Deconstructing adventure games

June 27, 2008

When I interviewed Dave Gilbert earlier this year, he mentioned that while adventure games were well-suited to a wide audience, they had not made as much headway with casual gamers as they might be expected to.  The appeal of adventure games to casual gamers is obvious: adventure games often have engrossing stories, witty puzzles, and don’t require lightning-fast reflexes.  Yet, games in the genre frequently alienated the casual audience because they featured puzzles with arcane solutions and shorthands that were only obvious to those who had considerable experience with the idiosyncratic logic of the genre. The games were made with only fans in mind, and in short, Dave reasoned, they had become too “adventure game-geeky.”

Since I started blogging about and reviewing adventure games in the past few years (most seriously in the last), I’ve seen quite a number of games that have helped to open the genre to a wider audience.  To name a few, Dave’s Blackwell games, Alasdair Beckett’s Nelly Cootalot, and coding genius Vince XII’s What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed, have provided new takes on the genre, and are also solid adventure games in their own right (thanks should also go to Chris Jones, whose AGS engine has basically shouldered the delivery of adventure game development for the masses).  To this shortlist, I can now enthusiastically add Erin “The Ivy” Robinson’s Nanobots, which should not only turn on a new audience to adventure games, but provides a new perspective on the genre for we of the adventure game geek crowd.

Nanobots!Nanobots puts the player in the shoes of not one character but six — brainbot, strongbot, audbot, chembot, hotbot, and tallbot — tiny robots that love each other and work together in theory, but bicker and klutz about in practice.  Without giving away too much of the plot, which is cute beyond measure, the ‘bots must learn to overcome their differences and penchant for sarcasm… or else.  From the tutorial, in which we’re introduced to the characters’ different abilities, and onward, the dialogue is snappy and punny throughout. And while I’m generally not a huge fan of low-fi pixel art, the doodle-like appearance of the protagonists meshes pleasingly with both the story and the giddy musical score (courtesy of the inimitable Scorposer).

Beneath the game’s bright, chipper aesthetic, there is solid and innovative gameplay. The player must coordinate the unique abilities of the different ‘bots, as well as manage a limited inventory between them, as they can only hold one item at a time.  While dividing various abilities between characters has deep roots in games (cf. The Lost Vikings), as does managing a very limited inventory (pretty much anything that resembles the old river-crossing puzzle), Nanobots’ characters make this a fundamental aspect of gameplay.  In many games that feature different characters, the times in which you need to use a different character are well-demarcated to a fault (“I should use Jessica in this situation — only she speaks Spanish!”), and most of the time, one character is essentially interchangeable with another.

Nanobots‘ greatest appeal to the adventure gaming faithful is that the characters take apart the most basic elements of orthodox adventure gameplay. Case in point: I’ve been right-clicking to examine things for the better part of my natural lifetime.  Not so in Nanobots. If you aren’t actively controlling brainbot, you aren’t examining things. Thankfully your own brain gets some use, too: the use of the robots within the puzzles is intuitive, and there are a reasonable number of hints, but the game still requires some creative thinking (though, acquiring at least one inventory item toward the end is a little opaque).

Though the game is sadly somewhat brief, anyone with experience of the genre is likely to have one or two satori-like moments on their first play-through, complete with the realization that you’ve been thinking in adventure game shorthand.  And if you are new to games, or a dedicated casual gamer, you’ll find Nanobots to be a charming delight.  So on a list of great adventure games that can appeal to the casual gamer, I’m making a note here next to Nanobots: huge success.

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