches you how two alien number systems work, challenging you to solve basic arithmetic in base-8 and base-16.
I stayed up late at night figuring out these number systems by hand, created my own method of counting like an alien and how each number would be represented, and I won! I got through every single one of those puzzles and I was proud!
...until I later read the "alien" number systems were actually hexadecimal and octal, and all I had to do was write down the equations, quit the game, go to Windows' scientific calculator, punch in the equations and come up with the answers. I swear I had no idea, but this was before the internet contained the collected knowledge of all gamerkind, so I had no way of knowing. I am still proud I figured it out by hand.
Alas this game has a critical flaw: the last 25%--a full alien environment--is on a time limit! The game makes the biggest mistake any adventure game can make and ties the player to a time limit, and if you don't set everything up right from the start, odds are you will save your game in an unwinnable state. I actually had to go through the game twice before I was able to reach the end scene with enough time to disarm the bomb. It's impossible to enjoy the wonder of exploring this alien environment with a ticking clock telling you to hurry up, and this keeps the game from being great.
In spite of this flaw, it's still a good game. Logical puzzles, mysterious environment to explore, awe-inspiring visuals and very cool aliens. The hall of Avians is humbling and made me feel honored to be there. Worth playing if you can get it to work on modern systems.
4 - A Quiet Weekend in Capri
(can't seem to find a video)
I bought this game for a bargain price at Best Buy years ago. A two-man production that is touted as "Myst, but in a real place." You have just arrived for vacation on the island of Capri, when suddenly you are transported to some kind of parallel universe, and the island is mostly deserted and for some reason you are the town errand boy.
That's pretty much all you do in the game. Wander around crooked streets looking for random objects strewn about the map. No puzzle, no logic, just random object hunting, which is a huge no-no in adventure games. Well, for the serious adventure gamers. Again, "hidden object game" is not a genre, or a feature! It's the worst kind of puzzle an adventure game can have!
I respect the concept and the enormous amount of work these guys did to make the game, but the photos of Capri are so low in resolution they don't take up the whole screen, making it look like you're clicking through someone's vacation slides. People criticize all adventure games for feeling like that, but at least if the graphics are full screen it's easier to believing you're stepping into another world!
Another problem with setting a game in a real place is that there are many natural paths to take, but the game won't let you go there. So even though visually you should be able to go somewhere, you can't, and there's no way to tell the difference between a path that's open to you and a path that's not. I couldn't tell without turning on the hotspot feature, which shows the player all the clickable areas on each picture.
The people are static and unmoving, even when speaking their lines, but this doesn't look wrong. It's actually kind of charming. Has a very homemade feel to it.
If there had been some logic to where to find all the hidden objects in the game, it might have been enjoyable. Instead I played the entire game with my eyes glued to the map because I couldn't keep track of where I was. The game was just too frustrating for me. Too much wandering, too many errands, not enough game.
3 - Machinarium
I already gave this game a glowing review. I can't think of anything new to say about it. It's awesome! I still think about it some three years after I first played it!
Possibly tying for third place is the studio's next game, Botanicula.
2 - The Myst Series
It goes without saying. Myst, Riven, Exile, and Revelation (1 through 4) are the epitome of what an adventure game should be. Puzzles that are tied to the environment, requiring insights to solve instead of leaps of logic; wonderful characters to get attached to; a family to be part of; rich worlds full of wonder. It's hard to do better than this series.
Myst is the ultimate introduction to a brand new world, and the worlds it shows the player are fascinating, leaving the player wanting to know more. A civilization of people, the D'ni, who can create entire worlds by writing them into existence. Wow. Give me some of that!
Riven continues the story of Myst. Atrus sends you to confront his father in the Age of Riven. The puzzles are much meaner than in Myst, but they are logical and boy does this game succeed in making you feel like you're part of this story.
Exile reveals even more of the crimes Atrus's sons committed.
Revelation pits the player against those two brothers one last time.
Myst 5, End of Ages, on the other hand, is nothing like that. There is no story to discover. Instead, the game mechanic has a goal: to move slates from one side of the world to the other. And suddenly, the D'ni have an enslaved race, the Bahro, and it's up to you to decide their fate somehow. Many have been on this quest, and failed. Now it's your turn, dear player!
