Book Review: The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures
Opinion & Special Features
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
I won't lie to you. The first thing I did, as soon as I had Kurt Kalata's The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures in my hands, was to thumb through the massive tome to find the pages dedicated to the Gabriel Knight trilogy, which to me represents the apex of the genre. And I must say that I was severely disappointed by the author's take on these adventures, which I feel are masterpieces that got a harsher treatment than they deserve. And when I read that Le Serpent Rouge, hands-down one of the most fascinating and complex puzzles ever to grace the genre, was defined as "somewhere between intriguing and tedious," I was ready to close the book altogether.
Good thing I didn't, though, because this massive compilation of reviews, when you get past the author's own preferences in terms of storytelling and gameplay, is one of the most valuable tools an adventurer can hope to obtain in a nostalgic quest through the golden age of the genre. The book is a gold mine full of famous treasures and little-known gems that you may never have heard of, and if you use it like an index of must-play adventures rather than a catalogue of definitive reviews, this Guide is indeed a precious companion.
Why do I say that the game’s 300-plus reviews may not be everyone's cup of tea? First of all, because of Kalata’s own admission that he "place(s) a greater emphasis on criticizing narrative over puzzle solving," meaning that extremely easy games are usually given good grades if they tell a riveting story, or at least what the author feels constitutes a great story. This may dishearten fans of puzzle-heavy, exploration-driven adventures; in fact, aside from the Myst series and a couple of other titles like Black Dahlia and Lighthouse, there isn't much here of that type at all. There's also little doubt that Kalata's views on gameplay and storytelling tend to favor the LucasArts approach to the genre, which skews the results in a fairly predictable direction, at least in terms of the inevitable comparisons with Sierra.
For example, while Day of the Tentacle is hailed as a "nearly perfect adventure game" and Fate of Atlantis as "one of the greatest games in the graphic adventure genre,” Police Quest II is criticized for its "aggravating issues (with) crime scene equipment," which is widely regarded as one of the reasons this game is so incredibly compelling. Similarly, a wonderfully researched adventure from Sierra's early catalogue, Gold Rush!, is dismissed as being composed of "boring activities" and "lacking any real sense of adventure." Furthermore, the introduction clearly states that the author "will forgive overtly illogical puzzles if their solutions are funny (as is the case of LucasArts games)," which is precisely the reason many adventurers, and I count myself amongst them, stay away from such games.
What makes a great story is an entirely subjective matter as well, and I can say without doubt that I don't see eye to eye with the author on this subject. I couldn't disagree more with his statement on how the supporting cast of Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned "doesn't make for interesting storytelling" or about the pacing issues of The Beast Within, especially when it comes to Grace's chapters, which he criticizes for being aimless and frustrating "hunt 'n' click fests". Of Shadow of the Comet, he says that "the part where Parker (…) escapes from a lighthouse by donning a pair of mechanical wings and jumping off is remarkably stupid," but 400 pages earlier he claimed that Maniac Mansion "possesses a really weird faux horror vibe" and praised the game for its "inherent silliness." He also calls Dreamfall's ending "one of the worst cliffhangers in all of video gaming," citing the lack of resolution to many of its plot threads (with no sequel in the foreseeable future) as a minus, whereas I find the ending, even with all its unanswered questions, to be one of the most powerful and moving in the entire history of the genre.
Of course, there are also plenty of examples where I feel that Kalata and his contributors (other writers are responsible for a small percentage of reviews offered here) have hit all the right spots, especially among the less famous titles. "Intriguingly creepy experience" is a wonderful way to describe a cult classic like Amber: Journeys Beyond. I also wholeheartedly agree when they say that Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is "rich, funny and even a bit heart-warming without being schmaltzy" and that Zork: Grand Inquisitor is "funny, engaging, clever" and that it "delivers with flying colors." I must also say that the great Tex Murphy fully receives the overwhelming praise (especially for Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive) he deserves.
Now, while it's clear that every review, including the ones you find here at Adventure Gamers, is inherently subjective, it's also true that you may not want to spend money on a book that doesn't fully represent your views on your beloved genre, and no game in this Guide is given an alternate opinion. So the question is: if you prefer your games serious and dramatic, or if you like action segments (which Kalata almost always finds "aggravating"), quiet exploration and obscure mechanical puzzles, is there anything in this book for you to enjoy?
Murder on the Mississippi
Plenty! The writing is always a pleasure to read thanks to its polished and professional style, and the key is to use this resource as a guide through the rich history of the adventure genre, leading you in the discovery of certain games you may have missed. For example, I can't thank Kurt Kalata enough for bringing a forgotten gem like Murder on the Mississippi: The Adventures of Sir Charles Foxworth to my attention. Being the Sherlock Holmes buff that I am, I jumped at the opportunity to find the game, and was rewarded with a truly engrossing experience. And since I don't mind timed sequences and murky FMV graphics, I found Snow Job to be an incredible little game as well, one I could never have found without this book.
While the guide focuses on the golden age of graphic adventures (defined here as 1984-2000), the book does include a nod to the oldest games: text-based Infocom titles like Zork and its many sequels and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, some of the early Sierra (On-Line Systems, back then) adventures like Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess, and of course the game that started it all, Colossal Cave Adventure. The book also covers many newer titles, especially those that have ties with former companies dedicated to the genre, like Telltale's adventures, Autumn Moon’s A Vampyre Story and even Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter. It also features a handful of independent games, like Wadjet Eye’s wonderful Emerald City Confidential and Amanita Design’s acclaimed Machinarium.
Each company, both old and new, is introduced with lavish detail and every game includes many interesting factoids (behind-the-scenes trivia, different versions and ports, etc.) that make the reading feel fresh, even when you think you know everything about a certain title already. Also of note are the interviews with Bob Bates and three Sierra alumni, Josh Mandel, Al Lowe and Corey Cole, where the game designers spend a little time reminiscing about their games and the general feeling of that special era. The section dedicated to "Playing Classic Games on Modern PCs" is also quite useful, with much advice on how to run finicky games or providing suggestions on where to find help online.
The Guide is also quite a nice book in its own right: it's a huge volume, measuring almost 7x10 inches filled with a whopping 768 pages, and it’s graced by a stunning cover featuring a number of "feelies" in the Infocom tradition, specifically designed for the book by the talented Kate Eggleston. The screenshots inside are all black-and-white, but they are always very crisp and clear. I would have perhaps liked a hard cover, given the considerable size and weight of the tome, but this is just a minor quibble. The cost is not insignificant, selling for $27.00 at Amazon US or Amazon UK , though a Kindle Edition is also available for $9.99. (There’s a complete list of retail links, plus additional information about the book, at the author’s Hardcoregaming101 website.)
All in all, if you can get past the fact that Kurt Kalata has very personal views on what constitutes a truly great adventure – views that may jarringly differ from your own – I can easily recommend The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, as there are many enjoyable details to discover and the historical value of the book is undisputable. As a nostalgic resource, this is an impressively comprehensive guide to the games that made our genre’s heyday so great, and a welcome reminder of obscure titles that flew under the radar but are still worthy of attention. If you are an experienced adventurer, you can use this book to discover some gems you didn't know about before, but if you missed out on the golden age originally, this book is simply indispensable, telling you (almost) everything you need to know about the glory years and giving you plenty of options to start your own quest. Just don't forget your adventuring cap.