Gaming has changed a lot in the last two decades. Stunning graphics and amazingly intensive feats are now the focus with the advancement of much more powerful consoles. Though this brings us technically brilliant games, they can often be very bare beneath the surface. Where's the plot line? The humour? The character? That's why sometimes looking back to older titles that, at a glance, don't seem to provide much on face value, might be able to provide us with a response to these "hollow" games. Let me introduce you to Broken Sword, one of my favourite gaming franchises ever.
Broken Sword is an adventure game in the old sense of the word. In fact, a more accurate categorization would be a Point-and-Click Adventure. LucasArts had the genre tied up in the late 80s, with games such as Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island bringing them great success and acclaim. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars came after, developed by Revolution Software and released in 1996, it emerged at a time when pixelated graphics and MIDI sound were on their way out. The game offered beautifully painted backgrounds, a CD quality recorded soundtrack and voice actors were used to bring characters to life. Despite this change, aspects that were carried over from those earlier games were the challenging puzzles, engaging dialogue and that certain spark of charm that you just don't find anywhere else. At the time, I played the original game on the PlayStation. Yes, a cursor based game with a controller rather than mouse is exactly as slow and tedious as you'd imagine, but that was my sufferance as the game was originally released on PC. It stands testament to the brilliant storyline and the main character that so many people would suffer through that sort of gameplay in order to push the story on to see what would happen next, and hear his sarcastic reaction to it.
The story of The Shadow of the Templars begins with an unwitting American, George Stobbart ("That's two Ts and two Bs"), vacationing in Paris when he is almost killed by a bomb planted by an assassin disguised as a clown. This strange event only gets darker, as George meets a French reporter, Nico Collard, and the pair begin to uncover a sinister plot constructed by modern day Templars. Progression after each plot twist is rewarded by introducing a new beautifully rich location full of eccentric and lively characters. More often than not you needed to solve a puzzle to move on to the next section of the game; "use sewer key on sewer cover," or "hide in Egyptian sarcophagus," maybe even "disguise self as a doctor." The tone of the game was quite tongue in cheek even though the story was based around historical figures and events. The funniest parts of the action can be attributed to a good old dose of British humour.
For me, Broken Sword was the equivalent of a book that you couldn't put down since it was heavily story driven. Charles Cecil, creator of the series, has been often quoted saying that although video games have great advantages to storytelling because of the player interactivity involved, they can also face the problem of far too many constraints. Either you let the player do what they want, or you restrain them to the strict story you want to tell. The secret of a great story driven game is weave it together seamlessly with the gameplay. Broken Sword's simplistic controls meant the games were very accessible to most players. They were also heavily supported by the intrepid Stobbart, who went on to be protagonist in a following trio of titles. His voice acting, provided by Rolf Saxon, forced him to become one of the most quotable characters I have ever had the pleasure of playing. This was an integral feature because this was the point that the whole game was riding on. There were no flashy animations to keep your attention. You had to be committed to the story and attached to the characters in order to find your enjoyment there, so they were carefully crafted. But times change. Although The Shadow of the Templars and The Smoking Mirror had sold a million copies each, there wasn't much room in the gaming industry (read: profit) for 2D adventuring any more. The third game in the series, The Sleeping Dragon, took it into 3D graphics for the first time and in the attempt to keep up, the interface was difficult to use and the graphics were not up to par. All of this seemed only to get in the way of the humour and original appeal of the series and by the release of the fourth game, The Angel of Death, the series didn't even get a console release and received mixed reviews.
On top of this, these puzzle based games fell foul to the same problem that they all faced. When you got stuck, you'd just resort to trying every item in your inventory with everything else, quickly becoming frustrating for the many people who faced it, as it would entirely slump the pace of the story. Gamers who were accustomed to perfecting performing head shots or leaping from platform to platform were not able to practice and get better at the puzzles. This is why when the original two games of the series were updated with a Director's Cut and Remastered editions for DS, Wii, iOS and PC, a hint system was installed, leaving those frustrating parts behind. Unfortunately, this made the game way too easy and in many ways made the puzzles more baffling, as you never spent the time trying to figure out why they worked.
However, the fact that these 15 year old games have been re-released and are still surviving in today's market just proves that there's something more to gaming than the most realistic graphics or pushing boundaries of gameplay. Storytelling never gets old. Well written and developed characters are always a good start for capturing an audience's attention. Take a look at the success of Heavy Rain. That's why fans of Broken Sword have been patiently waiting for the announcement of the next game, despite a long six year wait so far. The fifth game in the series is in development for release on PC reportedly as soon as next year. The game will return to it's 2D roots, with focus back on the storytelling aspect. There's no doubt that the rise of digital distributors such as Steam and Good Old Games are in large part to credit for Revolution Software's resurgence, creating once again an audience for such a title. I can't wait to go on another point and click adventure with George.