Bias-Buster: Mainstream reviewers speak out! interview
“Mainstream reviewers are all biased against the genre.”
“They’re all just twitch jockeys over there; what do they know?”
“They hate anything that doesn’t involve mindless action.”
These are imaginary quotes, but spend any time in the adventure community and you’ll soon hear sentiments like this every time a new adventure gets a low grade from a mainstream magazine. But are any of these claims actually correct? Are adventure games today really doomed to fail in the popular press through the poisoned pens of biased writers?
The easy answer is yes, but easy is not the same as true. Certainly there are valid examples of anti-adventure diatribes to be found online, where anyone with an Internet connection can pass their opinions off as reviews, however worthless and ill-informed some of them may be. But does that apply to the bigger, more respected publications with (supposedly) real journalistic standards as well? Many still say it does, though the reasoning is often vague and conveniently selective.
Perhaps this reaction is really more of a defense mechanism to preserve our own dignity under the guise of protecting our once-thriving genre. After all, there’s consolation to be found in dismissing negative commentary of our favourite pastime as the unfounded rantings of haters, and there’s strength in defining “us vs. them” battle lines – we the plucky, never-say-die underdog; they the ignorant, oafish behemoth that steamrolls anything it doesn’t understand. There’s nothing like a common cause to rally behind and make us feel good about ourselves.
Maybe the answer is a little of both, somewhere in between? Either way, everyone seems to have an opinion one way or the other. Personally I’ve always defended the mainstream media from the more specious accusations, perhaps because I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed) shooters, RPGs, and strategy games myself, so I know first-hand that one’s broad gaming interests do not limit the ability to be open-minded and fair. That said, I do believe there’s a faint but discernible bias that contributes to the anti-adventure perception, though it’s far less damaging, far more subtle than many proclaim.
But for all the debates, all the certainty of our own beliefs, the one opinion we consistently never seek is that of the reviewers themselves. Until now. It’s impossible to ask them all, of course, but I recently discussed the issue with three key members of the mainstream gaming press: editors Ashley Day from games™ and Chris Watters from GameSpot, and Logan Decker, Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer (US). If you’re among those who believe in widespread reviewer bias, chances are you’ve railed against one of these three magazines, if not these men in particular. So set aside what you THINK you know, and let’s find out what they have to say (along with a follow-up commentary of my own).
Adventure Gamers: First of all, why are you such a doodyhead that hates adventure games?
Ashley Day (games™): I am rubber you are glue! Hopefully that answers your question. If not: I've been playing adventure games ever since I discovered The Secret Of Monkey Island on the Amiga sometime in the mid-Nineties. That game pretty much defined my relationship with the genre and my tastes very much lean toward SCUMM-style adventures, particularly the LucasArts catalogue, Beneath A Steel Sky and Simon The Sorcerer. The past decade hasn't quite been as satisfying for me but I love almost everything Telltale does, as well as some of the better quality Japanese adventures like Phoenix Wright or 999. This is definitely reflected in the reviews and scores we've given out during my five years on games™.
Chris Watters (GameSpot): An accusation as tenuous as your hairline! Not my best riposte, but my insult swordfighting skills are a bit rusty. While I won’t deny that I have, at times, hated adventure games (playing King’s Quest II without a walkthrough nearly broke my tender young spirit), my bouts with frustration have been far outweighed by my enjoyment of the genre. I’ve had the good fortune to review a number of adventure games for GameSpot (most recently Tales of Monkey Island) and I think you’d be hard pressed to call me a hater after reading my reviews.
Logan Decker (PC Gamer): I can’t address the doodyhead issue: obviously I am biased in that respect. But I'm a huge fan of adventure games. I was weaned on Scott Adams' text adventures, and I remember being dazzled by the "hi-res" line drawings of Roberta Williams' Mystery House on the Apple II+. My love for adventure games matured during the golden age of LucasArts adventures: Day of the Tentacle, through The Dig, Loom, and Grim Fandango – which is to this day my most beloved game of all time. It was the first time I responded to a game the same way I do with my favorite books: with that ache in my chest upon saying goodbye to all these wonderful characters and the journey I'd taken with them.
Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers): I can be a doodyhead for other reasons, but obviously not for hating adventures. My experience goes all the way back to the original Zork (but it was a few years old at the time!), and I was captivated by this fantastically imaginative, interactive world. I slipped away from the genre after that though, and some of its best years passed me by while I was busy playing Nintendo. I’m really glad I branched out, though, or I’d have missed out on some tremendous gaming experiences. Even now, outside of work for the site I play all different sorts of games, preferring a wide range of styles and platforms and regular changes of pace. I get bored easily, so I really value the diversity. As a reviewer, I also think it helps to have a broader exposure to other games. Adventures don’t just compete with other adventures, but other games of all types, and it’s important to know what else is out there and how the genre is stacking up against them.
AG: Okay, so either we picked the few rare exceptions to the rule, or there’s a disconnect between perception and reality. Why do you think there’s a belief among adventure gamers that mainstream reviewers have a bias against their favourite games?
Ashley: It's not just adventure games, actually. As a multiformat magazine aimed at a wide audience, we cater to lots of different tastes and you just can't please all of them at once. Every week we receive feedback from readers complaining about all sorts of bias. They complain that we choose to review too many multiformat games on Xbox rather than PlayStation, that we rate Street Fighter so high it's warped our view of Mortal Kombat, and that we have an anti-Nintendo stance (a criticism you'd find completely absurd if you ever took a look at my games collection). The reason for this? Every reader approaches a publication looking for the things that interest them in particular and if they don't get what they're looking for then they understandably feel misrepresented. As a magazine games™ certainly doesn't prioritise one genre or format over another outside of commercial realities – you can't ignore the popularity of the FPS for example, so you'd be crazy not to give the genre lots of coverage. Having said that, you can't eliminate the personal tastes of each writer. Which is where responsible editors become necessary.
