It is universally acknowledged by writers of fiction that realistic characters are hard to do. Any adventure game programmer would add, I am sure, that maintaining that realism while making it possible to interact with characters is well beyond the current state of the art.
So what to do? Keeping the interaction and accepting the loss of realism is one approach, but a second possibility is to lose the interactivity and try to salvage the realism somehow. Infocom's games often toyed with this approach, from the mysterious gentleman who occasionally robs the player in Zork, to the unseen and unsettling presence of cousin Herman in Hollywood Hijinx. David Baggett, in his game Legend, experimented with a variation on this approach, by confining most of the character exposition and major turning points in the plot to 'cut scenes', long conventionally narrated passages which break up the more conventionally puzzle-oriented interactive action.
Dan Shiovitz's game Lethe Flow Phoenix (1995) takes this approach to its logical conclusion. In this game, all plot, characterisation and background is confined to the cut scenes, and the interactive portions are completely unrelated to the ostensible plot. The effect is unnerving and surreal.
The matter of the plot is this: you play an unhappy young man or woman experiencing an existential crisis. While travelling in the American desert to try to make sense of your life, a supernatural force pulls you off a cliff, and you find yourself in a fantasy world. After some exploring, you find a fallen angel called Daniel who explains that the Earth is being invisibly taken over by alien invaders, and that you are one of the chosen ones intended to fight this secret war. If you can meditate on your life and come to terms with your memories than you may be reborn as the Phoenix of the title. You experience a tearful reunion with the ghost of your dead father, find yourself able to forgive your parents for their ill-treatment of you as a child, and the game ends with the promise of your doing some good in the world.
It's hard to imagine how an adventure game could get to grips with this kind of powerful and emotional material, and Shiovitz doesn't even try. The interactive parts of the story are conventional puzzle-solving involving a talking tree, a levitating gazebo, a magic mushroom and other fantastic trappings. Various aspects seem intended to suggest Brian Moriarty's game Trinity (1986): there are giant mushrooms, and a sun that moves and casts shadows on a giant sundial. All very entertaining, but it seems rather petty when compared to the Earth-shaking apparatus of the plot.
The most curious aspect of Lethe Flow Phoenix is how well done the individual parts are! The puzzles are uniformly excellent and well-motivated (except for one curious action, which most players will eventually work out for lack of anything else to do). There are several impressively complex interactive mechanisms, which all seem to have been coded flawlessly, and there are as many synonyms and alternate ways of expressing actions as a player could want. On the plot side, the writing is very fluent and readable despite the weightiness of the material (although not up to the task of compressing God, angels, alien invaders, human avatars, a deprived childhood, adolescent angst, family breakdown and forgiveness into the space of a few screenfuls - as if any writing could be!). But the plot and the puzzles make a game bolted together like a Frankenstein monster: neither side supports the other, and the result is neither successful as a game, nor as a story.
Still, I look forward to Shiovitz's next game with interest; if he can produce a game and story which go together to make something greater than the sum of the two parts, the result will be very impressive.