I’m an enjoyer of webcomics, as was betrayed from my very first Open Letters article when I pitted Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Dirda against gamer and comic writer Jerry Holkins and sided with the latter. This is not just an alliance of convenience – my personal investment in Holkin’s (and partner, Michael Krahulik’s) comic, Penny Arcade, is serious and my enthusiasm for their work genuine. But at this point, Penny Arcade is something I read regularly, instead of checking obsessively. Obsession is something that comes in waves for me, a fixation that I repeat in my attachments to my favorite books, television shows, films and video games. The sort of obsession in which I tell friends about it every other time I see them, or purposely buy them the book or film, or sit them in front of my gaming system, in hopes I’ll find someone else who can share my sudden, rabid excitement. It’s a missionary fervor, in its way.
Imagine, then, my feelings about MS Paint Adventures, Andrew Hussie’s online opus, a comic that combines a wicked sense of humor, remarkable technical sophistication, stylistic simplicity and, get this, a gaming element. It’s a lethal combo, as far as my own neurological configuration goes. Well written, clever as hell, and informed by the tradition of adventure games. These were games I grew up on, a form for which I, along with many others of my generation, feel considerable nostalgia.
MS Paint Adventures
A form, coincidentally, that has been having a remarkable renaissance of late. As usual, a little game history is in order.
Mirroring Lucafilm’s meteoric (glorious before it crashed and burned) trajectory, the entertainment software division of Darth George’s own Galactic Empire had an incredible heyday. And while you will never find me speaking ill of Lucasarts’ more central projects, Star Wars-based games like the arcade-style Rebel Assault or, my all-time personal favorite TIE Fighter (where you play as an Imperial pilot putting down damned rebel dissidents and terrorists!), some of their most appealing works were outside the Star Wars IP, in their adventurous, um… adventure game titles.
Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Sam & Max; these are games that, if they do not bring on the full-scale theatrical nostalgia in your heart, lemme tell you, you missed out on something. The particular wonder of these games is that they pass the test all true classics must: they overcome their temporal circumstances. Perhaps the excitement of their newness is gone, but what made these games so remarkable, so good, is still there, still accessible, because it was something besides the constant procession of anti-aliased graphics and high speed physics engines.
The adventure game’s roots lie at the origin of digital storytelling. The first instance, the appropriately named Adventure, was text-based and began the tradition of text-based form. Which form reached its height in Infocom’s titles, including the tremendous Zork. Irreverence and tongue-in-cheek humor heavily inflect these games, with lots of little in-jokes for anyone who happened to go to MIT during the late 70’s and early 80’s (like my father, who introduced me to the Infocom games in the first place). The real innovations, however, were in embracing the ability of text to do what graphical games of the same period could not, or could not do as easily – make story, exploration and puzzle-solving the central gameplay components. Paragraphs of description outlined rooms and listed objects, and the player navigated through and interacted with the world through commands like ‘go north’ or ‘pick up elvish sword’ or ‘say “hello, sailor”’.
Graphic adventure games evolved rapidly from the conceptual space of their text-based antecedents but, for very simple reasons, their popularity and sales rose to heights the sly need-to-know Infocom titles couldn’t have hoped for. The player acted through a character on the screen, inhabiting a visual space (a forest, the interior of a castle, the surface of an alien world), and the objects were visible (if occasionally obscure). Instead of writing commands, the player could simply point and click, then select one of several options: examine, take, use, talk, etc. There was pre-programmed dialogue options, allowing for inter-character interchanges beyond just ‘hello, sailor’. This proved much more intuitive (and entertaining) for non-programmers, for whom the weird grammatical constraints of text-based commands could be frustrating. The eventual addition of voice acting and complex animation also made the games more approachable and allowed for their natural sense of humor to expand to visual gags and the nuances of comic timing. And the best of Lucasarts games are extremely funny.
