Don’t make an expensive adventure game…

… unless you have Heavy Rain kind of money.

I’ve been reading two sets of reviews over the last few days from which it’s hard not to draw this conclusion.  The first group of reviews cover the game, Gray Matter, the long-awaited game from Jane Jenson, developed by Wizarbox, published by DTP/Lace Mamba.  The second covers the game, Gemini Rue, a low-res game that hearkens back to the early 90s.

Gray Matter would appear to have everything going for it – a well respected writer-designer, a great development team and a publisher that has a good history of publishing adventures.  Yet the reviews all suggest that the final outcome – five years in the making, no less – is far from satisfactory with clunky controls and a less than endearing cast of characters.  I find this even more strange when I consider the excellent work Wizarbox did on So Blonde and how much of a pleasure it was to work with them.

Gemini Rue, on the other hand, gives an initial impression that’s it’s been developed by someone who can’t let go of the past – a time when adventures were at the cutting edge of game development.  But read the reviews and it’s clearly so much more than that.  Atmosphere and story are a prominent part of the attraction and it’s why, in general, the game is getting good reviews.  In spite of a very seemingly-dated approach to developing the game, Joshua Nuernberger, the developer, has achieved something that many developers fail to achieve with bucket loads of cash.  Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games made a good choice in getting behind this.

While it would be simplistic to say that expensive adventures are bad and the inexpensive good, developers (and publishers) should take a hard look at what they are trying to achieve and how best they can deliver an experience the player will enjoy.

About Steve

Writer and game designer with 18 years of development experience. Nominated for Best Game Script at the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards 2008.
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15 Responses to Don’t make an expensive adventure game…

  1. Retro styling is in itself is a kind of ‘game art’ and for those who lived and breathed that era will surely reminisce in the beauty recreated 🙂

    Simple can be beautiful too!

  2. Igor Hardy says:

    This is a very worthwhile observation and I too was comparing in surprise how much more enthusiastic the response to Gemini Rue seems compared to the the reviews of Gray Matter.

    However, I think you’re rather unfair to Gemini Rue by calling it “developed by someone who can’t let go of the past” and “a low-res game that hearkens back to the early 90s”. It’s low-res alright, but that’s the only thing really retro about it (and in truth it’s a great way to cut animation costs). The game itself feels modern and different than other adventure games currently on the market.

    Also, despite the great press and word-of-mouth I bet it will be very difficult for Gemini to reach an amount of sales comparable to Gray Matter’s. In particular, to get noticed to the extent GM was thanks to it history, budget and high resolution artwork.

  3. Steve says:

    Igor, read my words again and I think you’ll find that you’re reading into them almost the opposite of what I’m trying to say.

    From what I’ve played of Gemini Rue it’s a wonderful game and totally deserves to do well. I hope there are more like this from Josh (if he doesn’t mind me being so familiar).

    What I’m really trying to say is that a little love and dedication can go an awfully long way to realising your vision.

  4. Igor Hardy says:

    I didn’t mean you don’t appreciate the quality of Gemini in general, but you do make it sound as if the the edge it has on Gray Matter is entirely the result of its story and atmosphere “in spite of a very seemingly-dated approach to developing the game”.

    However, in the majority of reviews both Gray Matter and Gemini Rue are greatly praised in terms of story and atmosphere. It’s in the evaluation of gameplay and puzzles that the opinions of the two games differ the most, and Gemini gains the upper hand.

    One could consider this a digression on my part, but it’s very important for me that good design and gameplay experiments in adventure games are appreciated – not just their storytelling.

  5. Steve says:

    Yes, I see now what you meant.

    Perhaps I shall write a lengthier post when I’ve finished the game.

  6. Richard says:

    The most striking difference I found between the two games is that Gemini Rue is so much easier to get into than Gray Matter. It explains its world quickly but effectively, it points you straight to what you’re meant to be doing (in Gray Matter, you spend ages just stumbling around until you finally trigger the meeting with the housekeeper), and you’re immediately up to your neck in stuff. It slows down quite a bit when you switch to Delta-Six for the first time, but by that point, you’re already immersed enough to take more note of the setting than the ‘let’s teach you how to use a gun’ tutorial objectives.

    First impressions are so important, and I’m often amazed by how badly games often do them. In adventures, I really want something better than ‘here’s a boring chore’. In RPGs of course, you get the achingly awful ‘get into the city where the actual game starts’ intro.

    (It doesn’t hurt that Gemini’s aesthetics are so nicely done across the board. The actual graphics may be simple, but the music washing underneath the driving rain set the mood so damn well.)

  7. Steve says:

    I must admit that I have yet to play Gray Matter, mostly because I keep reading things about it that put me off. I remember seeing an early version being demonstrated when the game was announced in Leipzig and thinking that it had a lot of old fashioned elements to it. It could have changed a lot since then, of course, but it actually surprised me at the time.

    I agree about the weakness of the way that games start. The situation can be made worse by having a dramatic intro which is then followed by directionless gameplay.

  8. I tried the demo of Gray Matter as a result of this post by Steve and even a download that is meant to encourage me to purchase the full product – had me locating a missing rabbit in a room and then finding food and water for the then found creature. Just as you are getting somewhere and attempt to leave, you then switch to another individual. Within just a few moments, I had already lost interest in the female character and I dare not put in print what I wanted to do to the rabbit!

    At that point I am afraid I lost interest…

  9. Steve says:

    I’m (almost reluctantly) downloading the demo as I write this. 1.6GB for a demo of an adventure game sounds very extreme, but what else have I got to do on a Sunday? Well, lots, actually. 🙂

  10. Richard says:

    The bit that stood out for me about the rabbit was how Sam holds it. It’s such a small thing, but when the first real interaction of the game is her holding her beloved pet rabbit by its ears, and that rabbit is a completely static mesh…

  11. Richard says:

    I haven’t played the GM demo, so I don’t know which bits they’ve chosen, but I absolutely guarantee it doesn’t demo well. The opening acts in particular are slower than continental drift, and there aren’t many big set-pieces or exciting moments to slice out. The only reason it works at all is that the character writing is pretty good, and the spirtualism vs. rationalism angle is handled in some interesting ways.

  12. Jannik says:

    Gray Matter has a score around 75% on Gamerankings and Metacritics. Quite good, IMO, and lots of big budget titles end up with the same score 🙂

    And it’s about the same score So Blond recieved, so I doubt Wizarbox has lost its touch.

    Yeah, scores are not everything, but they usually reflect the overall quality of a product (or so they should.)

    I’m sure Gray Matter and So Blond are both good games, with a few issues, and while player A is annoyed with the flaws in Gray Matter, player B will probably enjoy the game a great deal.

  13. Steve says:

    I was basing my observation on a few reviews I read this week for each of the games; it wasn’t meant as a rigorous analysis. It wasn’t my intention to put down Gray Matter in a general sense, but to show that big budget, big name adventures aren’t always the best way to go.

    Wadjet Eye has been a shot in the arm for indie adventure development and Gemini Rue is a consolidation of that.

  14. Steve says:

    I’ve just been playing the demo of Gray Matter and I don’t think I’ve seen a worse demo in my life. I have no interest in playing the full game.

  15. Jannik says:

    I know your analyses wasn’t meant to be rigorous (as in precise.) I just think it sounded a bit “unbalanced”.

    Thanks for elaborating.

    Regarding game demos. Sometimes adventure game demos can be helpful, but in general I just rely on recommendations, reviews and, if I’ve played previous games from a developer/designer/writer, my own experience: in general I don’t think the genre lends itself well to being demoed, due to the combination of emphasis on narrative/exploration and non-repetitive gameplay.

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