Sometime in the 1990s, the big guns in the games industry became obsessed with physics. It makes sense: you’ve got “3D” visuals, which are “realistic”, and so you want them to behave in “realistic” ways. Plus you’ve got years of mathematics and scientific research to provide you with the equations to model “realistically”. And computers are used in all that stuff already, so they’re a perfect fit for games!
So, physics: procedurally generated interactions between objects in space. What was interacting became less important than how they interacted (though maybe all those 1990s modders who tried to plug their favorite franchises into Quake are an argument against that). This posed a problem for the point-and-click adventure game.
Pointing and clicking doesn’t lend itself to physics (see the late LucasArts entries in the genre, the 3D Escape from Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, neither of which is played with a mouse alone), and so large studios’ development of point-and-clicks stopped, killed by physics.
Which is why I kind of like that Resonance’s story is about, among other things, physics (it includes a rather topical puzzle set inside a supercollider!). A researcher has developed a new technology that, like all good post-atomic age scientific discoveries, is simultaneously a potential source of limitless energy and a potential weapon of limitless destruction.
A city-wide blackout and an explosion at his lab brings together the game’s four playable characters, each a twist on a hard-boiled noir type. There’s the cop with an attitude, the journalist (“blogger”), the affable-but-apparently-clueless guy (who happens to work in the lab), and the femme fatale, whose dreams reveal surprising connections to the deceased. Things get very complicated.
When the game introduces you to these four characters, each is limited to a single location. You work within each area to solve its particular puzzle and lead the characters more or less to where they will meet up. But it’s smart: each of these individual bits introduces you to information that you will need to find later. It’s a kind of foreshadowing that reduces the urge to run to a walkthrough at the first sign of frustration.
Games based on how you play provide a challenge for a single person (and if you can’t defeat that challenge, you can always hand control over to your little brother, who will make that jump with ease), but there’s something potentially hive-mindy about adventure games.
If you’ve got Internet access a walkthrough for solving the puzzles is within easy reach.
And since in point-and-clicks, what you manipulate matters more than how you manipulate it, out goes that particular challenge.
Rose-colored memories of puzzles based on wordplay (combine “Ipecac Flower” with “Maple Syrup” to create “Syrup of Ipecac” so the giant boa constrictor that’s swallowed your character will vomit you out) drown out the often obtuse, brute-force “combine every item with every other item” (the Inventory Spam Maneuver, or ISM) strategy that many games required.
Most point-and-clicks were two separate systems: an inventory system and a conversation system. Generally, a conversation would involve you choosing a line of dialogue from among several listed. Then you’d read (or listen to) the other character’s response. Repeat until you’ve exhausted every option and you’ve got The Dialogue Tree. Sometimes you could ask about an item in your inventory, but for things in the environment (signs, gaping holes, dead bodies), you were out of luck, unless the conversation system added another dialogue option after you looked at said environmental object.
And here’s Resonance’s neatest idea: it turns any named item into something you can ask other characters about. Each character has a Short Term Memory (STM), a kind of inventory for objects they’re not carrying. Point at an item in the environment and drag it to the STM and it becomes an object you can examine. Drag it onto another character in the environment and it will trigger a conversation about that object. Inventory and conversation are synthesized by giving memory a tangible (at least on a systemic level) and functional representation.
In addition to STM and inventory, each character has a Long Term Memory (LTM), which stores events from their past. Characters may share LTMs if they were both present for an event.
What all this means in theory is that you can ask anyone about pretty much anything you come across in the environment. No more will you remember some specific object and then not be able to ask the janitor about it! At last, conversational freedom!
In practice, though, you might end up just dumping everything into your STM, and then perform the ISM with every single thing you’ve seen. Also, by not automatically adding topics to a conversation tree after you’ve looked at an important item, you might find yourself backtracking to a spot because you forgot to add the item to your STM.
And sometimes, you might be trying to drag an item to a particular character, or click on a particular spot on the screen, only to trigger the STM menu, at which point a large list of things remembered will block your view of the left side of the screen.
And then, having four characters working together can provide for some interesting puzzles involving distractions, and the more institutional characters (the cop and the doctor) have access to areas that the blogger (“Investigative journalist!”) and the nerd don’t, and so sometimes you’re at the right place at the right time with the wrong character or the wrong memory, and so you have to switch to the right character and get them there ASAP. Which really isn’t too difficult, because in most areas you’re never more than one or two screens from the exit, which takes you to a map that lets you select your destination. And load times are pretty nonexistent, so it’s more a psychological hassle than a temporal one.
Which might actually sum up Resonance and contemporary point-and-clicks in general. So long as the Internet is accessible, nothing in a point-and-click ever has to be a stumbling block. And so that pushes designers to be cleverer, to find new ways of interacting with old systems and push them beyond mere obtuseness. Resonance doesn’t always succeed, and it is hobbled by some irritating UI issues, but it sure as hell tries.
Brian Taylor can’t remember who first introduced him to the idea about games about “verbs” vs games about “objects”, but if you know, tell him on Twitter