A revealing slap in the face awaits the - shall we say "veteran" - gamer who hands an old adventure game to a young gamer with a hearty recommendation and an assurance of blissful gaming in store. The likely outcome of such an encounter - and I'm speaking from personal experience - is a thundering "WTF?" an hour later and a jewel case tossed in your lap from a kid with a wincing grimace on his face.
"Is this supposed to be fun?" "Sure," I say, "Smart writing; lots of funny jokes; plenty of clever puzzles." "You call them clever," he responds, "I call them ridiculous. Those puzzles are stupid. How are you supposed to know what to do? Talk to this guy, grab this fork, use it here to open that, talk to another guy, read a poster, mail a letter, turn around 3 times and spit...and now I can unlock that door!! Are you kidding me? How is this fun?!"
Maybe he's right. Despite my fondness for the adventure games of yore, it appears the days of puzzles in narrative games have come and gone. Puzzles, especially the serial unlocking variety found in the old LucasArts games, seem to have become a relic of a bygone era. Where they once provided a necessary ludic element to a clever and often complex narrative - designed to add challenge and force the player to earn his progress through the story - few modern players have the patience for such challenges anymore.
Sure, games like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the Tomb Raider series and Prince of Persia series still rely on environmental puzzles to impede the player's advancement (Portal raised the bar admirably in this regard), but such puzzles pale in comparison to the head-exploding difficulty of many puzzles found in games like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series. And I'm not even going to mention Myst, (well, I guess I just did) which nearly induced me to put a gun to my head.
Combat has replaced puzzles as the progress-impeding mechanic du jour for modern gamers, and fast-paced action, quick reflexes, and gamepad dexterity are the premium skills. To be sure, games like SOCOM and Call of Duty also require strategic thinking, and online multiplayer often requires fine tactical thinking and cooperation. But puzzles - the kind you study for awhile, scratch your head about, and maybe even mull over in your sleep - have largely disappeared from narrative games.
And maybe this is a good thing. Seen from a strictly realistic perspective, it's a lot easier to justify Solid Snake's motivation to sneak through a gauntlet of armed guards than Manny Calavera's motivation to get the balloon man to make him a Robert Frost balloon, which he will later need to combine with the loaf of bread, which he must take to the roof to scare away the pigeons. Which gives him the eggs he needs to ... okay, it's complicated.
But, at least to this game geezer, it's also a lot of fun. Fun, that is, if you're willing to let the game tell you in its subtle ways what needs to be done.
Is there still a place in narrative games for puzzles ala Monkey Island? Probably not, but I wonder. If we were to redefine what puzzles are and how they're used in narrative games, we might discover a useful role for them. Gathering clues, finding the right solution, solving hard problems, determining the right course of action - all these would seem useful elements in a story-based game, and none of them necessarily imply combat.
Maybe if we consider the function of puzzles in those old adventure games, but re-think their implementation, we might come up with something very interesting. How's that for a puzzle to solve?