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Badly switching things up with The Little Acre

How do you feel about switching between characters in a single video game? Is it something you enjoy, because it gives you the chance to see a digital world through multiple pairs of eyes? Or would you prefer to stay with one protagonist throughout your gameplay and get to know them fully?

The reason I ask is because I recently played something which made me consider how this mechanic is used in more detail. During a week off work and in between too-many-hours of The Elder Scrolls Online, I returned to my preferred genre and completed a few adventures. Unforeseen Incidents, a title I’d first heard about at EGX Rezzed in 2018, proved to be a great dystopian story with a nice art-style; and I finally had the chance to play detective-drama Lamplight City in full after previewing it last year.

EGX, expo, event, video games, developer session, Pewter Games Studio, Charles Cecil, chairs, microphones, presentation, screen

I also tried The Little Acre, a release I found out about at EGX in 2016. There I’d attended a developer session with Charles Cecil from Revolution Games – the creator of the classic Broken Sword series – where he shared his belief that the genre’s mid-1990s slump was due to it failing to modernise. However, it’s now catching up again because developers are designing titles to include logical puzzles for the modern day, which no longer involve frustrating elements such as pixel-hunting or long dialogue trees.

Whatever Cecil learnt from his observations on the genre, he clearly put it into effect during his time as Executive Producer for Pewter Games Studio. The Little Acre’s hand-drawn animations are great and occasionally you’ll come across one that immediately brings Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars to mind. In a post on the PlayStation blog, designer Kate Clavin explained how they spent ‘four years attempting to give every character, environment, movement and gesture as much life and personality as possible’.

But while the animations are of a very high quality, I can’t help feeling they were perhaps the focus of the title to the detriment of everything else. Take that character-switching mechanic I talked about at the start of this post: at times it was employed to do nothing other than show off a cute little clip. When you ask the player to switch from unemployed engineer Aidan to his young daughter Lily to do nothing more than click to walk from one side of a scene to another before switching back again, something is definitely wrong.

This game is very short for a point-and-click and I managed to get through The Little Acre in just over 90 minutes. After checking against a walkthrough afterwards, I discovered that a total of 19 character-switches took place throughout that period. I don’t enjoy the mechanic at the best of times, and that’s when it’s being used to further the narrative or gameplay; but a transfer between dad and daughter every five-minutes and ten-seconds on average must surely seem excessive to even a fan.

This frequency had a negative effect on my immersion because not enough time was given to get to know either character and feel comfortable with them both. Glimpses of their personality flashed across the screen before control was switched to the other protagonist. By the time the end credits rolled I didn’t particularly cared what happened to them – and the fact that they’d made it back to their own world and managed to save it from a lonely creature in the process was all a bit ‘meh’ as a result.

Personally, I feel that character-switching throws me out of the flow and brings me back to reality when I’m engrossed in a story. It’s difficult to think of a game where the mechanic worked for me but I can certainly name a few where it just didn’t at all. Going back to the Broken Sword series again, this is possibly one of the worse: I find George Stobbart and Nico collard to be incredibly annoying so having to play as both makes the experience even more challenging.

Unfortunately The Little Acre just doesn’t hit the mark. Along with its excessive switches and short gameplay length, the puzzles don’t give the player any reason to have to stop and think because it’s all just far too easy. It would be a great entry to the point-and-click genre for young gamers because it’s very cute and family-friendly; but older players will be left wondering about several unexplained story elements and whether they actually cared enough to find out more.

Give me one protagonist, an engrossing storyline with plenty of mystery, and puzzles that leave me scratching my head for a while. That’s what I want from an adventure game.

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

19 thoughts on “Badly switching things up with The Little Acre Leave a comment

  1. I totally agree that it changes how I engage with the game. I enjoy the feeling connected with a character which doesn’t happen when you’re switching who you’re controlling every few minutes.

    One of the best times I’ve seen this used was in Resonance (although it’s been a long time since I played it) but I felt more like I was watching a story unfold rather than really engaging with any one character’s motives in the plot.

    Certainly grated a little in Resident Evil zero. 😕

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    • Resonance… I know I’ve played this and I remember having to switch between characters… but I can’t actually recall the storyline off the top of my head! That kind of makes sense, if I couldn’t get totally immersed in the storyline through one character.

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  2. Hmm. I guess what I would say that character switching, whether it’s in a book or a game gives me the initial knee-jerk reaction of, ‘Aww. Gimme back the other person!’

    It leads to the new character(s) needing to raise to a much higher bar than they otherwise would have if they had been the central protagonist right from the beginning. There are plenty of circumstances where this bar has been met and my view (for that particular title) has been changed to a more positive one, but it does nothing for my general reaction in any new encounter of this kind.

    I suppose I should also note that for games where this is done the type of game matters too. The more heavily story driven the game is, the stronger my initial negative reaction will be. At the other end of the scale, if we’re talking a game with more disposable characters then it matters not a jot.

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    • I must admit that I hadn’t actually considered this when writing the post, but you’re right: I definitely have a stronger negative reaction to character-switching in adventure games. It’s those times when I really want to get engrossed in a story and see the world through the protagonist’s eyes, not get pulled out of it and into another body. It doesn’t seem to bother me so much when playing other genres. 🤔

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  3. For me, part of the issue with modern adventure games is that they lean a bit too hard on the whole “narrative experience” angle popularised by “walking simulators” and their ilk, and in the process they forget to incorporate satisfying puzzles or meaningful mechanics.