Chris: Because adventure gamers are doodyheads that hate mainstream reviewers? I’m not familiar with that perception myself, but I can hazard a few guesses about its genesis. Perhaps avid fans of adventure games look at sites like Adventure Gamers and sites like GameSpot and see that AG has extensive coverage on games that can’t even be found in the GS database. This might be perceived as disinterest in, or worse, a slight against adventure games. The truth is, as much as we strive for extensive coverage across all genres, there is a limit to our resources and how many games we can actually cover in a given week. Or perhaps this belief stems from the perception that we review adventure games harshly. While it’s true that GameSpot has scored adventure games lower than, say, Adventure Gamers (Black Mirror III, for example), we’ve also agreed on high scores as well (Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective). We regularly get accused of being biased both for and against a given genre/platform/publisher, so it’s really hard to pin down where these perceptions get started.
Logan: One reason is that it might be true. Though of course there are many exceptions, there's a sense that adventure games in the classic point-and-click tradition have not progressed in the way that other genres have. Look at the complexity and maturity of strategy games like Civilization V, RPGs like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and action-adventure games like Mass Effect with its winding, interlocking stories and epic scale. These games have evolved with each release, becoming more sophisticated, more polished, more responsive to our desires as gamers. Whereas nonsensical puzzles and threadbare dialog still show up in so many contemporary adventure games. In other words, there seems to be too much chaff and not enough wheat in the genre. These are legitimate complaints.
But writers undermine the credibility of the games press when they appear to dismiss an entire genre on the basis of a single – or even a number – of current games: "oh no, more of this again." These kinds of sneers signal that a game's not being judged on its own merits, but that it is expected to redeem the failings of other games. That's not fair, and adventure gamers are right to be suspicious of media, including PC Gamer, when we reflect these attitudes, and call us out on it.
Another reason is that adventure gamers are enthusiasts, and this means that they're often willing to overlook many of the flaws of the genre as they exist today in a way that general reviewers – who must necessarily represent all their readers – do not. This is not to say that adventure gamers are biased, or that reviewers aren't being fair. This is to say that both parties are representing their constituencies fairly and vigorously. That's the way it should be, really.
The last reason, and the one that really resonates with me personally, is that criticism is often dismissed as a rejection of the genre, when in fact it's more often just the opposite: we criticize because reviewers and editors like myself think extremely highly of the genre, and we want to see it grow and evolve and become better, moving toward greatness. And when we play lackluster adventure games, we sense the disrespect for the player and adventure game fan, and criticize the lack of ambition. And because adventure games are technically less complex than other games, they are easier to make than other types of games. And because they are easier to make, there are far more of them. And because there are far more of them, there's more crap.
Jack: I can actually relate to the perception though the opposite end of the spectrum. For Adventure Gamers, there’s at least a mild belief that we overrate games simply because of our appreciation of the genre. I don’t think that’s true, and professional impartiality is something that all our writers fully understand. And yet every time we give a half-star more than someone thinks a game is worth, out come the accusations of being apologists afraid to criticize the genre for fear of burying it forever. It’s nonsense. So it doesn’t at all surprise me when people overreact to low scores elsewhere. It’s safer to shoot the messenger than face a message you may not want to hear.
A few notable exceptions aside, I really don’t see anti-adventure bias as a widespread problem. Where some reviewers do contribute to the perception themselves is in their failure to properly articulate the nature of their criticisms, instead choosing to lazily cite traditional genre staples as being fundamentally flawed. They may not say that, but the implication is there, and it's so easy to carelessly cross the line into condemning what people actually enjoy. I’ve read so many reviewers who shoot themselves in the foot with half-hearted analyses even though I understood where the writer was coming from.
I also think some reviewers are overly negative towards games that don’t innovate or push any kind of technological envelope. Both are perfectly valid observations to note, and neither is the adventure genre’s forte by any stretch, but just hammer the nail in, don’t beat it to a pulp. And for the love of all that’s holy, everyone needs to stop harping on point-and-click as a control scheme. So what if it’s been around for two decades? I love direct control games, but P&C is good enough for Diablo, The Sims, and nearly every RTS game in existence. Shut up about it already (unless it’s done badly).
Adventure Gamers: You’ve either personally reviewed games or at least worked for magazines that graded certain games significantly lower than adventure sites rated them. Reviews all come down to subjective opinions, of course, but there isn’t usually that big a discrepancy among reviewers. Why is there in these cases? Surely it can’t all be rabid fanboyism of the specialist sites.
Ashley Day (games™): I don't find it that useful to compare grades between different publications, especially those that have markedly different remits and audiences. Of course a mainstream multiformat magazine will regard games differently to an independent specialist website. What's important is each publication's internal consistency. Follow that and you'll see, at least with a quality publication, that the best games always rise to the top. Maybe we score Game X a couple of points lower or higher than another outlet, but look at our scores as a whole and you'll find that those adventure games with the best scores are always the ones that any fan would regard as essential. On games™, an unmissable game will always score a 9/10 no matter what genre it falls into and there are plenty of adventures that have achieved exactly that.
Chris Watters (GameSpot): A quick look at Metacritic will show you that there are big discrepancies between game review sites of all shapes and sizes, not just between mainstream and specialist sites. Each site has different philosophy on reviewing games and different staff members contributing to reviews, so there’s bound to be differences of opinion in any genre.
Logan Decker (PC Gamer) : Again, PC Gamer reviews games for a general audience, which means that we likely apply a somewhat different set of criteria in our reviews. But that doesn't mean that adventure games are expected to appeal to first-person shooter fans! What it means is that a game's design or story shouldn't actively offend the sensibilities of the average gamer: puzzles should make sense (or in the case of comic adventures, ought to be funny in their absurdity), characters should be believable and act according to some internal logic, and design should help instead of inhibit.
But in the case of the devoted adventure fan, a different perspective can be fairly adopted: the deliberate halting pace introduced by inventory puzzles can be suspenseful and intriguing; and hidden-object adventures don't even need characters to be entertaining!
