A few months ago I played Penumbra: Overture, and wrote:
A survival horror game. I'm not sure why it's marketed as adventure. Perhaps because the technology isn't up to commercial survival horror games; the graphics are crude, the controls are clumsy, and there are only a couple types of creepy-crawlies.
The gimmick is a physics engine, on which some of the puzzles are based. Sadly, this is bad for the puzzles -- I spent a lot of time trying ideas which should have worked, but which I couldn't force the physics to comply with. And it's not great for the horror either. Rule of thumb: simulation engines lead to solutions which are emergent, surprising, and dull. You can kill nearly everything in the game by kneeling on a crate and flailing with your biggest weapon.
(from my web site.)
This week I played the sequel (and conclusion), Penumbra: Black Plague, and wrote:
This chapter fixes everything I complained about in the first game. The physics engine is now harnessed to serve the puzzles and plot, instead of the other way around. You still do lots of stuff, but your actions are now clear and definite when they need to be, analogue and simulation-y only when that's interesting. The combat is entirely gone; monsters may chase you, and you might even be trapped in a room with one, but you aren't flailing with a crowbar. You have to either run, or figure out how to use the environment to save your butt. More immersive, scarier, and far less dull.
Is this not interesting? ("You mean the way you reflog stuff from your website onto the Gameshelf?" Thanks, Steve, back in the crate please. We're doing Analysis, here.)
The interesting point, at least to me, is that the designers turned a mediocre action game into a good adventure game by taking things out. They took out the periodic attacks by zombie dogs. They took out the succession of weapons (broom, crowbar, hatchet). And they took the physics modelling out of many (but not all) of the story actions you undertake.
When we ask "what kind of game is this, really?" we expect the answer to be: whatever you spend most of your time doing. Overture had plenty of adventure-style puzzles and unique story actions. But they were paced out with zombie dogs. Furthermore, when you were wandering around exploring, you were watching for zombie dogs. (Which answers a slightly deeper question: what do you spend most of your attention on, in this game?) So Overture felt like an action game punctuated by adventure puzzles. Particularly since the action parts were flawed, and thus memorable. (Sorry! That's usually the way it works in reviewerland.)
("Survival horror" has a bit of cognitive advantage in this comparison. It's a subgenre of "action game"; but "action" these days implies some adventure-style elements -- if there's any storyline at all -- which there usually is. Action games will have some puzzles, some environment interactions, that sort of thing. Certainly all the well-known horror lines -- Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, etc -- have these adventure elements. Whereas adventure games are quite allergic to action-style intrusions. When minigames show up, as in Next Life, or even jumping sequences as in Uru, many adventure gamers mutter darkly and wave incense.)
Now, I'm not saying that the improvements in Black Plague, the sequel, stemmed only from negative changes. I fully acknowledge that the designers put in good stuff. They were able to do this -- and, moreover, make that good stuff dominate the game -- by dropping the elements that hadn't worked before.
Here's my second example: the physics puzzles. In Overture, at one point, you're being chased by a zombie dog. You run through a door and slam it. The door, being a weight on a hinge, bounces halfway back open again. Great. Some crates are nearby, and the narration hints that you should block the door. You drag the crates in front of the door. The zombie dog leaps against the door; since it's a massive object, and the crates have finite friction, the dog is able to push the crates aside. Great. I reload (the dog has killed me several times by now) and try piling the crates on top of each other in front of the door. The dog now pushes through them more slowly, and kills me.
At this point I've died about five times, and the best solution I've come up with is to slam the door, run back into a dark corridor, and hope the dog doesn't see me when it makes it inside. Which works, but then why was I fooling around with all these movable objects? Why did the game present them?
I never once managed to kill a zombie dog by dropping a crate on it, or anything clever like that.
In contrast, in Black Plague when you're being chased, you run. Generally if you make it through a solid door, the chase is over -- and you're into the next phase of the plot, because the designers have planned it out that way. In one case the zombie starts pounding on the door, and the narration hints that you should block it; but when you drag something in the way, it works. Because the game is scripted for it to work. If you fail to drag something in the way, the zombie bursts in and kills you -- try again.
This is where the fans of simulationism start howling about linear plotting. But the simulation puzzle didn't work, and the scripted puzzle did. Why? At least in this instance, it's because simulation means multiple fuzzy outcomes -- and all of those outcomes have to be fun, engaging, and advance the plot. That's hard to do! You fail to block the door, you slightly block the door, you block the door for quite a while, you block the door completely. Are all of those satisfactory? If one of them is only mostly satisfactory, is the player going to try to think of something better, or is he going to go on with a weakened game position?
(Which he may not even know is weakened. Remember, multiple plot paths add no value for a player who is only aware of one of them.)
Similarly, in Overture you have to maneuver some things into careful stacks, or particular positions. In Black Plague, generally, you just have to shove something into the right region; the game fits it into place automatically. Which means you're engaged with your intent, not with mouse mechanics. If the challenge is physical manipulation, then the manipulation has to be challenging; if the challenge is thinking of the right idea, then the manipulation only has to be satisfying. In other words: in an adventure, you're not supposed to fail for trivial reasons.
(There are satisfying interactions with the physics in Black Plague. You drag crates around in order to reach the "right region." This is fun, for the same reason that walking an avatar around is more fun than "click to go there." But it's not overused -- for the same reason that walking an avatar around shouldn't be slow or awkward.)
This is where the fans of simulationism start saying... "Will Wright! He rules the universe!"
And, yeah, he does. I am well aware that The Sims has better sales figures than the entire adventure genre piled up. Different game goal, different player goals -- in fact, the player's goal revolves around the fact that there is no game goal. This is the opposite of the story game.
Can they be combined? Well, maybe. I've spent this post arguing that Penumbra doesn't combine them effectively. That doesn't mean it's impossible.
Wright sure hopes it's possible; it's Spore. Thus far we have no idea whether its simulation elements and its goal-oriented elements will fit together. I hesitantly advance some skepticis -- hey! Ow! ...Okay, okay, I'm sorry! I'm just a cranky refugee from the early 90s -- from SimEarth and SimAnt, neither of which were, you know, any fun.
I don't think simulation-based adventure games are impossible. What I think is that they're really hard, and require months -- years -- of rebalancing and player feedback. This is what all the MMO-RPGs are doing, right? In a sense. They aren't simulating physics, but they have these immensely detailed combat engines, with thousands of dials to tweak and (hopefully) dozens of valid player strategies. And they always get it wrong a few times first.
Hopefully Spore has spent its months and years of buildup time on that balancing work. We'll see.