Death becomes her. But first, a retrospective.

October 12, 2007

When LucasArts and Sierra, the two great developers of adventure games in the 1990’s, announced that they would finally halt their flagging development in the genre, the golden age of adventure gaming finally came to a close. Although the end was long in coming, telegraphed by sinking sales and ever-increasing intervals between releases, the quality of adventure games, particularly those of LucasArts, had been steadily rising. Adventure gamers, an eclectic but committed bunch, took the loss bitterly, and have been trying to reclaim that lost potential, down to the last jot and tittle, ever since.

Thanks to Adventure Gaming Studio (AGS), a freeware development environment created by the tireless Chris Jones (and aided by the exceedingly active community associated with it), their efforts have borne fruit. Yet, in a twist worthy of David G. Roskies’ theory of “creative betrayal,” it is far more variegated than anyone could have expected. To recall a few titles mentioned thus far in Yesterday’s Salad, Dave Gilbert’s “The Shivah” introduced the adventure gaming community to an unusual protagonist and pulp-worthy plot, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw’s “5 Days a Stranger” proved a more tense thriller than most slasher films (although, save for the music, the less said about its sequels, the better), and anyone who has played “…Linus Bruckman…” has had their mind warped by the experience.

A corollary to this diversity in subject matter and perspective is that the new games that don’t really resemble those of the golden age. Golden age titles shared a particular brand of humor, insofar as the interactions between the protagonist and the player were frequently ironic and self-effacing, and the adventures themselves were always picaresque: even when the subject matter was entirely serious, the characters featured in them had rich personalities and unusual quirks. For many, this was best exemplified by the LucasArts classic, “Sam and Max: Hit the Road,” a title that won critical acclaim both from adventure gamers and mainstream gamers. As for the aforementioned AGS titles, the difference from their forebears seems intentional; the developers were aware of the mold set by golden age titles, and chose to move outside of it, either by focusing more intently on the dramatic elements of the plot, or by changing the format entirely.

However, when game designers have set out to fit the golden age mold, often the results stubbornly refuse to stay in it. There are many humorous games that have been made with AGS, and many unusual dramas. They are interesting, and succeed on their own merits, but they don’t capture the same mood as the classics*. However, two more recent games, “Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy” (reviewed previously here) and “Spooks,” have managed to finally fit the mold, and their success in doing so may help to illustrate just what made the golden age games tick.

“Spooks,” the first game by Erin “The Ivy” Robinson, takes place in “Carnage-Val,” a theme park in the land of the dead, where a young ghoul named Mortia is more interested in delivering withering critiques of the employees than in the rides. When Mortia unexpectedly wins a live goldfish, however, her Till Eulenspiegel-style romp turns into a quest to discover what exactly it means to be “alive”… and why the authorities seem so keen on keeping it under wraps.

Though the game is on the shorter side, the puzzles are quite fun and fit well with the main character’s attitude (with scripting courtesy of AGS golden-god Vince Twelve). The understated soundtrack is also quite fitting, courtesy of The Scorposer, while the graphics are a more complicated matter. From a technical standpoint, they’re a little rough and pixel-ly (which may be to your taste), and the animations of characters other than Mortia could use more frames (please note that “Spooks” predates “Blackwell Unbound,” wherein Ivy demonstrated what can only be called ‘mad skills’ in this regard). From a conceptual standpoint, however, the graphics are astounding. The layout of Carnage-Val is expansive at the same time that it minimizes back-tracking, and the character designs, from Mortia’s medusa-like hair to the cyclopean cop tailing her, are truly imaginative; perhaps the closest analogue would be the characters of Charles Adams’ titular family were redrawn by Dr. Seuss. To cite a golden age precedent, the denizens of Carnage-Val could have easily stepped out of the hall-of-oddities found in “Hit the Road” (sadly, Carnage-Val does not feature a cone o’ tragedy).

Much like the golden era games, “Spooks” succeeds because the world it takes place in has been imagined thoroughly and expansively by its creator. It is not that Ivy simply “thought big”; there are many games that are longer, and many games that try to do more; rather, every character in “Spooks” is unique, and even the most trivial interactions that Mortia has with them crackle with sharp dialogue. In effect, the world in which the game takes place isn’t dependent on the main character, and furthermore, the game could have been entirely different in tone, yet it still would compel the same level of involvement from the player. Thus, when Mortia leaves the Carnage-Val at the end of the game (which is hopefully not too much of a spoiler), it’s a bit of a let-down, but it’s even more exciting to wonder where Ivy will take us next. •

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* (a number of titles which were released a few years back, such as the “Apprentice” series and “Cirque de Zale,” are notable exceptions!) Respeck!
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