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Analysis: Lessons From  Hotel Dusk

Analysis: Lessons From Hotel Dusk Exclusive

April 23, 2009 | By Gregory Weir




[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, writer and designer Gregory Weir (The Majesty Of Colors) examines how modern adventure game developers can learn from Hotel Dusk: Room 215 -- particularly its interface.]

With the rise of high-budget, technologically advanced video games, the graphical adventure has fallen from its former prominence. In the 1980s and early 90s, Infocom, Sierra and LucasArts produced best-selling games that are still referred to today. While some developers still produce point-and-click adventure games (with TellTale Games's Sam & Max episodic series as a prominent example), they have mostly been reduced to a niche product.

One of the reasons for the fall of the adventure game is the detached nature of the gameplay. As interesting as the story and puzzles in a game may be, the player is still just pointing and clicking to control an avatar or disembodied first-person protagonist.

There's not much gameplay there, when compared to, say, Mario Kart or Grand Theft Auto. The experience is very cerebral, and a player used to more action-packed experiences will tend to become bored with a game where she doesn't do anything.

One way to make an adventure game more accessible and interesting to the modern player is to involve her more directly in the game's events. Cing's Hotel Dusk: Room 215 does this in an interesting way: thanks in part to the Nintendo DS's unique hardware, players are provided with a hands-on approach to puzzle solving that feels much more involved than other adventure games.

Kyle HydeA Clever Touch

Like its predecessor, Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk is an adventure game that uses the hardware of the DS to great advantage. The game is played by holding the game sideways, like a book. In exploration mode, the "top" screen displays a rendered 3D view of the environment, while the touch screen is used to navigate from a top-down view.

Hotel Dusk's interface provides a very direct, accessible method of control. In conversation mode, the two screens show the protagonist and the character he is speaking to, and the touch screen is used to select speech options. In search mode, the player can rotate a 3D view of an area, and tap on objects of interest.

Where the interface really shines, however, is in the puzzles.

Periodically, the player will be called upon to solve a puzzle. She will be presented with a close-up view of an object or group of objects, and will need to use the capabilities of the DS to accomplish a task. Some are purely interface-based puzzles, where the challenge is not in figuring out what to do but how to communicate the actions to the game. Others are traditional puzzles like you'd see in other adventure games, from assembling a literal jigsaw puzzle to picking a lock with a coat hanger. The best puzzles are the ones that require both logic and interface cleverness.

The first "puzzle" in the game is of the interface-based variety. It requires the player to ring the bell at the front desk. There's nothing too tricky here; just tapping the button on the bell with the stylus makes it ring. These sorts of so-called puzzles are scattered throughout the game, from sewing up a torn doll by drawing the desired path of the stitches to dragging the lid of a toilet tank to open it.

The cleverest of these requires the player to flip two switches in a circuit breaker box at once. The DS touch screen isn't multi-touch like the iPhone's, but with some smart coding the game appears to recognize two simultaneous points of contact on the screen. This is a puzzle that is harder the more clever you are; being aware of the DS's limitations makes a player less likely to quickly figure out the solution.

The more traditional puzzles have straightforward interfaces, but require a certain amount of logic. Besides the aforementioned jigsaw puzzle, there is a set of matchstick-arrangement puzzles, a figure-out-the-obscured-combination puzzle, and a simple handwriting-comparison puzzle. These challenges tend to be simpler than the ones you'd find in other adventure games. They seldom require a big leap of logic, and the solutions are often heavily hinted through dialogue or internal monologue.

Locked SuitcaseThe Key to the Problem

The true potential of the game's puzzle approach occurs in the challenges which combine cerebral puzzle-solving with interface trickery. One excellent example occurs a little way into the game, when the player is presented with an engraved fountain pen. The pen is worn, and the inscription is unreadable.

In order to find out what it says, the player must figure out that she can use either chalk dust or flour to fill in the inscription. The interface challenge comes in when executing this maneuver. Rubbing the powder on the pen and blowing it off (using the DS microphone) just blows away all the powder. The solution is to gently tap or rub the pen to remove the excess without disrupting the inscription.

By incorporating logic and a clever interface into the challenge, this strengthens the player's identification with the main character. She's not just clicking on the flour then the pen to USE FLOUR ON PEN; the player is involved in the entire process, making it feel like she's actually finding clues herself. This sort of approach is shockingly rare among adventure games; it really only appears in "casualized" games like Hotel Dusk or Zak & Wiki. However, it may be the key to revising adventure games for the modern video game world.

All an adventure game needs to do to take advantage of this technique is to add an extra step to each puzzle solution. Just as Oblivion has a lockpicking minigame, adventure games can have puzzle-solving minigames, where the player physically manipulates the components of the puzzle to solve it.

By including this sort of hands-on gameplay, developers can enhance player character identification while simultaneously breaking up the often-monotonous gameplay with fun interludes. It does require more planning and implementation time to have a separate screen or interaction mode for each puzzle, but the gains in accessibility and interesting gameplay outweigh the costs.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at [email protected]]


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