The Changing Face of Adventure Games

By Rosemary Young (January, 1995)
Producing this magazine necessitated a clean-up of our computer room a couple of months ago and, whilst I was sorting through the cupboard, crammed in amongst the more recent acquisitions, I came across a bundle of my oldest and most loved games - namely the first three Zork adventures.

I am exactly the same with computer games as I am with books, I can't part with the ones that are special. So with a pang of regret because I didn't really have time to play them again, I gathered up the battered boxes and neatly stacked them next to their newer counterparts that had also passed the test and remained in my keeping. Seeing them side by side, the old and the new, the minimalist and the extravagant, made me think about the adventure games genre and how it has changed over the years. How it has progressed from pure text to text with primitive graphics and barely palatable sound, through to more technically sophisticated and so called 'user friendly' games, and finally to the interactive movie type extravaganzas of today.

Computer technology, and computer games are changing so quickly there is little time to stop and think of how far we have come or, indeed, where we are going. But if we do take the time a number of questions come to mind. Have all the so called 'progressions' in the adventure game genre really been progressions, or have some of them actually been merely sideways or even backward steps? Do we actually have to discard the old as we march forward or might some older ideas be worth preserving? And what is the future of adventure games, especially with the present fixation on 'interactive movies'?

My first game
I played my first adventure game back in 1987 on an old Atari ST. Of course, and you can quote me on this, we bought the Atari to do serious work, word processing and the like, then after we had learned something about it we set out to buy our first game. We didn't know much about games at the time - we'd seen only Pacman and Space Invaders - but we had heard that there were some interesting games around in which you explored different worlds and solved puzzles. In our ignorance we went to a shop and asked for a 'good' game, something exciting with problems to solve but not one where the primary skill required was razor sharp reflexes.

The salesperson who served us smiled and shook his head. Then he surveyed his shelves and shook his head once more. There were some games around that might interest us but he had none in stock. The only game he had that was remotely suitable was Zork I - this not very inspiring text game. But if we didn't want to be shooting, jumping up and down, or throwing things, that was our only choice.

The message was loud and clear, Zork didn't have graphics so it wasn't much good. Even at that early date the growing number of games with primitive, blocky, graphics had rendered all mere text adventures passe, but we took this 'lesser' game anyway and in the end we persevered and managed to complete it ... and get hooked in the process. We had entered the computer adventure gaming world on a cusp when it was just changing over to graphics and we saw the change as both positive and negative.

Text forever!
Did I just say we 'persevered' and played Zork? Well, that isn't exactly the truth. We were addicted in the bat of an eyelid. That 'white house' was so alluring. I couldn't wait to get the darned trapdoor opened and from then on each obstacle was like a personal challenge. Being a dedicated reader of fantasy novels, and an avid puzzle fan, I was in my element.

It took us weeks - or was it months - to finish our first adventure and it captured us totally. I even resorted to springing out of bed in the middle of the night to try something I'd been mulling over and had finally convinced myself that it would work and get us through to the next part of the game. We went on to play Zork II and III in quick succession, and then a long, long list of other text games over the next year or so. We loved them but they were becoming scarce by this time with the steady growth of graphic games until eventually we were forced to make the change when a friend loaned us her recently acquired graphic adventure. She was fed up with our laments over having nothing to play and assured us that we wouldn't regret taking the plunge.

Graphics make the game!
As I recall, compared to our treasured text adventures, our first graphic adventure was relatively easy. Mind you, it kept us entertained but it just wasn't quite so taxing and, despite the pretty colours, our imagination wasn't stretched in quite the same way. The introduction of graphics had heralded a new era in adventure games but at the same time the games lost a measure of depth and sophistication. This loss occurred for two reasons: firstly because the primitive graphics couldn't carry the same meanings or the same complicated messages as text so the puzzles had to be simplified and, secondly, because there was a simultaneous push to widen the market and draw in a younger audience and this further dictated that the difficulty of games be reduced.

To be honest, graphics weren't all that bad, they really were 'pretty' and that went some way to compensating for the lesser difficulty. We supposed that the nature of graphic games, being more colourful and requiring much less serious reading, naturally meant that younger players would be attracted to them. Adventure games were fun and children deserved to join in this fun - and we were prepared to share it with them.

So we weren't too put out and at the time we couldn't see any barrier to the games returning to their original splendour (difficulty wise) when the novelty of visuals and colour had worn off, and when the software companies had sorted out and identified their markets. What we didn't foresee, however, was the next big change, the change from text parsers to the point and click interface. This innovation was another kettle of fish altogether and required a much more painful adjustment on our part as it diminished sophistication levels even more. Oh, the wounds have healed somewhat now, perhaps familiarity breeds acceptance as well as contempt, but nevertheless there are still enormous regrets.

Pointing and clicking
'No more boring typing. Typing is out - pointing and clicking is in' these words were echoing everywhere in the games world. And, we were assured, this was a huge improvement. Nothing short of a miracle. Not only would it do away with players trying desperately to find that elusive word to initiate a computer response, but it would also make games more realistic. That is clicking a pointer on an object to examine (or take) it was more akin to picking it up and examining it in real life, than was using the keyboard and typing out 'look at ...' or 'pick up ...'. Quite simply, it would make us feel more part of the story.

