Despite being a Flash game developer, i don’t often drink my own industry’s Kool-Aid. A round-up of the games i purchased in fiscal 09 listed only one Flash game – but Flash games are almost entirely free-to-play, so i must have played a bunch of them over the course of the year, right?
Actually, no. And for good reason: Flash games stink. Even the good ones.
Gentlemen, Light Your Torches
i fully expect to get mobbed for this post. i’m not trying to hurt or engrage people, but somehow i always manage it.
So here’s the deal: i was poking around on the Gambrinous Games portal and i saw a first-person Flash graphic adventure game called Morningstar by Red Herring Labs listed in their Top Games section. In their review, the Gambrinous folks gave it a 4.5/5, citing the game’s “astounding graphics”. So i figured “i like graphic adventure games. And sci-fi. And astounding graphics. And things what are free. Maybe i’ll try me some?”
So i tried me some.
And yes, i’m happy to report that Morningstar has outstanding graphics … for a Flash game. But compare it to any commercial game, and you’re looking back to 1991.
i’m fully expecting an MC Hammer soundtrack at this point.
Morningstar is also a well-written game with solid gameplay …. for a Flash game. Compare it to other first-person Flash graphic adventure games – most notably the slew of often abysmal “Escape the Room” games”, and Morningstar stands head-and-shoulders above them. But compare the game to any similar game in the commercial world – even the moderately poor discount bin software you find at places like Staples/Business Depot, and Morningstar doesn’t hold up – not in length, not in quality, not in puzzle design.
Let’s think of Flash as that kid named Murphy in your grade five class. Murphy rode the short bus to school every day, and had to wear a helmet to keep from bumping his head. He wasn’t allowed to use a pencil because the tip was too sharp, but the teacher would give him gold stars if he “wrote” his assignment by pointing to a series of flash cards in the proper sequence. Murphy always ate five cups of butterscotch pudding for lunch, and had a Six Million Dollar Man backpack, even though the show had been off the air for years and he had never watched it.
Murphy rocked a sweet set of wheels
Very occasionally during gym class, the other kids would let Murphy have the basketball and, miraculously, Murphy would sometimes throw the ball and it would go in the hoop. Then everyone would patronizigly congratulate Murphy on what a good basketball player he was.
Late-breaking news flash: Murphy was not a good basketball player. And by the same token, a Flash game that has above-average graphics and gameplay is still often worlds apart from what we typically plunk money down to play.
Walk Me Through This Thing
Very early into Morningstar, i got stuck. This is a problem with the entire graphic adventure game genre: players can get hopelessly stuck, and can’t proceed through the game without either consulting a walkthrough or randomly clicking on every pixel on the screen. The very best graphic adventure games have a few strategies to combat this problem:
- They offer a “lite” version of the game containing only straightforward puzzles for casual players. The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge and LOOM both did this.
- They remind the player of the goal. An in-game character might say “i sure WISH someone would get me a fish!” or whatever, to signal to the player what he is supposed to be doing. Some games even interrupt the player, maybe with a phone call from another character saying “Are you still out there wandering around? Find me my magic paperclip, and get back here!”
- They offer hints. These can be found either through an explicit “HINT” button, or something more subtle. In Morningstar, you click a button to radio your ship’s caption. The button says “Radio” instead of “Hint”, presumably so that the player doesn’t feel like a dummy
- The very, very best games offer progressive hints. A character or a button might divulge a vague hint at first, and every successive click yields a more and more concrete clue, until the player is just flat-out told what to do.
NO IDEA what i’m supposed to do here.
So kudos to Morningstar for offering an in-game hint system. But where the game really falls short is in communicating goals to the player. Often, you won’t know what you should be doing and why you should be doing it. And a few logical leaps make the game far more frustrating than it needs to be. i think we can learn to write a better adventure game by analyzing Morningstar’s errors and talking about how to improve the game.
WARNING: Here be spoilers. If you haven’t played Morningstar, head on over to “>Gambrinous Games and give it a shot. Come back when you get stuck ;)
Very early in the game, you’re asked to fix a power conduit panel. The panel is loose, and you have a screwdriver. The player (in this case, me) makes the logical connection, and uses the screwdriver to screw the panel back in. But the conduit is still not working. Your character says the panel is “making crackly noises like a badly tuned TV set.”
