THE GREATLY-EXAGGERATED “DEATH” OF ADVENTURE GAMES

Once upon a time, in the middle ages of PC gaming (1993), the Adventure game was riding high. Zork had evolved from a text-based game to full graphical representations in Return to Zork, Myst and The 7th Guest were blowing people out of the water with their richly-realized worlds and environmental puzzles, Sierra was riding high on its various Quest titles, and LucasArts was King.

But 1993 was also the year that saw the release of Doom the first, and the next years would see PC gaming rapidly transition from the slow-paced likes of adventure games and CRPGs to the new world of Quake, Unreal, and a slew of other first-person shooters. In the cacophony of this new, action-oriented approach to gaming, the flaws with adventure games became more and more obvious as gamers became less and less inclined to tolerate their eccentricities. Adventure games had to adapt or die, and when those adaptations misfired (as in the case of Phantasmagoria or Full Throttle), the studios either closed their doors or pivoted to the new model.

Throughout the 2000s, the adventure game was largely considered “dead”. There were occasional releases (Myst IV: Revelation in 2004; Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy in 2005), but these rarely adopted the old side-scrolling, point-and-click formula typical of the genre. The prevailing wisdom among gamers was that adventure games had died out justly, overcome by their inability to adapt to and exploit the new technology of the time. Developers agreed and shoveled more dirt atop the grave.

RESURRECTING A DEAD GENRE

In the end, the damning problem with adventure games came down to one thing: the warped logic of the puzzles. There was too much going around and clicking on things to see if you could get the plot to progress. It broke the pacing in a primarily story-driven genre, and ruined the experience.

So when adventure games began to resurface in the indie scene toward the end of the 2000s, this was the primary issue everyone was keen to avoid. Telltale’s The Walking Dead was justly praised for cutting out the puzzles entirely and presenting an adventure game composed exclusively of dialogue, quick-time events, and moral dilemmas. The Witness replaced all the puzzles with a common line-drawing puzzle type, teaching the complexities of the rule-set throughout the game. Oxenfree de-prioritized the puzzles in favor of running dialogue commentary, and gave you one tool that would solve all the problems you ran into.

These solutions to the adventure game problem have been fertile ground, and have really kicked off a wave of offshoot genres that have only gotten better with time. By limiting interactive mechanics in adventure games like Gone Home, the walking simulator was born – and the line between walking simulators and adventure games gets pretty fuzzy when you look at titles like Return of the Obra Dinn or Firewatch. Likewise, doubling down on the story in adventure games has given rise to the thriving visual novel scene, and again it is unclear whether a games like the Zero Escape series are more properly called adventure games or visual novels.

But what if, instead, you went the other way? What if rather than excising or de-prioritizing the business of clicking on things and hoping the plot would advance, you made that the whole end-and-be-all of your game design? What if, instead of sweeping the puzzles into a corner so the plot could freely advance, you instead swept away the plot and story, so the joy of just clicking on stuff could take center stage?

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

So I’ve been following the work of Amanita Design for a weirdly long time, it seems. Back in 2012, Botanicula released on Humble Bundle as the “Humble Botanicula Debut”, including just about all of Amanita’s library at that point: Machinarium, Samorost 2, and Botanicula, as well as the ideologically-similar Windosill by Vectorpark Games. At the time I was a growing addict of the Humble Bundle and a budding Indie gamer – I was studying for my Masters’ degree, living on student loans, and appreciated the low-cost charity-driven Humble Bundles when they came out. (This was long before they were being released on a near-daily basis, and before Humble pivoted toward the Monthly subscription model.)

But the thing about Humble Bundles is that you never know what to expect. Picking up five or six games for as many dollars means you are unlikely to inquire too deeply before-hand. And there’s a certain wonderful novelty in just booting up a game to see what it is like – with no preconceived expectations or suspicions – letting it speak for itself. But this novelty speaks directly to what these games were doing. They are all short adventure-game-ish experiences where you progress by clicking on things until the way forward is unlocked. But where more typical adventure games tend to focus on story (like WadjetEye’s Primordia or Telltale’s The Walking Dead), Amanita chooses to almost completely suspend the story, characters, dialogue, and plot. Rather than snow the player with text dumps, the story tends to be sparsely told through pictogram-thought bubbles, and in-engine cutscenes, if at all.