But as it turned out the 'mouse click' was a double edged sword. Although it made playing games simpler (at least for non-typists) and maybe even more 'realistic' in the terms described above, at the same time the loss of the text parser deprived us of our most natural way of communicating - using words and, far from making games feel more realistic, this had quite the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, just clicking on something to use it, or having access to 'action icons' or a few limited verbs, also made games less 'realistic' in that it removed the player further from the action. Not only was the element of choice reduced but because a click of the mouse just isn't sufficiently precise to convey a players 'thoughts' the computer necessarily interprets the action on its own terms. In fact an icon based game all too often responds in a way that is quite unintended. (How many times have you clicked on something just to look at it and suddenly found all its secrets miraculously revealed or a puzzle being automatically solved for you). This doesn't create an illusion of reality! Far from it. The 'realism', in fact, is reduced because the player has less control over the game and is consequently less involved.

Having a mouse driven interface has also shrunk the game environment somewhat because only specified objects (hot spots) can be identified, all other objects are essentially non existent because the player cannot interact with them. Cupboards that cannot be opened, flowers that cannot be smelled, trees that cannot be climbed. This has the effect of diminishing the realism even more. Although they were never perfect, a good text parser usually gave at least a response to commands involving 'inconsequential' objects - 'you can't do that' or, 'that isn't important' - which at least provided some satisfaction and some semblance of having interacted with the object. But not being able to do a single thing with that odd shape beside the path - not even identify it - leads only to frustration, and certainty that you are only playing a game.

So, if the introduction of graphics began the move towards less complex and, in some respects, less 'realistic' games, then the appearance of the point and click interface gave them a huge shove further in that direction. It is simply not possible to maintain the same level of interaction (or realism) when the player is effectively gagged. And as well as distancing the player by this 'gagging' process the loss of words as a means of communication has ultimately meant that players cannot so easily be presented with complicated problems because the tools they have at their disposal to solve them (a few all-purpose verbs or icons) are insufficient.

The text parser might have been troublesome to those who could not type, but its demise has surely left adventure games more impoverished. And arguments that justify the extinction of words because it is too frustrating trying to guess the correct one, (sounds just like trying to click on the right pixel, doesn't it?) are ludicrous! Just as the problem of finding the right pixel is a problem with the program, so too is finding the right word. The problem is not inherent in either interface and, as far as text parsers are concerned, it is one of just providing a more comprehensive vocabulary which should be no problem with the huge storage capacity of CD ROMs today.

So much for text parsers, I rue their demise but I am wondering now just how long it will be before they regain their popularity. With the rapid changes in computer technology the all-talking, all-hearing computer is, perhaps, not too far away. Will words gain a reprieve then, when we are able to talk to our computer and instruct our character to do something? My fingers are crossed. But, words aside, there is yet another change in progress that demands attention, a change that is, perhaps, even more different and, dare I say, even more suspect, than the introduction of the mouse click. That is the movement of computer games more towards a movie formula with full motion video and grand soundtracks and live actors and dazzling special effects.

Games or Movies?
We are hearing the shouting once again today, but this time we are hearing something different, and it's louder than even before. It's no longer the squeak of a mouse, it's the roar of a lion - perhaps the MGM lion back to haunt us? The words 'interactive movie' are on everyone's lips. A new miracle is here and we are about to be swept away by it.

Yes, computer games with real live actors are already upon us and they are becoming more and more numerous. Having a Hollywood 'star' is being seen to be a huge plus, a selling point for games but, besides providing an 'angle' for advertising a game, what do 'Hollywood-like' productions really have to offer? More technical excellence, perhaps, but they also offer more and longer cut sequences so the actors can act or the animators can animate, and it seems that this can only mean one thing - less player interaction.

For computer game players the red lights should be flashing. It is essential that we stop and think. And we must think carefully without being blinded by the idea of our favourite movie actor being in our favourite game. We should ask ourselves what exactly is happening to computer games? Are our precious games being turned into hybrid movies, and is this necessarily a good thing when movies are essentially a passive experience? As game players do we want to sit back and watch our games or do we want to be 'in on the action' so to speak? Having control in a game is what makes me feel involved, this is what makes a game realistic to me, not whether or not the characters or even the locations appear 'real'. What do you think?

Difficulty v simplicity
It seems that the more acceptable or the more intuitive games have become the more their difficulty level has been reduced, and the more players have been distanced from the game. This process began with the appearance of graphics and continued with the introduction of the point and click interface and is now coming into its own with the latest so called 'interactive movies'. Each of these changes has gone hand in hand with concerted efforts to expand the computer games market by making games more acceptable to a wider range of people. Essentially this is a good thing and it should improve games as more and more are written and writers become more experienced, and as they learn to identify their markets but there is, unfortunately, a danger in all this. The danger that game writers might become too concerned about their 'new' audience and forget the long time players who have nurtured the industry for so long - and forget that playability and involvement is the essence of a computer game.

The question remains. How far will the new association of movie making and computer games go? How far will games designers bend to make games more accessible to a wider audience, and does this inevitably mean that games must get easier? We shall have to wait and see.

Looking back it seems that computer adventure games started out like interactive novels and then moved on through a phase more akin to interactive picture books. But now they have crossed a barrier and are becoming more like movies. By its very nature this latter development is changing games in fundamental ways, making them more 'watchable' rather than 'playable'. Is this what we want or, indeed, is it inevitable? I sincerely hope not. By all means games designers should borrow what is good from other mediums but they should also discard what is bad and what doesn't 'fit'. And, above all, they should remember that it is the level of interactivity or player involvement that distinguishes a computer game from other forms of media. This is why we love playing games and this is what makes them unique.

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1995. All rights reserved.