Tracking The Strange Trails Of The Adventure Game Genre

by Javy Gwaltney on Nov 07, 2016 at 08:25 AM

Genres usually have specific requirements. A shooter needs to have players firing projectile-based weapons at targets, even if the projectile is ink instead of bullets. Strategy games such as StarCraft and Fire Emblem require you to make tough calls and carefully manage valuable resources to defeat enemies. However, “adventure” is such a nebulous term and the evolution this particular genre has taken over the years only reinforces just how malleable it is.

Once upon a time, an interactive adventure meant digging through your inventory for an item that would help you bypass a puzzle. Now, for many people, it means simulations that force them to make tough moral choices in life-and-death situations. From ancient quests in underground kingdoms to solving the disappearance of a child in a small town, we examine the genre’s twisted and unique evolution.

The first real adventure game of note, Colossal Cave Adventure, sprung up as a way for programmer Will Crowther to connect with his daughters after his divorce. The text adventure casts players as someone exploring a cave in search of treasure. Crowther used a mapping of Kentucky’s ­Mammoth Cave system and his own love of Dungeons & Dragons to create the game. With its focus on exploration and puzzle-solving, the game served as a template for influential adventure titles like Zork and King’s Quest.

“Adventure games from the ’80s and ’90s were more puzzle-focused,” says Ron Gilbert, a writer on classic adventure games like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. “It may seem like a small thing, but it has drastic ramifications for the design (and the audience).”

Gilbert and fellow adventure game writers like Tim Schafer came to prominence when the genre’s bedrock was goofy humor and puzzles that had their own wacky logic to solving them. The times have changed, but ­Gilbert believes there’s still a place in the world for this kind of adventure game. “Puzzle-based adventure games never died,” he says. “They still sell the same number of copies today they sold in the ‘90s. The issue is they never grew with the rest of the industry.”

He’s not alone on that assertion. Dave Gilbert (no relation) has made his career as an indie developer working on modern point-and-click adventure titles like Shardlight and The Blackwell series. He’s made his living creating games in this niche for nearly a decade. “It’s funny, because you always hear that adventure games are dead or they’re coming back,” he says.

He finds the “resurgence of adventure games” narrative to be an interesting one because it doesn’t happen to other genres. “You never hear that story about any other genre even though you take like [shoot ’em ups] or rogue-likes or platformers, and by like the same metric they’ve also died and come back,” he says. “It’s like people like that narrative: ‘Oh, adventure games are coming back’ or they’re dead and ‘This person is bringing them back.’ It’s never been true…­adventure games have always been there.”

While the main audience for interactive adventures seems to be geared toward narrative-driven games, that’s not stopping either Gilbert from making classic adventure games. Ron is currently working on Thimbleweed Park, which embraces the pixelated aesthetic of Maniac Mansion as well as the tone of quirky ‘90s investigative dramas like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. “We want to show the world you can make a puzzle-based adventure game with compelling characters, narrative, and no stupid puzzles,” he says.

Gamers will have to wait until Thimbleweed Park is released next year to see if Gilbert and company can meet his ambitions. However, he’s right about one thing: Narrative-focused games have taken center stage for fans of the genre.

Head on over to page 2 to read about first-person adventure games as well where the genre will go next.

First-person adventure games are nothing new, as both Myst and The Journeyman Project were ‘90s adventure games set in first-person. However, a new crop of titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent are taking this subgenre in a radically different direction, forgoing combat and puzzle elements in favor of making world exploration and narrative the focal point.

Tacoma, the sophomore effort for the studio that created Gone Home, has a lot to live up to. Gone Home was one of the major titles of the past few years that helped shift the adventure genre away from traditionally gamey elements like puzzles to focus on telling an emotionally charged story in a mundane setting – a family’s home in Portland, Oregon. Tacoma takes place in a much more fantastical setting – a space station – but still focuses on relationships between the people who live there. “I think [first-person adventure] games give you the ability to really dig into the details of these worlds,” says Steve Gaynor, designer on Tacoma. “And in that way it often exposes things about the people who inhabit them in a very direct way.”

Nina Freeman, another designer for Tacoma and creator of Cibele (check out Kim Wallace's review of it here), finds first-person games to contain a strong potential for instilling players with empathy. “They’re really exciting in their potential to help players step outside of their own experience and consider things from a different point of a view,” she says.

