WELCOME BACK, MY PRETTIES
Welcome to part 2 of the death and rebirth of adventure games. We’ve already celebrated the funeral so, now, we’re going to see how adventure gaming slowly comes back to life, shambling et al.
We will focus on 2001-2009, the period when things will start to be set in stone for the future of the genre.
Many things will still be sadly relevant today, probably even more than the mistakes discussed in the previous article.
We will have a look at the market and important releases post 2001 and see some common threads start forming.
Notice I won’t be talking about Myst and Myst-clones, those basically would need their own separate set of articles.
2001 WAS A BAD YEAR ALL AROUND
Where were we? Ah yes, after Lucasarts said “nevermore” and Sierra evaporated, adventure gamers were left with very little to hold on to.
2001 brought nothing new to adventure gamers, no new titles or anything even remotely relevant.
But wait, it gets worse!
The following year would bring about one of the last nail in the coffin for the hope of adventure games surviving in the “new” 3D world: Simon the Sorcerer 3D. An horrible buggy mess, the Ultima IX of adventure gaming, that was unfortunately developed by a separate team of Adventuresoft, the original creators of the Simon series.
Our young 3D sorcerer was plagued by everything that made adventure games old along a horrendous coat of modern 3D, terrible keyboard controls and, oh boy, action sequences! It signed the end of Adventuresoft’s development career and also costed them the Simon license which went, later, to a German developer.
For better or worse, I can’t really tell.
In 2003, adventure gamers huddled together in front of campfires trying to console one another. And what better consolation than nostalgia? Not just reminiscing about the old days, but also learning how to program in order to make an adventure game “just like mama Lucasarts used to make”. It felt a bit like a bad Fallout mod.
I remember the hours spent on the Adventure Gamers forums. We basically all knew each other and spent time waiting and trying whatever new adventure titles appeared trying to convince ourselves “the saviour had come”. I even curated a special weekly column about unreleased adventure games, too bad I can’t find anything of what I wrote now!
But mostly, we waited. Waited for someone to make an adventure game that looked like something from the old days. Something to quench our thirst… ANYTHING!
It wasn’t a long wait, because things in 2004 started moving again.
Problem is that, at first, it was The Adventure Company who answered our call for help.
TWO’S A COMPANY, THREE’S A COMPANY
The Adventure Company was founded in 2002 as a subsidiary of DreamCatcher interactive in order to distribute their in-house developed adventure games. The first title they published, in January of the same year, was… well, “The Cameron Files: Secret of Loch Ness”, developed by Galilèa.
The second game they distributed, the same year, was Mystery of the Nautilus by Cryo Interactive.
My guess is only a bunch of people on the Adventure Gamers forums played them and even today they’d probably swear that they weren’t as mediocre as anyone said.
Then came a Law & Order adventure game, then another Cameron Files game.
For the most part, the company thrived by releasing mediocre titles developed with small budgets by European or Canadian development studios. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to throw shade on them or anything, they had their market and catered to it, nothing wrong with that.
While the average gamer could very well steer clear of anything released by TAC and live happily ever after, most adventure gamers drank them all up, desperate to support the market.
I was one of them. Here’s my story…
Honestly, not everything they released was forgettable.
Missing: since January (In Memoriam, in European countries) was a pretty interesting experience for the time, even though I’m sure no amounts of emulation could make it feasible to play it today. Basically it used the player’s e-mail and websites purposely made to advance the plot, is there someone still out there keeping the websites alive?
Still Life was also pretty decent, a nice thriller game with a foreboding atmosphere and two juxtaposed stories. Too bad it decided to end on a cliffhanger.
The Black Mirror, while being a perfectly mediocre horror adventure, at least managed to leave behind a decent enough series: the second chapter was honestly a nice surprise. Developed by a totally different studio than the first one, it was one of the few modern 2D adventure games I remember from 2009.