Syberia mainstream Metacritic range: 92-40%
Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers): I do think there tends to be a wider gap in adventure scores than a lot of other genres, but there’s a very good reason for that: adventure games are all about content. I’m over-simplifying, obviously, but other genres can coast somewhat on the strength of their gameplay formulas. It’s ALWAYS at least a little fun to mow down zombie hordes; there’s never a dull moment as you try to manage skirmishes even while balancing resource-harvesting and base-building; it’s a hoot leveling up and collecting loot in a dungeon crawl. There are a lot of factors that go into separating good shooters, strategy games, and RPGs from bad, but the basic formula is tried-and-true. If a game nails those (and isn’t otherwise inexplicably broken), chances are it’ll at least provide some decent entertainment.
Adventure games don’t have that luxury. There’s a formula there (explore, pick up items, solve puzzles), but it’s too abstract to be fun in its own right, so it’s all about the execution. Every puzzle, every inventory combination, every character, every plot development is judged on its own terms. That leaves so much room for subjectivity: what some find easy, others find hard; what some find compelling; others find boring. If you overlook a few key items, it can totally skew your enjoyment. If you can’t relate to the main character or setting, the game won’t resonate with you very deeply. Even among adventure gamers there’s HUGE disagreement about the quality of games. Some revere The Longest Journey as a classic, while others find it tedious and convoluted. Some love the rich atmosphere and beautiful artistry of Syberia while others would rather jab a pencil in their eyes than wander through one more non-interactive screen. There’s no right or wrong, but since absolutely everything is subject to personal tastes, adventures are far more susceptible to disparate reactions.
AG: Do you think that some genres are more inherently “fun” than others? If so, isn’t that a bias? How do you deal with that when reviewing a game, knowing it’s likely to impact your enjoyment?
Ashley: Of course I do! I find real time strategy games to be a total bore, and military shooters tend to send me to sleep. But that's why I don't review them. As an editor I have to be aware of other people's tastes too. If a writer doesn't understand why one genre is fun then how can the reader relate to their review or get any useful information out of it?
Chris: I don’t believe that any genre is more inherently fun than any other, but do I have genres that I prefer to play more than others? Absolutely. I have yet to meet a gamer that enjoys all genres equally and without bias. When it comes to reviewing a game, however, I believe it is a reviewer’s professional responsibility to account for his or her personal bias. It’s crucial to acknowledge when a game can be fun, even if it isn’t your flavor of choice. I don’t go in much for leaderboard races, for example, but I always give credit to games with online leaderboards. And I recently reviewed a game based on the Bleach franchise, which I knew precious little about. So I interrogated co-workers who were fans, read some wikis, and watched a few episodes to make sure I was giving the game its due. Every reviewer writes from their own perspective, but knowing your own limitations can help you broaden that perspective and write a better review.
Gray Matter mainstream Metacritic range: 91-40%
Logan: Of course some games are more inherently fun than others! And yes, it's absolutely a bias. A friend took me to a baseball game once and after I got tired of eating hot dogs I wanted to kill myself. That's why I work for PC Gamer and not Sports Illustrated. And it's why PC Gamer requires that reviewers be not only extremely knowledgeable about the history of the genres of the games they review, but also fans of those genres and games.
I insist that every reviewer go into every single review with the expectation that the developer made the most of its resources to create the best game possible. Nobody working under my watch goes into a review with an eye-roll. You either take your assignment seriously and with utter enthusiasm or you go work for somebody else and don't pollute our pages with your jaded palate.
Jack: Not in the sense of being universally shared, but I do believe that some genres are more engaging in their own right than others, and adventures may well be at the bottom of that list. Not because they’re bad, simply because of their nature. This is what I was getting at earlier. In an adventure, you either like each new puzzle in its own right or you don’t; the story either captivates you at every turn or it doesn’t. There really isn’t any neutral ground where the gameplay itself just carries the day. For the good games that doesn’t really matter, because the positives continually keep the game interesting. So why does it matter? Because in the games a reviewer does not like, it can be damning.
This is where I think bias does slightly factor in. If an adventure game doesn’t grab you, it taints the entire experience. A few bad puzzles or dull conversations can sour you quickly, and there’s nothing to balance it out because that’s all there is. And as soon as an adventure stops being fun, I think some writers tend to throw objectivity out the window and allow themselves to bury the game, whether fully warranted or not. The same mechanics you’d gladly overlook in a good game, you suddenly find excruciating in this one. Whatever failings you’d excuse in a game that atones in other ways become utterly unforgivable here. The whole thing quickly spirals out of control, and you end up with a review that has nothing at all good to say.
The same can happen with other genres, but where a weak shooter might get 50% (hypothetically speaking) because it’s still a fundamentally sound experience, a weak adventure might get 30% because… well, just because it’s not even remotely fun, dammit! Believe me, I’ve reviewed a lot of mediocre adventures. I know how easy it is to turn against one as soon as it starts to feel like work. I’m not sure all reviewers successfully overcome that compulsion. Does it matter to sales? Probably not. To the developers? Doubt it. But to the perception that you favour one genre over another, the difference between 30-50% can seem pretty glaring.
AG: Is project assignment ever an issue – meaning, are some adventure games dumped onto reluctant reviewers who don’t appreciate the genre simply due to availability? That could certainly lead to an “I’d rather be doing anything but reviewing this #%&$&ing game” kind of vibe.
Overclocked mainstream Metacritic range: 85-48%
Ashley: This is something that definitely happens across the games media, but is thankfully pretty rare. It's most common when you have a new writer on your team, as it takes a while for you to get to know their tastes and specialisations. During these times some games may be reviewed in a less than satisfactory way. You can limit the damage by making sure new writers are kept away from 'tentpole releases' (those games you know EVERY single reader will want to read) and this is particularly bad news for adventure games since they're definitely considered a niche genre.
Chris: Well, GameSpot is lucky enough to employ a talented pool of staff and freelancers with diverse interests and preferences, so there’s usually someone with an affinity for reviewing games in a given genre. We may have to stretch a little from time to time, as I did with the Bleach example, but we’re never far from our comfort zone. We also have a rigorous quality assurance process in which every staff reviewer reads and proposes edits for every review that goes live on the site. This helps us infuse each review with a broader perspective. I’ve read drafts of reviews that give the impression that the author didn’t give the game a fair chance, or had a chip on his or her shoulder about a given game element. Those reviews always get edited or sent back to the author for revision.