Sam & Max Hit the Road, the adventure game based off of a comic written by in-house artist and company favorite Steve Purcell, is an excellent example. The heroes: Sam and Max, the Freelance Police, the former a suit-wearing, practical minded, sensible dog, the latter, his sidekick, a ‘hyper kinetic, three foot, rabbity-thingy’ with an unabashed taste for reckless mayhem. They are to vigilantes what privateers are to pirates, cruising the highways in a DeSoto Adventurer, going from cheesy tourist trap to cheesy tourist trap, solving mysteries while hacking through a jungle of Americana. They carry guns, commune with mole men, save sideshow freaks, endure musical numbers and educational sequences about great American naturalist John Muir sung/spoken by preserved animal heads. Absurd to the extreme, Sam and Max is a game that relies on its hilarious dialogue, bizarre puzzles and cartoonish depictions of US cultural nadirs, none of which demand technological wizardry and all of which require spot-on artistic direction and top notch comedy writers.
I played the demo for the game in 1995, just the demo, and while circumstances did not allow me to get the full version at the time, my Junior year of college, a full twelve years later, I still thought back to just how funny it was. I bought the disc through Ebay, played through the entire game, and, in characteristic obsessive-enthusiasm, went out and bought the collected comics and pushed both the book and the disc on anyone unfortunate enough to share peer-space with me. However I may believe that simulation has its own merits, good writing is always good writing, and funny jokes will always make me laugh. Analytically, I think it’s important to expand out from the space of narrative, but as a reader, I love a good story.
The best example of just this principle is The Longest Journey (Den lengste reisen in the original Norwegian, though I’ll leave translation critique to those better qualified). As Wikipedia has it: “[The Longest Journey] won praise from critics for its enigmatic, complex storyline and high production values, but was criticized for some of its more obscure puzzles.” Which is more or less the virtue and problem of all adventure games. The puzzles provide a crucial but often perplexing and contrived mechanic for an otherwise beautiful and sweeping story with superb writing. The height of perplexing contrivance I’ve thus encountered involved combining an inflatable rubber duck, a piece of rubberized cable and a heavy duty clamp, all in the name of retrieving some random object lying on some subway tracks. This is the essence of adventure gaming, the absolute height of the Chekhov’s Gun principle – if you can pick it up, grab it, because it’s useful.
The attitude of the non-adventure gamer towards this fact is, generally, ‘who cares?’ And the response is ‘plenty of people care!’ – because The Longest Journey involves a cosmic collision, a pair of worlds, one dominated by magic, the other by technology, threatening to overwhelm each other and bury both in chaos – because yes, there are lines and lines of dialogue that serve no purpose other than to make the world and the characters within it full and rich and believable – because even the most minimal of game elements, the puzzles you must tackle to progress the story, sometimes end up seeming like weird intruders in the flow of convincing story – because that’s what you’re on board for with a game like this, a narrative experience.
The Longest Journey was a seeming last hurrah, released in 1999. As the 00’s rolled in, the adventure game market shrank considerably. The technical wonders first person shooters and real time strategy games could so easily harness for their projects didn’t mean a lot to adventure games, whose golden geese had always been writers and artists. The backdrops in Longest Journey were breathtaking, but they demanded and employed little of ‘the cutting edge’ so often demanded by both investor and consumer mentality. We’re playing video games, here; if it’s not making my graphics card scream for mercy, it’s old news. And while I’m the last person to claim that video game storytelling died with the adventure game, something was lost.
MS Paint Adventures begins with this certain sense of nostalgia, but it marks a turning point. What may originally have been a mix between adventure-gamer wistfulness and an interest in pushing comics’ creative envelope has turned into an all-out force of online nature. Its original storyline, Jail Break, opens with a man in a cell kept company by a pumpkin. A single frame, and then a prompt – the readers were to write in commands, have the man do something, anything, ideally facilitating his escape. They were invited to play an adventure game, panel by panel.
