The Future of Adventure Games

Adventure games “as we know it” are dead. What does that mean? Does that mean “text” adventure games with text input; story, puzzles, no art, no animation, no music, no sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “picture book” adventure games with more advanced text input; story, puzzles, no animation, no music, no sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “2D worlds with cut screen shots” with icon bar input; story, puzzles, limited animation, limited music, limited sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “2D worlds with cut screen shots and limited short ‘cartoons’ or ‘movies’ with icon bar input; story, puzzles, better animation, better music, better sound, limited spoken dialog?” Does that mean “2D worlds with lots more cut screen shots and more short ‘cartoons/movies’ with ‘point and click’ input; better story, easier puzzles, great animation, great music, great sound, lots of spoken dialog?” Do you see a trend here in all of this? Roberta Williams, 1997.

The future of adventure games?

Rest assured, VR is not on the agenda for this article.

The death of adventure games is a topic that's been… well, done to death. Fingers have been pointed at action-adventures and Myst for causing the genre's decline in popularity. Allegedly idiotic action gamers have been blamed for not understanding the sheer intellectual greatness of adventure games. Similar rhetoric has been spewed at members of the general gaming press. Adventure evangelists have crusaded for the genre, initiated petitions, lashed out at publishers that had “abandoned” adventure games and coerced developers into making favorable statements for the genre.

I've seen all of this happen in the last five years that I've been running this website. It's a crazy whodunnit story with Myst, action-adventures, evil journalists and 3D graphics as its principal characters. It's become rather tiresome. Sure, there might be some truth buried inside these antagonizing claims, but most of it cuts very little ice. We can restlessly theorize about the genre's supposed 'death' forever, but it won't really get us anywhere. Instead, we need to take a closer look at the stuff (adventure) games are made of.

When asked in 2001 about how the adventure game market had dried up, Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia, The Last Express) said in an interview with Inside Mac Games “I think adventure game makers need to stop asking, ‘Where did the market go?’ I think the question is, ‘Why do people no longer find these games fun to play?’ Maybe it’s something about the games themselves.” I think Mechner hit the nail on the head.

The adventure genre is currently ridden by staleness and bland conventionalism. The genre creatively locked itself into a room that it could not get out of. This archived column at Old Man Murray got pretty close to saying what's caused the adventure genre to grow out of favor -- it may indeed have committed suicide. Although there are some hints of a comeback, most notably thanks to Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, In Memoriam and perhaps Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, too many releases still suffer from severe copycat mentality. More adventure releases have come out this year than any of the past five years, yet most of it is uninspired derivative material. We, adventure gamers, might have gotten too comfortable playing games that aren't innovative or original. I decided to write this article to refocus our ideas on the future of adventure games, and to look at the genre's larger potential.

But first, there are a couple of things I need to get out of the way. I'm inevitably going to reference a few games outside the adventure genre. I think we need to look at technological and stylistic advances made in the industry as a whole if we're to talk about the advancement of adventure games specifically. But if you think I'm going to advocate the bastardization of adventure games through the inclusion of action elements, you are wrong. I want adventure games to focus on what they do best. I want puzzles, and I want a great story. Those are its raisons d'être. I sometimes don't mind a slight pinch of action in the form of mini-games, but pure action is absolutely not something adventure games should focus on. There are enough action-adventures already, and as a fan of adventure games it makes no sense at for me to want even more of them. The graphical representation of adventures is another topic I'm going to cover along the way, but nowhere in this article will you find any suggestion to completely abandon 2D point & click adventures. I love those games and they shouldn't (and won't) go away.

In the adventure community, the desire for change is sadly often misinterpreted as “wanting more action.” Such misconceptions need to be put aside if we're going to have any meaningful discussion about the position of adventure games in the general gaming macrocosm. Although the debate about the future of adventure games has been gradually heating up during the past year or so, it's been held back by endless non-sequiturs and foregone conclusions. Hopefully this article will help encourage a more substantial discussion.

Finally, all the opinions expressed in this article are my own. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of the individual writers of Adventure Gamers.

I'm sorry for the long disclaimer. Let's get on with it.

Monkey see, monkey do

I think there are roughly two groups within the adventure community. There are the recent arrivals, most of whom were introduced to adventure games thanks to the admirable publishing efforts of Got Game, Tri-Synergy and most importantly The Adventure Company. I know this is a bit of a generalization, but I'd say that on the whole these adventure gamers are pretty content with what the genre has to offer. On the other hand, there's a large group of people, mostly young adults, who still associate adventure games with Sierra, LucasArts, Infocom, and so on. Most of those people have already left for greener pastures (read: other more prolific genres). Those who are still around are looking for that same 'spark' of the golden days, but have not been terribly successful in finding it today. I'm part of that latter group.

Mind you, this is not a matter of nostalgia. In fact, I think developers have been looking at the classics in all the wrong ways. What made Day of the Tentacle or Gabriel Knight or King's Quest or any of the other classics so good was how they were offbeat, pushing boundaries or at least based upon a self-contained artistic vision. Although some rare gems have been released in recent years, it seems that most adventure games want to be “just like Monkey Island” or “just like Myst”. Which leads me to wonder what games like, say, Tony Tough or The Cameron Files expect to bring to the table. They're nice games, but could they be relying too much on the tried-and-true? Sure, not every game can be a masterpiece, but it often looks like adventure games are too busy chasing their own tail. With increasingly more adventure games coming out, and at least three US publishers willing to support these games, you'd think developers would take more risks and push the genre into new and exciting directions.

If I look at the leaps in progress that have been made in other genres and compare them with the complete creative and technological inactivity in adventure games, I have to say I'm disappointed. The adventure genre has sadly lost most of its freshness. I think the genre can be much more prolific and innovational, but a lot needs to happen. Some of that has already been set in motion, and I'll be looking at Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon at the end of this article, but we're still far from where the genre should be. Now seems an ideal time for a comprehensive debate about the future of adventure games.

Continued on the next page...

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