Logan: No. Never. Never ever. If we take on a new freelancer, for example, we check out his or her background and make sure that the game we're assigning is appropriate to them; that is, that they have expertise in the genre, enthusiasm for it, and insight on it.
Jack: Ironically, this is a potential hazard even for us. For a genre that’s considered extremely stagnant, it’s still pretty diverse, and not everyone likes every style equally. Some love lonely Myst-style games; some hate them with a passion. Ditto offbeat comic adventures, FMV, retro games, you name it. So Adventure Gamers also has to carefully consider project assignment to get games into the hands of those able to appreciate them. Even with a volunteer staff though, it always seems to work out that way. Come to think of it, the bigger danger is probably burn-out. There’s a legitimate risk that the same person playing the same types of games over and over again will become jaded over time. But we have enough staff and there aren’t that many new games for that to really be a problem.
Adventure Gamers: Not all of you personally reviewed this particular game, but Gemini Rue was recently given a 70% or higher rating from each of your magazines. It’s a blatantly old-school point-and-clicker that would have been right at home in the early ‘90s, and yet other adventure games are routinely criticized for being antiquated. How do you account for that disparity? Is 20 years stylishly retro and 10 years is just dated and derivative?
Ashley Day (games™): I happened to be the one who reviewed Gemini Rue for games™ and I did give it 8/10. You're right that it evoked a certain amount of nostalgia for the early Nineties period of adventures but that most definitely isn't the reason I gave it a high score. The game was praised for the way it used its visuals to brilliantly capture a noir/dystopia feeling in its setting, as well as the way its puzzles felt natural for the types of characters it put you in control of. I FELT like a detective and I FELT like a prisoner. Gemini Rue was a fantastic game and I have no problem justifying the review. I don't think that really answers your question though does it? Let's see if I can change that.
Black Mirror III mainstream Metacritic range: 85-50%
My opinion of 2D visuals is that they age much better than 3D. Go back to the first two Monkey Island games now and they still look absolutely stunning. The level of artistry, the immersive sense of time and place, the sheer detail in each background... I could get lost just looking at that game. Go back to Escape From Monkey Island however and, quite frankly, it's ugly. It takes a lot to make a 3D game look good and only a couple of years to ruin all that hard work as technology outstrips itself. I think adventure games suffer from this a lot. 99% of modern adventures are made on a tiny budget compared to other games and they end up with graphics that look ten years old. There's nothing nostalgic about that, they simply look bad. Whereas a modern 2D game like Machinarium looks totally beautiful without feeling old.
I'm focussing on the graphics of course, but there's also a question of gameplay here. And this may be the biggest challenge that adventures currently face. Many old school adventures are unpalatable to modern games journalists (many of whom were barely out of short trousers when Grim Fandango came out) because they find the wide open exploration, huge inventories and seemingly obtuse puzzles far too overwhelming. A lot of contemporary adventure designers (particularly Telltale) are aware of this and have developed more streamlined adventures that try to limit the variables involved while retaining the challenge. I could debate all day about how successfully they've pulled that off but the point is that adventures can't win. Old style gameplay puts off modern gamers who are far too used to being intravenously fed Achievements to bother with something they might have to actually THINK about, while the more streamlined and user friendly games of the past five years are routinely dismissed as "casual games".
Again, I'm not sure how well this answers your question but I'm sure nostalgia itself isn't the issue. Most games reviewers are in their early twenties... Their nostalgia is for Quake or GTA.
Chris Watters (GameSpot): Aren’t you guys the ones who gave it 4 out of 5 stars? We actually rated Gemini Rue a 7.0. It certainly is unabashedly antiquated in terms of game mechanics, and we criticized the simplistic puzzles and action segments. But Gemini Rue earned its widespread critical acclaim with its story. The way it begins at two disparate start points and slowly weaves together an immensely intriguing tale is masterful. Great storytelling is great storytelling, no matter what decade it comes from.
Logan Decker (PC Gamer): Oh no you don't. Gemini Rue was no more antiquated than a novel is antiquated because it's available in paperback. Gemini Rue was a wonderful game, a genuine thriller with mystery and suspense and a tough-minded, unsentimental plot. That it is, as you say, an "old-school point-and-clicker" is incidental and irrelevant. We didn't praise, for example, the game's retro graphics because they evoked memories of other games: we praised it because Gemini Rue adopted a particular style and owned it, exploited it to the best effect. The abstraction made great use of our imagination to fill in the universe where a more traditional approach would have looked, well, traditional, and even derivative. Retro graphics are a lot like black and white television: they have a unique dimension in that they suggest an existence that's similar to ours, but not of our world. Gemini Rue really understood this.
Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers): I’m not sure I conveyed this question exactly as I intended. I was neither disputing that Gemini Rue is a better game than most for a variety of legitimate reasons, nor suggesting that it earned its acclaim on the basis of nostalgia. What I meant was that some journalists have a tendency to happily overlook antiquated gameplay mechanics in good games that they like, yet inexplicably come down hard on those same mechanics in games they don’t – and not because the mechanics themselves are to blame. So in a game like Gemini Rue, the fact that it’s so old school is indeed “incidental and irrelevant”, as Logan said. The problem is that being old school is often thrust to the forefront in lesser games, even though it’s no more relevant to the quality of that game. So you get reviews of those games that say “the story isn’t very good, the puzzles are uninspired, and the gameplay itself feels stuck in the ‘90s.” The first two: totally valid. The last one: bitter and piling on. At least, that’s sure to be how a lot of devoted genre fans will read those kinds of statements.
AG: For a long time it was popular to harp on the “death” of the adventure genre, however patently untrue it ever was. Was that just ignorance and lazy journalism, or… well, frankly, I’m not sure there is an “or”. What are your thoughts on the tendency of writers to dismiss the genre so cavalierly without even doing any basic research?
