Give it your best shot, console jockey, but we're not dead yet!

By Steve Metzler (December, 2004)
There are some myths, like perennial urban legends, that just seem impossible to kill off. One that took root a few years ago, and keeps coming back to haunt us, is this mindless dogma from the mainstream gaming press that declares the traditional adventure game to be dead and buried. Almost every unfavourable review of an adventure title contains a phrase to this effect, as if it is a licence to justify a bad review... but I'm not going to dwell too much on that here. No, I'd like to discuss a more insidious problem: the reviewing of adventure games by people who apparently have not a clue what an adventure game is all about!

A few years ago this type of behaviour was almost laughable. You could discount such reviews as being patently silly and move on to reading something from a better informed reviewer. But now the problem has become more serious. Why? Because the complexion of the web has changed in this respect, in a relatively short period of time. Reviews have become more accessible. Now that we have sites like GameRankings and metacritic that aggregate review scores, a few wayward reviews from sites that aren't even remotely interested in adventure games can drag the average score for a game down rather quickly. In a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, these misguided reviewers are helping to contribute to the demise of the traditional adventure in a way that was never before possible.

Before we continue, let's put this problem in perspective. Would you expect a film critic to review Schindler's List as if it were supposed to be the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger action film? And I like Arnie films. Would you tolerate a review of a medieval strategy game from a person who'd rather be playing racing simulations? "There are no cars in this game, so it gets a low score from me..." Well, that's what it's like reading a review of a ground-breaking adventure game from someone who mainly plays console games. The people in the know are giving it 80's or 90's, and these schmucks are rolling in with 40's and 50's. But just giving a game an unjustifiably low score isn't the end of it. Not by a long shot. There are other transgressions committed at the same time! So here are my top gripes about the way adventure games are being reviewed by the console jockeys. I've provided a good sampling of quotes where possible, but will not stoop to naming the shamed... for that, we have Google :-)

1. Reviewing an adventure game as if it's supposed to be an action game
Good adventure games are typically characterised by: a strong story line, interesting dialogue, and challenging puzzles. Not all adventures possess those characteristics, but a shining example of the genre, like Myst, makes up for what it lacks in the dialogue stakes with incredible graphics, atmosphere, and puzzles. You get the idea. Or maybe you don't. Here are some reviewer comments regarding The Moment of Silence, one of the best adventure games I have played in years. In fact, it was the following disparaging comments about this game which prompted this article:

"In these days of domination by vast action games such as Half-Life 2, surely there is no room for simple point-and-click adventures... The game can seem a little pedestrian, but this at least gives you time to work out how to solve all the problems put before you. A great way to fill in the time between blockbuster games."

Nice one, bucko. "A great way to fill in the time" gets casually flicked aside with a derisory score of 60. But you see, I bought Half-Life 2 as well. And I'm telling you that The Moment of Silence is just as good - albeit for different reasons. And from another The Moment of Silence review:

"And so while the score I'm giving the game [a pretty low score] makes it look like it might be a decent pickup, I wouldn't really recommend it, unless slow-paced, frustrating adventures are your cup of tea."

Yes, I suppose adventures can be slow-paced and frustrating... if you don't like them, that is. For instance, I don't like reading biographies. Not even remotely. So it wouldn't make much sense for me to read an otherwise brilliant biography of Winston Churchill and then give it a bad review, would it? Not even if a misinformed publisher sent me a free review copy. But that's analogous to what's happening here. This apparent inability to appreciate each type of game for its own merits is rather disturbing. Could one consider this sort of behaviour to be... juvenile?

2. Denigrating a game simply because it is 'point-and-click'
Graphical adventure games have used the mouse for navigation since I can remember. And why shouldn't they? It is the most efficient way to get the job done for the type of game where you have to walk around the game world and interact with objects and characters. Here's an excerpt from a print magazine review of The Moment of Silence that dragged the whole web average for the game down nearly 10 points all by itself:

"Traditional point-and-click game complete with traditionally rubbish gameplay."

It mystifies me when I see comments like that, time and time again, as if a game that uses the mouse for interaction is something you wouldn't want to be associated with, like a serial killer or a bad dose of dandruff. And here is an interesting observation from a review of Syberia, an adventure that consistently makes it into most adventure gamers' all-time favourites list:

"But, as these things usually go in adventure games, a simple chore which should've been taken care of in a matter of hours, turns into a bona fide nightmare. You will be forced to put voice cylinders on musical boxes, draw pictures of mammoths and basically do all kinds of the crazy shit that we're used to doing in point and click adventures."

But isn't that the point? The puzzles are mainly what an adventure game is all about! They are what make it a game, rather than an interactive movie where you just click when you're ready to view the next scene.

3. Encouraging the introduction of action elements into adventure games
Recent history has demonstrated that this is largely a bad idea. The action elements serve to do nothing more than alienate traditional adventure gamers, and the puzzle elements are still left in there to annoy the action gamers. Neither camp is happy. And yet, there is a minority who seemingly admire this sort of two-headed dog. The following tidbits are from recent reviews of Atlantis Evolution, which was almost universally panned by adventure game reviewers for its lame arcade sequences, mazes, and constant dying/retrying:

"Evolution is a great moniker as this game has helped evolve the traditional adventure gaming genre entirely."

If you fancy playing Pong in an adventure game, that is.

"Still Atlantis Evolution is a solid adventure game that is reminiscent of Myst."

Sorry? Atlantis Evolution has about as much in common with Myst as [insert your own witty analogy here].