The ‘mechanic’ was simple. After each panel of the comic (or, sometimes, set of panels) there was an input for the reader, any reader, every reader, to suggest the next command in the ‘game’. It was, weirdly, a sort of dictatorial democracy, where the readers had the power to offer the next step or turn in the story, from which the author had to select an option, but this selection was entirely the author’s executive decision, as would be the consequences, which last would appear as the next panel(s) of the comic.
Andrew Hussie originally took the first suggestion offered to him, and this lack of editorial control caused his first two story lines, Jail Break and Bard Quest, to flounder and flail. However, his sharp sense of humor and skill in conveying the ethos of the adventure game, including apt lampoons of the painfully arbitrary conundrums and puzzles, help build his popularity to the point where he was getting many, many commands from readers, allowing him to be much more selective about which would take part in the story, since he had so many options. He came into his own with the third storyline, Problem Sleuth, a stick-figure epic that starts with comically named private eyes in an ambiguously noir prohibition-era setting and ends with a titanic battle between good and evil that literally rends the universe in half.
The rise of MS Paint Adventures occurred around the same time as Sam and Max’s own return to the spotlight, an arduous process seen through by diehard fans, finally victorious when the license was picked up by Telltale Games, a faction of game developers from Lucasart’s graphical adventure heyday. Sand Sam and Max had their glorious encore in 2006, around the same time Hussie was starting his first comic experiment. The same year the Longest Journey‘s sequel, Dreamfall, was released, its development backed by a grant from the Norwegian Film Fund. It would not be remiss of me, I think, to suggest that something is happening, that the adventure game is returning.
And this return is, I contend, tied to the expanding influence of gaming within global culture. MS Paint Adventures is very funny – Hussie’s diction and wit are peerless, and he shows himself equally capable of using vulgar humor and sly wordplay. Butmany of its foundational jokes are moored solidly in its subject matter: games. The characters of his most recent project, Homestuck, both play games and inhabit a game-like universe with infuriating inventory rules that will make any long-time gamer shudder in sympathy (inventory management, how many things you can keep on your character and how you can access them, is a frequent frustration in all video games); and maybe only true-blue gamers, deep in their virtual in-jokes, will really enjoy Homestuck.
Still, taking flights at least once a month, I can’t help but feel like the inventory jokes become a bit too real as I try and figure out just how many inches of overstuffed stretch I can risk before my carry-on exceeds carry-on dimensions. And is it just me, or doesn’t the strange mix of elegance and pure bureaucratic BS that is internet dating, internet job applications and internet commerce seem to match up just a bit too well with the adventure gamer’s experience of pointless challenges and just-barely-more-than-intuitive puzzles? Any adventure gamer can tell you of the fortune they’d have if they received a buck for every time they knew how to solve a puzzle, they got the principle, it’s just doing it in such a way that the game will recognize this fact. Remind anyone of grocery store self-checkout? Of authenticating their Pay Pal account? Of the DM-frikkin’-V? And what a relief when it actually works out, and so smoothly at times. To quote Homestuck, it’s cool that things don’t always have to be a federal fucking issue. The abstract frustration and concrete satisfaction of our increasingly digital ‘real’ world is given a pleasant life of its own in adventure games.
What MS Paint Adventures and the adventure games that inspired it have to offer, beyond weaving entertaining and occasionally beautiful stories and providing enjoyable brainteasers, is the chance to see our own world’s obverse. Through them we can see the gamey-ness present in our lives, day to day, the arbitrary, puzzle-like nonsense that intrudes on the narrative flow of our own experience. Kafka already saw it coming – one can imagine a The Castle adventure game, the whole thing one huge, insufferable puzzle. And maybe, just maybe, by exporting the experience of games into our attitude about daily life, we might be able to make a little more of an adventure out of it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to figure out how to register for classes. This is bound to be an adventure.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, The Sims franchise, video game music, Halo 3: Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, Tropico 3, and Assassin’s Creed II.