Still, the saviour would have to be found elsewhere. And…
GIVE ME A NEW TALE TO TELL
In 2004 former Lucasarts developers Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors and Troy Molander, founded Telltale Games with a brand new idea: graphic adventures could and would survive with three caveats:
3D was mandatory
the games were episodic, as to be economically feasible
all would have to be converted for consoles
Their first title developed in-house, released in 2005, was Bone: Out From Boneville, designed by Dave Grossman, another Monkey Island alumni. It was pretty alright as a small 2 hour game, I especially remember the amazingly funny writing. Bone was a reminder to everyone that great things can happen when you put an experienced game designer and writer at the helm. Adventure fans? Well, most of them found it too short and too easy.
But the biggest shock was yet to come, in 2006 the company concluded an agreement with Steve Purcell in order to release the first season of the new adventures of the dog and rabbit police duo, Sam & Max.
Nobody in their wildest dreams could imagine that two years after the duo got an axe in the face by Lucasarts, they’d manage to play another Sam & Max adventure game.
Written by a bunch of different people, Purcell included, the first season was a bit uneven but, as a whole, I found the game to be perfectly playable and the writing was above average for most episodes.
Trust me, the news by itself for the adventure gaming community was huge.
HANG ON TO YOUR THREE HEADED MONKEYS
Everyone was also clamoring for a Monkey Island game from them. And you know what? They got their wish!
In 2009, Tales of Monkey Island was released, another episodic series which ran just one season. While arguably better than the last officially sanctioned Monkey title, it didn’t really blow anyone’s minds. Telltale games started to run a bit too similar in scope and tone to one another, or at least that’s what I felt at the time.
Maybe their in-house developed graphics engine was also at fault?
Still, I wanted to focus on something very important that Telltale managed to accomplish.
While their games can be bad or good, they paved a way for the future of adventure gamers, instead of just getting by on nostalgia. They showed everyone that yes, adventure games could survive past their prime and also had a little cozy home on consoles.
Telltale was there to pick up where Lucasarts ran off and make everyone happy again with their favorite reborn franchises. But was it really what most gamers felt about those new games?
Too bad that things will take a turn for the worse, we’ll get back to them in the next chapter.
I HAD A DREAM, QUANTIC DREAM…
In 2005, my good friend David Cage is back with a new game that promises to revolutionize how adventure games are conceived. He even put himself in the introduction of the game, talking directly to the player (again, referring to the Nomad Soul).
Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the US) was a textbook example of promising the world and delivering… well, Michigan. The demo blew me away: the player had to hide a body from the police in a variety of different ways, along with keeping the mood of the character in check. The policeman would react differently depending on the choice made and would notice if you forgot something, like the blood on the floor.
It felt cinematic and fully interactive, like finally somebody had manage to integrate story and gameplay.
It wasn’t, obviously, everything was scripted.
The rest of the game was a par for the course modern 3d adventure with little to no puzzles, horrible action scenes where you shot monsters (mites, actually) while moving on rails and a plot that goes off the deep end so quickly that everyone was left confused and bewildered.
Also, the best feature in a game ever: necrophiliac sex scenes with scary 3d models.
Yes, really. No I won’t feature those images, please, have mercy.
Still, for all the blame on Cage’s part, he just followed what everyone else was doing. Adventure games could survive, but only in 3d and only with limited-to-no puzzles. Telltale was right.
David Cage himself introduces the game
Another strong support for 3D adventure games with few puzzles came from a rather unexpected source, the long awaited sequel to The Longest Journey: Dreamfall, released in 2006.
Funcom went ahead and abandoned the 2D adventure with obtuse puzzles in favour of something lighter and more arcade-y that could be easily played on consoles with a joypad.
At the time, adventure fans’ reactions towards the game were tiepid. Personally, I loved the music, the gorgeous artstyle and atmosphere along with the characters (also one named after me! Happy happy joy joy!); wasn’t entirely sold on the gameplay.
Broken Sword: Angel of Death came out in 2007, also a pretty above-average 3D adventure game; in the US, where the Broken Sword brand doesn’t mean much, The Adventure Company distributed the title as Secrets of the Ark.
It had its fair share of puzzles still, even though it was solely lacking the writing of Steve Ince, who meanwhile was busy releasing So Blonde, a strictly 2d adventure title.
MEANWHILE, IN EUROPE…
In Europe things were different.
