Author Topic: Magintz's GTD: Part 1 - A Brief History and the State of Adventure Games  (Read 2353 times)


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I'm no guru on game design, no sage of story-telling or ninja of narration. I am but a humble adventure fan who wants to figure out the ins and outs of game design, what adventure games really are and where WE can take them to in the future. We are the Shackletons of our genre! And to top it all off here's a great advert from the great Ernest Shackleton himself when he was looking for men for his Antarctic expedition that I think is fitting to this post:

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

I'm hoping this long winded and opinionated ramble might kickstart some thoughts about the genre, game design and what we can do to really think about our genre.

You Are Eaten by a Grue.
Like any typical story I’ll start at the beginning. But not the ‘beginning-beginning’ as I’m sure that would take too long. Adventure games have been a big part of my life from the original text adventures such as Zork, THHGTTG and Hugo House of Horrors through Monkey Island, Kings Quest and Broken Sword. These were the days before the first-person shooter took aim and dealt an almost fatal blow to the adventure genre.

I can highly recommend that you read this article if you want a good description on the history of graphical adventure games. It’s well written and full of lots of dates, facts and figures that will certainly be better than me trying to write my own.

Give 'Explanation' to 'Reader'
I remember a recent conversation I had with my flatmate, Alex, about the Walking Dead games from Telltale (I highly recommend playing these, they might not be perfect or even class as a 'good' adventure game, but they are great storytelling with emotional characters). I suggested to Alex that he would thoroughly enjoy them, being a fan of the show and comics and a relatively casual gamer, but he flat-out rejected them on the grounds that he "doesn't really like RPGs". I persisted and, despite my testament that they were adventure games and more akin to interactive-fiction, he simply brushed it off with the statement "Well, you play a role in the game so it’s a role-playing game - and I don’t like those"; enough said and he was back to playing Fifa. I spent a few moments 'explaining' (read arguing) that every game you play you assume some kind of a role but that doesn't mean that every game is an RPG; in a similar way that a game that takes you on an adventure might not necessarily be an adventure game. So I went back to my computer and started doing some frustrated writing about what an adventure game is - or at least what it is to me.

So what is an adventure game? I guess you could take a similar stance that Alex did and state that any game where you have an adventure is an adventure game. Would Tomb Raider be an adventure because Lara is always off on adventures... adventuring? Well sort of, but it's more complicated than that. Let's dissolve what it means to be an adventure game.

I know it's a little cliché but the dictionary has some really good points, I'll ad-lib a quote together from the definitions. I really believe this sums things up beautifully.

An adventure is a risky, unusual or exciting enterprise of a hazardous nature with unknown outcome.

I think that in the heart of an adventure game beats the rhythm of exploration - this purpose to unravel the world and expose it's mysteries and to liberate the story the game is trying to tell. The first time I played The Longest Journey (below) I looked at the world and just wanted to explore.

The latest Tomb Raider game was very much an adventure through a magical island full of history and myth... yet I couldn't interact with any of it besides 'smash crate' or 'use arrow on island inhabitant'. I couldn't delve into the history of the island beyond what I was linearly guided through and told about... exploration was visual and not scientific.

Point-and-click adventures have, IMHO, always been a deeply flawed genre with broken mechanics (flame-wars ensue), but I remember and regard them with such esteem and love - but why. I remember laughing till I cried the first time I played Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island; getting lost in mystery, murder and the occult in Broken Sword; roaming the vast realm of the undead in Grim Fandango and almost crying at the end; and taking down countless numbers of apocalyptic megalomaniacs in FoA and FotAQ. But the one thing I don't have many memories of are the puzzles. Sure I remember "Using Red Herring on Troll"... but I have no sentiment of it. What I do remember are the characters, the dialogues, the worlds and the stories.

The key isn't intelligence necessarily, but in first hoovering up every object from the painted scenery into your bottomless pockets (better not miss any!), then inserting them into your situation like keys into opinionated locks (better have the right syntax!). A strange, dead-end evolution where success comes from intuition and common sense, yes, but more-so from clicking around, forever, like a blind man feeling their way down the designer's own gaping colon. Use Baked Potato with Subwoofer. Use Sitar with Cow.

Now, I'm not saying puzzles are bad, in fact I enjoy them and the reward of figuring them out - well, the logical ones anyway - and they provide a good way of providing an intelligent gameplay element to the exploration of the game world. It often involves looking for clues, piecing various objects together or conversing with people to unravel the story.

There have been a lot of criticisms about the genre of the ilk to "opening a door by balancing three biscuits on your head whilst playing a flute" (Ian Livingstone, Eidos). People saw a lot of these puzzles forced and ‘artificial’ lending nothing but illogical hindrances that debilitated the flow of a game. It’s only recently that we’re seeing a shift in this paradigm, mainly in the Walking Dead series from Telltale Games, that has finally taken a sigh of resignation that being a kleptomaniac member of Mensa should not be a prerequisite and that it is sometimes most logical to just kick down a door or coerce some information out of someone through cleverly written dialogue - and Telltale pull this off masterfully. But I digress and this is a topic for a later date and with a lot more caffeine in my bloodstream.