A New Beginning mainstream Metacritic range: 90-40%
Ashley: This is all about money again. The sad truth is that there are a lot of lazy people out there – just as in any profession – and a lot of games journalists will only write about the games they're made aware of rather than going out there and discovering them independently. This means that the games that get the most coverage are the ones that are best promoted. Who has the biggest, loudest stand at E3? How many press releases have landed in your inbox? Did a PR representative bring the game to your office and force you to actually give it a chance? None of this can be done without pots and pots of marketing money, a luxury that adventure games just can't afford as almost all are produced by tiny developers and publishers that have to think very carefully about how they spend their budget. In the Eighties and Nineties the genre was overexposed because the companies making adventures were big hitters like Lucasfilm and Sierra. That simply isn't the case any more outside of a few exceptions like Capcom's Ace Attorney series... Which, surprise surprise, gets tons of coverage and many high review scores in the gaming press.
Chris: I think “the death of adventure gaming” is a misconception born out of “the rise of every other genre.” During the rise of home computers and consoles, two-dimensional games ruled the roost. Adventure games thrived in that setting, but other genres, not so much. As technology advanced and enabled more complex graphics and better three-dimensional spaces, other genres were able to flourish in a way that was previously impossible. Game companies poured resources into these burgeoning areas and the industry expanded exponentially. Even if adventure games remained as strong as ever, their presence and impact would naturally be diluted in this kind of environment. So folks started to talk a lot about other genres and less about adventure games, and some people saw that as the death of a genre, when it’s really just the growth of the industry. When professional writers casually reference “the death of adventure gaming,” they are doing their readers a disservice by lending credence to an ill-defined phenomenon.
Logan: This is noise and should be ignored. Remember that anybody can write anything these days, so it seems like everybody is writing everything. And in order to be heard, to rise above the din, some folks feel compelled to make statements that are provocative and even flamey. That doesn't mean we have to take them or insipid statements like these at face value. I mean, good grief, people are always talking about how PC gaming is dead, despite the fact that consoles require literally hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing every year to keep them alive, while PC gaming requires none in order to thrive. Look at Minecraft, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress: PC gaming has never been as popular and innovative as it is today. It's at an apex of creativity, and still growing, evolving, expanding in all directions. So I say ignore the smack talk and avoid validating it by addressing it as if it were a serious point.
Jack: My opinion on this subject is pretty clear in the question, and between the three of you I think you pretty much nailed this one. Yep, too many writers out there with too little skill/integrity/knowledge to go around, so we end up with a lot of tripe and ill-conceived statements. Kind of spoils things for everyone. Then again, all the more reason to seek out magazines and journalists you know you can respect.
AG: Obviously adventures have become a niche interest – a thriving niche, but a niche nonetheless. What do you think caused the shift from the genre’s glory days of Sierra and LucasArts to being a distant afterthought among the (predominantly) action and strategy games of today?
Lost Horizon mainstream Metacritic range: 89-50%
Ashley: I honestly don't believe that the market got smaller. I don't have any figures in front of me but I'd imagine that the audience for adventure games is the same size now as it was twenty years ago. Rather it's the emergence of other genres that appeal to far greater numbers of people which have eclipsed them. The march of technology has led to things like the FPS, the MMO, casual motion controlled, social or mobile games. All of these cater to huge multi-million sized audiences. So if you were a publisher, would you sink your budget into something that potentially sells thousands or millions? The only people left making adventures are therefore those with the passion, the independence and the business acumen to do what they love without losing money. That's not many studios, and it's certainly not EA or Activision. On a side not, however, I really should commend the latter on its attitude toward the Sierra back catalogue. Activision itself may not make its own adventures but it has been extremely cool about releasing its old games, supporting fan projects and licensing its IP to other developers. The publisher has a bad rep, I know, but this is one thing it actually deserves credit for.
Chris: I think technology has a lot to do with it, as I mentioned before. I also think that the adventure genre lacks the complexity and replayability of many other genres. If I beat The Longest Journey, then wow, what an adventure! Now I can replay the same thing again in the same way. If I beat WarCraft III, then yay! I beat it! Now I can play online multiplayer. Now I can replay missions and try a different strategy. There is a lot more I can mine out of a good strategy game, in terms of replayability and challenge. For an interested consumer, the prospect of more bang for your buck is a powerful one, and for game developers and publishers, sales are a powerful motivation.
Logan: Technology. It's easy to pour money into better graphics and spectacular effects, and the result of that investment is immediately apparent and often astonishing. What's truly difficult, and not necessarily attainable with vast amounts of money, is telling an engaging and immersive interactive story. Michael Bay is a rich Hollywood filmmaker because he can take vast sums of money and turn them into dazzling blockbusters. You won't remember them two weeks after you see them, but so what? It's not a bad thing. I enjoy them. But that these films dominate Hollywood, with their reliable explode-it-and-they-will-come formulas doesn't diminish my love for dramatic films or experimental movies.
Jack: I agree completely with those reasons, and that the actual audience for adventure games probably hasn’t shrunk much at all. It’s just that the rest of the industry was better suited to make use of new technology, and other genres have since grown up enormously around it. Once the big fish in a small pond, now it’s the same-sized fish in a much bigger pond with much bigger fish, so it looks a lot smaller in comparison. It’s a shame that budgets have spiralled out of control along with the technology, though. With a few rare exceptions, I think the days of AAA adventure games are more or less over. Unless… (Next question!)
Adventure Gamers: Newer games like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire have merged narrative-driven traditional adventure gaming with more action-oriented elements, to both commercial and critical success. Do you think the only way to recapture public imagination is by selling out to action games? Are they even still adventure games if they do that?
Ashley Day (games™): I consider both L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain to be 100% adventure games, although not necessarily great ones. Heavy Rain I loved and I see it as one possible blueprint for how interactive stories should be told. L.A. Noire on the other hand was a complete disaster, thanks to flawed interrogation mechanics inferior to those found in games made on 1% of its budget. I wouldn't say that either game "sold out" though, they simply incorporated or evolved mechanics that have been around for decades. That's something that should be celebrated. After all, if adventure games never evolved we'd still be deciding whether to go N or S as we wait for a picture to draw itself one line at a time or scratching our heads as Larry dies yet again because we had the audacity to try and cross a road.
