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Harmony. Longtime readers of this column will know that there's nothing I hate more than being jolted out of my fantasy by a cheap in-joke or an anachronism. From what I've seen, the games hang together better as a coherent whole than they used to.
The better artwork helps with that, but I also think that they're taking themselves a bit more seriously -- even the comedies -- and the result is a more immersive and aesthetically pleasing experience.
Audio. No surprise here. As game audio quality has improved generally, it has improved in adventure games as well. This doesn't necessarily mean that the content of the audio has improved, as we'll see.
Unfortunately, adventure games haven't improved in every respect. Here are a few things we still need to work on.
Obscure and insanely-complicated puzzles. The puzzles in today's adventure games seem about the same as in the old days, both for good and for ill, and that means there are still a few insanely-complicated puzzles.
If there's such a thing as a "hardcore" adventure-game player, this is what those players like. But that's a pretty small market, and for the genre to attract players from the growing casual sector, it has to be more accessible.
Conceptual non sequiturs and puzzles requiring extreme lateral thinking are two of my most egregious Twinkie Denial Conditions. I don't mind if the solution to a puzzle is unusual, and requires building MacGyver-like contraptions, as long as the result is reasonably credible. If the solution is so bizarre that the player can only find it by trial and error, the designer has failed.
Sierra Entertainment's Gabriel Knight 3
Ron Gilbert, the designer behind the Monkey Island series, objects to "backwards" puzzles -- puzzles in which you discover all the parts needed for the solution before you find the puzzle itself.
Such an arrangement encourages the player to pick up everything she sees just in case she might need it later, and I agree that that feels weird -- you're walking around carrying an odd collection of objects for no apparent reason.
He feels that the player should come upon a puzzle without the solution in hand, and so be inspired to further exploration, and I see his point. However, I don't feel as strongly about this issue as he does. I think excessive obscurity is a much worse sin.
Bad dialog. Adventure games have more dialog than any other genre, and it's usually an important part of the gameplay rather than exposition that you can button through.
Unfortunately, we're still making games where people talk far too long (and too slowly) and many conversations sound extremely stilted. Part of this can be blamed on poor localization of games originally written in a foreign language, but most of it is just incompetent writing.
For inspiration, look at TV shows that are mostly dialog, such as Law & Order. People don't jabber on for ten minutes at a time; most entire scenes last less than three. Keep it short and snappy.