What went wrong?
Easy. This is not a Myst sequel. It has almost nothing to do with Atrus or his children. This is an Uru sequel.
It suffers from Uru's engine. The graphics, while fluid and faster-loading than Uru, are lifeless compared to the beautiful pre-rendered landscapes of all the previous installments. The ages are tiny and horribly linear--there's no free choice in how you explore each age. You must stay on the path to move the slates and there's no room to look elsewhere. Like the journey cloths in Uru, the slates and pedestals are just inconsequential object hunting. Instead of discovering a story through exploration and problem-solving, moving slates is the goal. It doesn't feel like a Myst game at all.
Puzzles in Myst have always been part of the environment and story. They have logical reasons to be there, and when solved they mean something. And even if a few are artificial, they still serve some sort of purpose to the story. That's what makes Myst games so unique. The puzzles are not there just to delay the player, but to enhance the story. Not here. Puzzles are dropped in your path *only* to keep you from carrying the slates to the other side of the age and finishing the game in ten minutes. It's probably an attempt to recapture the feel of page-hunting from the first game, but even that rewarded you with another piece of the story and made you want to explore more, find out what happened. Moving slates is the goal of Myst 5, and it's a goal unto itself. It doesn't accomplish anything, so it's unsatisfying when you finally achieve it. If anyone wanted to make croquet into a puzzle game this is how to do it.
But there is some good here. With the exception of the elevator outside the arena in Laki'ahn, the puzzles are logical (even if arbitrary). In all fairness, the observatory age is the best of the four with gorgeous scenery and a brilliant set of puzzles that are satisfying to solve. The power of the Bahro is used for an impressive task in that age.
Elsewhere the Bahro are used to help you solve one puzzle in each age, which is obviously contrived so that it can only be solved in this way. It's an awkward use of the power because it feels wasted. This setup feel worked in Exile because it was there for a reason (you were forced to jump through the hoops the villain set up for you). But here it's not called for. This is supposed to be an epic quest, not a staged game of "Let's Move the Slate." Did the D'ni have to wait for a hurricane every time they wanted to use the winch in the last age?
I wonder how the others failed this epic quest. It wasn't that difficult.
About that elevator... it's just plain stupid that you can't run off it as it lowers. There's no barrier that holds you back, so running to the platform while the elevator lowers seems natural because you do something similar in a previous puzzle. Why stop us from doing it here? Alas, an invisible barrier keeps the player from doing something that by all visual cues is quite logical. I hate it when games use methods like this to make puzzles.
But I think all the above is nitpicking. The story is the real problem. Since my first day playing Myst, I was under the impression that the D'ni wrote all these things into existence. Every game (including Uru) presented and underscored the breathtaking power of the Art to create anything by writing it. So where did the Bahro come from? Why did the D'ni need an enslaved race to do their building when they had the Art? They were never mentioned in the previous games and no back story is given to explain why they're here, or how they got here. Even if they're mentioned in the Myst novels it does no good because it contradicts everything we've come to know and love about the D'ni. Again, Cyan spoiled their own world by putting this in there.
Without a solid story to discover, there's no Myst game. I could've overlooked all the puzzle and graphical shortcomings if the story had been good. But the journey is not worth it and the ending can't save it.
In Myst, Riven, Exile and Revelation, the endings leave you with a deep sense of achievement. You not only solved the puzzles and got to the ending, you earned the privilege to understand the story. Don't expect End of Ages to have this feeling. It'll leave you scratching your head and rolling your eyes.
The ending is supposed to be dramatic, but the unnatural, jerky movements make it impossible to take seriously. Cyan did the best they could with what they had, but these computer animated characters just can't replace live action actors. The CGI Atrus is especially laughable.
The Uru storyline destroyed not only Myst 5, but Cyan itself. Myst 5 is memorable for being such a poor conclusion to an otherwise wonderful series. To this day, I still say Myst 4: Revelation is the true finale.
1 - Morpheus
I already discussed this game, but it bears repeating: it's wonderful and I'm so sad it's vanished into obscurity. The Myst series will always be the paradigm of what an adventure game is supposed to be, but Morpheus left a huge impression on me with just one game. That's worth top honors!