So I started playing them, and quickly got hooked. I had never been a huge fan of adventure games up until that time (Myst being the obvious exception), but Amanita showed me a side to the genre that I hadn’t seen before, and continues to surprise me to this day.

THE PHILOSOPHY OF AMANITA DESIGN

2009’s Machinarium was the break-out hit of Amanita’s career – and the most typically adventure-game-y of their offerings. You follow the career of Josef the robot as he is plucked from his home by robotic thugs and has to regain his home and city by throwing out the tyrants. But never mind that description – it’s not important. I had to look it up before writing this.

Machinarium is a game about a world. A world of machines. These machines have typical adventure game problems, expressed by those thought-bubbles: One robot wants their robot dog back. The security guard robot won’t let you pass his guard station. Another needs you to fix an elevator. But none of them are going to wax poetic about their backstories or troubles in this oppressive robot regime – all that is expressed visually, through the character designs and their thought bubbles. You want to help them because they look happier after being helped; the world reacts to you messing around in it. Though these problems frequently pose obstacles to progress, the real joy is interacting with the world and characters to see what they do.

But fast-forward to 2012’s Botanicula, and you can see the trajectory of this design decision begin to become clear. The world of Botanicula is even more alien – the solutions to puzzles even more arcane and unpredictable. Gone is the inventory of Machinarium – instead, you travel with a posse of bugs, interacting with other insects to make progress. Each of your bug teammates has a different body structure – one flies, one is strong, one is tall, and so on. As you progress, you are faced with a series of larger bugs who need help, or who obstruct your progress, or who have something you want. And you basically just trial-and-error your way through the game by seeing which of your bug pals can solve the problem.

Sometimes the solution is obvious (your flier can fly over the problem and retrieve something you need); sometimes it is utterly unpredictable. But what’s important is that the errors are as rewarding as the successes. Each interaction involves a little cutscene of sorts – your strong bug tries to lift up the offender and fails, or charges into it and bounces off comically. When you do succeed, nine times out of ten you are rewarded with a wild party – all the bugs on-screen dance, sing, or bounce around, complete with music from nowhere and dedicated animations. I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot of Botanicula is without looking it up – but I can remember the sheer silliness of those sequences: the little bugs chasing one another around the world while goofy sound effects and music plays.

This is the true genius of Amanita’s design philosophy: they take great pains to make every interaction rewarding – whether it helps you progress or not. Every sound effect is silly, every interaction is filled with loving characterization. Each of your bug teammates grows into a well-defined character by the end of the game – this one is shy; this one is a natural leader; this one is clumsy; this one is reckless. The effect has less in common with the adventure games of yesteryear as the big plastic Fisher-Price consoles that light up and buzz and spin when an infant presses the right button, turns the right key or flips the right switch. There’s a pure, childish joy to it all – just clicking on stuff to see what it does.

CHUCHEL VS. LOGIC

2018’s CHUCHEL is the extreme endpoint of this design. Late to the party, as usual, I just finished playing it mere days ago, and found its approach to be surprisingly instructive to the usual logic of post-resurrection adventure games. CHUCHEL is Amanita design philosophy at its best – wonderful sound effects and musical cues, endearing character designs that are expressive and rewarding to interact with, and the absurd little parties that take place after every successful interaction. But the major difference between CHUCHEL and Amanita’s earlier entries is that it is completely abstracted. Gone is the richly-realized mechanical world of Machinarium or the tree branches of Botanicula. Even the weird asteroids-in-space world of Samorost is gone. CHUCHEL takes place in a white void. Its characters are frequently unrecognizable blobs of color, or food-related (like a disgruntled-looking egg in a cup, or a mean-spirited Jello-mold). They have little-to-no relation to our lived experience, and we can’t place them in any reality short of a Dali painting. Each encounter is literally that – an encounter – with another blobby-being, totally independent of every other encounter you’ve had so far. Everything reacts in a way utterly new and different from the way it has in the past. You do not learn from encounter to encounter, but are instead reduced to square one after every success.

The plot, too, is at its most abstract. CHUCHEL has a cherry that he presumably wants to eat, but it keeps being stolen by malevolent forces, including a pink rat-like thing that you spend a good bit of the game chasing around, and a giant black hand from the sky that may as well have “Deus Ex Machina” written on its fingers. It is clear that the plot is not important – at one point Chuchel’s cherry lands squarely in his mouth and he pulls it out, just in time to be stolen again. At one point you and your rat-creature are each pulling at the cherry and it breaks in half, revealing a bomb – which explodes – but the cherry is inexplicably back for the next puzzle. Whatever the reason for chasing this cherry around, it apparently has little to do with eating it (though the game does end by eating the cherry). The motivations of these characters are utterly foreign to the player.

