Perhaps the greatest lament of all is the one about why the adventure game died. Once hugely popular, adventure games started to fall out of favour in the mid 90s and by the turn of the millennium were essentially dead. However they did not die because of a grand conspiracy on the part of publishers to kill them (as is often asserted).
Adventure games contributed hugely to the development of the video game as an art form, but there’s a basic reason why they went away: They were bad games.
What Adventure Games Are
The typical adventure game is based on point-and-click interaction. The player controls one or more dolls, walking around the game world and interacting with various characters and objects within it using the mouse. The games have a story-centric structure, so there’s usually an introduction to set the scene and the character of the player, familiarise him with the scenario and set up some dramatic conflict which then establishes a plot for the whole game.
The gameplay of adventure games is all about finding objects, obtaining clues and talking to relevant characters to acquire various bits of information to solve puzzles. Puzzles are frequently obscure or cryptic, and part of the gameplay involves intuiting next task from hints and allusions rather than being given a to-do list. Solving a puzzle nudges the story along, to the next puzzle and the next and so on. Commonly that story is broken into chapters with dramatic interludes, changes of location or scenario.
Most adventure game worlds are constructed as a series of separate but interconnected screens. They have fixed camera angles and limited areas in which the player can move, which means they often look more picturesque than other games. They can be evocative, cinematic, and so in theory the exploration of the world is itself a reward.
All of this makes adventure games the genre that most closely relates to the narrativist ideal of games as the future of storytelling. But it’s also why they’re an example of really bad game design.
Adventure Games Are Bad Games
The player has to figure out that the way to open a locked door is with the bones of a fish, or that the way to get the gatekeeper to give you a scroll is to bring him a cake – but you have to convince the baker to give you a cake first by finding a passphrase.
Adventure game puzzles are commonly based on riddles. Riddles rely on player logic and intuition to realise what the task is, what they need to do and how the information that they have collected fits into a pattern. In effect, you have to guess the intent of the riddle creator in order to understand where he’s coming from, and then select the correct answer accordingly.
In good game design failure is a part of the learning process. When first encountering cacodemons in Doom you might die, but you can sense what you did wrong and charge back into the game with a better strategy. In an adventure game it tends to be all or nothing.
Riddles are an example of an unfair test, and it’s this unfairness that makes adventure games bad, often to the point of unplayable. They rely on hidden knowledge, are deliberately ambiguous, and lack a sound internal logic that the play brain can perceive.
A small minority of players genuinely love the challenge of riddles but the vast majority don’t. Faced with failing a riddle, the average player will treat them as an exercise in permutations instead. They try all of the objects in their inventory until they stumble onto the right one, have all the conversations with all the characters over and over until the right answer presents itself, scan the screen back and forth with a mouse pointer to find clickable objects, or go in search of cheat guides to tell them what to do next.
So in effect, they descend into busywork. The player walks from one place to another to have a conversation to obtain a key. He then walks to another place to try the key in a lock. However the key lacks a ruby of strength to protect it (which he didn’t know about) so it breaks. He then has to go back to have the same conversation again, get another key and a ruby of strength, and then come back to the lock once more. Adventure games are full of this sort of tedium.
Busywork is not fun because it treats the player as a cog that nudges the game along every once in a while in the name of fun, rather than as the agent of change that he wants to be. It makes the player wait, in short, when he wants to be doing something more engaging. The whole point of play is to be empowered to cause change, whether destructively or creatively. In theory the story of the adventure game is supposed to be that change, but if it is it’s the least engaging form of change there is.
Most players never finish games, which indicates that story is not a strong motivator. It’s nice to have if it’s funny or scary, but not something to base your game design around. Video games are not really a storytelling medium any more than music albums are a storytelling medium. They are both great at delivering something of the sensation of a story (for example, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds is fantastic), but they run into the brick wall of a lack of interest when they try and push beyond that.
When you end up having to listen to the same snippets of character dialogue over and over to find the right clue, story’s appeal quickly wears thin. It takes a fearsomely funny writer to allay the sense of boredom that inevitably descends when a game becomes repetitive, and even then the effect can be similar to watching a stand up comedian tell the same joke ten times in a row with no variation. The desire to play overrides the desire to listen, but adventure game developers wanted to believe that those desires could be reversed.
Ultimately the reason why the adventure game is fundamentally flawed is that it is designed for an ideal player who never gets bored of hearing the same story sequences and is a brilliant intuitive thinker. They are, in short, designed for the developers themselves and not real players.
The ‘Visual Promise’ Marketing Story
Adventure game fans often assume that customers bought adventure games because of their gameplay. As someone who worked in the retail side of the industry during the heyday and death of the adventure game, I would say that is not the case. Customers were buying adventure games, as they usually do, based on a marketing story.
A crucial thing to understand about videogames is that what sells them is their promise, not their features. Dead Island has shown the effectiveness of this approach. It was the zombie game with the gorgeous trailer masking an average message that I wrote about earlier in the year, and despite tepid reviews will probably sell well because that trailer promises so much.
The industry often mistakenly labels this appeal ‘graphics’ and studios rush to compete with each other in terms of brute force performance. What it actually is is a marketing story which invites the player to experience something special. Trailers or visuals simply tantalise the viewer with that story. ‘Think about what you might get to do or experience in this world’, they seem to say.
That ‘visual promise’ marketing story is why adventure games were popular back in the day. The promise of Gabriel Knight (to take a random example) was intriguing. Ditto for many other adventure games. Compared to 16-bit console games, adventure games appeared special, more grown up perhaps. More about something than just hitting stuff. Technologies like CD-ROM strengthened that promise with full motion video content.
So why did they die? They were simply outclassed. Perhaps starting with Doom (or thereabouts), other games started to look as good as adventure games. They went 3D, had more immersive environments, used better sound effects and graphical styles that weren’t juvenile. And these new games had an advantage that adventures games lacked: They moved.
16-bit console and PC games had always had a static quality and the adventure game maximised on that quality to create beauty. However when compared to a PlayStation demo or Mario 64 they looked stuffy and intellectual. Ocarina of Time and many other games showed the player adventuring and doing stuff in a way that point and click adventure games couldn’t match.
Who really wanted to run around solving puzzles to open doors with herring bones when they could be exploring dungeons, shooting cacodemons, racing cars or any of the other more lively pleasures that 3D gaming embraced? When action games sprang to life the adventure game became the equivalent of the silent movie in a world of talkies and the limits of their poor design sealed their fate.
The Legacy of Adventure Games
Despite their flaws, adventure games positively contributed to games as they have become today.
Other genres, such as the roleplaying game or the survival horror, have gained much from the adventure game. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent have a sense of heritage back to the old days, and we see adventure-lite elements in many other games. Hidden object games like the Agatha Christie series are essentially adventure games without the riddles and with a much clearer use of storysense rather than storytelling. And there is the joy of delightfully canned games like the Phoenix Wright series.
Adventure games also demonstrated the importance of voice. The most fondly remembered adventure games are the best written ones, with the most interesting character dialogue and settings. Writing is one of the best ways for games to incorporate numina and rise above the merely amusing to become special. This is a lesson that many developers never learn, to their cost.
Most importantly, adventure games spoke to a taste for art in video game audiences that other games of their era lacked. They left many developers with the idea that they can construct rich worlds, not mere mechanical bulls, and so in many ways they serve as a powerful example of where inspiration can truly go.
Although adventure games were bad as games, they were great as visions of what games might be. They had their time and they were outclassed by much better games, yet the desire to make something larger and deeper is one that should never be forgotten.