The lost magic of adventure games
Currently I’m working on a project which is based around Adventure Games, more specifically, a tool that lets people create adventure games. The biggest thing I’ve learnt so far is that not many know what exactly an adventure game is, and our target demographic (ages 12-14) have absolutely no clue. I myself didn’t when I started out with this project. I thought I knew, but I really didn’t. I assumed adventure games meant all games released nowadays, with a lot of events and an exciting story. Was Prince of Persia an adventure game? What about Zelda, that had to be an adventure game. There is a lot of exploration, and challenges, and a defining plotline in Zelda. But no, it is an adventure but its not an adventure game in the classical sense. These games are mostly classified as Action-Adventure games.
I shall clarify and define an adventure game, assuming the reader doesn’t know it yet. Wikipedia defines an adventure game as a video game in which the player assumes the role of a protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle solving. This is true, but this definition only contains part of the information that defines an adventure game. Some details about them include being two-dimensional games with heavy emphasis on plot, mostly point-and-clicks and sometimes you may need to use your keyboard. But these details aren’t the ones you’ll be familiar with because most statements would be scared of generalizing. Point is, slight deviations to these points are allowed. If you have too many deviations though it is suddenly not an adventure game anymore. Some of the greatest adventure games include Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, Zork, Grim Fandango, Machinarium, and most recently Broken Age. If you haven’t heard of any of them then I don’t blame you, it’s maybe because adventure games are now dead.
Back in the 70’s when small buds of video games started blooming, the only choice one had were adventure games. The started out with text adventures (Zork being the most notable one) which were basically long essays on a small Apple or IBM screen with which you perform actions using a combination of a verb and a noun. The computer in those games wouldn’t understand most of your inputs, so you essentially end up second guessing what the designer intended to do next. And if you’re stuck, then you’re stuck. People built maps on paper to find solutions and wrote combinations of words which they changed one by one, hoping the next input worked. You would think that those were frustrating times, and that makes sense because no one would play that game today. But text adventures were wildly popular back in the day, and it always left gamers asking for more. For them, it was a new dimension of storytelling, an interactive book that blew everyone’s mind. Text Adventures were wildly descriptive of a scene and they pegged the way for future adventure games.
Eventually someone discovered how to implement vector graphics in an adventure game. It was extremely primal compared to Space Invaders and Pacman and other arcade games at that time, but it was a visual anyway. A game called Mystery House achieved this, and this had a severe impact on the genre. Written and Programmed by a husband and wife in their kitchen over a period of 6 months, the game paved the way for multiple graphical adventure games and eventually Sierra On-Line. Sierra and LucasArts were the biggest producers of Adventure games for years to come, possibly the golden age of adventure games.
Adventure games developed in this era were deep in logical thinking and puzzle solving. Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer were pioneers in this field and their works are cited and adored even today. Story and setting were extremely important, and worked around it were hundreds of puzzles and interesting interactions. Players derived the most joy of solving these puzzles and working out clues, a far throw from player’s these days who play for that glorious headshot of a moving target.
But good things never last. They say Grim Fandango was the closing ceremony in this glorious era of adventure games. Designed by Schafer for LucasArts, Grim Fandango was critically acclaimed and won game of the year in 1998. But a certain Half-Life, released in the same year, provided all the taking points and the popularity points too; it broke all existing records in terms of video game sales. When you know the title of “Game of the Year” isn’t attracting people to buy the game, you know the genre is dying. And yes, perhaps, Half-Life did kill adventure games.
What could be the reason that it died out? Some say that people just lost patience; they just don’t get the instant gratification like you get when you shoot an alien from a first person POV. They argue that puzzles could be implemented well in action-adventure games too. Many people were tired of “pixel-hunting”, a thing that was very common in old adventure games where people didn’t know what part of the scene was interactable so they just went about clicking every spot on the screen until something happened. All these may be true to some extent, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that these games had its own magic, its own simple-to-use games with welcoming worlds, where your decisions and your genius ideas can solve the day. You need a smarter breed of writers and designers to make games such as these, and the game industry isn’t exactly revered for its fabulous literature works.
Adventure games have had multiple mini-renaissances throughout the last decade. I think of Telltale studios as new age adventure games, weaving branching narratives with simple interactions. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine also hasn’t stopped production, with Broken Age their last, well documented, adventure game project. None of these games has competed financially with the giant AAA games that are published at the same time, but they have thematically still held on to their strengths and they do that well and they make their loyal followers happy. New audiences are more exposed to advertisements and pop-culture of action-adventures and console games than adventure games, and many miss out entirely. There are rays of hope though, like Schafer’s successful Kickstarter campaign for Broken Age. The older generation of gamers don’t play adventure games much nowadays because of the lack of games, but once they do, a newer generation would latch on to it too, which maybe will help generate some belief in studios to invest in artist and game designers of adventure games to do what they do best. It isn’t happening anytime soon, but I believe it is certainly on the horizon; the next adventure.