Positioning Wake
The genre of personal games that Wake belongs to experiment in very different ways. Authors of these games usually rely upon one of the adventure game creation tools that has been made freely available, and therefore the games can look very similar in interface while being radically different in story, art, and play. I surveyed some of these games and put them in front of users unfamiliar with the personal game movement to get a feeling of how those experiments have succeeded and failed.


What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed

Perhaps the most innovative personal game in recent years is a strange release entitled What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed. Vince Twelve’s adventure game designed around two stories occurring at once. The designer explains the concept:
If someone could read my mental design document they would have read about two worlds, completely unconnected except by gameplay, as different as possible in mood, art, sound, and writing. One, a sad film evocative of a Kurosawa classic except rooted in Japanese mythology, the other an upbeat Saturday morning cartoon about an alien working at an interstellar burger joint. The player would play the two games simultaneously. Completing one game or the other would be difficult, but the real challenge would lie in completing both at the same time (Twelve).
Gameplay in Linus Bruckman is true to this vision of connected gameplay. Essentially, the player is trying to complete two very different stories at once. The screenshot shows the dualism of the storytelling: the two screens are related to each other in a carefully planned graphical interplay. Changing one environment changes the other, but the player doesn’t know what the resulting connections will bring. The difference in styles between the two linked games is staggering: the highly cartoon imagery of the one contrasts with the surreal mysticism of the other.



The Adventure Game Studio community gave Linus Bruckman their award for innovation, acknowledging that the fan culture appreciates the move in this direction, a direction very different from the classic games. The interlinking of culture, art, story and complex puzzles requires a balancing of narratives that a more traditional adventure game does not require. Designer Vince Twelve aspires to involvement in commercial games: he is not acting purely as a hobbyist but as a skilled designer building an impressive portfolio of work. Yet those commercial inclinations can be overlooked due to the sheer personal nature of the work: this is at heart a personal game, and playing it offers an insight into the philosophy of the creator, the same philosophy he described in his intentions as a designer.

However, Linus Bruckman proved a very difficult game for players unfamiliar with the genre and confused by the conceit. While the design intrigued them, the connections came too late for some to be willing to wait for. This is also a risk of Wake's design, which in prototype does not yet have any of these connections apparent, and which relies upon the player enduring through a non-traditional beginning to find the context and reveal a narrative. This is not always a commitment a player is willing to make, and it is very limiting in terms of audience.


Out of Order

Modern commercial games are often cited as having abandoned linear storytelling: it has become a cliché to proclaim that story in game is not important, that it is in fact limiting. But as one reviewer wrote of the personal game Out of Order, some players still long for that “old-fashioned” style of story-driven play:
While artists and programmers continue to push the limits on graphics, sound, level design, and animation, video game writing is lagging far behind in terms of innovation. This wasn't always the case…continuing the long tradition of oddly-named adventure game characters is Out of Order's protagonist Hurford Schlitzing. The game begins after Hurford finds himself and his bedroom transported to a place simply called The Town. Stuck in this strange environment with only his pajamas and teddy-bear slippers, Hurford's goal is to discover where he is, how he got there, and who is responsible. (LaVigne, PopMatters)




The artistic style of the game, which was released by Hungry Software using an engine of their creation, is not particularly evolved from the traditional style of the genre. The cartoon graphics, as shown, are at a slightly higher resolution than the early games. The line work adds to the whimsical atmosphere throughout Hurford’s journey, which is both surreal and ordinary at the same time—there are echoes of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a novel once released as a work of interactive fiction. Certain intertextual references, such as the stranding of Hurford in space in his pajamas and the occasional turn of phrase, are impossible to deny. Such connections add to the enjoyment of other fans in spotting the connection to the classics.

