Apparently, much has been said about the death of adventure games, so much so that it’s become a stereotype. In my teenage years, adventure games were my favourite genre. While I did play many other games, every time I knew about the release of an adventure game, I would make sure to track it down and play. This for two critical reasons: they offered the better writing in the industry and, naturally, 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 to enjoy a bit of good story, but that did not mean I liked everything I played, obviously. Unfortunately, when everyone jumped into adventure game development as a quick way of making a buck, the quality of the writing started to drop. 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 just the right way to make a game fly off the shelves.
Many adventures of the time had very little gameplay to speak of. Simple puzzles or, even worse, complicated puzzles just for the sake of proloning the experience, was the main thing on offer. Games were also becoming quite a bit shorter since, obviously, filming was rather 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 I wrote an entire separate article about, because it has more than earned it).
That's a wrap.
When the FMV era came to an end, by the mid 90s, because people just had enough of real life actors, game companies had a gret idea: virtual actors. Indeed, the big 3D revolution was just around the corner. While it had been fairly easy for adventure games to embrace actors in poorly rendered environments, unfortunately it wasn’t so easy to adapt to this new kind of graphics. At the end of the 90s, with PlayStation being quite the big new thing, 3D graphics became a mandatory entry ticket for any development team with a sliver of chance to achieve a publisher agreement, every “classic” 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, somehow, survive. Well, everyone except… what do you know, adventure games. Developers found that, apparently, no one wanted to play a slow-paced, verbose game. With people demanding excitement and action sequences, publishers just started turning down everything that resembled a point and click. The few developers that stuck to their guns, by the early 00s, ended up releasing 3D adventures that were buggy, difficult to control and plagued by horrible puzzles, to boot.
Going back to the PlayStation, indeed point and click adventures were quite a hard sell in this “new era” where most PC titles had to be converted for console(s). Adventures required too much thinking by the players and, for the most part, were devoid of risquè and “cool” characters. Ironically enough, adventure games stopped being… well, adventurous. They were “the boomers in a Playstation millennial era”; they had survived on PC, but on consoles, adventure games became, almost overnight, 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 point and click genre seemed to be dead and buried. Was it really the death of adventure games?
What were they doing?
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 weakest out of the original saga. It would end up being their last adventure game; even though one Sam & Max title and a sequel to Full Throttle were announced, by 2004 they would both 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 leave.
Ron Gilbert, designer of Monkey Island who had 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 the 3D platformer Psychonauts.
Sierra went through radical management changes in the late 90s, with the consequence 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. It was especially King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity to be quite criticized by fans and critics, because of how it tried embracing the 3D action adventure genre with questionable results. Williams herself would later recall the tortuous development of the game.
In 1999, a wave of layoffs hit the studio with most developers being let go, along with the cancellation of the remaining adventure games still in the pipelines: new titles in the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series. By 2000, Sierra, as most gamers have grown to know it, had basically ceased to exist, Gabriel Knight 3 being really the last hurrah from them. The company continued to exist, 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 of their former adventure designers retired from the business, at least emporarily.
Revolution Software, developers of the Broken Sword series, were among the few studio who had been trying their best to adapt to the changing landscape. 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 interesting attempt though, showing that adventure games didn’t need to be abandoned.
The team persevered, releasing a perfectly playable adventure game in 3D, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. The third in the series was also released on consoles and, despite many genre fans criticing the game for simplifying the interface and puzzles, 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 who would depart to work on his own. After that, Charles Cecil remained as the main writer for the fourth and fifth title.
The moustache that killed the cat
There have been years of discussion on what exactly cause the “death” of adventure games, at least those of the point and click variety. While 3D graphics were surely a big change, especially in how quickly they changed the public’ tastes, they were not the only cause. Overall, it is not really fair to blame graphics for the downfall of adventure games. Many fans of the genre had seen the writing on the wall even before 3d: 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. But there’s quite more than that.
For curiosity sake, 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.
While far from being one of the worst offenders of the genre, the cat hair puzzle is a good example of what has been defined as “adventure game logic” (or “moon logic”). Problems that in real life would be simple to solve, in adventures would become unnecessarily complicated. Like, is it easier to just hitch a ride to reach a destination instead of having to steal a bunch of things in order to make a moustache out of cat hair only to rent a motorcycle? Clearly so.
Still 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. Other famous examples of the kind of moon logic that the genre was requiring from the players:
- 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. Another dead end!
Hidden items, clear frustration
HIDDEN ITEMS, CLEAR FRUSTRATION
Pixel hunting is another design sin exclusively related to adventure games. Many adventures, especially ones from Sierra, had fantastic hand drawn background art, thus each location could be as big as the developers wanted. But still, the one thing on the designer’s mind seemed to be: 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. But, trying everything in a typical Sierra adventure was not recommended, since one could die at any moment. In steps Lucasarts with their newfound design of “you will not die in our games”, which began with the original Secret of Monkey Island in 1990. Quite a noble objective, sure, but one that would soon lead to another adventure design trope “pick up everything that isn’t nailed down”.
This meant that the protagonist would have an inventory of many dubiously useful items, while the player would have no idea how and when they were supposed to be used. As mentioned, this goes hand in hand with “try everything with everything“, since the games would hardly provide clues. Any 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, I will try to explain how the death – and consequent resurrection – of the genre has more to do with rusty and vintage game design, rather 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…
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!