The Name of the Game

By Gordon Aplin (July, 2001)
There is a fondly held belief in some circles that adventure games are starting to have a beneficial impact on other genres such as First Person Shooters, Real Time Strategy and other action-based games. It is argued that these other genres are now starting to develop more complex plots providing greater depth to characters and therefore must have been influenced by the adventure genre. Apart from giving adventure fans a warm fuzzy feeling this belief serves no useful purpose. In fact it is highly detrimental to the adventure genre. It is based on the erroneous assumption that the essence, the defining characteristic, of an adventure game is the story and that all adventure games are about telling a story. If this line of reasoning is pursued then clearly every game apart from, maybe, Tetris (and even here a reasonable case could be made) is already an adventure game.

Most games have at least a premise, a background story that places a protagonist in a particular situation: you are a Space Marine and have to destroy all the aliens; you need to join a crime syndicate so must run over pedestrians in your getaway car and so on. The point is that a First Person Shooter may immerse the player in a wonderfully realised and believable world peopled with all manner of fantastic characters and have an absorbing story to tell, but it is still a First Person Shooter. That is, progress throughout the game still primarily involves shooting things. Depth of story can never make it an adventure game so why assume that adventure games are influencing other genres when plot development is simply a function of making any game world more immersive?

"Rigidly defined boundaries of doubt and uncertainty"
The danger in embracing the assumption that story defines the adventure genre is that it further contributes to the blurring of the lines between genres and before you know it adventure game fans will be exhorted to play First Person Shooters because of their new-found adventure-style 'quality', namely story. We at Quandary have already been taken to task for "seeking to limit the adventure genre by imposing a too-rigid definition on it" so it is at the risk of attracting further criticism that I explore this issue. One critic asked, "who are we to say what is and is not an adventure game?" It is a fair question and the glib answer is 'we' are adventure game players who have been playing and writing about adventure games for many years. But 'experience' counts for nothing in this world where all opinions are credited with equal value so a more detailed answer is required.

I could simply turn the question back onto our critic and ask, "who are you to say that adventure games should now contain action?" (The correspondent was taking issue with our stance against the inclusion of action in adventure games). His answer may be that he is seeking to expand (positive connotation) the genre whereas we are trying to limit (negative connotation) it. Therefore his is the nobler position and of more benefit to adventure game players. This answer of course implies that there is already some agreed definition of 'adventure' that can be expanded or limited in the first place. And this is the real answer to our critical friend's question. It is not 'us' who are imposing an idiosyncratic and restrictive definition on the genre but the genre itself, which exists in the established style of games that are recognised by adventure game players as belonging to that category. In other words, amongst adventure game players there is an agreed format of gameplay that constitutes an adventure game.

"A rose is a rose is a rose..."
Frequently adventure games are defined by what they are not. They are not Role-playing games, First Person Shooters, Real Time Strategy, Flight Sims, Racing, Sports or Sim games. Clearly these are other genres that are not suffering from an identity crisis and most adventure game fans (and maybe even our critics) would agree that they are not adventure games.

Defining what an adventure game is, on the other hand, takes a little more thought. As mentioned above, having a story does not automatically single out a game as being an adventure. Strangely enough neither does the mere inclusion of a series of puzzles. There are games such as Jewels of the Oracle, for example, that have a thin storyline and present the player with a range of logic puzzles unrelated to the basic premise. They may be fun to play and may appeal predominantly to those players who would normally seek out adventure games but they are not adventure games and may be considered as Puzzle games. (Though I wouldn't want to be accused of limiting them by placing a too-rigid definition on them).

"It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less"
As with other genres adventure games can be defined by the predominant activity or style of gameplay. In this case it involves exploring a given game world for a particular purpose by using one's reasoning capabilities to overcome contextual obstacles to progress. I think most adventure game fans would agree that this is more or less what goes on in adventure games, only it is usually much more fun than it sounds when written like that. Unfortunately the term 'adventure' doesn't really describe that process as vividly as say, First Person Shooter describes the essence of that genre.

One problem with this definition is that, since the advent of graphical adventures, some developers have tried to vary or spice up the obstacles to progress by including arcade or action elements "to appeal to a wider audience". It then gets a little difficult to determine when the amount of action tips the game into the sub genre of action/adventure. For many adventurers one action sequence is one too many. Of course, if you choose to believe that story defines adventure games then putting in elements from other genres such as fighting and car racing doesn't change the genre at all. They will still be adventures.

"What's in a name?"
The very name 'adventure' when used to describe the genre has problems that are difficult to overcome. You can have 'adventures' whilst playing a Role-playing game. Lara Croft has adventures whilst raiding tombs. I know what I mean when I say that a game is an adventure game, but the term is becoming so diluted as to be misleading. The computer section of my local paper calls Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid adventure games. It doesn't help when publishers, developers and even games magazines (who should know better) label action games as 'adventures'. To more accurately name the genre by the style of play is also difficult. Should they be called 'Problem-solving' or 'Thinking' games or something similar? (Such terms would immediately stamp them as being boring and 'uncool') To call them 'non-action' games is merely to describe them by what they are not and as 'action' is seen to be 'positive' and 'exciting' then 'non-action' games must be boring.

My first thought is to make a stand and say the genre has always been called adventure and we should defend its integrity by correcting at every opportunity those who use the term inappropriately. Unfortunately, the tide of opposing forces is overwhelming. Some simply use the term in its dictionary meaning and in this sense it can be applied to many styles of game, whilst others simply display their ignorance of the genre's features.

Perhaps it is time to think about a name change for the genre. Historically it is known as 'adventure' and we may be stuck with the name despite it being too generic unless someone can come up with another term that describes in a simple yet positive and distinctive way what it is that adventurers do. Perhaps we can rename Myst-style games as First Person Thinkers J . Our good friend, Len Green, likes to refer to third-person perspective adventure games as Quest Adventures. Is there a single word or simple phrase that sums up the essence of adventure games? If not, can we make one up? In the meantime I'm in a Quandary J .

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2001. All rights reserved.