What is an adventure game, anyway?
First, we need to lay some groundwork and decide on some kind of definition of adventure games. Only when we know what we're dealing with, can we decide for ourselves which potential future developments are desirable and which are not. The term adventure game once meant to say “a game like Adventure” (the original text adventure). It's lost a lot of its meaning since then. Gamers in general seem to apply the tag to various games that merely have an adventurous theme or setting, such as Grand Theft Auto, Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb and Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Syberia or Jak & Dexter -- ask anyone on the forums which one is the adventure game and everyone will reply the former. It's a no-brainer. However, things get difficult when you try to define exactly why Syberia is the adventure game. If you've ever tried explaining to a friend what a pure adventure game is, you probably know what I mean.
Many have tried to put a finger on what makes adventure games what they are (see: adventure game – time for a new definition?) but it's hard, if not impossible, to find the ultimate answer. The intellect vs. twitchy finger argument is too easy to disprove. The scope of such a definition is too wide and would include puzzle games such as The Infinite Machine and Sokoban or just about any strategy game. Stories aren't a defining element of adventure games either. They may once have been, in the days of Space War and Adventure, but the majority of current computer game releases have some form of narrative. There are even first person shooters with a substancial amount of storytelling, such as Max Payne or Medal of Honor. Stories don't set adventure games apart.
Perhaps we should look at the reasons why people play adventure games, and go from there. The most visible characteristic of adventure games is that they offer a departure from action-and-reaction gameplay and manual dexterity. It's true that mental challenge plays some role in why we play adventures, but I think it's only a role of secondary importance. For example, when we experimented with reviewing pure puzzle games on this site in 1999, it was met with much resistance. The majority of our readers protested against the inclusion of games like Jewels of the Oracle, Pandora's Box and Safecracker, which offer pure brain teasers without any significant amount of narrative. A subsequent poll revealed that only a minor percentage of our readers played pure puzzle games on a regular basis.
I believe puzzles are merely a manifestation of another property that attracts most of us to the genre. The appeal of puzzles lies in the slow pace in which they can be completed, not in the pure mental challenge they offer -- which isn't so much. Solving adventure game puzzles doesn't necessarily require more intelligence than most other genres. Sure, a dazzling intellect may help some gamers complete puzzles quicker, but this is no different from, say, a skilled strategy gamer using his intellect to better conquer another nation in Sid Meier's Civilization. Being good at playing adventure games is mostly a matter of understanding the genre conventions and having more than the usual amount of patience. Anyone who has already completed twenty hours of LucasArts adventuring is going to be significantly better at five hours of a brand new LucasArts game than someone without those twenty hours of previous experience with LucasArts' graphic adventure vocabulary -- even if they have twice the IQ. Most puzzles can be solved by a process of trial-and-error, so they can generally be overcome by those who have patience and willpower, and not just those who are the smartest. I think we can rule out puzzles as our primary motivation for playing adventures instead of other games -- for the majority of us, anyway.
Instead, I would nail it down to exploration -- in the broadest sense of the word. Not just spatial exploration, but also exploration as a psychological process. Compared to other genres, adventure games are more about revealing outcomes rather than determining them. We're driven by the desire of learning the shape of the game world, as well as unraveling the story it has to tell. We want to be transported to a different world and believe that we are lost on a surreal island or that we are uncovering a sinister murder. We're constantly curious about what might be around the next corner.
Of course, this is an extremely broad statement that also applies to other game genres. It has to be narrowed down. Firstly, adventure games have a designer-created, player-controlled protagonist. This distinguishes adventures from RPGs, where player-defined character properties play a central role. We can also say that adventure games are non-competitive. The player is neither competing against another player towards a certain victory condition, nor is the player competing with a computer opponent. (Although some adventures used to feature scores, these were designed as progress bars and weren't indicative of the players' skill.) Thirdly, the idea of not having any game-over scenarios, as pioneered by LucasArts, has now become an accepted genre convention. The gameplay of adventures is non-threatening, in that all possibilities can be exhausted without any danger of dying. The highest penalty the player ever receives is having to re-start a particular scene.
The infamous 'Sierra death message', as parodied in The Secret of Monkey Island
When merged into one neat definition, we can say that adventure games are built upon narrative exploration, set in a non-threatening and non-competitive context, featuring a designer-created, player-controlled protagonist. I do have to apologize for the little hyphen-fest that's going on there.
Of course, there are a number of problems with my definition. For one, it doesn't include games where it was possible to die. Most notably in this category are of course Sierra's popular 'Quest series. Secondly, the term narrative is problematic as it is very open to debate. (Some theorists would even argue that gameplay itself is narrative, though let's not go there.) This definition shouldn't be taken as a final take on the subject. However, it does a pretty good job of excluding other genres, and I think it works for the purposes of this article.
In the next couple of pages I'm going to identify some areas in which adventure games could further improve. As you will see, most of these areas relate to exploration.Continued on the next page...