Now that I’m at the ETC trying to find my way through Real Life by Building Virtual Worlds, trying not to get lost on a tangent about the whole apparent contradiction of the matter, I find myself looking at my old, beloved adventure games, no longer at some fossilized artifact of a bygone past, but more as a moribund selfless martyr waiting to be nourished back to health so that it can go back to being productive, beautiful and beloved. Is my assessment accurate? And if it is, am I the one to do it, or to take part in that movement?
It’s generally a good thing not to dwell too long on past wrongs and better to focus on future endeavors. So let me be very bad and dwell a lot. Even if adventure games are not, in fact, dead, they are in many respects as good as dead. And I call murder! Murder, I tell you! And I will, just like an Agatha Christie detective, point a stern finger at those responsible. At least according to me.
Games as software rather than entertainment
You’d have to be really old to remember this, but there was a time when video games were sold as software, not unlike office software. The number of lines of dialog, number of rooms in the game, duration of the music included, were listed in bullet points as features on the back of the box. What is a “box”, you ask? Look it up, that’s not the point.
This was not particularly harmful for adventure games. True, VGA graphics did not translate as beautiful graphics, but beautiful graphics existed and did influence games for the better. Where this started to make a real difference in the output is when features started mattering more than content
FMV and 3D
The beginning of trouble came with Full Motion Video. Now some of my favorite games of all time were made with FMV. Full Motion Video was the practice of basing most of the graphics of the game on pre-recorded video. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within was such a game and is, in my opinion, about as great as an adventure game can be. (From Sierra, by Jane Jensen.) Yes, some of the dialog was cheesy and the background music was silly and some of the effects and the acting were a bit over-dramatic at times, especially during the intro, but this is, overall, forgivable given how young the medium was and how tight the story turns up in the end. But then, FMV became the main selling point of the game, rather than a tool, a medium for great content. Released at about the same date, Phantasmagoria, also from Sierra, by the very person who created the very medium of the graphical adventure game, Roberta Williams herself. Phantasmagoria, while innovative in many ways, did suffer from a repetitive structure and — form my point of view at least — overly gratuitous violence.
A good example of how technology can get in the way of good fiction can be found by following those games chronologically to the third Gabriel Knight title: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The 3D engine for that games was clever, versatile, clearly benefited from extensive user testing and despite all that mostly came in the way of a good gaming experience. The story of the game was not bad, but very clumsily plotted. In the previous two Gabriel Knight titles, the backstory was slowly hinted at through the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the whole backstory is dropped onto the player towards the end of the game in one very long slide show. No 3D in the world is going to make players enjoy that. In the previous Gabriel knights game, Jensen seemed to have put a considerable amount of effort in making her characters as humanly flawed as she could, people the player could relate to, no matter how great they looked or how pathetic they appeared.
Still, adventure games could have lived through that. They could have used 3D in a positive way. Some did, particularly the Tex Murphy series. Or they could have persisted in staying 2D after a while. But the gaming world as a whole evolved in a way that turned out to be terribly harmful to adventure games as a genre.
The opposition between core and casual gamers
Nowadays, there is a clear split between casual and core gamers. Core gamers play games like BioShock and Mass Effect. Casual gamers play games like Angry Birds and Peggle. Or do they? Do core or casual players play Super Mario Galaxy? What about Plants vs. Zombies? But without getting entangled in that tricky debate, it’s important to keep in mind that in their heydays, adventure games were very much targeted towards core gamers. One of the reason for this was that at the time, there really was no such thing as casual gamers. At that time, if one played video games at all, one was a gamer without that many subcategories. A funny and very accurate description of how casual gamers somehow recently became a very important demographic for games can be seen in Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review for Peggle.
But this has changed. People who actually play video games or computer games are core gamers. People who play Wii Sport or Angry Birds are not gamers at all, according to most people you will ask around, including the players themselves. These are just people who happen to play games. And yet they should matter: as of 2009 Wii Sports was the best selling video game of all time. This, on its own should mean something. The vacuum within the very identity of casual gamers is a problem. Let me explain.