That last quote, a few paragraphs up, was from a fantastic article, Nostalgia vs Narrative, if you haven't already read it then do. Go and read it now, I'll wait here. I'm not going anywhere. Go on.

Do you want to be told a good story? That’s one of the purest pleasures of the adventure game – the embracing of the linear, pre-destined story that someone wants to tell you.

So if the puzzles and gameplay mechanics where so bad then why do so many people hold them in such high regard? Well I think that, on top of exploration, they championed story over all else - which in the 90s not many other genres were doing, or at least not as well; the point of these other games was always gameplay first; Duke Nukem was about the shooting and Sonic was about the speedily dashing through brightly coloured worlds in search of gold rings.

Adventure games were popular because of their narrative and storytelling and the detailed exploration into unknown worlds both terrestrial and extra. Subsequently, the death was mostly due to these other genres realising the need and popularity of a good, in-depth story. I remember playing and enjoying Doom as a kid, but I couldn't tell you even the remotest snippet of what any of that game was about I just wanted to shoot monsters and not die. Adventure games missed a trick because sadly it was a one way street and there is a limit to the amount of monster shooting and ring collecting you can introduce into these point and click games. And so the adventure game died.

Into the Future
So if adventure games died I find it quite ironic that they seem to be partially revived by a game about zombies. Telltale have been massively successful with The Walking Dead and other franchises over the past years bringing adventure gaming to a more casual, console focused market. Indies such as Wadget Eye Games have been releasing hit after hit of classic point and clicks and it seems like people really care for this genre.

Kickstarter has also proved the love for this quirky and fun genre with the success of the Double Fine Adventure securing a whopping $3.3 million in pledges from fans - after only asking for $400k - and inspiring other successful campaigns from the makers of Broken Sword, Leisure Suit Larry, Quest for Glory, Gabriel Knight, Space Quest and Tex Murphy as well as many indie campaigns such as Resonance and Quest for Infamy and Nelly Cootalot 2 - adventure games certainly aren’t as dead as the critics said they were.

I guess this is also where you and I come in. To try our best to potentially redefine the genre or, who knows, you could be building for nostalgia and want to preserve the ways of old as our forebears intended - that choice is yours.

A Recipe for Adventure
With all my waffling it still doesn't look like I've arrived at any conclusion over anything and only opened up more questions. But I've enjoyed these ramblings.

So here is my recipe list for the perfect adventure storm:
  • story - a generous helping; the key component not to be skimped on;
  • characters - sour, salty and sweet;
  • dialogues - The intangible richness to the characters;
  • locations - exotic and native;
  • interactions - to explore and dissect the environment through verbs.
  • ... and for those die-hard advocates:
  • puzzles - for better or worse these have traditionally been the driving force behind game progression;
  • inventory - a player must have one of these so they can collect all the things;

Sorry if I've waffled.
« Last Edit: 19 Aug 2013, 13:19 by magintz »
When I was a little kid we had a sand box. It was a quicksand box. I was an only child... eventually.


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Thanks magintz, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

I'll follow your recipe totally when looking at a good adventure game, but there's a but:
puzzles: they have to be part of the story, IMO. Add a funny, semi-illogical puzzle here and there for nostalgia sake is fine but that's it.

Adventure games were all about taking me away from my home to somewhere else. But at my pace, calmly, and enjoying a smoke while playing.
Working on a RON game!!!!!

Fun read. Thanks Magintz.
I personally expect puzzles in my adventure games. I am by no means a die hard advocate but I do get a LOT of satisfaction out of solving a clever puzzle and I wouldn't enjoy the experience so much if it was little more than a clickable story like the visual novels the Japanese do so well. They have their place but unless there are proper puzzles I should barely class it as an adventure game.

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I can confidently say that my very personal favourite when it comes to structure and gameplay was reached and embodied in The Vacuum. I'd want all or most of adventure games or even games in general to be like that. Exploration, very logical decisions with consequences (including consequences for inaction and missing things!) rather than arbitrary artificial puzzles, non-linearity and optional rewarding interactivity.

Technobabylon series also comes very close to my ideal of design in a good adventure/story-driven game.

If we're to talk about the very classic old school puzzlesque point and click design, Wadget Eye and the developers published by them, as deservedly as they are mentioned, aren't the only people who are to credit for its survival. If we're to talk about anyone who has preserved that kind of game best, it'd be necessary to mention companies like Revolution software, Pendulo studios and Daedalic entertainment. I don't know anyone (in the big business) who'd care for the genre in quite the way they do: both incredibly protective and incredibly creative and daring. Well, and Jane Jensen of course.

