Adventure Games: Sacred Cow or Sacrificial Lamb?

By Gordon Aplin (January, 1999)
Following on from our little rant in our editorial this issue I would like to expand on why it was written so that you don't think we are completely crazy. Well, you may continue to think that even after reading this, but hopefully this might afford you a glimpse of our perspective on some of the changes that are taking place in the adventure genre.

Adventure games in their purest form have always had puzzles at their heart. The challenge has always been in thinking not in fighting, in exploring not in racing. Leisurely contemplation is generally required not fast action reflexes. Other genres cater to other tastes, there are lots to choose from and no one forces people to play adventure games because they can't find a Real-Time Strategy or First-Person Shooter or other action game to suit them.

Despite this we adventure gamers put up with quite a lot for the sake of our hobby - arcade/reflex sequences, real-time action sequences and other such 'improvements'. We largely suffer in silence and rarely speak with one voice. We put up with it because we want to play adventure games and sometimes, if we can't get a 'pure' adventure, we'll take whatever we can get and are usually thankful for it. Now it seems we are being told that not only should we be grateful for such tender consideration, but also we should get used to more action and reflex sequences and stop complaining because this is the way of the future.

The message adventurers are getting at the moment is loud and clear. If you don't like action elements creeping into your adventure games then you are obviously a dinosaur and should go back to text adventures or 2D or EGA graphics because action combined with 3D is what everybody now wants. At the risk of being labelled a Brontosaurus I would like to take issue with this far-seeing, know-it-all generalisation. You knew I would, didn't you?

Looking back
Let me begin with a short history totally recalled from memory and completely subjective. A long time ago Rosemary and I decided we would like to play computer games. We are not even sure how this came about. It just did. We started playing text games because the primitive arcade/platform stuff that was emerging didn't interest us. We soon became hooked on solving puzzles and progressing through a story. Our passion for adventure games was born. Pretty soon we found graphic adventures, the images were rather poor, but it didn't matter because they still had wonderful puzzles to solve and interesting stories and scenarios that for a time transported us out of our humdrum existence and placed us into fantastic worlds.

At about this time other graphic games started being produced where you could fight and kill and maim and race and destroy, but these (apart from some RPGs) never interested us, so we ignored them. Eventually, we needed to find more information about forthcoming adventure games (there was no easily accessible Internet back then, believe it or not) so we turned to the glossy magazines that were beginning to fill newsagents shelves. You know the ones. They had tanks and fighter planes and monsters and football players on the covers. There were lots of them and they looked the same and sounded the same and they were essentially the same. 'Cool' games with lots of combat and gore were drooled over, but occasionally they also reviewed an adventure game. We, like many others, dutifully read these to find out if we would like to play the game.

As we read more reviews and played more games we began to question if the reviewers were on the same planet as ourselves. Comments like 'obscure puzzles', 'linear gameplay', 'pixel hunts' and 'boring, no combat' or 'boring point and click' cropped up in adventure reviews with the monotonous regularity of rote-learned responses. Adventure games were frequently dismissed as boring and childish for not having combat, unless, of course, they depicted a dark, gritty, futuristic world. These were 'cool' games and somehow more realistic and more 'adult'. Admittedly, most reviewers did come across as fourteen year old boys, but they were in print in a glossy magazine and garbed in the mantle of self-proclaimed "gods who could make or break a game" (one such mag actually wrote this, I kid you not). If this was the case, it seemed to us, then the agenda was clearly to break adventure games. It seemed that, in many instances, the reviewers didn't like adventure games at all, but had to fulfil some contractual obligation before they were allowed to return to the next level of Doom or whatever action shoot-em-up was flavour of the month.

Now, we were not overly smart, some may argue, as we continued to contribute to the profits of these glossy rags month after month. So desperate were we for any information on our beloved genre that any crumb that fell our way was a banquet and we were thankful for it. We learned to read between the lines of these reviews and bought enjoyable games despite the 'bad' press. However, the reviews we read began to irritate us more and more. We began to feel insulted with the know-it-all condescension, with the in-your-face 'attitude' and with the juvenile posturing. We became irritated with the calls to 'improve' adventures by adding combat or Full Motion Video or multi-player capabilities. So we decided to produce our own magazine which would reflect our own passion for adventure games, written from the perspective of dedicated adventurers. And so Quandary was born.

