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Long live the adventure game

As mentioned in my last post, much of last year was dedicated to house-buying and town-moving which unfortunately left little time for gaming. I did however manage to fit in a trip to the NEC in Birmingham for the EGX expo in September 2016 at which I had the pleasure of watching a session hosted by Charles Cecil. The game designer and Revolution Games co-founder was there with Pewter Games Studio to promote their then-upcoming adventure The Little Acre, and had some interesting things to say about the genre.

Cecil took to the stage in the packed hall and announced: “Adventure games are dead: long live the adventure game” before taking the audience through a brief history of the category and his involvement within it. If gamers don’t immediately know the name it’s highly likely they’ll be aware of his titles, as the Broken Sword series with its protagonists George Stobbart and Nico Collard are some of the most beloved among point-and-click fans.

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The designer explained that the adventure genre peaked during the late 1980s to mid-1990s and some famous titles came out of this period: Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, King’s Quest and Myst to name just a few. However, its popularity declined in the early 2000s and led many to see such games as financially unfeasible. As Ron Gilbert wrote on his personal blog in 2005:

From first-hand experience, I can tell you that if you even utter the words ‘adventure game’ in a meeting with a publisher you can just pack up your spiffy concept art and leave. You’d get a better reaction by announcing that you have the plague.

In his session, Cecil said he felt this slump occurred because the genre failed to modernise. While other types of video game changed over time – for example, compare 1993’s Doom to last year’s Overwatch – adventures failed to evolve and were sadly left behind. Advances in technology may have given infinitely better graphics to Blizzard Entertainment’s hit than those in id Software’s classic, but it’s not only about improvements in visuals.

Consider this: if the adventure titles from your childhood were created with looks on a par with today’s big-budget games but retained exactly the same gameplay, would they be as good as you remember them? Would you still enjoy selecting individual verbs to make your character perform actions; visiting the same location multiple times and pixel-hunting for items while you’re there; browsing through a packed inventory to combine every object in order to find a way forward?

Older gamers may be influenced by a touch of nostalgia here and declare that the original Day of the Tentacle is as good now as it was back in the in mid-1990s. But take off those rose-tinted glasses and you’ll see that perhaps that isn’t entirely true. Indeed, Double Fine’s recent remaster of the game includes a more streamlined interaction menu consisting of a command wheel; and other adventure remakes, such as The Secret of Monkey Island, have implemented additional features such as hint systems in order to appeal to the modern player.

That sums it up: both gamers in general and adventure fans have changed since the genre’s heyday and what they now want from their video-gaming experiences is different. In the past, we wanted to be challenged by a puzzle and enjoyed struggling over them for ages; but today our lives are faster-paced and we’ve become used to having everything in front of us instantly. With so many walkthroughs available on the internet and games designed to be completed in several hours, we don’t have to spend precious hours dwelling on a single puzzle or focusing on the same title for days on end.

Whether this modern ‘instant’ attitude is a good or bad thing is the subject for a different post, but could the genre’s latest increase in popularity be because it’s finally beginning to catch-up? Developers are designing games to include logical puzzles which no longer involve pixel-hunting or hundreds of inventory combinations. Studios such as Telltale and The Fullbright Company are changing what we think of as interactive fiction and bringing point-and-clicks to a new audience. Crowdfunding platforms have provided creators with alternative investment routes, and touch-screen technology has given players a new way to experience adventures.

Pewter Games released The Little Acre a few months after the EGX expo and the Steam reviews received since December 2016 have so far been positive, with 91% of players giving it a thumbs-up and praising its design. Whatever Cecil has learnt from his time in the industry and observations on the adventure genre, he clearly put it into full effect during his time as Executive Producer.

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However, some critics don’t agree with the players and have picked up on The Little Acre’s lack of difficulty and length. Adventure Gamers felt that ‘[the] story could have been expanded and greater challenge would have been welcome’; and Kevin from The Mental Attic stated ‘if there’s ever a sequel, I would love for much more difficult riddles’. Maybe it’s possible to change a genre so much in order to cater for a modern audience, that there’s a danger of losing what made it so special in the first place.

Whatever the future holds for the adventure category, Cecil got it right when he summed up his EGX session by declaring that adventure games aren’t dead. No other genre is able to match its narrative power and immerse a gamer so completely in its story. As said by the designer himself in an interview with PC Gamer back in November:

…what adventures did back then, and still do brilliantly now, is they entwine the story within the gameplay. They’re absolutely, inextricably linked, and they drive each other forward. And that’s why people still love these games, I think.

Long live the adventure game.

2 thoughts on “Long live the adventure game

  1. If you still haven’t played The Little Acre, I heartily recommend it. As much as I always wish for challenging puzzles, the games is just absolutely charming.

    And you will fall in love with Lily, she’s beyond adorable.

    I do still stand by what I said though, it felt like the first entry in a much bigger series and one I one day hope to see.

    In terms of the adventures, I don’t think simply adding new visuals to the old-school design paradigm works. In fact, lately I’ve been getting quite annoyed with developers, mostly indie, constantly going back to old-school mechanics without even attempting any innovation.

    Some design choices worked in the past. Obtuse puzzles, moon logic among them, littered adventure games back in the day, and while we all have memories of solving a particularly nasty one at a given time, this design principle just doesn’t work anymore, at least not as well. We’re in an age in which logic, even flimsy one, is the way to go for designing puzzles.

    I’m all for combining items, but I have come to find painful the experience of “using everything with everything.” If I’ve missed something, cool, but if it’s not a matter of logic or observation but the fact you’re not on the same kind of hallucinogen the designer used, then you’re losing me.

    The genre has to change and it has, games like The Little Acre and Cecil’s own Broken Sword 5 (and even the Gabriel Knight remake) show that you can create good adventures with modern sensibilities in mind and following current design paradigms while still having that balance of immersive story and riddles to overcome. The simplest example of modern sensibility is “fast travel.” It makes the backtracking simple and painless.

    The Room series is another variation on the genre, yet we can agree it’s brilliant.

    What I’ve grown to dislike is the subgenre of adventures that focus just on making “meaningful choices.” In these you are essentially watching a film with button prompts every so often.

    It’s one of the reasons I liked Life is Strange so much, because it dared to have puzzles and an interesting mechanic in addition to the choices. It didn’t sacrifice the ‘adventuring’ in favour of the choice-based gameplay.

    Sorry for the long rant.

    Nice article.

    P.S: what did you think of EGX 2016 overall?

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  2. I’ve given Telltale as an example of a developer above but I must admit that games based around ‘meaningful choices’ only just aren’t for me. Saying that however, I can appreciate a title where the decision-making is so subtle that you don’t even realise it until a lot later – for better or for worse. 🙂

    Unfortunately I could only make the last EGX for a day and a half so I didn’t get the whole experience. Hopefully that will be different this year!

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