Did you catch it? “Badly tuned TV set.” That was your clue that you need to hit the conduit with a wrench to fix it. Because badly tuned TV sets start working when you hit them with a wrench, i suppose? It’s pretty thin logic.
Sorry – why are we structuring puzzles in a science fiction game around malfunctioning 20th-century technology?
Later in the game, the captain gives you a shopping list of things to retrieve from another ship. They are complicated and unrelatable things, so i had trouble remembering them. He wanted a plasma injector (whatever that is?), some hyperbolic fluid (what?), and a charged fuel cell (i think i can remember that one). So off i march to the door, repeating “plasma injector, fluid, fuel cell” like i’m Dora the Explorer. i click on the door, and i can’t leave the ship because i have about four or five more puzzles to solve.
This is cart-before-horse goal communication. If i don’t immediately need those three items, i shouldn’t be arsed with them by the captain. Game should say simply that i need to go gather items to fix my spaceship, but first i need to repair the ship so that i can open the doors. The over-arching goal is “get supplies so the ship can leave”. The immediate goal is “repair holes in the ship to open the door.” The immediate goal should be the only one that is communicated to the player in detail.
For example, if your over-arching goal was “kill the vampire overlord”, and your immediate goal was “distract the dog to get his chewy toy”, you should not communicate to the player that he needs to consecrate a sharpened stake in holy water, hire a sherpa to traverse the mountains of Glorm, and equip himself with four mystical pieces of Styx-dipped armour. At this point in the game, “Kill the vampire overlord” is sufficient. The player needs the least detail about stuff that will happen later in the game, and the most detail about stuff that’s happening right now. So right now is a good time to mention that the dog is allergic to peanut butter.
Faulty Item Logic
More than a few times, i fell victim to Morningstar’s lacklustre item logic. As we detailed in our article 12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games, combining two items to make a third, or combining two items to dismantle something into multiple items is a common adventure game puzzle type. In fact, the example i gave was removing the batteries from an item to use them in another device.
In Morningstar’s second puzzle, you come up against a door with no power. Then you find a doll that the game tells you has batteries in it. Any adventure gamer worth his salt can figure out that he needs to extract the batteries and put them in the door, right?
Wrong. i had to radio the Captain for the upsetting solution:
Uh … between me and the game designer, which one of us should be considered dumb at this point?
That’s right – no need to extract the batteries. Just ram the doll’s head into the door panel. Somehow.
Now, since Morningstar is science fiction, i’m willing to let a few things slide. i’ll accept that, even now in 2009 as TV is in its death knells, a future populated with high-tech spaceships might reference a TV remedy that dates back to the rabbit-ear days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Sure. It’s a stretch, but whatevs. So if we’re going to go with anachronism, let’s talk about removing the batteries from a device before using them in another device.
OR, if you’re breaking your own rules, why not throw a line in there explaining that the doll has a conductive, exposed electrical panel at the back of her head for recharging? Something like that? No – instead, we get this item description:
It’s a doll. Its user guide says it has advanced artificial intelligence. Batteries included.
“Batteries included.” Like, they’re inside the doll. So you have to get them out somehow, possibly even using the screwdriver you just picked up. That, or just ram the doll’s head into the electrical panel. That works too.
Make the Player Feel Smart
i learned this lesson the hard way in my own game design, and i seem to keep learning it. A good adventure game designer makes the player feel smart. The very best games have me feel like i’m out-thinking the game, or anticipating story arcs. They make me feel like i know something the characters don’t, even if the game developer planned it that way. As the designer, your ego has to take a back seat. You’re not the star – the player is.
In Morningstar, i have to construct a bomb by making gunpowder. The three ingredients in gunpowder, according to the game, are carbon, saltpeter, and sulphur. i didn’t know that. i don’t know how to make gunpowder … perhaps because i’m not a raving psycho and an avid reader of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, or perhaps because i dropped chemistry in the ninth grade. But an earlier discussion of gunpowder, or some kind of ingredients list buried elsewhere in the game, is the subtle difference between the game being smart, and me being “smart”.
i is samrt now?
