Constructing the Cave: How Adventure Games are Structured

By Peter Rootham-Smith




Adventure games can trace their ancestry back to the 1975 text game "Colossal Cave" by Will Crowther, based on his experience as a caver exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  This game was faithful to the Mammoth Cave's layout, but also included elements like a murderous axe throwing dwarf and a magical bridge.  In 1976 Don Woods greatly extended Crowther’s original game, adding not only more locations but also features from his favourite author Tolkien, like trolls and elves.  This 1976 version inspired Roberta and Ken Williams to create what would become Sierra Online in 1980 in order to produce similar games, including the first graphical Adventure game "Mystery House" (1980).


The way one played these early games is still followed in today's graphical Adventure games.  The player starts in a few locations (be they caves or rooms or spaceships), solves puzzles to get access to more locations which then contain more puzzles, and so on.  Every so often solving a puzzle will advance the story.  If playing Adventure games is like reading a book then the puzzles are how you turn the pages.  Sometimes there aren't really puzzles (as in games like the 2012 commercial release of "Dear Esther" ) which eschew puzzles in quest of the experience they offer the player. As worthwhile as creations like “Dear Esther” are, this article will limit its scope to commercially available story-based graphical Adventure Games where the player progresses by solving puzzles.



Common structures


"Colossal Cave" had an organic structure which grew as locations were added to it.  Modern commercial games are more designed from the outset, and so tend to have more of a structure to them -- partly from design, partly from the way the games are constructed.  There are a number of common structures:

Single game world

During the game the player gains access to more and more locations of the game world, but the whole game world remains generally accessible.  Examples of this kind of game include "Machinarium" (2009) and "Riven" (1997).

Multiple game worlds

The locations are split up into different game worlds. Puzzles tends to be localised to the different game worlds, which can have distinct styles.  Examples of this kind of game include Myst (1993), "Atlantis 2: Beyond Atlantis" (1999) and "Broken Age" (2014).

Chapter based games

The game is divided up into chapters, each chapter typically taking place in a different set of locations.  Examples include "The Longest Journey" (2000) and "Memoria" (2013).

Time based

The game takes place in a single game world, but the game is divided into distinct time periods (for example days in some of the Nancy Drew games).  Other is the Agatha Christie game "And Then There Were None" (2005).

Character based

The game has multiple player characters, often using another structure as well.  So in "Broken Age" (2014) one plays as Vella and Shay in two different worlds, whereas "Memoria" (2013) is episodic playing as Geron and Sadja in different chapters. 



Why do developers structure games?


Beyond artistic reasons, what is the benefit to game developers of having internal structures like episodes or multiple game worlds?

Testing a game is much easier if the game is split up into sections. There are far fewer paths through the game to worry about, sections can be tested on their own.  Different sections of a game can be designed and created by different people, and the work can be done in parallel.  For example the worlds in "Myst Exile" (2001) had different designers.


One of the benefits of the advent of Kickstarters (besides the games that wouldn't have existed otherwise) is the greater visibility of what it takes to produce games.  The development of "Broken Age" (2014) has been chronicled by 2 Player Productions, and it has been a fascinating look into the team development process.  There is a pipeline from ideas jotted down through storyboards, through crude graphics, through polished textured graphics, through sound to get to the scenes as they appear in the final game.  This pipeline means sections of the game are at different states of completion during development, so it's beneficial if the sections are as isolated as possible.


What’s in it for the game player?


What are the benefits of games having structures like episodes to game players? 

Whether there are benefits is a question of personal taste.  If one wants a game where the player can do anything at any time in any sequence, then these structures may feel restrictive.  I'm happy to play games which other people might consider too linear. I don't mind if not everything in a scene is interactive.  I get demotivated playing games where the number of locations and inventory items get to large numbers.  But other players have other opinions.


To me as a player, structure in games is good for a number of reasons.  Firstly, splitting up a game into sections makes it more comprehensible, like having chapters in a book or rooms in a house.  A game is more digestible this way, similar to a meal having different courses.  If a game is in chapters, then as one plays one gets a natural sense of advancing through the game, which isn't as artificial as having a point score. 


Secondly, structuring a game adds variety, like a symphony having slow then fast movements or a film having furious action then comic dialogue.  So the worlds in Myst (1993) have very different visual styles.  In "Memoria" (2013) different chapters are of different lengths.  In "Broken Age" (2014) you play as both Vella and Shay.  Variety can help stop a game becoming boring, can stop playing a game becoming a chore - and some games are so samey that they just become a chain of puzzles to get through.


Lastly, at an unconscious level humans like organisation, orderliness, we look for patterns in what we look at, for example finding shapes in Rorschach inkblots.  Unconsciously we are impacted by a writer’s use of nouns and adjectives and adverbs.  Unconsciously we are moved by the way a director has structured a film in terms of cuts and pans and zooms.  Unconsciously we will recognise structure and patterns in a game and respond to them.  Our subconscious will be more relaxed if it has recognised something familiar -- something it feels at home with.


Notable experiments


There have been some notable experiments with structure in games like King Art Games’ “The Raven" (2013) where one replays sections of the game as a different character. "Day of the Tentacle" (1993) has a particularly clever structure, where you play as different characters in different time zones yet in the same game world, and actions in one time zone affect later time zones.


A justly famous game for the way it structured gameplay is "The Last Express" (1997).  The events in the game happen according to how long one has been playing, not according to actions one has taken.  This feels like the player is in a living world more than in a game where player actions move time forward, but it also means the player will have to rewind the clock or replay the game to see all of it.  More immersive?  Another question of taste.  "The Last Express" is a cult game, but has not inspired similar games as did "Myst" (1993).


There are structures which games can use which other media can't.  So books always have the same ending.  There are a number of games where the player experiences different endings depending on decisions made during gameplay -- for example "Titanic: Adventure Out of Time” (1997), or the more recent 2013 "Secret Files: Sam Peters". In "Sam Peters," however, which of the two endings one gets is based on a question right at the end of gameplay.  These different endings don't alter the structure of the game, and the endings are just cut-scenes the player sits through. 


The future


Lee Sheldon in his book "Character Development and Storytelling for Games" (2004) observed that Cervantes' "Don Quixote" is an episodic novel, and that the chapters of "Don Quixote" could largely be rearranged without affecting the book as a whole.  One could in an episodic game change the order of the chapters based on player actions without significant cost, yet give the player the illusion of affecting what happens. 


Computer games including Adventure games have a lot of evolving to do.  The medium is still young.  Game developers are constantly trying to push the envelope, break the mould - sometimes to the frustration of players (including me) who would be happy with more of the same.  There has been a lot of attention on the presentation, on animation, on 3D graphics. These aspects do sell games, and the technology is moving on apace. I’m sure game developers will continue to experiment with the way games tell stories, hoping to further immerse the player in the world of the game.


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