The Possibilities of Adventure Games (1987)
This interview with Rika Suzuki of Riverhillsoft and Yuji Horii of Enix first appeared in BEEP magazine. It’s an interesting piece of history, with Horii having one foot in the recently released Dragon Quest, and one foot in adventure games, the genre he started out in. It’s also valuable as a rare conversation with adventure game creator Rika Suzuki, who is mostly unknown to English audiences.
—I’d like to start off by asking your first encounter with adventure games.
Horii: It was when I was working as a freelance writer, doing manga stories and such. One day, I saw the Apple game Deadline in a magazine, and thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be cool, a game that progresses through conversations between a human and a computer.” That was the occasion that led me to create The Portopia Serial Murder Case.
—That makes sense. And Suzuki, how about you?
Suzuki: In my case, it’s probably correct to say that I had to learn about adventure games through my work. When I started Riverhillsoft, I needed to decide what kind of games we’d make, so I took a look at a variety of genres. It was then that I encountered the adventure game Mystery House. But my impression then was less one of “wow, these games are interesting”, but rather more “oh, I didn’t know there were computer games like this.”
—Horii, when you made Portopia, did you also do all the programming?
Horii: The first computer I ever bought was an NEC PC-6001, and I very quickly learned BASIC after that. I thought programming was really fun and interesting. Then I started to get more ambitious, and I thought I could make the computer converse with you if I entered enough data.
—What kind of things were you trying to make it say?
Horii: Well, I tried, but I soon learned that that kind of thing wasn’t possible, so I quit.1 (laughs) After that, I figured that if I couldn’t make the computer create its own speech, then I’d try creating dialogue for the computer beforehand and just make it talk with you that way. When I tried it, what I thought was cool was how I could type in some words, and the computer would reply back with some reaction. It felt like this computer was really talking back to you.
Suzuki: Ah, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve felt that same appeal too… (laughs) With real-time games, the relationship between you and the character is one where it feels you are watching your character—another you—in the game. But with adventure games, we’ve come one step forward from that experience, so that it feels like YOU are now inside the game. I kind of think that’s the unique appeal of adventure games right there.
—But one issue with adventure games is that if you hit a wall or get stuck, it’s very difficult to advance in the game.
Suzuki: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make those walls so high that players can’t see the other side at all. There’s no need for obstacles like that, right? I think the ideal difficulty is one where you overcome the challenge by your third try, and then the next wall you face is a little higher, giving you another challenge.
—Speaking of that, Horii, you adopted a command system in your games to avoid the annoyance of having to find the right words to input.
Horii: I’ve played a lot of adventure games myself, but the truth is, I never cleared a single one. (laughs) There’d be some item in the game right in front of me, and I’d try to pick it up, but the the computer would respond with “I don’t understand that” or “Why don’t you try something else?” I’d just end up frustrated, “what the hell!?”
That was my #1 problem with text-entry based games, and why I adopted the command based system of Hokkaidou Rensa Satsujin: Okhotsk ni Kiyu. But I had my worries about the command system too: I realized if a player just went through and selected every command option, he’d eventually solve any puzzle in the game just by brute force. If things are too easy to solve, a player won’t get emotionally involved with the game.
Suzuki: That’s true. It’s very important for adventure games that the player experience that moment of relief after solving a puzzle. I think if they can feel that satisfaction, they won’t feel like all the time they spent was a waste.
Horii: Yeah, I think so too. I don’t think it’s a proper game if you need to use a strategy guide or something to solve the puzzles. If you solve the puzzles like that, you aren’t really playing a game; it’d be more correct to say you’re just following someone else’s playthrough. No matter what interesting things happen in the story, you won’t enjoy it at all.
—Speaking of puzzles, in games like Dragon Quest, solving one puzzle leads you right to another, and they aren’t that hard to solve. I think that pattern gets you sucked into the game before you know it.
Horii: In my opinion, if the player doesn’t know what to do in a game, or where to go, I think it’s boring. That was something I paid special attention to when we made Dragon Quest.
Suzuki: Me too. When I’m making a game, and some part feels boring, it usually because I haven’t included any sense of necessity for the player. It’s definitely very important to give the player clear objectives.
Horii: Not having any imperatives for the player is a problem, but I think the biggest potential problem is when you do have a grand, lofty goal, yet you can’t open the door that’s right in front of you.
—That definitely happens sometimes. By the way, for many years adventure games have been the bread and butter of computer gaming, but it seems that in the last year the genre has been on the wane. Why do you suppose that is?
Horii: People think adventure games are boring when they’re stuck and don’t know what to do. On that point, RPGs allow you to level up at anytime, so if you get stuck you can still do something else for the time being. So I think adventure games should also give players something to do when they’re stuck on the main puzzle.
Following that line of reasoning, my prediction is that the adventure game and rpg genres will probably merge in the future.
—If adventure games and rpgs were to merge together, then it seems the stories that adventure games tell would change a lot, too. One thing you often hear is that the stories in Japanese adventure games are lacking. What do you think about that?