But are games like these the ONLY way to recapture the public's attention? Absolutely not. I think Professor Layton would have a thing or two to say about that.
Chris Watters (GameSpot): “Selling out” is an ugly term that devalues the innovation that those games are bringing to market. I think one of the most exciting trends in the game industry today is the merging and overlapping of different genres. RPG shooters like Borderlands and puzzle platformers like Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure are both great games that wouldn’t be what they are without taking inspiration from different genres. These hybrids create a kind of genetic diversity that I believe strengthens a genre by bringing its enjoyable traits to an audience that might not otherwise seek them out. There will always be a place for pure-bred adventure games, but I think fans of the genre should be pleased to see big-budget games looking to their preferred genre for inspiration.
Logan Decker (PC Gamer): If you want to sell a lot of games, you have to make games that people want to buy. If that means adding action elements to your game to broaden their appeal, then go for it. But they don't need to do this.
I read an interview with a famous middle-aged actress who was complaining about the lack of movie roles for women of her generation. I thought it was a little weird, because it didn't track with my observations at all. And even if it were true, I wondered, why doesn't she use her considerable wealth and influence to get films with these roles financed? And then I realized that what she meant was that there weren't enough roles for her in Hollywood blockbusters. And what can you say to somebody whose ego isn't being properly attended to?
If developers want to pursue wider audiences, that’s great. I have no problem with that. I think they should. PC Gamer certainly does! But I don’t think adventure game fans should let it bother them that the genre isn’t getting the triple-A attention it used to. That’s validation-seeking that one of the seminal genres of PC gaming doesn’t need.
Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers: Just for the record, I wasn’t suggesting that either Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire were guilty of “selling out”. Rather, I meant if a flock of copycats followed suit on the heels of their success, that’s what they would be doing.
Dreamfall mainstream Metacritic range: 100-35%
In any case, I’m afraid my own answer to this question is yes. IF we want to see big budget “adventures”, they’re almost certainly going to have to contain some degree of action. There just isn’t a big enough market for purely cerebral adventures to justify millions being spent on them (at least, not very often). That’s not going to please a lot of adventure gamers, but I don’t see any way around it. The trick is to figure out how best to integrate action and adventure together instead of cramming a bit of one onto the other to try to broaden the market. Games like Dreamfall tried that and it really didn’t work. Good adventure, lousy action. Other games get it the other way around.
When developers are making a concerted effort to make an adventure-oriented game, however, they should at least keep in mind that not everyone is good at the action stuff. L.A. Noire added a skip option for driving sequences, which is probably the only reason a lot of adventure gamers will get to play it. Those are the kinds of user-friendly options that will help bridge the gap if more games go that route in future.
AG: The examples above also have one thing in common: multi-million dollar budgets. That’s a luxury most adventure game developers don’t have. Apart from a few notable indie exceptions like Machinarium, money is the chicken-and-egg issue for the genre these days. To get bigger budgets they need to sell more; to sell more they need to start with bigger budgets. How can the genre succeed with entire budgets that most AAA games blow through in the first month of production?
Ashley: Well I honestly believe that money is necessary in order for the genre to evolve and get attention. Heavy Rain could not have been made without Sony's help and that would have been a tragedy. Those games that are made on a shoestring though? They might not push the genre forward but some, like A Vampyre Story or Strong Bad, are still damn entertaining. There's never been a better time for games like these to be produced, thanks mostly to the rise of digital distribution, and I feel confident that these games will not just continue to exist but thrive. Be sure to keep an eye on Telltale, for example. When that company started it cleverly kept its costs low and has grown its reputation slowly and without risk. Now it's building partnerships with film studios and was recently granted a license to publish packaged goods on Xbox 360. It's come a long way, and if the company continues to grow so organically, making smart decisions along the way, it will eventually have the money and the power to do something truly special with the genre.
Chris: One of the major discrepancies created by a smaller budget is lack of advertising and visibility. Fortunately, digital distribution has been on the rise for years, providing a cheaper way for developers and publishers to get their games to fans. I think Valve does a good job of leveraging the popularity of their platform, Steam, in order to showcase indie games, and I think this visibility has a trickle-down effect that makes it possible for indie games to have a broader reach. There are a lot of examples of great game design without a big budget, and as long as there are developers making good games, there will be people who want to play them.
Logan: The genre can succeed because it doesn't have multi-million dollar budgets. L.A. Noire spent millions on its facial mo-cap. That was money wasted. Look at the size of Grand Theft Auto IV! It was staggering. And I spent most of the time in the game wondering why a big, thriving city was so tedious. Indie developers can't and don't waste money on such things like adding 600 square miles to their games or Hollywood voice talent from the A and B shelves, details that are literally trivial. Smaller budgets mean edgier stories, more experimentation, more innovation.
Nancy Drew mainstream Metacritic range: 85-50%
But I'm puzzled by your question. The adventure game genre is hugely successful today: just not in the way that many adventure game fans would prefer. The Nancy Drew series sells a bazillion copies every year. Her Interactive is no doubt raking in the cash. And these games aren't crap! I played some of the Nancy Drew games and I'm always dazzled by their breadth: minigames, cultural cues, whimsy, suspense, an intelligent young protagonist; it even understands the satisfaction we derive from some mundane tasks because they're personally meaningful to us. These are very, very high quality games.
So adventure games may not be in fashion right now, but so what? Have a look around at what's fashionable in American popular culture right now and you won't feel so bad.
Jack: Sadly, I can recite a long list of publishers and developers that have gone bankrupt in recent years. So yes, there are successes, but for every success story there’s often a painful failure.
Personally, I think the key is for developers to embrace their limitations. Too many WANT to be big-budget adventures, but without the resources they just end up being second-rate wannabes. Games like Phoenix Wright and Machinarium succeed because they know what they do well and run with them. Gemini Rue as well. When you don’t have money, you need to be more creative. How to do that? Well, that’s the challenge.
As for getting more widespread attention (and sales), it probably won’t happen to a significant extent, but adventure gamers should just learn to relax and accept the genre for what it is. Sure it’s a niche. Who cares! So long as we get a steady stream of quality adventures every year (and we always do, amidst a lot of mediocrity and some junk, just like any other genre), that should be enough. They may not be glitzy, but they can still be fun. And if the rest of the world doesn’t notice, too bad for them. (Though they should really read Adventure Gamers more, and then they would!)
