The Process of Writing Adventure Games
When I first enrolled in college, my plan was to major in film production. That was until I discovered the computer and its power for creating interactive stories. So, you can understand why my favorite game genre is adventure games. I’ve designed and/or developed a number of adventure games throughout my career and I’ve approached their design through a number of ways.
Inspiration for a game can come from anywhere — personal experience, a topic of interest, a book or movie license, even a dream. But usually in the really of videogame development, you make the game you’re told to make.
The very first adventure game I designed (back in 1979) was based upon the British television show The Prisoner. The ideal way to design any genre of video game is to start with the player experience — determining how the player should feel while playing the game — and that’s how I began the design of this game. I wanted my game to recreate the same experience I had when watching the show: the experience of being in a menacingly-cheerful, surreal environment in which you were constantly monitored and controlled, where every opportunity was a deception and every move you made sent you back to square one, and yet by assertion your individuality and refusing to follow the rules, you could ultimately succeed.
I then invented game mechanics to create the game experience, and you can read in detail about how the gameplay works in the Wikipedia article about the game. The final step in the design process was to write the story exposition and dialog to support the both the play experience and game mechanics.
Another popular adventure game I designed and produced was I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The game was based on Harlan Ellison’s classic short story about the last five human survivors of a world war waged by three computers from the world’s superpowers, and how the computers merged into one entity, AM, and tortured these poor unfortunates for eternity. We paired Harlan with a game writer, David Sears, who asked the question, “Why were these particular five people chosen?” and from there they created a new, vastly expanded version of the story that told the backstories of each of these people.
Once I had a story to work from, my next step was to find a game developer with a game engine suitable for developing an adventure game, and that lead me to hiring The Dreamers Guild to do the programming and artwork because they had created a suitable game engine for their game Faery Tale Adventure. I then created a series of puzzles that would unveil various pieces of the story and work with the mechanics of the game engine we were using, as well as expanding the dialog to provide hints for those puzzles. In fact, I wound up writing almost half the game’s dialog myself to support the game’s puzzles, and since my infant son was undergoing chemotherapy at the time (he’s fine now), I had no problem putting myself into a sufficiently black mood for writing dialog to match the nightmarish scenario.
The most recent adventure game I designed (in 2012) was for a client who simply told me, “I want a game about the prophesied end of the world in 2013.” The client wanted to use a game engine similar to some mystery games he directed me to on the web, and so I decided to start by writing a story about a teenage girl whose father, a pilot, went missing in the Bermuda triangle and her investigation to find out what happened to him leaders her to archeological sites throughout the world, where she discovers artifacts that will allow her to thwart and alien invasion that was prophesied to occur on December 21, 2013.
I collected lots of photographs of the places that our heroine would visit and researched the ancient civilizations whose artifacts she would uncover, and that inspired me to create the details of the world and the puzzles that needed to be solved. Unfortunately after I handed my game design off to the client, someone decided to turn my Amelia Earhart-inspired heroine into a bubbly tourist just looking for some fun in the sun while in Bermuda, but that’s the way game development goes sometimes — just as in movies, the writer doesn’t always have final say! I’ve never looked at the final version myself, but if you are interested, you can download it here.
In conclusion, I’ve written adventure games beginning either with the player experience, the story, or with the game engine or mechanics as my starting point. While I prefer beginning by defining the player experience, it is critical to have all three elements support each other regardless of the starting point, as should the puzzles and dialog.