We’ve seen how adventure gaming struggled to survive after 2000, bouncing back after some lackluster years. The message was clear: the adventure gaming market was dedicated only to titles developed in 3D and console-friendly. Apparently old school point’n’click 2D had irremediably lost its marketability.
The Walking Dead series from TellTale and the success of Quantic Dream with Heavy Rain had created a new generation of fans of adventure games, who just wanted to sit and enjoy a story and characters and didn’t mind limited interactivity and simple puzzles.
This of course brought all kinds of frustration to old school adventure fans, they wanted a new “Sierra” that rounded up talented developers or, at least, a new title in the style of Lucasarts.
Naturally we know that several former Lucas developers had joined TellTale but they were making those same “useless” episodic adventures in 3D. Of all the nerve!
Where was the saviour that would bring back good ol’ 2D adventure gaming?
It soon became obvious we fans had to make the Wicker Man ourselves.
Beware the nostalgia you cannot see
During that wave of unsatisfied nostalgic longing, hopes for the rebirth of the “classic” adventure genre sprung up when the “Double Fine adventure” Kickstarter was launched in 2012.
Kickstarter was a site that offered projects a chance to launch a public campaign to ask for money by “backers”, anything could be funded: videogames, t-shirts, gaming consoles, portable expresso machines, etc.
“Bring back the adventure” was the motto of the Double Fine campaign. Tim Schafer, designer of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, promised his backers to work on an old style 2D adventure game, since the general market wasn’t interested.
Many publishers indeed pricked up their ears when the project racked up a staggering 3.45 million dollars, from an original request of 40K (considered by Schafer the minimum to develop a commercial game), one of the most successful Kickstarter projects ever.
The idea to bring back the 2D adventures we’ve all “groan” to love sounded awesome and, since an original Lucasarts game designer was involved, everyone knew it was gonna be EPIC. Double Fine was also riding high on the critical success of Psychonauts, proof of their ability at developing a unique and original title.
The Double Fine Adventure seemed like the perfect meal to satisfy our nostalgic appetites, it would have been the rebirth of the genre as we knew it.
Looking back eight years later, all I see is ANOTHER nail in the coffin for the traditional adventure genre and a perfect cautionary tale for the medium as a whole.
Shut up and take my money
Reading between the lines of the original Kickstarter text, it’d soon become clear that it was little more than an elevator pitch. Perfectly good intentions, very few ideas. No wonder Schafer was caught off guard by the staggering success of his Kickstarter project. He just wanted some money to make a straightforward old style 2d point’n’click; when things turned out more complicated than that, he had no idea what to do.
He promised the excess funding would go towards “better production values”, even though really the one thing most adventure gaming fans, especially old school ones, DON’T care about are modern graphics or an orchestrated soundtrack.
Poor planning, lack of ideas and an excessive amount of money soon got in the way of what could have been heralded as the second coming of 2D point’n’click adventures.
The 3 million dollars turned out to be not enough (!) and Double Fine was forced to split the game in two. They hurriedly release a morsel of the game on Steam early access, just to rack up more money and continue development.
The first part (not the first half, mind you) of the game was released in early 2014 and, honestly, it is pretty good, both storywise and gameplaywise, even though just 3-4 hours long. The graphics have a pretty pastel style that make them look to be hand drawn, even though I’m not especially crazy about the character design.
The definitive title had been revealed in 2013 to be “Broken Age”. The game stars two characters, Shay and Vella, and their stories juxtaposed, along with many mysteries that prop up during the first part of their quirky adventures. Beside an anticipation of the interesting plot, many found the puzzles to be too easy.
Then 2014 ended with the second part nowhere in sight.
I’d buy that for six million dollars!
Broken Age ended up costing six million dollars, with two coming directly from the studio’s own budget, a rob Peter to pay Paul situation, basically. As a reference, the original budget for Full Throttle was 1.5 million dollars (in 1995, sure, but still…).
I don’t know how Schafer usually approaches writing a story, but the one he took for Broken Age definitely left something to be desired. The development team worked a full year on the graphical side of the game, while ideas for the story were few and far between.
Apparently Schafer finally finished writing in October of 2014; indeed, the game wasn’t written as a single story but as two separated ones. Unfortunately, it very much shows.
The second part was delayed in order for Double Fine to keep their promise of converting the title for all platforms. Releasing the game on every console known to man didn’t appear to make much sense, considering the original idea was for the game to be “traditional”. It was possibly a last attempt to try to and at least get some money back, since already by 2013 it dawned on most backers that Double Fine had screwed the pooch. I still have a Broken Age code for Ouya (another Kickstarter darling), hit me up if you, for some reason, need one.
In April of 2015, a full year after the first, the second part, the remaining 10-12 hours of game, was finally released.
Broken Age ended up being one of the biggest punches in the gut I remember in my not-so-short career as a gamer.
There are articles around that state the delay was useful so that “Double Fine was able to use feedback from the first act’s release to improve and alter some aspects of the second.”
A textbook definition of irony if I ever read one, since anything remotely good about Broken Age’s first part was thrown in the garbage.
Part 2 indeed manages to answer every question, unfortunately it does so with half-hearted expositions and contrived answers, leaving massive plot holes.
Broken Age, broken heart, when the two will have to part
What interesting characters established in the first part, thrown away, their motivations changed so that Double Fine could forcibly extend the game’s length with a series of baffling plot choices (I can’t bring myself to write “plot twists”) and horrendously complicated puzzles. Above all, the worst one I remember was the “take the icing off the cake” puzzle, with Shay refusing to do so for no apparent reason, a puzzle which really harkens back to the worst Sierra of the 90s.