Heading back a few years to 1998, one game that had the adventure gaming community split down the middle was King's Quest: Mask of Eternity. Many adventurers were of the opinion that the King's Quest legacy had been sold out, in a rather transparent attempt to appeal to the action gamers. Whereas the previous seven King's Quest games were solid puzzle-based adventures with lots of humour, Mask of Eternity was a dark, radical about-face, and very much an action-adventure. And yet, there were a few who discounted these little... details:

"The King's Quest series continues with another outstanding game that provides for hours and hours of quality gaming. Mask of Eternity combines incredible 3D graphics with a great control interface and an awesome storyline to make a game that is worthy of the name King's Quest. Both old and new fans will surely not be disappointed with the quality and quantity that is contained within this massive adventure that could truly be called an epic."

In fact, the graphics fell quite short of impressive, with lots of clipping problems and other anomalies. And the old King's Quest fans were most surely disappointed! The only new 'fans' were presumably action gamers who were killing time while waiting for something much better to arrive in the post.

4. Spoiling the puzzles and the plot
Really, there is no better way to display a callous disregard for your audience than by putting outright spoilers in your reviews, and this is a hallmark of the reviews being called to question here. Obviously, I can't quote any of these reviews lest I totally ruin a game for those who haven't already played it. Yes, I'm willing to admit that not all adventure games have good puzzles, and even the best of games usually have at least one or two stinkers in them. But that's no excuse to give full solutions to puzzles as examples! There are ways to convey what you mean without describing the full solution to a puzzle, and without naming specific objects. One Moment of Silence review that I read spoiled no less than two of the most challenging puzzles. Nice going. What's the use of reading game reviews if you don't dare read them until after you've completed the game?

The same goes with plot. Oh yes, please tell us how the game we haven't played yet ends! Would any film critic worth their salt do that? You might as well stamp 'Amateur Reviewer' on your forehead. But unfortunately, your review is being counted as much as the reviews of those who actually have a clue as to what this is all about.

5. Complaining about the length of the dialogue
This is one The Longest Journey seems to fall foul of the most:

"A conversation with a complete stranger can take up to 5 minutes, which in the end achieves nothing, luckily you are able to skip the dialogue. What TLJ lacks is the quick sense of humour present in the Monkey island games, players these days have shorter attention spans so dialogue should be interesting yet brief."

Well... I'd have to admit that some of the dialogue in The Longest Journey did go on a bit. And I'd also agree that the attention span of the average youth is shorter now than it used to be, but adventure gamers as a whole tend to be a more mature breed. By and large, they revel in the dialogue and accept that it is the main medium by which the strong story line of an adventure is conveyed. In any case, the deeply involved conversations in The Longest Journey are of a quality that made it one of the most endearing adventures of all time. And yet:

"There's an awful lot of dialogue in the game. I mean LOTS of dialogue. They say there's 30 hours of gameplay packed into this baby - I'd wager 25 hours of that is listening to people talk."

Hmm. I'd wager in fact that it's the other way around. Some very challenging puzzles and lots of exploration in The Longest Journey, and I'd say at most a few hours of dialogue.

6. Admitting to using a walkthrough, and then claiming the puzzles were too easy
I make it a point when reviewing a game to avoid using a walkthrough unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it's nearly impossible to be objective when trying to gauge the relative difficulty of the puzzles. But this is something you catch the adventure bashers at all the time. From a Syberia review:

"Anyway, the puzzles themselves and the story are certainly weird and interesting enough to keep most of you interested, but I must admit that I found the puzzles much too easy. I had access to a walkthrough, and I used it only on those occasions when I missed an important location by simply overlooking it."

Sure you did. Quite obviously, since you have virtually no interest in this type of game, you are just trying to get through it as quickly as possible - thus ruining any chance of being objective about the game pacing, difficulty, or longevity.

7. Comparing every adventure game to Grim Fandango
Give it up already. Alright, LucasArts made some damn fine adventures in their time, but they don't even make them anymore, remember? Sorry, but I didn't think all that much of Grim Fandango. Hated the keyboard-only navigation for starters, which I suspect was meant to lure in action gamers. How ironic. Yes, it had great black humour, but it shared a few pitfalls with most other adventure games - namely the irrational puzzle, or two. Yet it miraculously escapes any criticism whenever it is mentioned. To illustrate the over-pervasiveness of Grim Fandango in the collective psyche of the anti-adventure brigade, here's the beginning of a review for Syberia, or is it?

"The point and click adventure genre once provided some of the most richly entertaining gaming experiences of all time, and it's impossible not to feel enormous pangs of nostalgia for the years when LucasArts ruled supreme with an unbroken string of unfeasibly entertaining (and legendarily hilarious) titles that rank alongside the best games ever made...

A few hardcore developers stuck with the old school adventure principles of rich narrative, character development and some fiendish puzzle elements, but the glory days are clearly long gone - and the consistently poor sales figures certainly reflect this.

But when Syberia appeared in the
[site's] Reader Chart for 2002 at No. 29, we were forced to reconsider our view that the genre was dead."

Yeah, but you still only gave Syberia a rating of 50. And it is arguably one of the best adventure games ever produced.

What the console jockeys just don't seem to cop on to is the fact that there is another gaming audience out there with an average age that does not fall between 15 and 25. That there are a whole lot of mature gamers who prefer a cerebral challenge, and shy away from games that require fast reflexes, or consist of little more than mindless shooting. But do these mature gamers review action games? Probably not. Why would you review something you didn't like or understand? Unless... you were vindictive. Think about it.

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2004. All rights reserved.