Editorial: How to save adventure games
This feature originally ran in PC Gamer UK issue 225.
Adventure games suck. Sorry, but it’s true. This isn’t a lunk-headed action fan telling you this, nor a snotty RPG fan who wants to solve every problem with a sword. No. This is coming to you from a guy who considers beating every Sierra and LucasArts game ever made to be an amateur claim. If it exists, I’ve likely played it, or at least know of it. Broken Sword? Zork? The Last Express? Kingdom O’Magic? Les Manley? I’ve finished great adventures and rubbish adventures, and make no mistake, adventures are my favourite genre of all time. They’re what got me into gaming, the genre I’m most nostalgic about, and one still bursting with incredible untapped potential even today. Even so, today, they suck.
And that's something that can change. That's why I get cross. Adventure games deserve to be great once again. The catch is, they have to earn it, and almost none of them are even trying.
Go north. Look.
Adventures have been a backward looking genre for so long, people have forgotten they used to be one of the most forward thinking. Design, technology, ambition... they had it all. The original King’s Quest was a showpiece for IBM’s PCjr home computer. ‘Talkie’ adventures, the first to bring full speech to games, were one of the main draws for CD-ROM technology back when it was an expensive upgrade to traditional floppy disks. Adventures were the first genre to make good use of 256 colour graphics, and later, high resolution. They tested the water for video, and animation, and rendered 3D, as seen in The 7th Guest and Myst. And more! If you wanted to show off, you reached for an adventure.
Only with the rise of real-time 3D did they falter. This was primarily because the primitive nature of the technology at the time wasn’t up to providing the same visual fidelity and density of interaction that fans now expected. This, combined with an industry push toward more action focused games, usually resulted in action-adventures where lever pulling and hitting things with swords was about as good as it got. That was the fate of the final King’s Quest game, Mask of Eternity, while the games that tried to keep the faith buckled under the weight of the technology – two examples being Simon the Sorcerer 3D, which simply stank, and the profoundly underwhelming Gabriel Knight 3, even ignoring That Puzzle.
Adventures don’t actually need the latest technology, of course. As with any genre, it doesn’t hurt, and such things as facial animation (as seen in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines) and complex environments (such as those in Hitman: Blood Money, which is at least an honorary adventure, even if you are packing weapons) all help make the experience more immersive. But at heart, the best adventures were great not because of their technology but because of how they used it, and that always started with finding new ideas instead of willingly tying themselves down to What These Games Must Be. There were games that took that approach in the olden days. They were crap. Nobody cared about them. Companies like Sierra and Lucasarts were loved because they did things differently.
Befpre we continue, let's head back to the classics, and see just how ambitious some of them were. First though, a quick primer. Adventures are a more complicated genre than you’d think, and an unusual one in many ways – not least because the reason you sign up to play one tends to be completely divorced from what the game actually offers. Play Crysis? You sign up to shoot men with guns and be impressed. That's what it delivers, and the story and reason for doing so is effectively a bonus. Play Gabriel Knight? Chances are it's because you want to poke around New Orleans investigating a cult of voodoo murderers, and hang with a fun character. The puzzles are important, but they're primarily a mechanism to facilitate that experience and make it interactive - the means, not the end. Even back in the day, bad puzzles and moon logic chafed, but they were the price we paid for getting to play in a more convincing sandbox than any other genre was even close to being able to pull off. RPGs? Oh, please...
(Note: There are of course exceptions to this rule, like Puzzle Agent and the Professor Layton games, or going back further, things like Blue Ice and Zork: Grand Inquisitor. Most story based games however treat their puzzles as roadblocks more than anything else, just stopping the action cold until you're done staring in confusion and/or have forced through. Even many of the puzzle based ones are still trying to convey a feeling rather than brainteasers though, from pretending to be a spy in Spycraft to being the world's greatest thief in Traitor's Gate, or a tourist in a boring land during Myst.)
As a result, ‘adventure game’ used to be more than a set genre. For the best games, it was simply a starting point, they’d take the basic ideas and spin them off in new and interesting directions that made their experiences unique and memorable. It might be something big and grand, like the real-time action of The Last Express. Or an additional element, like Quest for Glory fusing roleplaying stats and character development to the adventure core. Or something seemingly simpler, like The Secret of Monkey Island’s Three Trials structure, as stolen by almost every other adventure game ever, to widen the scope of its world and offer multiple challenges at once. More on that in a moment - it's an important piece of history.
The more you dig into the genre, the more utterly brilliant, largely forgotten ideas you find. Conquests of the Longbow, for instance, was one of the first games to make morality work. Playing as Robin Hood, you had to rescue the Lady Marian, raise a ransom for King Richard, foil the Sheriff of Nottingham and more, and often there were a number of ways to deal with situations. If you needed a monk’s habit to sneak into the local monastery for instance, you could buy one, or beat one out of a traveller, and the game would generally continue. Only at the end might it come back to bite you, when the king finally returns and you’re put on trial to see if you’re really the honourable outlaw you claim to be.
Here’s another example: A Mind Forever Voyaging. This was a text adventure from Infocom with an amazing premise. One minute, you’re Perry Simm, generic everyman. The next, you ‘wake up’ to find that your whole life has just been a simulation, and that you’re really PRISM, the world’s most powerful analytical computer, and that your whole life so far has been building a perfect simulation of the real world. Your job is to step forward into simulations of the future to test the viability of the seemingly-benign Plan For Renewed National Purpose. At 10 years into the future, you can see it’s working... mostly. At 20 years, cracks are starting to appear. 30 years on, America is a dystopian hell. The challenge of the game is to prove that this will be the case, and discredit the Senator before he can have you deactivated. It’s a game with almost no puzzles at all, simply observation, but it’s still brilliant.
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