Simple Adventure Games Provide Complex Joy

Big, sweeping setpieces comprise many of today's most beloved adventure games, but simple stuff is still charming in its own way.

Simple Adventure Games Provide Complex Joy
A Highland Song is one of a few adventure games with straightforward premise but depth of content to enjoy. Source: inkleStudios (YouTube)

In trying to figure out what I've wanted to play on weekly charity livestreams I've been planning on doing, I've probably picked up and discarded a bunch of ideas. Should I play popular games to garner more attention (and thus a chance at donations towards a good cause)? What about games that are huge in their scope and their presentation, that provide a visual that people might want to tune into? Or maybe I should try showing off how epically mild I am at tanking in an MMO with lots of bossfights and raids such as FFXIV?

You may still see all of the above and more as I figure things out (and when I do, I'll be linking my stream in not-so-subtle ways on here), but eventually, I settled in on what some might deem "cozy" games - the kinds of simple games that might have a small premise (like building or growing things) that have this relaxing vibe. My streams are planned to be on Fridays, when everyone, including myself, is exhausted from a week of the work and life grind, and kicking back with something calming is good for me, and for my potential viewers.

More specifically, that's how I settled in on simple and cozy adventure games.

A Highland Song on Steam
Moira scales a cliff in A Highland Song. Source: Steam

Now, don't get me wrong - I love the deep mechanics and the complex storylines of modern adventure type games. Titles like Alan Wake and Alan Wake 2, or the Uncharted series or the latest Tomb Raider games have enchanted me for years with intricate plotlines and fun, multi-faceted gameplay.

But every so often, I yearn for something a little simpler, and that's where games like inkleStudios' A Highland Song come in. The premise is simple - Moira McKinnon is running away, drawn out to the sea by a letter from her uncle, and she has to traverse the dangers of the Scottish Highlands to do so. There are no big world-ending stakes, no epic exchanges where you might, in all likelihood, kill a god and/or become one yourself in the process - just a simple goal of surviving a journey all on your own, with only your wits and your mildly decent climbing and jumping skill to guide you. It was a nice break from the sorts of narratives that might wax philosophical about the world's ills while giving you a time limit to right them (I'm looking at you, Metal Gear Solid games.

The Legend of Zelda (NES) Walkthrough (Part 4) - Level 3 "Manji ...
End of dungeon 3 in The Legend of Zelda. Source: bdcool213 (YouTube)

In a way, older adventure games like the original Legend of Zelda started out fairly simple just like A Highland Song did. Now, I know what you're thinking - Frank, you're insane, the Zelda series is one of the most epic and well-known adventure stories ever. You'd be right, of course - but I'd argue it didn't start out that way. The idea was simple - the land was in danger from an evil overlord who'd captured the princess, and you needed to get pieces of a powerful object that would allow you to defeat them. From the beginning, you were given a simple sword, told not to leave without it, and headed out into the world to explore and find items. Before the days of exhaustively informative FAQs online and guides that only found their way into physical print, you had to find your own way through a world like NES's Zelda. And it was fun, fulfilling, and relaxing in its simple execution.

Moira leaps to the beat of a wonderfully orchestrated song. Source: Steam

Somewhere between the trailblazing, simple adventure of The Legend of Zelda and now, adventure games simply became bigger, more wide-ranging, more urgent in their attempts to cast you, the player, as the only one who could stop total destruction. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But games like A Highland Song hearken back to a simpler time, when you discovered, more than read a guide about, the things that you could do and experience in a game, and when goals weren't rife with big statements or lessons. And the best part is that these simple adventure games take advantage of today's modern tech. The music in A Highland Song is so cool, rich with the culture and setting it pulls from and in all its high-quality recorded glory. The voiceovers and narration tell an intimate tale scoped only to family, with all the emotion you'd expect. And the animation reminds me of those old-school features such as 1978's The Lord of the Rings, only sharper, and more defined. It's the perfect blend of old and new.

Moira balances carefully on a rock. Source: Steam

I'm planning on playing more of A Highland Song on stream - the first attempt was wrought with constant, happy mistakes and perhaps the unfortunate technical hurdle of not realizing I was muted for half of it. And while the learning curve has been steep, the simple presentation and objectives have made the game charming (and, potentially, repeatable, given that there appear to be different paths). It's been infinitely relaxing and soothing, and I encourage people who might be tired or perhaps even frustrated with the huge stakes presented in a lot of modern adventure games to give something smaller and more focused a try. You just might find a hidden gem you'd never have found otherwise.

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