Don’t Make Me Read Your Mind
If you’re married, you might hear this type of thing once or twice every fifteen seconds: “There are lots of things i need you to do to help me today.” Husband is then, naturally, supposed to psychically know what those things are. And if he doesn’t know, he asks, and then gets yelled at for not knowing.
A much more effective way to go about this, wives, is to simply say “i’d like you to take out the garbage, clean the bathroom, and take the kids to the park.” That’s how we avoid screaming at each other when we’re 70 and can’t take it any more.
If i’m going to make it to 90, i’ll need either a mind control helmet or a vial of arsenic
Similarly, Morningstar requires the player to be psychic from time to time. Late in the game, there’s a cargo crate buried in the sand that the player is told he needs to pry open. The other inventory items he’s used specifically to pry things open earlier in the game don’t work. They’re only for prying when the game says they’re for prying. Instead, the player is expected to guess that he is to combine two of his inventory items to make a crowbar. The game does not drop any hints about this whatsoever – not even when you radio the Captain for help.
The two items the player needs to combine are a metal pipe and a Buddha statue. The description of the Buddha statue says something like “i could really knock someone unconscious with this thing”, leading the player to believe – oh wonder of wonders – that he will need to use the statuette on some other character. And until this point, the game has been setting up some sort of unknown enemy. It’s not too much of a jump to think that maybe one of these characters shows up and you have to use the Buddha statue to defend yourself.
What is too much of a jump is to require the character to make a crowbar without telling him to make a crowbar, and giving him two items which, in real life, you couldn’t use to make a crowbar. All the crowbars i’ve ever seen are solid pieces of metal with curved ends that taper to a point with a fork at the end. How i would ever hammer a pipe into this kind of tool – let alone with a Buddha statue – is beyond my comprehension.
The savvy adventurer, then, solves this impasse by using every item in his inventory on every other item in his inventory. Note: if your game ever makes the player do this, you earn a fail star.
Jay Is Gushing
On my quest for a Morningstar walk-through (i somehow missed the “walk-through” button in the game interface – duh), i came across the Jay Is Games review. The optimism and enthusiasm on the Jay Is Games site is wonderful, but i often feel that the reviewers are being too kind. Morningstar garnered a 4.8/5, with the reviewer saying “In all respects, Morningstar is a remarkable game.” In “all” respects? Really? In graphics (for 1991), sure … but in puzzle design? Grain of salt: this is also the site that gave the game a content rating of ” :S ” (??)
One of our readers, Rasmus Wreidt Larsen, suggested i buy Windowsill, a game by Vectorpark. Windowsill is one of the pilot projects that incorporates Flash microtransactions. i’ve always admired the stuff Vectorpark has done for its artistic merit, and i’m blown away by the interactive toys they imagine. But as a game?
Let the hurting begin.
Windowsill (or as much as i saw of it, anyway), has you travelling through a series of rooms. Each room has a different impressively-animated doodad that you must interact with to open the door. Due to the non-literate style of the game, Windowsill can’t really give you any clues as to what you should be doing, so it’s anyone’s guess. i got stuck very early on in a room with a noisy bird. After trying for about ten minutes to leave the room, i just gave up. Now that i have two children and very little time to play games, my precious ten minutes are better spent on a title i know i’ll enjoy, instead of on frustrating experimentation.
But of course, buzz about Windowsill is very positive. It’s a “good game” … for Flash. It managed to hurdle that ankle-high quality bar.
Slam Not, Lest Ye Be Slammed
i’m not trying to dump on anyone here. i’m just looking very keenly at the Flash game scene and wondering out loud whether or not the kid’s gonna make it out there. Free is free, but once you start charging for stuff, even if it’s only a few bucks, expectations are raised. There are many, many 99 cent games on the iPhone that blow most Flash games out of the water. Can Flash keep up? Can Flash compete?
It’s not that commercial graphic adventure games don’t suffer the same problems as Flash adventure games. But if you were to honestly rank the very best of Flash, you might wind up somewhere among the very worst of commercial games. i think there’s a lot that developers can do to raise the quality bar on their games to move the industry into a far better position to charge money, and i’ll be detailing some of those techniques in an upcoming series.
The series will be mediocre, with lacklustre, meandering writing and pictures that don’t make immediate sense. But please rate each post 5/5 anyway. It’ll be good (for a blog).