History repeats itself
Now the call for adventure games to change has sprung up again. It probably never really went away. Some say change is already happening and proudly welcome it, others are concerned that the changes actually threaten the genre. It is probably not a coincidence that the adventure newsgroup is undergoing some sort of upheaval at this time. There was a long, drawn out and eventually quite nasty thread where those players who liked action in their games demanded the right to post to the adventure group. They, understandably, preferred the mature and intelligent discussion of adventurers in contrast to the 'this game rulez, that game sucks' inanities of another newsgroup that shall remain nameless. They told the more 'purist' adventurers that their definition of adventure was too rigid and that any game that had a story was an adventure and therefore just about any game was an adventure. Well this ruffled a few feathers, I can tell you, but eventually it seemed to settle down, even if it was still simmering just beneath the surface.

Then King's Quest: Mask of Eternity was released, sparking another round of debate. We, and many others, were disappointed, to put it mildly. Not only wasn't it a King's Quest, it wasn't even an adventure game. If Sierra had left 'King's Quest' out of the title the game would have been less controversial. Still, many action/adventure fans liked it, but they didn't seem to like adventure fans expressing their disappointment. I am not completely sure why they want to insist on it being labelled an adventure game as opposed to an action/adventure. As long as you keep the distinction in mind there really is no point to the debate.

However, comments along the lines of, 'It must be an adventure it's written by Roberta Williams, so there!', aren't really helpful. Though it is interesting to see this same Roberta Williams whom many (but not us) delighted in deriding over many years for producing 'twee', 'boring' and 'childish' adventure games where you 'die' a lot, suddenly elevated to the high priestess of adventure, the ultimate authority on what constitutes an adventure game. The fact that you 'die' a lot more in Mask of Eternity is conveniently overlooked because this game is darker and has combat and therefore is not boring and childish.

Yet, why is there this insistence that games like Mask of Eternity be unreservedly accepted as adventure games? On one level it could simply be that some people don't like to see criticism of a game that they enjoyed. I can relate to that, we adventurers have had to put up with it for years. As I mentioned earlier many reviews of adventures in the glossy mags implied we were idiots for liking 'boring' adventure games. But there is more to it than that. From the numerous comments on the newsgroup and on many game reviewing web sites there seems to be another agenda at work. 3D action, we are told, is 'expanding' the adventure genre. Adventurers who don't embrace action are closed-minded. Adventure 'purists', that is people who don't like combat in adventure games, are limiting the genre by imposing a too narrow definition on it.

This way to the future?
I can't help asking myself why, if we accept that there is a legitimate genre or sub-genre called action/adventures, for want of a better descriptive term, is there a need to insist that all adventure games must now embrace action? Why do I, and many others, suddenly feel that traditional, puzzle-oriented adventures are once more under attack? Sure, I know they are boring, plodding, dull, and possibly childish, and that they lack combat and action and don't give you an adrenalin rush. I've heard it all before: The genre is dying, it needs improving, it needs to appeal to combat/action fans, it needs to keep pace with new technology. Not that long ago, I recall, Full Motion Video was touted as the technology that would 'improve' adventure games and such experiments have only had limited success to date. As for appealing to action fans, don't action/adventures already do this? Aren't there enough action-oriented games out there to satisfy this 'need' for action, must the adventure genre be completely sacrificed?

Now the cry of "this way to the future" is being taken up on some game reviewing sites. I can't ignore reviews of Mask of Eternity on other web sites proclaiming it to be an adventure game in the tradition of King's Quest and at the same time ground-breaking and genre 'expanding'. I'm sorry, but this is too much! The last straw was a review I recently read from a self-confessed action game player who said Mask of Eternity was overwhelmingly still an adventure game because it had 'obscure' puzzles and not enough combat! I thought I was in a time warp, my mind was jolted back to all those glossy game mags that I used to read so long ago, that pontificated with complete authority on subjects of which they knew so little.

If it was just one or two strident voices saying this I could happily ignore them, but they seem to represent a growing movement that wants to see adventure games with puzzles and story combined with fighting and jumping in 3D environments. Now I don't have a problem with this as I am not opposed to the action/adventure game as such and I do think it is a legitimate genre or sub-genre in its own right. I don't object to action/adventure fans expressing their opinions and I'll readily concede that they have every right to enjoy Mask of Eternity as it is an action/adventure game. What I do object to is being told that all adventure games must now become 3D action/adventures or fall by the wayside. What I do object to is being told that these changes are an 'improvement' to the adventure genre.

Putting action elements into adventure games is not new and, contrary to popular opinion it isn't expanding the genre. It's simply expanding the action/adventure genre. Would First-Person Shooter fans accept logic puzzles creeping into their games? How would they feel if they had to solve a really tough brainteaser before they could get more ammunition or a better weapon? I wouldn't like to be near them if this was to occur. And would this be considered an improvement in their eyes, would they see it as expanding or improving the genre? I think not!

