IF I WAS A GAMER… BUT THEN AGAIN, NO
In my teen years adventure games were my favourite genre for two critical reasons: they were genuinely the funniest out of them all and the only games where characters and story always came first. In most other genres story was, most of the time, an afterthought.
I was more than willing to stomach dead ends and antique game design, but that didn’t mean I had to like them, obviously.
Unfortunately, when everyone jumped into adventure game development as a quick cheap way of making a buck, the quality of the writing dropped horrendously. This became especially evident around the mid 90s when Full Motion Videos were the new big thing and development studios thought that hiring real actors was enough to make a game fly off the shelves.
Many adventures of the time had very little gameplay to speak of, poor puzzle design and brevity was key since, hey, filming is expensive!
The FMV era brought us such gems as Ripper (Christopher Walken reading cue cards), Phantasmagoria (which had its charms as b-movie horror) and, of course, Harvester (which needs a separate article cause that game has to be fully gutted).
THAT’S A WRAP!
After the FMV era finally came to an end, 3D was around the corner. While it had been fairly easy for adventure games to embrace actors in poorly rendered environments, graphics weren’t so easy to adapt.
At the end of the 90s 3D acceleration became a mandatory entry ticket for any development team with a sliver of chance to achieve a publisher agreement, every genre on PC trying its best to survive in a post 3dfx-world.
With the millennium coming to a close, it seemed like everyone had found a solution, even Real Time Strategy managed to survive.
Well, everyone except… what do you know, adventure games.
Developers found that, apparently, it was a real pain in the neck trying to adapt these games to a 3D environment. The few 3D adventures that were released around 2000 were buggy, difficult to control and plagued by horrible puzzles, to boot.
They were also a hard sell in this “new era” where most PC titles had to be converted for consoles.
Adventures were slow, required too much thinking by the players and, for the most part, were devoid of risquè and “cool” characters.
Ironically enough, adventure games weren’t… adventurous enough.
They were “the boomers in a Playstation millennial era”; they had survived on PC, but on consoles, adventure games were seen as the “nerds” of the bunch.
All major companies were starting to take notice of the new demands of the market and to, more or less directly, declare that they were gonna give up on making adventure games altogether.
As 2003 rolled in, the genre was dead and buried.
WHERE WERE THEY YESTERDAY?
Expand each section to find out what the main actors in the adventure game scene were doing at the turn of the century:
In 2000 Lucasarts released the last chapter of the celebrated Monkey Island series, Escape from Monkey Island, arguably the worst of the original saga. It would be their last adventure game; even though one Sam & Max title and a sequel to Full Throttle were announced, by 2004 they would end up in the bin.
Subsequently, Lucasarts announced they would focus esclusively on Star Wars games – ironic since the company had been specially created by George Lucas NOT to do that – thus all of its adventure designers would depart.
Ron Gilbert, designer of Monkey Island who left years before, provided satirical insights on the state of things at the time on his Grumpy Gamer blog: “for developers, making an adventure game was like going around saying you have the plague”.
Tim Schafer – designer of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango – left in 2004 and went on to found Double Fine which, years later, would release Psychonauts, one of the best games of that era. We will get back to them in the next part of the article.
Sierra went through radical management changes in the late 90s, meaning that Ken and Roberta Williams became less and less involved in development and more focused on the business side of things
The last titles in the King’s Quest and Quest for Glory series were both released in 1998, with little acclaim by fans; especially Mask of Eternity wasn’t well received, mainly because it tried embracing the 3D action adventure genre with questionable results.
In 1999, a wave of layoffs hit the studio and most developers were let go, along with the cancellation of the remaining adventure games still in the pipelines: Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry.
By 2000, Sierra, as most gamers have grown to know it, had ceased to exist, Gabriel Knight 3 being really the last hurrah from them. It kept on surviving in brand name only for a bunch of years after that, even when trying to bring back the Larry brand with disastrous results.
After being laid off by Sierra, most adventure designers retired from the business. Jane Jensen, designer for Gabriel Knight, persevered in some way and, after many years, managed to found a new company for developing adventure games, Pinkerton Road Studio. We will get back to them too.
Revolution Software, developers of Broken Sword, had been trying their best to embrace change.
The software house released their first game in 3D, in Cold Blood, in 2000. It came and went without much fanfare. It was a rather good attempt though, showing that adventure games didn’t need to be abandoned.
Indeed they persevered, releasing a perfectly playable adventure game in 3D, The Sleeping Dragon. The third in the Broken Sword series was also released on consoles and I remember enjoying the game when it came out, in 2003.
