There are amazing adventures found in the pages of books, and you don't have to take LaVar Burton's word for it. Oh literature! A medium with a collection so vast its a wonder we've had time to hone storytelling in any other form. When novels are adapted to film, there is frequently something missing, a certain 'je ne sais quoi' lacking from visuals alone. "The book is better" has become so incessant its almost become a mantra for literary snobs around the world. There are so few contrary cases, we might as well just presume the book is always better and leave it at that.
Thus, it is no surprise video games frequently look towards literature for inspiration and guidance, for better or worse. Some go so far as to present themselves as a close kin to literature, a cousin born into the video game family but with such brilliant red hair there must be a touch of novel in him. Which brings me to Hotel Dusk: Room 215, developed by Cinq, published by Nintendo and first launched in Japan. The is played with the DS on its side, resembling how one holds a book. This devotion to its format lineage belittles its successful literature-videogame half-breed brethren.
A portable noir videogame set in a shady 1979 Californian Hotel intrigued me the way only a dark mystery can. Perhaps the game would be a serious drama with puzzle elements I thought, a procedural cop drama meets Prof. Layton. It was not.
Allow me to get the flaws out of the way: The secrets of Hotel Dusk unfold at an aggravatingly slow pace. The vast majority of character interaction is through cliche ridden dialogue, which scrolls far too slowly for fast readers or any literate readers intrigued enough in the story to set their own pace. Without the ability to enable instant text, the plot crawls along slowly regardless of story elements. Dialogue nodes are merely breaks between unchanging or dead-end conversations and the available puzzles in between chatter are rare and childishly simple. To make matters worse, the game insults the player by giving them an easy multiple choice test at the end of every chapter. To top things off, the story reads like a vapid airport mystery novel.
After struggling with Hotel Dusk, I'm inclined to agree with the videogame segregationists, whose flag reads "Books are books, games are games, and never the two shall join." Reverting to my tendency of making food based analogies, this meshing of the two mediums creates more of a "liver and pancakes" than "chicken and waffles" combination. Yet some games combine aspects of the mediums remarkably well. Why does Hotel Dusk fail where others have forged a brilliant path?
The aforementioned Prof. Layton, possibly my favorite DS game, tells a compelling and comical story interlaced with puzzles which seem at first to have little relevance to the story. Given, Layton is more akin to a cartoon than a novel with its animated cut scenes, but the example is important none the less. Layton maintains a well paced story bolstered by gameplay, although its puzzles could have easily been collected into a game with no narrative at all.
On the visually opposite spectrum are interactive fictions (IF), experiences that exist in the borderlands of gaming. Many of these text-based adventures, such as Emily Short's Galatea, are completely devoid of visual elements. Regardless, there are those designers still creating surprisingly fun and intense games that far surpass the "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels of the early eighties and nineties. These IFs frequently push the boundaries of the medium and can be incredibly innovative, particularly with dialogue. Like 'escape the room' puzzles, many games in the IF genre reveal a hidden depth far more intriguing than what Hotel Dusk provides.
Both Layton and Galatea share many characteristics with literature, yet succeed where Hotel Dusk fails. What these games have that Hotel Dusk does not is interactivity through meaningful choice, or at least the illusion of meaningful choice. The element of video games that makes the medium so unique, and the most important element to keep when blending it with literature. Unfortunately, the puzzles are too simple to feel interactive and the dialogue is linear, only incorrect responses alter the story occasionally by ending the game.
The interactivity of choice in interactive fiction takes the form of narrative control. The player drives the story forward, changing pacing and outcome on a whim. The narrative is defined by the players, not regurgitated to them like a book on tape. But even if the story is fixed, involvement in gameplay is choice enough to envelope the player in the experience. Solving puzzles in Prof. Layton is rewarding by itself, but these become even more meaningful when tied to the story, setting the pace without being restrictive.
It is easy enough to find parties of contrarians eager to debate the definition of "videogame." I am comfortable with keeping the term nebulous. Even so, I have a hard time considering Hotel Dusk a videogame because it is an empty invitation to play. There is space for more literature-based videogames (Dante's Inferno and Tom Clancy's Splintercell don't count), but wrapping a poor piece of fiction in the guise of game without choice is a sin, belittling both crafts.