Horii: In my view, for adventure games the main scenario should only take up about 20% of the game’s content, and the remaining 80% should be in response to the various actions of the player. That’s where the fun lies.
For example, compare the two following games: in one, you have a wonderful short story that you’ve added a proper command system to, but progressing through the story itself is very linear; in another, the goal of the game is simply to deliver a letter to someone in a neighboring town, but all sorts of events befall the player along the way. I assure you that the game where you deliver the letter will the more interesting of the two. That’s how I think game scenarios should be.
—Yeah, a game where 80% of the content is in response to the player’s decisions does sound interesting. Changing the subject, in adventure games today, the typical format is to have some picture on-screen that represents what’s happening in the scenario, and you advance things by searching for the right command from a menu on the side. How do you think this system will evolve in the future?
Suzuki: In our case at Riverhillsoft, we’ve been thinking of some kind of new system where you can record the information you’ve gathered onto disk. For example, in games like J.B. Harold Murder Club, all the information the player gathers would be saved on disk and accessible from a single database. Then that database could be accessed in the next JB Harold sequel, too.
Horii: That’s something I also thought of a long time ago. I was thinking of an adventure game where you’d learn new words and terminology as you go.
Imagine a story set in a futuristic city, where your companion is a robot. As unknown words came up in the game, you’d be able to get an explanation from this helper robot as he develops. And it had the advantage that if you got stuck in the game, you could always work on “levelling” your robot. The computer would be able to understand and interact with the player more as he progressed.
Then I thought that if this robot could be re-used in later sequels, things could get more and more interesting. I wasn’t able to realize this idea though.
Horii: Eh, I realized it would actually be a lot of annoying work… (laughs)
Suzuki: When I make an adventure game, I always want to add many branching paths for the player, so it can be enjoyed on later replays. However, despite wanting to make a game with every good idea I’ve had, it often happens that you can’t realize it all because of PC memory limitations. We’ll need to overcome those limits in the future.
Horii: Yeah. Deciding which of your ideas to actually implement in the game is always a dilemma. In games where the story changes and develops based on the player’s actions, you inevitably have to shorten the length of the main scenario. Instead you end up having to prepare something like 2 or 3 shorter scenarios.
However, even if you prepare 2-3 scenarios like that, there’s still the question of whether the player will have fun going through each of them. I think it’s better to just have one longer main scenario, personally.
Suzuki: Yeah, sometimes that’s true. Memory limitations are surely still the biggest challenge for developers. Even if your ideas seem great in the planning stage, once you get down to work, practical questions come up like how many images do we need, how many characters must we create, etc. In the end, being unable to add all the data you wanted, the finished game ends up looking very different from what you had originally planned.
—I see. It seems that implementing new ideas always comes with a host of problems. What do you think about adventure games on the Famicom?
Horii: If I can be frank, I was super excited about making Portopia for the Famicom. And I really wanted to show Famicom users that these kinds of games exist.
—I believe you’re currently in the middle of porting “Hokkaido Rensa Satsujin Jiken: Okhotsk ni Kiyu” to the Famicom. Will it be a little different from the PC version?
Horii: It’s far easier than the PC version, a more “friendly” game, you could say. I’m a little concerned about that actually.
Suzuki: Making a mystery game for the Famicom, have you had to adjust things for the younger audience?
Horii: Our target age range is based on an elementary school child, yeah. Anyone younger than that probably won’t be able to play. People who buy Okhotsk are probably already familiar with the adventure genre, so we can’t release anything too simplistic or half-baked.
—We’ve covered a lot of ground about adventure games, but there was something else I wanted to ask. Japanese adventure games started out as puzzle-solving games where you gradually uncover some mystery, but there has also been a trend of games using more and more detailed graphics to depict a more anime-ish setting and story. How do you feel about these more anime-inspired adventure games?
Suzuki: I think it’s fine if real-time games incorporate more anime-ish elements, but for adventure games, it feels like a superficial dressing-up of the genre, and I’m not so sure about it.
Horii: If by “anime” we mean using television anime shows as a basis for the game, then I think there’s a risk that players unfamiliar with the show won’t understand what’s going on. If that happens then players will be reduced to a very passive role, and I think players in adventure games need to feel like they’re affirmatively in control or it isn’t fun.
But if you mean “anime” in the sense of using more animation on-screen, then I think that’s a good thing because it contributes to the realism of the game.
—Well, for my final question, could you tell us what kind of adventure games you’d like to create in the future?
Suzuki: At Riverhillsoft, we’ll be making more games that feature the same protagonist and involve the player emotionally. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we’d really like to make something that uses an information database to create a brand new game experience for players.
Horii: I’d like to create an adventure game where the player has things to do even when he’s stuck on the main quest. I think that problem is the biggest bottleneck for adventure games right now, and if I can solve it, then I think adventure games will change greatly. Also, RPGs and adventure games share a lot of similarities, and I think there’s new possibilities explore there, too.
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It isn’t quite clear what Horii was trying to do, but he was probably trying to program some kind of artificial intelligence language algorithm; of course, this would have been impossible, but it’s the kind of thing a novice might naively try.↩