The first adventure games were hard. Very hard. Zork was created at M.I.T. for M.I.T. students by M.I.T. students. That is not exactly a broad demographic. As the genre became more popular, many efforts were made to make the gaming mechanics easier and allow more people into the genre. But the change went from “very core players” to “less core players.” Take a game like Plants vs. Zombies. This games is the result of the opposite shift. Pop Cap originally made games for extremely casual players and slowly shifted towards more core-like titles.
Current core-player games focus on using complex graphics systems, themes that appeal to young males, a focus on speed and thrill. The large number of horror games are war games should serve as a testimony for that. They bring out thrill, not thought. Compare BioShock and Loom, for example. They hardly have any themes or mechanics in common. The slow pace of adventure games, the focus on reflection rather than thrill, these rebuke those who became gamers since the late ninties. Those sought more or less the exact opposite sensations that adventure games provide.
I would argue that that means that adventure games have become a genre that should be directed towards casual gamers. And yet, it still carries its legacy identity of being a core gamer’s genre. Trying to sell adventure game to gamers has failed since about the year 2000, mostly because the demographic that is actually likely to enjoy adventure game, casual players, does not even identify as gamers at all.
Lady on the Plane
Casual gamers tend not to care about pixel shaders, 3D sound or fragging in multiplayer. They would probably care more about plotlines being deep and yet flexible, about motivations being complex yet believable, about the world they’d visit being intriguing and yet reassuring. One would feel comfortable escaping to.
Text-based adventure games are an excellent example of an incredibly powerful resource gone wrong. Tools like Inform7 offer a huge ration of ease of use compared to power of creation. It’s a programming language that looks very similar to English and is meant to be used to create text-based adventure games. Yet many of these cater to a small, hard-core crowd; they often take pride in being difficult and they don’t seem to care much about potential newcomers to the genre. As Extra Credits reminds us, easiness in games is generally not a problem is the game had depth. Then, ease is merely a transparent interface to an immersive experience. Again, this is an instance of the potential new audience for adventure gamine and interactive fiction being placed on the wrong side of the core gamer/casual gamer divide, mostly based on what should be an archaic focus being placed on technology. That, right there, is what killed adventure games.
Can adventure games be rescued? I think so. I think the key element if one intends to revive adventure games is to hold on to a lot of what used to make them great, but to rethink a few aspects of how they work. These might actually be fundamental aspects, such as how they deal with interfaces, introductions and tutorials, or their standard themes and their verbosity, for example. Many of these are symptoms of how they still hang on to their status of core player genre. It is a very harmful misconception that casual players deserve a lower status. (Some successful casual games, maybe, but that’s another issue.)
A couple of weeks ago, on a plane, I showed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to woman in her fifties. She looked very curious about it. She said that to her, the experience looked similar to reading, but with interaction. She said she loved reading, which is not a statement commonly attributed to core gamers. She seemed tempted by the idea of giving Monkey 2 a try. However tempted may she have been by the genre as a whole, as themes go, she would probably be more interested in a psychological conflict than in a story about an inexplicably evil villain bent on taking over the world and the axiomatically selfless hero who is bent on stopping him.
It’s important to keep in mind that neither theme is better or worse than the other. The question is more: who does which one address? And can the answer to the previous question be used to save adventure games? Aren’t some big studios (both in film and in gaming) trying to trick their respective audience by selling them technological advances rather than content mostly because the quality of one is much easier to gauge than the quality of the other?
When the iPhone and iPad came out, many reviewers thought they would fail, or be only mildly successful, because most people were not asking for any of the feature in either of the devices. No one wanted all-touchscreen phones. No one wanted a large tablet device. They didn’t know it was an option, except after the device’s announcement, where they only knew about it in theory. But both of these have shown to be extremely popular.
Casual gamers aren’t asking for adventure games. But hardly any adventure game is really catered for them. Trying to impress casual gamers with AAA titles is very likely to fail because the technical or thematic aspects where these titles shine is not something that casual gamers care about.
An excessive focus on technology without regard to its relevance and an strong and yet somehow artificial divide between casual and core players is what killed adventure games. By fixing those problems, we should be able to bring adventure games back.