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THE RISE, FALL AND REBIRTH OF
Once the king of all gaming, adventure games have endured a rocky ride since their nineties’ heyday. Where did it all go wrong, and why is it starting to go right again?
By Richard Cobbett
While it’s arguably never been true, no genre has been declared ‘dead’ as often as the classic adventure. In its day, it brought us legends like King’s Quest, Day of the Tentacle, Broken Sword, and until Portal, the game widely held to be the funniest of all time even by people who’d never played it, The Secret Of Monkey Island. Until the mid-90s, it was one of the most beloved genres on the PC, and incredibly successful. Until The Sims, picture-postcard adventure Myst was the best-selling PC game of all time, and many companies made their fortune through pointing and clicking.
Then, almost overnight, the good times were over. Companies like Lucasarts and Sierra, for assorted reasons, turned their backs on the genre. The big names who’d made it great moved on, to other genres or even out of the industry. Now, fifteen years later, some of them are finally returning – and joined by a new breed of indie developer looking to breathe new life into the genre. But what went wrong? And why should we care once again?
TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, NONE ALIKE
In case you’ve never played one, here’s a quick primer. Adventure games came in many shapes and styles, but usually shared a goal – sending you into an interesting world to solve puzzles with ingenuity – and usually a bottomless pocket full of assorted crap that would eventually come in useful for something. They were full of characters and challenges, comedy and lateral thinking, exploration and discovery, with settings that could be standard game fare like fantasy kingdoms and deep space, but were just as likely to take you to Parisian cafés, the mean streets of film noir, or back in time to an Atlantean temple.
If that doesn’t sound particularly unusual now, at the time it was. We spoke to several classic adventure designers, and in every case, the genre wasn’t merely a way of telling stories, but the only real way at the time. These days, things are different. RPGs, for instance, are cinematic, filled with plot-twists and dialogue trees, and borrow a great deal from the adventures of old – for example, the term ‘cut scene’ comes from 1987’s Maniac Mansion, an adventure game written by Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert.
“People love to be the star of their own movie, and that was always the goal that I had,” says Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series. “I wanted you to feel like you were in a story and affecting the outcome of that story. That’s a powerful emotion to give to people. I think people who had that feeling at some point want to have it again, and so we see the resurgence in adventure games now.”
“Adventure games were the perfect medium for telling stories,” agrees Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight trilogy – a set of supernatural horror games noted for their level of detail. “I don’t have the patience for the stats and repetition of RPGs or sims.”
Part of the appeal was that ‘adventure game’ was a very loose definition. The two giants of the genre, Sierra and LucasArts/Lucasfilm Games, both had very distinct styles, interfaces and approaches. To use a metaphor, LucasArts made movies – polished, perfect. Sierra made TV shows – rougher, but with more variety, more willing to explore niches, and ultimately allowing for more people to tell their stories. Other developers had their own styles, their own rules, their own takes on the genre – the only cast-iron rule was that anything demanding fast reflexes had to be avoided, or at the very least skippable…
This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Three. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.