Out of Order uses a game engine that is a possibility for the Wake project. The interface tool is called Sludge, and it was designed by the Hungry Software team to allow for a larger range of interactions that were needed for their particular narrative intentions. The game thus had noticable differences from the Adventure Game Studio games, and my test users noted that the game seems to have the most compelling connection of interface design and structure of play, which reflect the extent of the customization. My current prototype uses the AGS basic interface structure derived from the classic Sierra games, and thus has none of that customization.


A Tale of Two Kingdoms

An Adventure Game Studio release, created using the tool that Wake is currently prototyped with, A Tale of Two Kingdoms, shows more concern with graphics and convincing atmosphere. A Tale of Two Kingdoms is the creation of a Dutch team of experienced designers. The game includes wandering non-player characters and allows for multiple endings, an element that remains challenging for any game to incorporate convincingly. Part of the convincing atmosphere is in creating a world for nonlinear play: this is particularly difficult when presenting a fairy tale world, which is familiar territory for most gamers.



Part of the atmosphere of the game is provided by the imagining of non-player characters as people going about their everyday lives, a feature that one reviewer commented upon as unusual in this type of game:
I was particularly charmed by the town, where you see many game characters and "extras" strolling around, going about their business as you might expect in a real town. This is a marked contrast to so many games that are full of abandoned villages, characters who just hang around in one spot waiting for you to come and talk to them, and huge metropolises that never actually seem to have anyone in them. This feature has been done well and thought through: if you follow an extra into a shop, you will actually see them inside the shop (MacCormack, Adventure Gamers).
This is impressive attention for a non commercial game where the most the designers receive for their effort is recognition and community respect. The game has the feeling of what Sierra might produce today had they not abandoned the genre: it is not a work of fan fiction, but it is highly informed by those classics in design and play. Wake will similarly be an effort at creating a realistic world feeling, but right now, succumbs to the problem the reviewer noted of extras that stand and wait to be talked at. Immersiveness would require creating changing routines and a feeling of characters that exist in tandem to the player, not just *because* of the player.


Spooks

Spooks, a game by "The Ivy" in co-operation with Linus Bruckman's Vince Twelve, is in the tradition of the Lucas Arts classic Grim Fandango in that it is a game that takes its cue from the land of the dead. The artistic style here makes use of a changing color palette in the style envisioned for Wake. However, users were put off by this aesthetic style, particularly as they engaged with long sequences rendered only in black and white. That visual style puts the emphasis on the oddities that appear in color in this universe, and it informs the narrative, but it doesn't necessarily make the game any more visually engaging:



The awards heaped upon the game by the Adventure Game Studio community, however, are testament to another element the game possesses that is often lacking in this style of game: a compelling lead character. Most of the major adventure franchises are memorable for their leads, from playable characters like Monkey Island's Guybrush Threepwood to Space Quest's "space janitor" Roger Wilco. The dialogue and personality for a character are at the center of perceiving the environment of an adventure game, and the sardonic and carefully-written words of Spooks hero Mortia made her the most memorable character the users encountered in these five games.

That, perhaps, is the biggest challenge for the Wake project: creating a character through whom the entire world can be viewed in such a way that the world and character are both enhanced by the process.


Prodigal

Benjamin Johnson's horror game Prodigal was considered by far the most graphically compelling of games, although the narrative and enviroment left much to be desired. The game appears to be in the tradition of Myst, an adventure game best known for creating a three-dimensional world with a feeling of fully immersive space. To create the effect, Johnson customized Adventure Game Studio to incorporate the ability to add full motion video, which lends his cut scenes a very different and more active feel than the cut scenes in the other AGS produced titles.



Johnson has already released early screenshots from the planned sequel to this game that show an even more enhanced graphical intent:



Work of this level sets a high standard for detail in an environment. It will be even more compelling if high interactions are possible with the environment--that is, if elements of the background are responsive to the player, and if the player can make changes to the environment. This is a three-dimensional approach that wouldn't be appropriate for Wake, but it still offers a model for the level of attention the graphics of a game can receive in a way that furthers immersion.

The revisions inspired by these observations can be found here.