AG: Puzzles represent one of the most common complaints about adventure games: they’re too obtuse, they get in the way of the story, they’re boring, etc. Some adventure fans love to claim that people just don’t want to think anymore, and yet games like Professor Layton are incredibly popular. What gives there? Why are puzzles embraced in one game and not another?
Ashley: I think this is a matter of maturity and experience on the part of the designer. The reason Professor Layton works is because it challenges the player without resorting to obscurity or obfuscation. Each puzzle is self-contained, clearly explained and with hints available if necessary. Crucially, the game is also designed so that it rarely bottle-necks. It's not difficult puzzles that people hate, it's the feeling of losing momentum or a sense of progression. If they stand still for too long then players feel like they're wasting their time. Great adventure games acknowledge and deal with this problem, bad ones (of which there are many) do not.
Scratches mainstream Metacritic range: 83-39%
Chris: The key distinction between adventure game puzzles in general and the Professor Layton puzzles is that the latter are purely logic puzzles. The parameters are always basic and are clearly conveyed. The interface is always the same. This continuity makes them immensely accessible; you always know that it is puzzle time. Conversely, many adventure games endeavor to weave the puzzles into the environment or the narrative. Players often have to search the environments for items, make connections between disparate items, and figure out what they can and cannot do within the game. Even if there are only a few variables in play, the possibilities are much broader, so the potential for confusion and frustration is greater. Attempts to be immersive by incorporating puzzles in this way can backfire. If I have to suspend my disbelief once to accept that every puzzle I encounter will be a standalone logic puzzle, that is much simpler than having to make sense of why I can pick up a cheese wheel but not a coconut, or having to determine whether I’m even dealing with a puzzle or just another part of the story.
Logan: You have to listen carefully to what people are saying. Puzzles are "too obtuse." "They get in the way of the story." "They're boring." If somebody is telling you that, they are giving you very specific feedback. And if they also say that they enjoy games like Professor Layton – a series that I absolutely love – then they are also telling you that the puzzles in this game, for the most part, aren't too obtuse, don't get in the way of the story or are part of the story itself, and aren’t boring. It's not that puzzles are just whimsically accepted in one game and rejected in another; it's how they're conceived and implemented in a game that determines whether or not they're enjoyable.
Jack: Ironically, I find Professor Layton games to be plodding and dull, and I’d love to have a bit more “adventuring” to do in them. I’m also a big fan of puzzle integration, and it chafes at me when puzzles are so arbitrarily thrust in my way for no apparent reason. Self-contained or no, logical or no, I still find myself annoyed at being so abruptly halted to do something completely irrelevant. I DO feel like I lose momentum just about every time I encounter a new puzzle. So tastes swing both ways there.
I’m not convinced that quality of the puzzles is the main issue, but I do think there’s something to the accessibility factor. In full-fledged adventures, you often don’t know why you can’t solve a puzzle. Maybe you missed a clue or item, or maybe it can’t even be solved yet. That’s very frustrating, and Layton-style puzzlers avoid that. Same with the hidden object casual adventures that are so predominant these days. The other thing those games do much better is rewarding players for accomplishments. Whether it’s Picarats or trophies or just a little blare of triumphant music, there’s a continual sense of actual achievement.
Adventures are very high-demand/low-reward games for the most part. We don’t even have the old point-scoring systems anymore, as random as many of those were. Far too often I’ve solved a puzzle only to… get stuck on another puzzle right away. Whoop-de-freaking-do. So by all means, adventures should have better puzzles: better integrated, better clued, better presented. But they also need to be less punishing in the context in which they’re delivered. Solving a puzzle should feel like something to do. Too many adventures treat it like a means to prevent you from doing anything else.
Adventure Gamers: Do you think the genre needs to “evolve”, or is there something to be said for the tried-and-true, the familiar and comfortable? I mean, crossword puzzles and Monopoly haven’t evolved any, and they’re still going strong. Just because technology advances, why should popular (among fans) gameplay formulas have to change with it?
Ashley Day (games™): The great thing about this world is that that there's room for both the approaches you mention. The real question is, how do you review them? Some writers will only award the highest marks to those games that try, and succeed, to do something new. Which is a perfectly fine option. I personally prefer to ask myself one simple question: Was I entertained? Novels haven't evolved in hundreds of years, but great works of fiction are still written every decade.
Chris Watters (GameSpot): I think evolution is important, but picking between innovative or tried-and-true is a false choice. Both can exist and flourish. Sure, Monopoly is great, but what about Settlers of Catan? Crossword puzzles are popular for good reason, as is Sudoku. Gameplay formulas don’t have to change, but it’s true that new mechanics have a novelty that old ones do not. Adventure games aren’t the only genre where people lament these changes. Just read the comments section on any recent Call of Duty review, and you’re bound to see people bemoaning short corridor shooters and yearning for the release of the mythical Half-Life 3. That said, tried-and-true gameplay mechanics have a way of coming back around. Just look at the fantastic Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, a dual-stick shooter reinvented for the modern era.
Logan Decker (PC Gamer): They don't need to. But as such, adventure game fans could stand to be a little less defensive that adventure games don't have the popular appeal they used to and try not to be resentful about it.
Sherlock Holmes mainstream Metacritic range: 90-53%
Jack Allin (Adventure Gamers): I think evolution is a grossly overused word (at least in adventure circles). It also implies that a genre is a “thing” that needs to change and grow. It’s not; it’s simply a conceptual classification that should be flexible by its very nature. And if people are paying attention, the adventure genre is already a pretty diverse concept. Sure, most of them are point-and-clickers, and tons of games are still like Myst and Monkey Island twenty years later, but play Bad Mojo and Amnesia and Samorost and The Experiment and tell me those are anything alike. Even Portal falls under our definition of adventure. The genre doesn’t need to change into something else, as evolution implies. It just needs to be pliable and adaptable and open to new ideas. Genre growth is less like a straight line moving from Point A to Point B and more like a circle that’s ever expanding in new and different ways, yet always firm in its core central principles.
