September 29, 2017

I grew up playing the classic golden age point-n-click adventure games of the eighties and nineties. One of my favourites was and still is Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It was a particularly unique game in that the middle act of the game could be played along one of three paths: fists, wits, or team. The team path was the most interesting in that Indiana Jones was teamed with a partner, Sophia Hapgood, who he could talk to along the way and who was integral to solving a number of puzzles. That was one of the inspirations for including multiple playable characters, in the forms of Jane Ampson and Pureluck Homes, in my own Sluethhounds computer adventure games.

One of the oddities of computer games in general, and adventure games in particular, that Fate of Atlantis shines a light on is the tendency for game characters to talk to themselves. Out loud. Now, I’ve been known to talk to myself when trying to figure out complex problems, but I don’t tend to go around narrating my life to myself. This tendency among game characters was something that became apparent in Fate of Atlantis when, after I had finished it on the team path, I played it on the wits path. There were several places where Indy and Sophia had a conservation on the team path. When these same points were reached on the wits path, Indy would have an almost identical conversation but with him saying the lines for both characters. That’s what first made me aware that characters talking to themselves in games was such an odd thing story wise, especially when the characters are voiced and animated to be clearly speaking out loud. In other storytelling media – books, movies, etc. – characters are typically paired so that they have someone else to talk to in order to convey story points.

As an aside: It was because of all of this that when I began work on the Sleuthhounds games I took a page from comic books in representing dialog. In comic books, when a character speaks and when a character thinks they have different shaped bubbles to convey that they’re either speaking aloud or else thinking to themselves. I’ve implemented those same looks in my games when subtitles are shown. Additionally, I’ve treated the voice lines in my games so that any lines a character “thinks” to themselves have an echo effect added to them, a technique I first encountered in Space Quest VI: The Spinal Frontier.

Beyond making the storytelling as a whole more believable, having multiple playable characters in a game also lead to more interesting and memorable puzzles and gameplay. There’s just something more intrinsically involving and satisfying when you have to use two or more characters in tandem to solve a puzzle. That was something that I wanted to bring to my own games when I first started working on Sleuthhounds.

It wasn’t until the second Sleuthhounds game, The Cursed Cannon, that I first introduced a small bit of gameplay where multiple characters needed to be used. Since then, I’ve continued to expand on the number of multi character sequences included in the games and the upcoming The Yuletide Tail is no exception. This game features the most such sequences of any of the games so far and adds a new wrinkle in some places where Homes and Ampson have to work together while being physically cutoff from one another. The two characters aren’t always separated, though, and I’ve tried to come up with some interesting sequences for when they’re together as well.

[Homes and Ampson working together to surmount any problem.]
Homes and Ampson working together to surmount any problem.

Having two characters, especially two characters who have different skillsets, makes for some interesting game design and storytelling opportunities. From conveying exposition, to holding conversations, to working together both side-by-side and apart, the options are for more varied and interesting than in a game with just a single character. To be certain, multiple characters aren’t suited to every type of game, but for those that they are, the minimal extra burden involved in implementing multiple characters is more than offset by the advantages having them provides.