An open letter in response to Joanna's open letter in response to my open letter in response to her open letter
I want to start by responding to what you said about ugliness, specifically “I used to think the ugliness of games mattered, but after the popularity of Undertale, I began to wonder whether this was simply not as much of a thing as I originally thought.” I think what you may be missing here (and no blame, because this is not the sort of thing you really learn without spending way too much time playing/reading/thinking about video games) is that Undertale is generally considered a really good looking game (a judgement I wholeheartedly agree with). In video games, there are two very different definitions of ugly: graphical fidelity (in the technological sense) and artistic/aesthetic accomplishment (in the sense used in other visual media). The former type of ugly refers to a game being “behind the times” technologically, and I think that’s what you’re thinking of. It’s absolutely true that the success of Undertale is a sign that many gamers don’t care about graphics being based on cutting-edge technology there are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the short answer is two-fold.
First, the mid-2000s shift to consoles slowed graphical advances to a trickle, such that the people who really valued this were simply not going to be satisfied and had to find other things to value (or quit the hobby); 2007’s Crysis was really the last technological, bring-computers-to-their-knees game to be released on PC. The second is the fact that making a graphically advanced game just keeps getting more and more expensive, such that it’s basically impossible for independent developers; as a result, they have doubled down on doing the best they can with previous technologies. And each era of graphics has its own particular aesthetic, and it is possible to do these better or worse. And as more and more developers have focused on this, even more mainstream, conservative gamers have become acclimated to older graphics; the most obvious evidence here is Minecraft, which is generally considered ugly in pretty much every way the word can be used, but has made more money than any buy-to-play game in the history of the universe.
Undertale was explicitly Kickstarted as a successor to Mother 3, a Gameboy Advance game; the developer thus does the best job he can in that pixel-art aesthetic (though to what degree one needs to be familiar with the aesthetic to appreciate it, I honestly don’t know). Richard & Alice, on the contrary, looks bad *for an AGS game* – the engine doesn’t give artists a lot of tools, but the likes of Ben Chandler are able to wrestle beauty out of it. Again, I really don’t want to be too harsh on Richard & Alice and don’t think this significantly impeded my enjoyment of the game; but I do think, given our mutual interests, it would be easy for us to only talk about narrative and design and ignore the more concrete elements of video games. I want to give them their fair due, or fair criticism, particularly since we’ll likely play future works in which the audio-visual elements are the best thing going.
(I do agree with you that the sound design is quite nice, though; the developers wisely created a scenario in which not a lot of sound would be necessary, but the little touches they make substantially improve the experience).
I’m surprised to hear you say that Drakan is the only other linear game you’ve played, since I tend to think of almost all graphic adventures as linear. Perhaps what you mean is that while the story is entirely fixed in most graphic adventures, you have a certain amount of world to explore and can do various puzzles in different orders, even if there is only a single solution to any given puzzle and thus the player must conform to the game’s design, and not vice versa. Whereas Richard & Alice more or less gives you “one room at a time.” And yes, Drakan is very much typical of a ’90s action game; even games that were ostensibly about exploration, like Tomb Raider, tended to function as very large corridors, partially out of technical limitations and partially because developers didn’t really know how to design anything else.   But as you note, the player still has room for self-expression even in these linear action games; the question of whether that self-expression constitutes meaningful choice is one of those eternal questions of game design philosophy. This is the sort of thing books are written on and so I’ll leave this discussion here for now, but I look forward to playing more games where we take notable difference approaches and can compare and contrast our experiences, and raising these questions again then.
Like you, I think I admired Richard & Alice more than I enjoyed it, but I will say that is true for 90% of the graphic adventures I play these days; the primary audience for them seems to largely want more of the same, and even the more acclaimed ones tend to just replicate Sierra or Lucasarts games from years past (and in the latter case, unsuccessfully at that). Yet Kentucky Route Zero has demonstrated that the genre still has stones left unturned, and so I keep playing them, hoping either for a radical new experience or – more likely – a comfortable return to a form I loved as a child. Richard & Alice doesn’t fully succeed at either, but it is not a game without ambition or accomplishment, and like you I look forward to playing more games by Owl Cave. Maybe after we’ve played some pretty different games for the sake of variety, we can play The Charnel House Trilogy.
- Or, rather, had forgotten; one of the things repeatedly emphasized in The Digital Antiquarian and The CRPG Addict is that open-world design was the norm in the earliest video games; it was only when games started emulating arcade games and attempting to push graphical technology farther than linear design become the norm. The current open-world fad is not so much new, as it is applying new technology to an old game design philosophy.↩
-  I’m sorry the “Notes” header above is so ugly; it’s a side-effect of this dumb WordPress theme, and I am using this footnote add-on now in the hopes that later I will fix the web design and these entries will still be here.↩