Friday, April 26, 2013

What bad inventory puzzles can teach us about objects

Inventories in adventure games are getting a little hate, and perhaps with good reason. Ron Gilbert boasts that The Cave has no inventory; this review of Penumbra assures you that there are no inventory-based puzzles, and the makers of Hamlet have “no inventory” as a feature. If you’ve played more than one adventure game, you’ve encountered the frustrating situation of an inventory-based puzzle; sometimes you simply try every item and then try to combine them with themselves until you find a solution (or if you’re like me, you just look it up in a walkthrough). These types of puzzles are rightfully hated because all too often, an inventory item is a one-use hidden key that solves one puzzle.

The main problem with inventory puzzles arises when the expected functions of an item do not match the in-game functions of an item. Consider the monkey that’s later used as a monkey wrench in The Secret of Monkey Island. It’s a use that would only make sense in a videogame. Or consider the “put gems in a pile of honey” puzzle from Kings Quest V. While these puzzles are illogical, they ironically force us to see inventory items more abstractly, in a way that an object-oriented ontologist would be proud of.

Object-oriented ontology is just one way to describe the idea that humans and the uses they have for objects don’t describe the entirety of objects, and in my argumentation, their uses. When we look at natural resources, we’re always thinking of how they can help humans and other life forms (which is only natural, given our states of humanness). When an idea arises, it’s often dismissed if it doesn’t concern humans, or our wants and desires.

Now, it would seem like a videogame, which is designed for humans to use and enjoy it, would depict objects in a human-centric way--that is, most objects in a game are there to fulfill some kind of puzzle or make a joke. But the very strangeness of some inventory puzzles undermines our expectations of how objects can serve us, and further alienates us from how humans normally use objects. It forces us to confront the very nature of the inventory puzzle, which is that “x (with y) used in z way solves the puzzle.”

Inventories can include items that aren’t physical objects. Trauma Team has patient symptoms and murder clues as inventory items, and the Ace Attorney series has statements and ideas as item types. Lost in Shadow had your character collect memories, and Resonance allows you to refer to past events in your “long-term memory” section of inventory.

To name a memory, and object, or a thought--is to both reduce it to less than it really is and to allow us to manipulate it. An object is more than its name, but without using that name or icon, we cannot think about what we want to do with it. But virtual worlds are different. An item in a game will have a verbal and pictorial description (including within the game’s code) that completely describe how the item works in that world.

These ideas-as-objects in a game are both what they say they are and not. You’ve probably experienced a moment like in Hotel Dusk where you know what you need to do but your character doesn’t. That time in Ace Attorney where you present evidence that contradicts the testimony, only to have it not be the “right” thing. It’s frustrating, yes, and maybe the designers could have done better, but if we ignore them for a minute and just look at the game they produced as an object, it’s an object that teaches us how unsympathetic computers are. How computers do exactly what we tell them to do, and they don’t have feelings.

I’m in awe of how objects, even man-made objects, can teach us things unintended or unknown by their designers.

I initially write this piece for something else, and now a few months later I figure I might as well publish it here, even if it is kind of weird and might not accurately reflect OOO. Also it is kind of obviously/painfully inspired by Bogost's Alien Phenomenology.