Feature: Adventure games

The Adventure Game is a funny old genre. If you’ve never played one before, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Why do your friends’ eyes get that faraway look when they speak of Escape From Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, or even Myst? Why do people get so worked up over these old-fashioned, slow moving games where nothing much really happens? And what’s going on with all these people talking about how the Nintendo Wii’s going to save Adventure Games from the rubbish tip?

Think of it this way: if computer genres were, uh, Norse Gods, then the Adventure Game would be Loki. We all know Loki: that kooky dude born from giants, foster brother of Odin; he was the god that no one knew what to do with. He had his charming features and annoying characteristics, and his children (Hel, The Midgard Serpent and Fenris Wolf) were a strange mixture of godlike and the obscene. He alternately helped and hindered the gods – but however much he annoyed everyone, they all put up with him.

And that is pretty much how many people feel about Adventure Games. They were one of the first genres on the scene of computer gaming, back in the 1980s and 90s, when everyone was trying to get their heads around this whole personal computer thing. They seemed to have a bit of everything in them: adventuring, exploration, puzzle solving, and storytelling. They were smart, quirky, and didn’t mind making fun of themselves in public. I’m talking games like Zork, like the King’s Quest series, and most of what LucasArts was producing in the 90s.

At the same time, however, there was a lot about Adventure games – earlier ones in particular – that made for some seriously frustrating gameplay. These included: inventory focussed gameplay that forced players to randomly combine pairs of objects over and over again, until a combination finally worked; “pixel hunting”, on an already pixellated low-resolution screen, searching for dropped hairpins and the like; dead ends caused by something you may have missed in the first chapter, solveable only by a game restart; long feedback loops (or rewards); and worlds with low levels of interaction, which also reinforced that linear experience.

Suprisingly enough, these features weren’t what sounded the death knell for Adventure Games (if, of course, you are of the opinion that Adventure Gaming is dead. Many people still aren’t). No, what drove the stake into the heart of Adventure Games was the advent of 3D graphics, and the introduction of the Action Game. DOOM came along, and blew King’s Quest right out of the water. Everyone wanted to play them because they looked great, required that hand-eye coordination that everyone had developed playing Pong and Pac Man all those years ago, and because people were sick of looking around for fallen hairpins. They wanted to kill things with chainsaws for a little while instead.

So 3D graphics were all the rage, but somehow the original paradigm of the Adventure Game was unable to be translated successfully to this new medium. Many more qualified people than I have pondered why this was the case, and some have suggested that at the time, the 3D graphics weren’t up to the level of detail seen in prior 2D Adventure games. Think back to the state of things when you first played DOOM, and you’ll see what I mean. It was hard enough finding hand-sized keycards – anything smaller would have been impossible.

Others however, have suggested, that rather than the Adventure genre being “murdered” by Action Games and chainsaw wielding madmen, its death was actually a slow suicide, caused by serious deficit in marketing and advertising, as well as the stale recycling of old titles and puzzles, which in turn led to a tailing off in the market and decreased sales, which likewise led studios to believe that it wasn’t worth sinking so much money into developing original future titles. The resulting lacklustre titles, predictably, just added to the whole cycle by inspiring equally lacklustre sales.

Unfortunately, these studios missed the whole point. As this very excellent article on the Adventure Developers website states, “many of us are not necessarily looking for the carbon copies per se, as we are thirsting for what made those great adventure games great in the first place: quality, originality and creativity.”

I think the Adventure Developers hit the nail on the head here. While in the past gamers have tended to define the Adventure Game by a rather strict set of guidelines, some of these (2D backgrounds, point and click navigation, and over-intellectualized puzzles) are actually contrary to the spirit of Adventure Gaming. (For further examples of these, I recommend this quite good Wikipedia article.) All the same, these criteria are often still used when we try to determine whether the Adventure Game is still alive and kicking. I think that’s why the Adventure Game purists are unable to reconcile the melding of Adventure games with Action games (or RPG for that matter). While the rest of the world celebrated Tomb Raider, AGers bemoaned the action and cut sequences ruining a good puzzle game. (OK, so it’s an exaggerated example, but you get what I mean. Adventure Gamers, a bit like the genre itself, are a funny bunch. They don’t take kindly to the sullying of their genre.)

But obviously, this purist view of Adventure Games hasn’t got us anywhere in the last ten years. We need to take the brave step, and admit that yes, we are looking for the same feeling we got when we played Myst for the first time. We’re not looking for another copy of that first game, rather the sense of unhurried exploration and immersion that made those early games so good. We need to take the awesome aspects of the Adventure Game, and combine these with what we like in games nowadays, regardless of genre: multi-threaded storylines, high replayability, interesting characters without cliché and high levels of interaction with the game’s world.

Just look at Dreamfall. While purists think the developers took a wrong turn somewhere by getting rid of virtually all puzzles (as opposed to the first title in the series, The Longest Journey), and introducing cut scenes and the odd bit of action, what is important is to look at why the game works, and why it’s so immersive and interesting. It has all the great features of an adventure game (and still with pretty linear gameplay), but it’s combined with a 3D environment, better world interaction, and yeah, while the action is pretty tame, it still adds a nice element to the game without crossing over to the land of action-adventure. Unfortunately, Dreamfall’s main drawback is that it plays out as more of an interactive story than a game, but credit is still due to Funcom, in their attempt to bring the Adventure Game to the 21st century.

So what exactly is the next step for the Adventure Game? Whatever form this genre winds up taking, many people believe the Wii will help it get there. From a historical perspective, Nintendo seems a good match for Adventure Games: both have always placed emphasis on interesting games rather than amazing graphics; both have also taken a back seat to their flashier, more-hyped cousins. What’s more, we’ve already been given a taste of how good the Adventure Game can really be in the hands of Nintendo, what with Another Code, and recently, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 produced for the DS. Furthermore, the Wii Controller could prove to make the most mundane of actions (pick up the hairpin, put hairpin in pocket) a little livelier again. This has already been proven by the success of such games as Trauma Center, where picking up gauze with tweezers suddenly becomes an interesting exercise.

The article above lists a few other reasons why the Wii might appeal to Adventure Gamers as a platform. These include: ease of use in pointing and clicking with the Wii Controller (compared to traditional console controllers); the appeal of Nintendo to non-traditional audiences (who are incidentally, the same type of people who enjoy Adventure Games); and an art-focussed approach, rather than technical advancement and high definition graphics.

So, it would seem, that the wheel has turned, and we could be on the verge of another rise in popularity for the Adventure Game. The stage has been set. Consoles are quivering, at the ready. Gamers are gnashing their teeth in anticipation. All that remains is for developers to take a deep breath, take the plunge, and to start taking Adventure Gaming seriously again.

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