AG: What’s the secret to a modern day successful adventure game in your mind, and why do most current adventures fail to achieve that?
Ashley: It's the same as it always was, really. Give me characters that are interesting, a gripping story and some sort of engaging gameplay that keeps me involved for several hours. Surprise me and leave me wanting more. I could apply those rules to many genres, actually, and even then very few games would meet the criteria. True brilliance is rare.
Chris: For all the chuckles I’ve gotten from goofy and clever puzzles in the past, I think the strength of the adventure genre lies in character and story. Because the gameplay requirements for the genre are generally minimal (point! click!), adventure games are free to create worlds and characters and narratives that could never work in other games. Gemini Rue’s storytelling is a prime example of this. Or more recently, Hector: Badge of Carnage. Those games provided memorable experiences, but that kind of creativity isn’t easy to pull off. Also, an adventure game can’t be forgiven a lackluster story because of its exciting gameplay, so you really have to deliver on those key elements to draw people in.
Logan: A good story, strong characters with aspirations, and game mechanics with strong internal logic. I wouldn't say that "most" current adventures fail at these qualities any more than "most" novels or movies do. But they're hard to develop and hard to implement and see through.
It's become a cliché to hold up The Longest Journey as an example of a great adventure game, but for good reason. It’s got it all: the story, the wonderful character arc, and puzzles that were logical but still forced you to stretch your imagination a bit. And the game itself is really a critique of the entire human race. No wonder it made such an impression on so many gamers!
A Whispered World mainstream Metacritic range: 85-50%
We all remember what Anne Frank wrote in her diary: "Despite everything, I still believe in the goodness of man." We know that Ms. Frank transcended the evil lavished upon her, and we accepted as a species the shame of her treatment and vowed to do better. Great stories remind us of what we all have in common with Ms. Frank. They remind us by allowing us to share in the virtue of the characters we play and by allowing us to change the world through the exercise of that virtue. And really only RPGs and adventure games tell these kinds of stories well. That they fail so often is a marker of the enormity of the task of telling a good interactive story, not the legitimacy of the genre.
Jack: Certainly can’t argue with the story and character reasoning. That’s predominantly why I play adventures. I’d also like to see a much more concerted effort to make puzzles feel like organic obstacles rather than contrived ones. I want to feel like I’m overcoming problems, not following a meandering trail of breadcrumbs through some sadistic developer’s mind. There are a bunch of other “mores” I could rattle off, but invariably they all require money that most small studios simply don’t have. So instead of pie-in-the-sky idealism, I’ll settle for a hope that developers focus on excelling within their limitations instead of over-reaching and delivering haphazard results all around.
And playtest! Feedback is free, but so many adventures play like no one outside of the development team has ever touched the game. Either that, or they’re only picking players who tell them what they want to hear. Then they’re surprised when the critical and popular reaction isn’t nearly so positive. Address weaknesses before release, and there’ll be a whole lot fewer harsh reviews to deal with afterwards.
AG: Any final words for the conspiracy theorists who are still convinced that mainstream reviewers hate adventures, kick puppies, and are just generally unpleasant people?
Alter Ego mainstream Metacritic range: 82-35%
Ashley:Yes. Don't just look at the numbers on Metacritic, pick up the magazine and read the reviews. I can't speak for any other publication but games™ loves to champion great adventure games – we were the first print mag I'm aware of to publish a Machinarium review for example, and we loved it so much we felt the need to really shout about it... To urge all of our readers, not just the adventure fans, to give it a try. We splashed the game over two pages (usually reserved for mainstream releases) and followed it up with an in-depth interview with Amanita Design. We definitely love adventures as much as you so please don't be discouraged from reading the mag because of the odd score you disagree with. Chances are you'll miss out on something cool... Like the big adventure sequel we're revealing screenshots of in our 29th of September issue. And if this sounds a bit like an advert it's because it kind of is.
"Ask me about games™."
Chris: Are there people on the internet saying things you don’t like? Such is the human condition. You are lucky to be living during the development and maturation of a new artistic medium. Video games are a modern-day marvel. Over the past few decades they have changed immensely and show no sign of slowing down. Focus on all the wonderful experiences, characters, and challenges games have brought and continue to bring into your life. Share your joy with people who will appreciate it, and ignore those who seek to diminish it. Feel free to contact me through my GameSpot profile if you have any good recommendations, and keep playing new games!
Logan: Sure! They’re welcome to let me know what I’m doing wrong. All adventure game fans are welcome to write me with their thoughts, recommendations, suggestions, and grievances. I apologize that I’m not always able to respond to every email, but I read every single one. Please feel free to publish my email address online as I'm not concerned about spam bots: [email protected].
Jack:The first thing I’d remind people is to never assume they know what someone else is thinking. Chances are, whatever you’re projecting onto others is wrong. In this case, reviewers don’t do what they do because they hate games or particular genres; their job is to critique. Can’t expect them to do that and then turn around and get offended at criticism, even if you don’t agree with it. Especially with adventures, which are so inherently tied to subjective opinion. Secondly, be respectful of alternate viewpoints, which are every bit as valid as your own, and you’ll gain an even greater understanding. And finally, don’t take it personally. If GameSpot, games™, or PC Gamer (or even Adventure Gamers) slams a game you like, don’t worry! When the dust settles, the best games consistently get the best grades, and if a few dissenting voices go against the flow, c’est la vie. It doesn’t mean they hate you; it only means they’re different.
Many thanks to Ashley Day, Chris Watters, and Logan Decker for participating in this interview and giving us such articulate, thoughtful answers. They can’t speak for everybody, naturally, but I strongly suspect these three men represent a far greater percentage of mainstream games journalists than some people believe. Do they hate the genre? Apparently not. Will they always treat adventures we like with kid gloves? Inevitably not. Is it us vs. them? Absolutely not! We may not all agree, but ultimately we all want the same thing: great adventure games. The genre needs critics as well as fans, and here’s hoping the two “sides” know a little bit more about the other now than when we started.