The medium is the message. If you look at the way things are made, rather than the content that is presented, you can see patterns of behaviour, see deformations of the way that things got made. The point-and-click adventure, for example, tends to get framed as a sort of game creature that evolved on the PC platform, existed for a while, then classically died out out of incompetence.
I don’t tend to buy that, but I do think that the particular culture of the main-stream triple-A title of Narrative Adventures was tied to the kinds of games you could make when you had large volume of storage for text and a point-and-click interface, and storage for a lot of saves, and didn’t have any involvement in media that was meant to be compatible with controllers. The narrative adventures of the 90s certainly can be seen, in some systems, in the limited-inventory key-item style game designs that wound up appearing in Mass Effect. The muddling simplified animations and informational interfaces grew and blossomed in the indie scene, resulting in games like the Blackwell series and Richard & Alice. There is never a simple beginning and a simple end. There is not a single, specific character to the genre.
Consider, for example, the three pieces of the Kyrandia point-and-click game. In the first, you have the rough, teetering steps of the first game that sought to introduce the world through our protagonist look up the name and put it here as he sought to save the king and kingdom from the evil jester Malcolm. It came out on floppy disks, and had a voice pack release later.
Then there was a sequel, Hand of Fate, focusing on the character of Zanthia, who is the best and one of my favourite 90s narrative adventure protagonists, no jokes, in a game with a really interestingly experimental interface that let you drop items and the game would remember them if they mattered. The game was built around making magical potions out of components, so the game was full of, well, components – you could almost always find copies of important things to use to solve puzzles. Her game came on disks, but also on CD-ROM, and the CD-ROM version was fully voiced, not just the cutscenes.
And then, there was, eventually, the grand release of Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge, which was only available on CD-Rom, because the game was always fully voiced, and promised a vast, sprawling adventure where you played the villain from the first game, as he… let’s be generous and say ‘quested for redemption.’
These three games were all made by Westwood games, and their mechanical structures had a lot in common, but the sort of free-form, no-dead-ends, try-and-try again oddness of Hand of Fate blossomed in Malcolm’s Revenge.
How then, is Malcolm’s Revenge interesting?
If you’ve got the game — either from some retro install you got working yourself under ScummVM, or the GoG distribution of the game, I guess, — then you may have played around with it a little and gotten nowhere. It’s definitely apart from your Lucasarts style clear signalling game and your Sierra style nest-of-potential-deaths-like-this-is-Cube game. There’s a lot of stuff in the interface, too, with a dial that changes how much of a jerk you are (no really), or a socket for a Jester’s sceptre that seems to be just a ‘make a thing do something funny’ button (that doesn’t work on most things!). This game has a goofy shoulder devil who shows up to sass at you, and a laugh track (which you can turn off).
You start in a trash heap and you have to then progress through about five-or-six distinct phases of the game; you start in Kyrandia, and have to find a way to leave. Then you’re on the Isle of Cats, where you do some good old fashion 90s style destabilisation of a jungle nation; then you die and go to heck; then you return to Kyrandia, with a new moral outlook (or the same one as before), and clear your name? Kind of? Don’t worry, you’re still responsible for a lot of Narrative Adventure malarkey, but the big thing you’re supposedly responsible for isn’t, uh, the thing you did.
I talked about how Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People worked on ‘bucket’ solutions – you need to find groups of things for specific purposes, and piling them up in any order works. Sierra games are a bit more perfect sequence – you do thing A, then B, then C, in that order, and if you get it wrong, the game may just kill you for not working out the right order. This can create the infamously linear challenge of finding not the solutions to problems based on observation but instead trying to find the specific chain of events that the game needs to have happen so you can progress to the next stage. It is a strict sequence of events that have to occur mostly in order to work.
Malcolm’s Revenge is a weird one, because it seems to diminish the linearity of the game, the game instead is designed to give you several linear threads to chase down, just dumped in the same spot. Your goal in the first section is get off Kyrandia. There are, by my count, at least five different ways to do that, and none of them render the other redundant, or use non-replicable pieces. You can, if you want, hypothetically, complete most of these threads.
There’s this idea in game design you sometimes see as the twisted fork. The idea is where you’re presented with two choices in a narrative, that may diverge, but they eventually return to the same central thread.
This is the model of a lot of the Kyrandia games – you have to do a few things in sequence in each area, but as you complete tasks in an area, you get the ability to move on to the next not-quite-linear segment. In Kyrandia 2: The Hand Of Fate, you’re largely moving from scene to scene, discovering the odd collection of puzzles you need to solve that largely enable different solutions to the other, but there need not be the same specific sequence to them. There’s a complexity there, though it’s also not perfect; after all, you’re only in a few situations making choices between one of two or three ways to solve a problem:
What Malcolm’s Revenge does that’s interesting (well, in this case, specifically, to me, retweets are not endorsements), is the idea of giving you a lot of different non-linear sequences in a space, and even through them. The fastest ways through some zones require you to make some really non-intuitive leaps, and means you’re likely only going to find them after you’ve worked your way through more obvious options.
It’s the obscurity, however, created by a dozen similar routes through a space that becomes complexity for determining what you need to do:
It’s a very clever trick. As an actual Narrative Adventure, Malcolm’s Revenge is kind of b-tier. If you’re going through it trying to get through it quickly, all these forking routes and possibilities that you don’t use literally do nothing but distract you – leaving you with a confusing impossibility of wondering how you can get the mime to lead you to a teleport potion. When you find the route to what you wanted, you’re often left with a dozen incomplete non-routes, and they seem to have just been there to waste your time. That’s wild, but it’s wilder when you consider that those routes become replay value.
The game even gives you points when you solve something, which can feel a bit like a reward, but really shouldn’t; the points in this game are in many cases arbitary, and you can never actually get a maximum score in the game, meaning that if you did everything possible in one play through, you fall short of the maximum of 911, and the theoretical maximum of 851.
The points, the routes, they are all a trick.
They are there to control your attention.