The Grand Adventure: An Interview with Wadjet Eye CEO Dave Gilbert19 Apr 2017 3
Once upon a time there was a locked door. Nothing would open it, and we had nothing to help open it: no keys, crowbars or sledgehammers. There was just a mysterious box which, despite being cardboard, no-one could open. After wandering around with this box for hours, someone thought to drop it in a furnace. What came out was a bra wire, too hot to touch and which stayed that way forever. Finding water to cool it was a whole other story. But at the end of it, there was a finally a wire to pick the lock on the door.
This story is from Return to Zork and the blind frustration of the experience has stayed with me for over 20 years. I told it, not long ago, to a group of gamers in a dingy bar after we'd revealed a shared loathing of adventure games. The result was astonishing: each person in the circle told a similar story, of similar age, recalled in similar detail. Which made me wonder if, given we could all remember them in such clarity, they really deserved such hatred?
Dave Gilbert, CCO of Wadjet Eye, which makes adventure games for iOS and PC, has another memory to add to the list. "There was a puzzle in Wishbringer where you had to put a hat on a pelican," he confided to me. "It's memorable because I dreamed about putting a hat on that pelican. This was before Google, and Wishbringer had consumed weeks of my time. So in lieu of a walkthrough, my subconscious did the work."
Infuriating, logic-free puzzles were a feature of many text and early point and click adventures. Some became legendary, such as the babel fish puzzle from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a game Douglas Adams described as "player mendacious". Dave has fonder memories. "It's difficult to be mad at the game because Infocom managed to obfuscate the horribleness with some clever and charming writing," he told me. "But I still describe Hitchhiker's as a game that hates you. I enjoyed many of the Infocom games because they played fair most of the time. Hitchhiker's, for all its strengths, was not one of them."
Tellingly, though, it's not the puzzles that he remembers best. "When I think back," he recalled, "I often wax nostalgic about the characters, the story, a clever bit of writing or a piece of art that I really enjoyed."
It's something that's informed his approach to game design. "My goal in creating a game is to tell an immersive story that reacts to your input, not to stump you with puzzles," he told me. "Plus the typical adventure game puzzle is hard to justify in a grounded or realistic setting. That said, if there's a situation where a puzzles or obstacle occurs naturally, I will include it. But I'm not going to force it. If something doesn't feel right, I will listen to that instinct."
And of course, there's a huge elephant in this escape room. "Back in 1989, I would happily spend weeks or even months on a puzzle," he said. "But now? I'd last about five minutes before bringing up Google. Modern developers understand this, so will instead focus on the areas of the game that are more enjoyable. Things like immersion, exploration, and reactivity become the priority. Puzzles become a distant second."
Without tough puzzles, though, it would seem hard to design a game that holds the attention. Most gamers expect a certain level of challenge. But when I put this to Dave, he disagreed. "Challenge isn't a bad thing," he replied. "It's just not our forte."
"Folks play these games now for the immersion," he continued. "You are in the story. You are making the events happen, or the events are happening to you. The visuals, the sound design, the way the world and characters react to you." He agrees, though, that it's a challenge in itself. "It's a difficult line to walk, but when it's done right there is nothing quite like it."
And he must be pretty good at it, because people keep buying Wadjet Eye games. Dave reminded me that the studio's been going for eleven years. And although it started out releasing for PC, he's enthusiastic about the genre's future on mobile. "I wouldn't say one platform is better for storytelling," he said. "I will say that it's difficult to bring a PC on the subway!" The next title they're planning to port is Technobabylon, a popular favourite and one Dave particularly enjoys.
So where does that leave the legend of the absurdist puzzle? Relegated to a retrogaming niche, with faint echoes in hidden object and room escape games, that's where. And, in truth, I can't say I mourn its passing. It might have forged some mighty memories, but they're often not pleasant ones. Recollections of time spent wasted and frustrated rather than having fun. In the modern age, as games get longer and distractions more frequent, time is too precious to waste.
Many thanks to Dave Gilbert for taking the time to talk to us. Got any of your own stories to share about adventure games? Let us know in the comments below!