Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flight of the Amazon Queen

Year: 1993
Rating: ****
If you’re looking for a review FotAQ is fun. It has great puzzles, a decent art style and a silly but enjoyable plot. It’s also Freeware now so you have no excuse to not try it. Now for a long winded rant about adventure game puzzles.

Put me in front of most point and clicks and I’ll normally only care about the story. The mechanics of these games are never really interesting. Is a streamlined two click interface better than a complicated verb based one? No but who cares? Like wise I’m not normally fussed with the quality of the puzzles (except when they’re painfully bad like say Legend of Kyrandia). But with Flight of the Amazon Queen I found myself getting really excited by the puzzles. These are some of the best puzzles I’ve ever come across in an adventure game and with a couple of small changes they’d be the best puzzles I’ve ever played.

What I love about these puzzles is they cut out 90% of the bullshit. Two of the most common complaints against the adventure game are that items only ever serve one function and the internal logic is obtuse and impenetrable. Flight of the Amazon Queen figured out how to solve these problems and amazingly no one noticed or much less cared.

The reason is because it wasn’t very commercially successful. Hard sales figures for an obscure and old title like this are hard to find but suffice to say the publisher didn’t order a sequel and the studio shut up shop. Which is a shame when you realise that this game was a labour of love by two guys from backwater Australia. Just getting this game to market was an amazing achievement, especially in the days before the Internet made Indie development so much easier. That those two men managed to turn out a game with a LucasArts level of quality blows my mind. But no it didn’t set the world on fire and sadly the adventure genre was poorer for it.

All right let’s get down to brass tacks, why do I like the puzzles so much? Well for starters certain objects have multiple uses. For example the baseball bat gets plenty of use and in different and interesting ways too. And it’s not just inventory items that are useable in different ways. Game world objects really make use of the multiple verb system. For example there is a sarcophagus that requires you to use LOOK, USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE (PUSH/PULL collapsed to one verb) at different points to solve separate puzzles. Most adventure games with a SCUMM-like interface make half the verbs feel redundant. Flight of the Amazon Queen makes all the verbs feel important. Yes I need separate verbs for USE, OPEN, CLOSE, PICK UP, and MOVE. No a single hand icon will not do and don’t even get me started on this “Right Click” nonsense (Okay I could probably deal with OPEN and CLOSE being collapsed to one verb, I mean when do you ever need to open something that’s already open?). As a result the world feels so much more interactive and some how less gamey. Which in my book is totally sweet.

Plus these puzzles make sense, and when they don’t the game is smart enough to give you a clue. You’re usually given all the information you need to solve any puzzle. For example really early in the game you need to cross dress as a showgirl to sneak past an armed goon. Sure it’s an out there premise not one that would immediately spring to mind but right next to where you find a black wig there is a poster. When you look at it you notice that the woman in the picture has an Adam’s apple. When you hear about the goon’s love of a certain showgirl the wheels in your head should start turning. Now before you get on your “That’s hand holding” high horse consider the Achilles heel of the standard adventure game. No matter what puzzle you create, trying every interaction with every object, and using every object with every other object can always solve it. This is very tedious and dull but if your puzzle doesn’t make sense then the player will resort to it and they won’t have fun. Actually this is a problem with any genre, if the player can get away with doing something that’s boring but effective they will and they won’t have fun.

Look you don’t need to flash clues up whenever the player gets stuck. Hiding clues in things like posters, comic books, NPC dialogue etc all work fine. In fact they give the player a reason to really explore all the details of your game world which in turn pulls them deeper into your story. In a perfect world Valve’s multiple iteration, player first, design process would have been invented before the adventure game kicked the bucket. Have you played Portal? Do you ever remember ever getting well and truly stuck? Of course not, check out the developer’s commentary on it some time to see all the various ways they subtly poked and prodded you into the solutions. This philosophy applied to adventure games could be really powerful. Anyone engaged in the fight to bring back adventure games should seriously consider it. Flight of the Amazon Queen doesn’t quite hit those lofty goals (The giant snake is afraid of fire? How the hell was I supposed to know that?) but it’s so tantalising close to the promised land I can make out the hot chicks in bikinis.

One problem this game doesn’t quite solve is the where multiple objects could, in the real world, perform the same function. For example at one point you need to gather some sloth hair. Once you’ve lured the sloth into reach with a flower (which a priest is kind enough to mention sloths like) you use your knife on it but that doesn’t work. No instead you need to get the scissors from the pygmy hairdresser. Look I get it, it’s easier to design a game this way but seriously if you’re making an adventure game please remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because Monkey Island did it doesn’t make it written in stone. I know Monkey Island was an awesome game I’m glad we all agree but wouldn’t you like to make a game that’s better than Monkey Island?

Every review I’ve read of Flight of the Amazon Queen says that they were heavily inspired by LucasArts and didn’t quite live up to their idols. How insulting, they weren’t just inspired by LucasArts they were inspired to try and beat LucasArts at their own game. Okay so they didn’t quite succeed. The writing, while fun, isn’t up to snuff but at least they tried. Learn from them because the only way we are ever going to see the adventure game rise like a phoenix and not a zombie is if someone finally has the talent and balls to make a better game than Monkey Island.

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