Unfortunately, soon after that the studio lost Steve Ince, one of the main writers for the Broken Sword series and, after that, Charles Cecil remained as the main writer for the fourth and fifth title.
We will meet both Ince and Cecil in the next part of the article.
CAT, I MOUSTACHE YOU A FAVOUR
We’ve seen how 3D acceleration changed the gamers’ tastes and how the market reacted to adapt.
But is it fair blaming graphics for the downfall of adventure games?
Obviously not, since we’ve already seen the signs: the genre had been choking on itself for a while. Most articles love to quote the infamous “cat moustache hair” puzzle in GK3 as a clear sign adventure games jumping the shark.
The puzzle worked a bit like this:
In order to rent a motorcycle, Gabriel Knight has to disguise himself as his friend Mosley. To do that, Gabriel needs to steal Mosley’s ID, wear a hat, a jacket and a fake moustache made of cat hair. The cat will have to be scared with a water spray to make it go through a hole with the duct tape on. Then, Gabriel will have to distract Mosely with candy to steal his ID. Then enter his room to steal a coat, then use the black marker to fake the moustache on the ID (cause if you don’t look like someone, using a moustache always helps right?) and, finally, steal a red hat.
This puzzle is a perfect example of what has been defined as “adventure game logic” (or “moon logic”). Problems that in real life would be simple to solve, like hitching a ride instead of stealing a bunch of things in order to make a moustache out of cat hair, in adventures would become unnecessarily complicated.
Even though the cat hair puzzle is a funny example, focusing too much on Gabriel Knight 3 would mean missing the point entirely.
While it might be true that it came out in the wrong place and in the wrong time – not to mention with a painful to look at 3D engine – truth is, adventure games had been guilty of such illogical conundrums since day one.
Well respected adventures, way before 1999, had their fair share of horribly illogical puzzles:
- In Full Throttle you had to kick a wall in a specific point with perfect timing to open a door; getting it right was really more a stroke of luck than anything having to do with logic, all the game tells you is “the wall needs to be kicked in a certain point at a certain moment”.
- In The Longest Journey you had to get a key stuck on the electrified train tracks, for no apparent reason whatsoever. In order to get the key April needs to go back home, fumble with a machine to get a rubber duck that you’ll have to later deflate, stuck a clump in, re-inflate and then use to grab the key.
- In Runaway, combining peanuts and butter and then leaving them in the sun to melt, you create peanut butter. Because that’s obviously how it works.
- In Grim Fandango, you have to get a suitcase from a hidden floor and have to drive a forklift inside an elevator WHILE the elevator is moving, getting the time right to insert the prongs of the forklift at the right moment. Obviously if you had a modern processor back then, it would be impossible to do it and a patch needed to be released. He he, dead ends again!
HIDDEN ITEMS, CLEAR FRUSTRATION
Pixel hunting is another designer’ sin exclusively related to adventure games.
Many adventures, especially ones from Sierra, had fantastic manually drawn background art, thus each location could be as big as the developers wanted. The one thing on the game designer’s mind was: how many items can I hide inside this drawing to make the player cry out in desperation?
If only they knew how, years later, the hidden objects genre would thrive!
Obviously, the interface never clearly indicated what items could be picked up so, most times, you had to scout every single screen in the hopes you had left something somewhere.
This typical design led to another adventure game trope “pick up everything that isn’t nailed down”.
This meant that the protagonist would have an inventory of tens of dubiously useful items and no idea how and when they were supposed to be used. Thus another adventure game trope was born “try everything with everything” which goes hand in hand with the moon logic, for obvious reasons.
An adventure gamer would probably start to squirm if, by the end of the game, there were still unused items. Had something been missed? Do I have to restart the game all over again?
Am I just not good enough?
DEATH IS NOT THE END
The Escapist magazine raises a good point that adventure games were the only genre that never really did listen to the players’ complaints and desires.
By the end of the retrospective, it will be made clear how the death – and consequent resurrection – of the genre has more to do with rusty game design than its inability to adapt to the changing of the times.
The death of adventure games was self-inflicted, that part we can all agree with. With the benefit of hindsight, it is a bit harder to agree with Telltale Games coming to the rescue.
We’ve come to the end of the first part of my retrospective on the death of the adventure genre.
In the second part we will see what happens once the cemetery has been abandoned and the dead come back to life. Also what apparent benefits will Kickstart bring to those poor restless souls.
In the meantime, keep on adventuring!