What’s more, the interactions are at their least-predictable. You are often given multiple options for interacting with the other characters – icons that often invoke either talking, climbing, grabbing, etc., but some are utterly obscure until you click on them to see what they do. The reactions are even more obscure. Talking to the monster whose head conceals a small lake in his body causes him to give you a pinwheel. Climbing his head and pulling his hair causes a second monster to emerge and snap at you. Breaking the egg-cup-creature with a spoon causes birds to fly out of his cracked skull – but it’s OK because it puts a lovely flowered bonnet over the crack and continues its day, unperturbed. There is literally a puzzle where you and your rat-like rival are given a series of beans, and the only way to solve the puzzle is to try out each bean to see what they do to each of you. What’s more, the game often resists and opposes typical expectations – in a duel with a rival, you sit down to play chess. The game invites you to make the first move, and you can make any legal move of chess. Then the rival picks up the board and starts beating Chuchel over the head with it – that’s not how you solve problems in this game.

Now if this sounds like some kind of horrifying surreal parody of a puzzle game – all abstruse puzzles and no logic, no world, no story – well, it is, in a way. I suspect, though, that this impression has more to do with trying to capture the tone of a purely audio/visual experience by describing it in dry, logical words – than what CHUCHEL actually feels like to play. But, more importantly, I think this approach taps into something really fundamental about who we are and how we learn.

EXPERIMENTATION IN AN UNPREDICTABLE WORLD

David Hume, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding argues that all knowledge is based on experience – that we learn by repeatedly interacting with our world and storing up our experiences. When I drop a pen for the first time ever, it unexpectedly drops to the ground. After I’ve seen it done a thousand times, I learn to expect it. I conclude that the pen always drops to the ground. After I’ve seen other objects drop the same way, I conclude that this is a universal law – and so you come up with scientific conclusions like the law of gravity.

And most games have laws like this. Puzzle games especially rely on your knowledge of systems and laws to test your ability to think through these systems and reach conclusions. Baba is You seems like the perfect example – you are taught the basic rules (game rules are malleable when you change the words that represent those rules), and you are encouraged to think about these rules in more and more abstract and sophisticated ways. But this extends to other games as well – the mushroom always makes Mario grow bigger; slashing an Octorok with Link’s sword makes it die; you can defeat slimes in Dragon Quest by doing enough damage to them.

But CHUCHEL taps into that first step – the experimentation step – and keeps tapping it. You don’t learn from CHUCHEL – it actively defies systems, and frequently rejects your outside experience. The world of CHUCHEL is self-contained, hermetically-sealed. Your logic doesn’t work there. You click on things with zero expectation of what they may do, and can only solve problems through pure trial-and-error, like an infant shaking a rattle for the first time.

I’ve called CHUCHEL surreal, but I mean something more than its aesthetic appeal. The surrealists of the twentieth century were actively engaged in communicating directly with the subconscious, bypassing the conscious mind. Their experiments were more than just paintings, but were the product of a whole way of life that rejected conscious thought and opposed rationality. And I think CHUCHEL accomplishes this feat in a way that no static artwork ever could. CHUCHEL doesn’t always look like a dream, but it behaves like a dream. You only have the faintest notion of purpose or meaning, of cause and effect. The permanence of objects, the consistency of motivations, the laws of physics – all are disposable before the dream-logic of the game.

It is probably no accident, then, that CHUCHEL begins by having the player try to wake the protagonist from their sleep. Chuchel’s reality is the player’s dream.

CHUCHEL, like Windosill and Botanicula, has more in common with toys than games in a lot of ways. The joy of these toys are the ways they react to our touch and influence, and not the more sophisticated pleasures of narrative development, power fantasies, or problem-solving. Whether or not it succeeds at its aims, I think it teaches us something important about the way video games affect us on a very basic level. I think that by pushing past our assumptions about purpose and meaning and logic itself, CHUCHEL reaches a very fundamental truth about human beings.

Sometimes, we just like to click on stuff to see what it does.

-Ben Kozlowski

One thought on “CHUCHEL and the Joy of Clicking on Stuff

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s