As a game designer, I'd love to design a couple of cozy traditional adventures, but generally speaking I find interactivity, experimentation and exploration tremendously more interesting than gameplay entirely driven by inventory puzzles.
« Last Edit: 13 Aug 2013, 15:06 by qptain Nemo »


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Adventure games are really popular to complain about. "How csn those pockets fit so much inventory?" "Why csn't he just go and buy a power drill to open all those locks?" "Unrealistic!" "No wonder this genre is dead!!!"

Some people/reviewers just can't accept that those things are part of the contract of playing an adventure game, regardless of how unrealistic they are. All genres have their own weird idiosynchracies, and fans of any specific genre will gladly ignore certain aspects of it.

How come all the rubble and debris in Half Life form perfect paths for the character to walk, which he can't leave, how come all the enemies become gradually harder as you gain access to better weapons, how come certain events take place exactly when you reach a certain location, etc etc, that's pretty unrealistic. Oh I heard you like GTA, wow it's pretty strange that everyone has the memory of goldfish - you can shoot at a cop and then get out of sight for a while and everything's forgotten, pretty unrealistic, and you can crash straight into a brick wall without getting injured, etc, but you wouldn't call those things flaws, they're just typical aspects of such games.

Slightly convoluted puzzles and a strange tendency to pick up seemingly useless objects are simply things you have to expect and accept when playing most adventure games.


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[...] Oh I heard you like GTA, wow it's pretty strange that everyone has the memory of goldfish - you can shoot at a cop and then get out of sight for a while and everything's forgotten, pretty unrealistic, and you can crash straight into a brick wall without getting injured, etc, [...]

You forgot the most important part: GTA Protagonist can carry a number of large and heavy weapons in his pockets (laugh)!

magintz, I've more to say on your topic but I'm too lazy to do it now...  :-[

Good food of thought, btw :).


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Good read. This should become a regular column over at the AGS Blog.

Thx magnitz, this was really interesting and also thanks for the articles you pointed out. Very insightful.
Also thank you qptain nemo for pointing out Vacuum a great game which I probaby overlooked due to rather bleak presentation.

This really showed me what adventures are all about: Storytelling and what's even more important being part of the story yourself. You keep playing because you want to know what's going on to solve the mystery, become a pirat, save the princess.
I also agree by the point that adventures, if pulled of correctly, provide the most living, most emersive off all game worlds. Let's take Skyrim for example, it promises a great open world to explore and have you're own adventure there, but after the first 'Wow' moments it really quickly starts to feel like a stage. Finding a new location in Skyrim will never have the same sense of wonder as visiting an unknown island in Monkey Island or opening a secret entrance to a tomb in Broken Sword. Yet this comes with a huge price: Linearity of storytelling (which i think is a good thing) and non-emergent game mechanics (which brings us back to the main crticism on adventure games - trying to guess what the designer prepared for you).
I think we all agree on that loosing or removing the puzzle aspect is not really an option. Most games that tried have made things worse (Damn you broken combat system! - what have you done to Dreamfall??). Still what I think we have to lose is the competive aspect of "beating" a game. Worst example are these Sierra games that randomly kill you and then make fun of you. Seriously, if you're a game designer, arent players customers? Is this how you treat customers? Thank god, games are not like this anymore. Yet there has to be an element of challenge right, it's no fun to rush through a game with mindlessly easy puzzles (Yet still better than being stuck on an illogical one for hours). The challenge will be to provide interesting involving an logical puzzles, that challenge players without loosing some on the way which can't progress on the linear chain of events because they just can't figure out the solution to A SINGLE puzzle.
This is the big problem adventures designers have yet to solve - yet I doubt there is a full solution.
What we can do however is avoiding these situations by proper planing and design. But what makes a good puzzle?
Anybody up for a list?
I'll start:
- Must derive from the story, preferably an obstacle the hero has to overcome to achieve his goal.


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IMHO the formula should come from MI. In each chapter reveal three fairly clear goals, allow the player to roam about these 3 paths. This way if stuck on a certain puzzle (no need to eliminate tough puzzles here)they can consciously switch over to another goal and set of puzzles. The story moves ahead in a linear path, but the player is given enough freedom to stay engaged. Part of my theory on what makes a great adventure game, anyone agree?

Very good point. I didn't think of that. Actually a lot of games try to imitate that branching mechanic of monkey island. That prevents being stuck to a certain degree - yet you can still get stuck when you completed all branches except for one. I think there are some other pitfalls too. It always felt a bit constructed to me which is okay for a humorous game I guess, I also felt like the main parts of the story were only progressing between chapters. Another downside is that it can be confusing because you sometimes don't know which hint or item belongs to which branch. If you avoid these pitfalls it can be great. I think its Indy 4 which solves this by seperating the branches geographically.