If I was to review Quake and say it was just another boring, repetitive blood-fest aimed at fans of Super Mario I would expect to be torn limb from limb. Don't worry, I am not about to write reviews of First-Person Shooters, if that is what Quake is. I am completely ignorant of the delights and nuances of that genre and I simply don't have the expertise in that area. I wouldn't dream of dictating to a fan of First-Person Shooters what is wrong with the genre and what it needs to be 'improved' or 'expanded'. But fans of traditional adventures, it seems, have to put up with such comments year after year.

3D action
The reason we are being told we must accept these 'improvements' is the advent of 3D. It just so happens that this new technology suits action fans and it also fits neatly with what the big publishers believe will make them the most money. These publishers are dictating to the smaller developers just what sort of game they will make. Simon the Sorcerer 3 is a case in point. Apparently AdventureSoft were told to scrap plans for another 2D Simon adventure. It had to be 3D or else forget publishing and distribution. It doesn't matter what the fans of the earlier Simon games want. This trend is limiting the genre much more than any rigidity of thinking or closed-mindedness on the part of adventure fans.

For some people 3D and action are synonymous, though there is no reason why this should be the case except, perhaps, that it is the action shoot-em-ups which have pioneered the use of this technology. It is not surprising then that when games developers jump on the 3D bandwagon they generally think in terms of action. Unfortunately, from a 'traditional' adventurer's perspective, the hybrid action/adventure game seems more ideally suited to the 3D action trend. This is fine for action games, but doesn't sit comfortably with adventure games where, traditionally, brain power is more important than fire power. 3D, at the moment, is about movement and action and seems to shift the emphasis from exploration to navigation.

Even Grim Fandango, fine adventure game though it is, suffered, in my opinion, from the clumsy interface of having to hold down keys all the time just to move around. What's wrong with that? Well, there is a subtle distinction to be made between navigation and exploration. Quite simply, I like to concentrate on the exploration or looking around and not on moving my character around which is navigation. Interestingly, players used to complain about slow character movement and how long it took to walk across a screen, now this issue is being ignored because we're not allowed to complain about this new movement system. But I find the constant manoeuvring of your character around the 3D environment to be quite tedious, yet I am told that this is one of the 'improvements' I must now accept. Similarly, we are told that this new, 'improved' interface eliminates pixel hunts. I beg to differ. There are just as many pixel hunts in Grim Fandango as there are in many other adventure games, if anything they are more difficult to locate because of the need to manoeuvre Manny (your cursor) to the exact spot. From my perspective I find it difficult to embrace these 3D-induced changes as improvements to the genre.

Improved out of existence?
With the rush to embrace these changes, seemingly without question, and the move to redefine the adventure genre to be whatever anyone deems it to be, the question no one seems to be asking is what is to become of the traditional adventurer? Those who so lovingly nurtured the genre and loyally supported the adventure game developers, where are they to go now? For no matter how strident the voices for change become there are many, many adventurers who simply cannot accept combat in an adventure game and who object to keyboard or gamepad navigation. Their concerns are legitimate and yet they are being completely ignored by many developers and publishers.

The wheel has come full circle and many of the 'improvements' to the genre that the reviewers of adventure games in the glossy mags screamed out for are now coming to fruition. Still, I suppose it was inevitable. The demand for action in games is seemingly as insatiable as it is vociferous. So I guess there really aren't enough action games out there to satisfy the market. It really is unfair of us adventurers to hog all that development time and resources when it can be put to better use where it is most needed.

Adventure games, for a time, generally provided a refuge from action now all that is being eroded. Choice and variety are diminishing as action invades all facets of computer games and, as in the Monty Python Spam sketch we will be left pleading for something with not-quite-so-much Spam in it. Our plea at Quandary has always been for diversity, this is because we have always known how precarious is the existence of the adventure genre.

It seems to me that perhaps the developers and publishers have listened to, and continue to listen to, the wrong voices. They certainly aren't listening to those who love adventure games, but have perhaps paid too much attention to those who don't - those same self-proclaimed gods of the glossy mags whose audience is predominantly action fans. As I mentioned earlier, adventure fans usually suffer in silence to the detriment of the genre. Action fans scream loudly and they get what they want. Adventurers may well have to learn the same tactic. We can't afford to let any more adventure games be shelved or 'improved' without comment. We, all of us, need to write to the publishers and developers and let them know what we want. We need to keep up a barrage of opinion on the adventure newsgroup. We need to tell anyone who will listen what we want, otherwise hybrid games are the best we can hope for.

Hopefully what we are seeing is purely a transitional phase and the developers will realise that you can't simply replace puzzles with jumping or fighting and still call it an adventure. Take away or minimise the puzzle-solving and you no longer have adventure games as we know and love them. They will in fact have been 'improved' out of existence. We may yet have to get used to it. We don't have to like it.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1999. All rights reserved.