    Oddly enough, games that did this (including the original Broken Sword!) back in the late ’90s, regarded by most as the “golden age” of adventure games, tended to get heavily criticised, while LucasArts and Sierra (regarded as the masters of the genre at the time) struck an excellent balance between gameplay and storytelling… well, with Sierra arguably having a bit too much of an emphasis on random deaths!

    For me, peak adventure game remains Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (honorable mention to Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, but that doesn’t fit the example I want to talk about here!). There’s a compelling, satisfying story (with three possible routes through the middle section), entertaining character interactions, excellent puzzles (with a light element of randomisation, making each playthrough slightly different) and good use of character-switching.

    You don’t get to play Sophia for very long in Fate of Atlantis, but the short period you do feels meaningful and appropriate, and even the game’s interface highlights this; the formerly blue “verb bar” becomes purple and you get a different inventory. And it’s not done for the sake of it; she has something important to do, and when she’s done, you just go right on back to Indy.

    For me, I quite like the opportunity to play as different characters, though I inevitably find myself picking a favourite and using them as a “default”. And the mechanic shouldn’t be used to excess; there should be a reason for it. It sounds like The Little Acre really lacks that latter aspect.

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    • Just a quick note to say, Oh God I’m thankful adventure game (and game in general) design moved on from the Sierra lol-you-dead thinking. I still value my time with those games a lot (in particular the Quest for Glory series) but hoo boy. xD

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      • Haha, yeah. I remember LucasArts used to make “we won’t kill you every 10 seconds” a key part of their marketing. Sierra finally nailed it with Gabriel Knight; there were a few instances where you could die later in the game, but they were easy enough to avoid and made sense in context. No more King’s Quest style “you stepped too far too the right, off the cliff you go!” nonsense 🙂

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  4. I think two protagonists can work, but from the developers perspective, they have to make sure that both are equally likeable and fun to play as – I think having the two heroes with different ‘strengths’ can be done really well (i.e. one does more combat and one does more puzzling) because they can both have unique gameplay, and you can justify the different perspectives. You definitely don’t want the players rolling their eyes whenever they have to switch to Person B. I feel like this is a hard balance to achieve though – probably only a handful of games have done it really well. One of my childhood faves, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, handled this in a great way, as it made sense narratively, and each character’s gameplay was super fun and engaging. Nine times out of ten though, I feel like ‘single protagonist’ is the way to go.

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    • Good point, character-switching is definitely less jarring when it makes sense narratively! One of my biggest issues with The Little Acre was that the mechanic was used to no effect at all sometimes; I just didn’t understand why I needed to change protagonist to walk to the next screen and then change back again. I’d definitely agree though and say for me personally, I prefer a single character.

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  5. Just thinking how this is done in novels, you can go full first person perspective, or 3rd person limited to convey personal experiences, but itnlimits what you can reveal about the world, since youbuse one perspective. You can work aroundnthatbeither by using a 3rd person omniscient (narrator) but lose the intimacy with the character or you can switch viewpoints of people to reveal more in other places and times, retaining character intimacy, allowing empathy with more characters and complicatong the plot with more details, and craft ambiguity into your worldbuilding to enhance mystery.
    So a game attempting this is not too surprising. It works well with Dishonored 2 for instance.
    Personally I play party based rpg’s so am often switching in game to craft combat strategies and took it for granted and hadn’t considered the impact of switching since it seemed natural to me, (been doing it since 1999, yeah Baldurs Gate), but i hadn’t considered the narrative implications. I’m sure if handled like Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin they could make character switches interesting, and play eith ideas about timelines (like westworld had you guessing the possible timelines of the man in black…) Darn now I want to play a game that does that…. and I’m typing this and realised Assassins creed did this…. Desmond… you suck.

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    • When I do get around to playing a party-based RPG, the character-switching doesn’t bother me – but I think that’s because I fully expect it and understand it’s a core mechanic of the genre. But when it comes to more narrative-based titles, I really don’t like it. It’s been interesting hearing what others think about it though and seeing they don’t dislike switching as much as I do ! ha ha

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  6. I think its refreshing and if done right, it can be a gamechanger. I’ve always liked stories and narratives where there are multiple protagonists and where you get to see events from different characters.

    It’s one of the reasons why I found the first Modern Warfare game to be so revolutionary. You got to take control of a US Marine in an Iraq-like style and for every time you were busting down a door in that Iraq-inspired setting, you were sneaking through the grass somewhere in Russia as a SAS operative and it did wonders for the story and for the gameplay. The gameplay would go from high-octane action to a more slower type of gameplay where stealth would come in handy and it felt so natural and so organic which is a far cry from the recent installments.

    But sometimes, it doesn’t always work as with Grand Theft Auto. If you remember, GTAV had the three-person perspective thingie and it didn’t do wonders for the story. The story was lacking and just didn’t feel right as compared to GTA IV. I think the games Rockstar Games makes are revolutionary but I think they should stick to the one person perspective/protagonist because Rockstars’ stories are always so focused that switching perspectives doesn’t necessarily fit.

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    • Something we’ve hit on in the comments is that character-switching doesn’t seem to work under two main circumstances: if it’s a heavily narrative-based game and if the protagonists don’t offer anything new to the gameplay. When I’m playing a party-based RPG and need to change to another character to make use of their unique skills, I get it. But if I want to get immersed in the story, I’d rather stick with just one person.

      I got bored halfway through GTA V and I think the switching probably had something to do with that! Roll on GTA VI…

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      • Seriously cannot wait for GTA VI. IMO Red Dead 2 is Rockstar’s best work yet, RDR2 is peak Rockstar for me but I wouldn’t be surprised if they outdid themselves again for GTA VI. If RDR2 is any indiction, GTA VI is going to be a monster.

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