Sierra’s Direction Dysfunction

I’ve been playing a number of older videogames lately, things I can play windowed without them disturbing other projects. A number of these games have come from the Sierra back catalogue – Kings Quest installments and Space Quest games. A recurring problem prevalent in the Kings Quest games underscores what became a problem for other, Lucasarts games later, and that The Walking Dead does not.

The Sierra games ultimately are these broad, picnic-blanket outlays of stuff, of things that may be related, but may not. Given the repeated mythemes of the fairy stories from which Kings Quest derives, you’ll see repeated possibilities. You will see, in most of them, some witch, some ogre, some forms of magic, and some appearance of a frog. Now, in Kings Quest, almost all of the puzzles can be solved in little chunks; you can solve one or two small problems around one another, which increments a list of final goals, and then move on to another set of problems. This may feel like exploration, but it does mean that the player is often left feeling helpless and aimless, unsure if they have the means to attempt something. It also saps away the feeling of a coherent narrative, as the player wanders back and forth, trying to find what thread of logic pulls the game onwards.

The trick that these games forgot is narrative.

In The Walking Dead, the narrative is used to provide a sense of momentum. Each section of events, the puzzles that you have to attempt, are very closely linked in time, and each puzzle closes around itself the site of its events. There are puzzles that are inessential to complete, and if you move past them, that’s that. You’re not smacked around for it – the game does not let you progress to impossible points. This means that puzzles have to be designed with some intuitive sense to them – but it does not require you to struggle through impossibilities, it doesn’t put you in a small room and tell you your only escape is to bash your head against the wall.

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