Virginia, another first-person adventure game, casts you as a graduate FBI student trying to track down a missing person in a small town in 1992. Like Thimbleweed Park, it draws inspiration from ‘90s television shows, but its take is much more serious and grounded in drama. Co-creator Jonathan Burroughs, who worked at EA before ­setting out to create Virginia, says those inspirations laid the groundwork for the game. “When we were meeting with frustration and getting mired by concepts which went nowhere, it was an enthusiasm for the characters and the atmosphere of ‘90s neo-noirs which set us on a path toward what would become Virginia,” he says. “But Virginia quickly found its own identity and after building out our characters and the scenes they would inhabit, the story took on a life of its own.”

Like Gone Home before it, Virginia’s first-person perspective makes its mundane settings, like an ordinary kitchen, fascinating to behold in a way that probably wouldn’t be possible in third-person. In the brief demo I played, I wandered around the house of the missing child, searching through trash cans and beneath beds for any clues about where he might have gone, while also learning bits and pieces about who he and his family are by staring at records and posters.

History Lessons

Want to play some of the best adventure games over the years to get a sense of the genre’s breadth?  Here are five that capture the appeal of the genre.

Zork (1977): As far as text adventures go, they don’t get much bigger than Zork. This fantasy adventure is incredibly influential thanks to its witty prose,  dark humor, and focus on exploration. (PC, iOS)

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984): This text adventure is based on Douglas Adams’ popular sci-fi classic and is known for throwing ridiculously difficult puzzles at the player, as well as Adams’ signature combination of oddball humor and profound observations. (PC, iOS)

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990): This famous point-and-click adventure game is renowned for its charming characters and difficult puzzles. LucasArts remade The Secret of Monkey Island in 2009 and it’s a pretty solid upgrade of a fantastic game. (PC, iOS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Grim Fandango (1998): One of the last, truly great LucasArts adventure games. Manny Calavera’s journey through the world of the undead is a vibrant, hysterical journey hiding a surprising amount of soul. (PlayStation 4, PC)

Soma (2015): Soma effectively communicates both dread and hope through its 10-hour journey through the end of the world. It’s a nightmare of a game but one worth experiencing until the credits roll. (PlayStation 4, PC)

Sean Vanaman, who worked on Firewatch, thinks this is one of the thrusts of why the first-person perspective adds a unique dimension to interactive storytelling. “You get away with so much more,” he says. “You don’t have persistence of control. In a third-person adventure game, all the discovery moments, all the plot moments are usually outside of your control and have to be made outside of the systems of player input.”

Both Gone Home and Firewatch have the distinction of not only being critical successes but commercial ones as well. Burroughs seems largely unconcerned with whether or not Virginia is that profitable and is more interested in “telling an original story,” something he says the adventure genre excels at and why the genre, as many-faced as it is, continues to thrive decades after its inception. “I think the adventure game as I would define it is timeless, and the appetite for them is undiminished,” he says. “Their diversity and creativity is broader than it has ever been.”

Alongside the first-person narrative adventure boom, another kind of adventure game has cropped up that apes the conventions of television. The emergence of digital distribution platforms like Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live made episodic gaming a viable option, with adventure games finding yet another new format. Telltale Games popularized the release model, publishing episodes of games like Sam & Max Save the World and Back to the Future, usually concluding within the span of a year. The model has received scrutiny over how long developers take to release segmented content, but episodic content also draws a sizable audience due to the cheap price of admission and unintimidating time commitment.

As episodic gaming has become more popular, the more notable games have taken advantage of the format, billing games as series, with each episode often ending on a dramatic cliffhanger and trying to sell players on the promise that their choices will have a huge impact on how the story plays out. The Walking Dead and Life is Strange are notable examples, but smaller series of all genres like The Dream Machine and Blues and Bullets have started popping up in their wake, filling up digital stores.

With the formula being applied to giant properties like Batman (check out Reiner's enthusiastic review of the second episode here) and Game of Thrones while at the same time indie developers all over the world try their own hand at releasing adventure games bit by bit, this kind of episodic gaming shows no signs of slowing down.

No genre is harder to break down and qualify than the adventure game. It is a thriving collection of games filled with diverse kinds of stories and experiences, and it only looks to get bigger with the likes of Last Life and Night in the Woods inbound in 2017. As the medium of video games continues to grow, it will be interesting to see if the adventure genre continues to spread out even further and change with the times, encapsulating a wider range of interactive experiences for gamers everywhere.