Devlog #4 - Musings on Adventure Game Verbs

Perhaps the deciding characteristic of point-and-click adventure games is their use of verbs to provide the player control over what happens on screen.
In the olden days you’d often have a fixed number of verbs at your disposal: “Walk to”, “Open”, “Close” “Talk to”, “Look at”, “Give”, “Pick up”, “Push”, “Pull”, “Use” and so on.

As developers went on to realize that many of these verbs are rarely used, the list was increasingly condensed. These days some games are left with just two interactions: “Look at” and “Use”.

The Verb Panel

Personally, as a gamer I’ve always been a fan of having lots of verbs: It makes me think about what I’m actually trying to achieve instead of just clicking around mindlessly. It’s also good for a laugh in many situations.

On the other hand when putting on my developer’s hat I can certainly see why one would want to get rid of as many verbs as possible: For one, they’re just a lot work to get right. To avoid things getting repetitive, the developer needs to come up with a seemingly endless number of responses to even the most nonsensical requests.

Another common argument is that they simply take up too much space. Take Monkey Island 2 as an example of the classic LucasArts adventure user interface:

More than a quarter of the screen is covered.

The entire bottom of the screen is covered by a black panel containing verbs and inventory. In fact that’s more than a quarter of the screen! If you ask me, that space would be much better used to show off more of the gorgeous background art.

Mouse Cursor Verbs

A game of the same era, Sierra’s King’s Quest VI, takes a different approach:

Zero screen real-estate is used by verbs.

Instead of placing the verbs prominently on the screen, the mouse cursor is used to indicate what will happen when the user next clicks on an object.
Right-clicking will cycle through the available verbs, of which there are just four: “Walk”, “Use”, “Look at” and “Talk”. Alternatively, one could move the cursor to the top of the screen to make a panel with the interactions appear and select them that way.

Sierra’s is a nice compromise as it entirely avoids the issue of blocking the background art with GUI.

Context-Sensitive Verbs

Another approach was to have context-sensitive interactions. This concept can be seen in Hideo Kojima’s 1994 graphic adventure Policenauts. Clicking on objects brings up a popup menu showing the available verbs for this particular thing. Click on a door and you’ll see “Open”, whereas on a person you might get a list of topics to discuss.

Interactions are listed in a context-sensitive popup menu.

The advantages of this approach are obvious:

  1. The entire screen is available to show off the artwork until the menu appears. (Which, ironically, is not used in Policenauts, opting instead for glaring blackness around the game view!)
  2. The range of verbs is not limited to a pre-defined selection; the developers could even add one-off jokes for a single object.

The Webmaster

For The Webmaster I’ve spent a long time deliberating over the best mode of interacting with the game.

Using the modern dumbed-down approach with one or two interactions was always out of the question – I just find it incredibly boring.
For a long time I was using the right-click-to-cycle approach as seen above in the King’s Quest example. This makes for a nice compromise as it offers a limited number of verbs while still providing the player with adequate agency. They feel like they’re at least somewhat in charge of what’s going to happen, instead of the game making all the decisions for them.

However, I was never entirely happy with it. A fixed number of verbs always feels needlessly restrictive. It inevitably leads to situations where it’s unclear to the player why something has happened. In the worst case it would solve a puzzle with the player being entirely oblivious to what’s going on and why.

My biggest gripe with the fixed verbs interface is that it conceals the player’s intent. Take this screenshot for example:

Interactions are listed in a context-sensitive popup menu.
Let’s say the player wants to interact with the clothes scattered on the floor. With a fixed verb interface the most meaningful option might be “Pick up Clothes”. Or worse yet, “Use Clothes”.
But what does that mean, exactly? Will the kid clean up his room like his mom told him to do a hundred times? Or will he pick up an item of clothing and add it to his inventory, as the “Pick up” verb would customarily do? Will he put on the smelly T-shirt that’s been stuck behind the bed for seven weeks?

Who knows?!

With this in mind I’ve changed the interactions in The Webmaster to something akin to what is used in Policenauts: Every object is populated with a list of (more or less sensible) verbs which are shown when the user clicks on the object.
Not all interactions will necessarily lead to a useful outcome; some of them may be jokes. Others red herrings. Or they’ll simply expand upon the back story without furthering any puzzles.

But at least the player will be able to express her intent. While it may not cover all possible ideas the player might want to try, they should never be left in the dark wondering what’s going to happen when they “Use smelly Clothes”.