At A Loss for Verbs

At a Loss for Verbs

Adventure games are notorious for a number of reasons. Chief among them is probably the fact that they did used to actually end up being pixel-hunting debacles, and no one wants to sit and click 800 x 600 pixels just to figure out where to kick in a wall. It was a dark time and I’m glad it’s all behind us. (Mostly.)

The second is, strangely enough, also part of the charm of the genre. By and large, the interactions of adventure games are inscrutable. And by that, I mean that since they are sequential bits of scripted actions and conversations, the utility of any given item is entirely up to a brain that isn’t yours. That can get pretty frustrating.

You may end up with a knife, but its actual use may not be to cut something. It could be bartered or thrown or any number of things that don’t involve its intended purpose. Perhaps that’s more akin to real life where many things are rarely used as designed, but unlike real life, adventure games split your actions along the line of right and wrong.

Full Throttle

And they used to have an incredibly complex set of functions to be paired up with objects. Along with an inventory, you could usually pick what specific verb you wanted to apply to a noun, so you could choose to specifically hold an apple or eat it or throw it. And then you could do any of those things at another object.

That was where the charm was. It was in delving into this strange plane of existence where everyone but you knew the consequences of your actions. I may want to throw my single bucket of water into a wall, but the character will pipe up with “I don’t think that needs to be wet right now.” I can try to show off a stool I got to the mayor, but my character will just say “he doesn’t need to see that.”

As you can imagine, though, the permutations available to you for doing something like five verbs across hundreds of objects in a dozen screens are overwhelming. It has resulted in a simplification of the interactions in adventure games, to where the context of your actuated desire is determined automatically. I can take a brick and drag it onto myself, but my character won’t eat it because it’s a fucking brick. You don’t need dialogue telling you that.

Gemini Rue

It has, however, taken away the impetus to think critically in a way that was wholly unique to adventure games. Reducing the cloud of verbs to the single action of click makes you view the game’s puzzles as a bunch of locks and you must gather the keys. Having that expansive set of possibilities, though, made it seem much more like you were performing some arcane, ritualistic dance to coax those locks open.

Granted, you’re still doing the same basic function—hooking up one hose to another until the solutions to your problems come gushing forth—but the simple wrinkle of thinking How in addition to What makes the flavor of adventure game thinking unique. Instead of matching peg to hole, you have to think about what you’re going to do once you put them together.

Of course, that all comes back around to being a problem again. Do we really want to iterate through several non sequitur actions on an impossibly ridiculous combination of items? Does anyone truly desire the chance to decipher the alchemy of a designer’s machinations? Just drag this onto that and whammy. Done.


It’s a fine line to walk. Regardless of the implementation, this diverse smorgasbord of resulting actions is what sets adventure games apart. Shooters have fire, reload, duck. Platformers have run and jump. But adventure games have so much more. Climb, wave, lick, toss, eat, wink, etc. When it all gets relegated to “use,” though, it has the potential to be an unfortunate reduction. Oh well. I guess as long as we still get to make a tree barf up syrup, we’ll be just fine.

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