But hey, illogical and frustrating puzzles were the bread and butter of traditional adventure gaming, so maybe they got me there!
Worst of all, the last half hour of the game hurriedly introduces the “real enemy”, unknown to the player up until that point, then concludes with a quick lightweight ending that carries no real meaning or moral message.
As I was one of the highest tier backers, I gave DoubleFine something like 120$, the highest amount I ever paid for a game, before and after that. I received the big carton box release for PC, five years after I backed the game. Yeah, FIVE.
I sold it a couple of weeks later.
I know game development is not easy, accidents may happen and delays are the soup du jour. But what hit me the most weren’t the delays, but how Broken Age didn’t feel traditional at all: instead felt forced, contrived, the product of someone that just wanted to get the job done and not look back at it ever again.
What’s more is that Part one felt naturally good, exactly like I expected the game to feel. Then the second one was like being shoved from Heaven directly into the bowels of hell.
What should have been a joyous reunion of old friends, instead was like having dinner with the one aunt you could never stand.
The less said about Broken Age being the second big bang for classic adventure gaming, the better. All Broken Age managed to show the world was why traditional 2D point’n’clicks couldn’t work anymore on modern platforms.
Tim Schafer hasn’t worked on an adventure game since then and, my guess is, probably he never will again.
You break it, you (don’t) buy it.
Except this time, the genre wasn’t to blame.
Kickstarter was another platform where promises only went so far and did not guarantee the backer anything, stories of failed launches are a dime a dozen.
Still that didn’t rule out its usefulness as a venture for other adventure developers to fund less expensive but, arguably, more inspired projects. Many nostalgic titles saw the light of day thanks to public funding: Revolution Software used it to develop the perfectly playable Broken Sword – The Serpent’s Curse, along with Jane Jensen bringing back the Gabriel Knight flavoured adventure with the disastrous Moebius. Larry Laffer also came back to life in a remake of the first Leisure suit Larry title, with the collaboration of original author Al Lowe, while the two guys from Andromeda brought back Space Quest.
Most dear to me, Corey and Lori Ann Cole released a new title in the spirit of my beloved Quest for Glory: Hero’s U – Rogue to Redemption. Even though I didn’t really appreciate the tight confines you’re playing in – the university for heroes – it embodies the original Quest for Glory spirit, bad puns and all, nice to see it back in full form.
Fortunately Double Fine, while doing great harm to the dream, didn’t succeed in killing it for good.
Daedalic Entertainment – all hail the hero of resistance
Beyond nostalgic projects, there was something more for fans to find a bit of consolation. Founded in Germany in 2007, Daedalic was created with the precise objective to develop and publish strictly 2D point’n’click adventure games. It soon became clear that Daedalic was really dedicated and had the talent to bring to the public some interesting adventures like the Edna & Harvey, Deponia and the rather unique Dark Eye series.
Most of their games featured mature themes intertwined with detailed 2D graphics, traditional point’n’click gameplay without the need for illogical puzzles, with beautiful graphics and polished dubbing. All of this without dumping buckets of money on 3D engines or huge development teams.
I’ve recently played the first title in the Dark Eye series and I can safely say, even though almost ten years old, the game has aged gracefully and is still a breath of fresh air. Chains of Satinav is the perfect example that a point’n’click doesn’t need to be a nostalgic or humouristic title in the vein of Lucasarts to be fun and emotionally engaging. Probably it is not the one game I would recommend to someone who doesn’t like 2D adventure games but definitely one for the fans of the genre.
Naturally, Daedalic has relaxed a bit in the following years and it also publishes 3D adventure games, like State of Mind – designed by Martin Ganteföhr, which we have already mentioned in the previous chapter – a pretty interesting experiment in the vein of interactive movies à la Quantic Dream, but, honestly, with much better writing.
In the heat of the argument, you’re gonna need a whole lot of fans
The fans of the genre had also been keeping busy with their Wicker Man: several interesting projects had already popped up years before the Broken Age kickstarter.
AGD Interactive got the license to remaster of some of the older Sierra titles, like the first three chapters of King’s Quest and Quest for Glory II, doing a wonderful job. Then, thanks to the availability of free adventure game engines like Adventure Game Studio and more sophisticated ones, it seemed like fans could finally do justice to their beloved genre: games by fans for fans!
AGS games had been around since 2001 (when one of my favourites was released, Pleurghburg: Dark Ages), it took them some time to become something more than nice free games, like the fantastic Chzio Mythos series from 2003. Many of those titles were impressively well written and played better than many big budgeted titles, while being developed by one man teams. A taste of things to come for indie gaming as a whole?
Thanks to the increasing complexity of the engine, around 2007 the first AGS-developed titles had enough clout and fan support to become more than free games.
Many AGS games went on to become fully fledged commercial adventures with full dubbing and videos, like The Journey Down or the Blackwell series, developed by Wadjet eye, a studio we’ll meet again in the next chapter.
The Double Fine adventure project showed that – apparently – a big budget 2D “Lucasarts” styled adventure that could both please the players and bring back the good ol’ times, wasn’t possible anymore.
In the end, the fans saved the 2D point’n’click adventure genre.
They understood what was marketable, had the resources to make it possible and they were, by then, old enough to be capable of delving into more mature themes and storytelling.
Hence, limited budgets old school point’n’clicks seemed to be marketable only to a small niche of fans.
Naturally, Daedalic entertainment publishing and developing 2D adventures also majorly contributed to that niche that seemed like it could survive way beyond 2010.
We’ll see what happens to the fans and to the adventure genre in the next and final chapter.