Adventure Games: Puzzles and the User Interface

Ever since I finished playing the Quest for Glory series again, I’ve been trying to pick up another good adventure game that I can enjoy as much.

Gabriel Knight seemed like a good choice (also available via GOG.com, by the way) and I already had it from a previous GOG purchase. When I last left off…well, last left off before I started playing again yesterday, I was in the middle of day 2 and obviously flagging.

I don’t know what it is about this game. It’s gorgeous, and the story is interesting, I like the characters, and you’d think that the only thing required to make me adore it is that there is a scene wherein Tim Curry denies himself entry to a rich people house and tricks himself into letting himself in. I love voice acting so much.

But the puzzles are not as intuitive as other games I have played. They’re not as bad as the yeti pie thing, but… I don’t know. Using a coupon to get a hot dog and then using that to bribe a little boy to squeeze through a fence to get a piece of paper so that you can then… Ugh. I do like the sequence of puzzle events, but it’s nearly soup cans. I spent five minutes looking through my inventory for something that I could use to extend Gabriel’s dumb reach or just come at it from a different angle. I could have reached the stupid paper with a stick.

QfG5 had bribe Cerberus with different kinds of food. I don’t remember if there were clues for that, thought. Maybe I just started giving him whatever and seized upon the idea of how one cannot get pizza delivered to the underworld. It’s hard to come up with puzzles, so I guess I shouldn’t be too fussy about that stuff. I usually figure it out eventually.

My big problem is with the user interface. It’s been made worse by my recent playthrough of QfG, simply because that somehow has the smoother interface with the least amount of hang-ups. There are about four buttons meant to make your character interact with the environment. The use and function of each of these is immediately suggested by the shape of the icon. A man walking (later, footprints), a mouth, an eye, and a hand.

In QfG 5, this was streamlined to just the eye and hand. Basically, this entire game was perfectly playable to the point that I barely noticed the functions in the interface, with only two major functions: use and look. It makes sense. The hand took over the single-use function of the walk icon, as well as the similarly one-dimensional talk function. Asking and telling were put into the same dialogue box. The eye went on doing its job, no change necessary.

So why, oh why, did Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, released between Quest for Glory III and IV, need EIGHT functions?

Obviously, I’m not counting the subsidiary toolbar functions, such as the help or menu buttons, the inventory (which both series needed) and the magic/stats/time of day things (which only QfG needed). Those are not things that you can access outside the toolbar, and both games handled them about the same way…although Gabriel Knight did add the “read” function to the inventory screen, but whatever. The dialogue recall worked, so I’ll leave that alone too.

Those are not the most common things you’re going to be doing. Having to constantly drag the mouse up to the tool bar to choose the function you need rather than right-click cycling until you get the right one is time-consuming and annoying. But not as annoying as cycling and accidentally going past the walk icon four times in your quest to leave bloody Jackson Square.

Let’s compare, shall we?

Quest for Glory common-use functions:

  • Walk
  • Look
  • Nested Use/Take/Drink/Eat/Touch/Move/Generally Interact With
  • Talk

Gabriel Knight common-use functions

  • Walk
  • Look
  • Interrogate
  • Talk
  • Pick Up (although it is also the one you use to read the paper without putting it in your inventory, so whatever)
  • Open/Close
  • Use
  • Move

How difficult is it to see the tedious, underfoot redundancies? Bisecting dialogue into two separate functions in particular is far, far more annoying and honestly less intuitive than the QfG games that let you click the mouth on the hero to Tell About. Mostly because it adds to the long cycle through icons.

The sad thing is that it looks like they were a bit aware of this. The EIGHT buttons in Sins of the Fathers are actually separated into two boxes, and the division appears to be based on either frequency of use (the look, walk, and redundantly bifurcated speech icons are in the leftmost box) or because the rightmost box is obviously just a quadsected single icon.

Ugh. It makes playing this game so mechanically tedious. I’m more frustrated with cycling through EIGHT icons than I am with the puzzles or Gabriel’s accent.

The interrogation mode is also badly designed, but I’m afraid that if I articulate exactly why, I will stop playing.

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