In 2004, the german studio House of Tales – the first to develop adventure games in a country which rapidly fell in love with them – released a new game, after the rather awful Mystery of the Druids. (I’ve been contacted by the very kind Martin Gantefohr, designer of all the mentioned HoT titles here and pointed me to a very interesting post mortem he did about the game).
The Moment of Silence was clamored as another “return to form” for 2D adventure gaming. And while it’s pretty clear the title was ambitious and went beyond the usual humorous titles, the writing was not up to the task.
The title designed by Martin Ganteföhr was overtly serious while confronting topics as diverse as digital fascism, big brother government control and human relationships. Unfortunately the only way it found to do so, especially for a 2.5D (a 2D space developed with 3D projection mapping) game, was with overtly long conversations between two static characters.
Which could work, if the writing alone is enough to support the story. It wasn’t, obviously; still not a bad game per se.
House of Tales tried again in 2008 with Overclocked: a History of Violence, another rather verbose 2D game which confronted many serious topics.
But they weren’t the only ones who were working in 2D…
OH BENOIT, WHY IS IT YOU BENOIT?
Benoit Sokal has always been a mystery to me.
Heralded as a kind of genius game designer since his first game, Amerzone, a rather short and simple Myst-clone, he is a talented illustrator and art designer. Not so sure he is such a good writer or designer, though. This comes abundantly clear playing his great success, Syberia, released in late 2002.
The whole plot is basically waged on the player’s voracious interest towards the elusive manchild Hans Voralberg and his dream to see mammoths before dying.
Yeah, if you’re not on board with that, you’re gonna get bored pretty soon.
Personally, the only interesting thing about the game is the relationship between our protagonist, the lawyer Kate Walker, and her distant detached husband. Unfortunately that one interesting bit gets jettisoned halfway through in favour of meeting various rather forgettable characters and trying to find where Hans is hiding.
The second game, in 2004, is, again, about making Hans’ dream come true and nothing else really. Inevitably, I rapidly lost interest since I never cared for Hans’ dream and Kate Walker became more and more of an empty shell, her only reason to keep on “abiding for her mistakes as a lawyer” and being tired of her previous life, which the player knew next to nothing about.
Both games were designed to be classic 2D adventures through and through, with rather dull puzzles and supporting characters which served no purpose but to stall the player. They remained a sort of last resort for nostalgic adventure gamers, in the post 2005 scenario, that is probably why they’re still fondly remembered. Playing them today is not really an experience I would recommend..
As a final note, let’s just say that trying to revive the franchise in 2017, didn’t exactly go as expected…
ANOTHER CODE, ANOTHER PLACE
There was a software house making considerably complex adventure games, developed with a 3D engine but with a whole lot of complex puzzles released on Nintendo DS and Wii, nonetheless!
I’m obviously talking about Cing, a Japanese studio with main designers Taisuke Kanazaki and Rika Suzuki at the helm, founded by some former Riverhill Soft guys.
They developed a series of interesting adventures that saw loss of memory and childhood as their main topics, Another Code. While not a perfect series by any means, it managed to touch on sensitive topics and impelment a pretty good gameplay that stood out even on the portable Nintendo console.
Better still did the “noir” series on the DS, Hotel Dusk, and its sequel Last Window. Both titles used the noir setting in a mature way, along with an original and wonderful comic book artstyle.
By 2010 Cing was done, unfortunately.
ALRIGHT ALRIGHT ALREADY
So, after all these games, what conclusion should we draw?
On one hand, I wanted to show you how the market, after a couple of years, was slowly finding its way, while laying down some ground rules. Adventure games could indeed survive, but they had to change to fit the new generation’s tastes.
Puzzles that were too complicated or obtuse would have to go. Also, they had to be developed strictly in 3D in order to be ported on consoles and played with a joypad without much hassle.
That doesn’t mean an interesting story couldn’t be told, like Dreamfall easily showed everyone.
If you asked adventure fans, though, they felt adventures had compromised too much and lost their true nature in order to sell more copies. And that wasn’t a lazy opinion, resentment was slowly growing in the background and we will see how that will influence the market from 2010 onwards.
In the meantime, keep on adventuring!