Thursday, September 3, 2009

Adventures Then and Now

So, having just finished up the Great Scott Project, playing through Scott Adams' classic Adventures #1-#12, I've moved on and am working my way through Telltale Games' Tales of Monkey Island - Chapter 2: The Siege of Spinner Cay.

As technology has evolved, so too have adventure games -- and, despite the death of the commercial text adventure, the genre has endured in one form or another for more than three decades now.  Having just played games at both ends of a 30-year timeline, I thought now would be a good time to examine the art form, old and new.

Still Very Much The Same:

-- Object puzzles.  Find this object, try to do something logical or unusual with another object, and/or in a particular place.  Give it to someone, combine it with something else, put it somewhere, eat it, drink it, read it, open it, wave it about.  With any luck, experimentation will discover the perfect use for it, or reveal something useful about its properties.

-- Solution-driven storylines.  The plot of most adventure games hangs on a tree of puzzles, some of which must be solved before the story can move forward, some of which are available to be solved at any time prior to the end of the game, some of which are completely optional.  The best designs give the player the illusion of complete autonomy and control, while gently steering him or her in the right direction.

-- Humor.  Even in the early days, there was always room for a pun, a discovery, and a funny way to solve a puzzle.  When the mongoose becomes a dead squirrel after being thrown at the mamba snakes in Scott Adams' Adventure #2: Pirate Adventure, or the potentially interesting "shipwrecked boat" becomes "completely useless junk" after further examination in Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 1, it's surprising and funny.  I've played very few adventure games that don't have a sense of humor, even when it's just to soften the blow of failure and sudden death.  There's something intrinsic to the form that lends itself to humor, and today comedy is the dominant genre.

-- Occasional dead-ends.  Whether in text or graphic form, adventure games always have a few spots where the player may get stuck.  Then it's time to wander around, look at everything a second or third time, sort through the inventory, and if necessary seek a hint or two.  It can be frustrating at times, but it's also an experiental component, part of what separates playing an adventure from watching a cartoon.

-- Pricing.  Surprisingly, after a period in the early 90's era when newfangled graphic adventures retailed for US$50.00, pricing is very much back where it was when the whole thing started.  The Scott Adams adventures retailed for $14.95 on cassette, $20.95 on disk, with three-game sets available for $39.95; today's episodic games retail for $7-$10, and boxed/season sets are generally in the $20-$40 range.  Despite the larger teams required to produce today's games, and inflation since 1979, the market has grown enough to support bigger development budgets with similar retail pricing. 

New and Exciting:

-- Full 3-D animation, after a long series of evolutionary steps.  The early Sierra games had very crude line-drawing graphics, and the S.A.G.A series brought simple graphics and animation to the classic Adventure International games.  Infocom also toyed with static illustrations in games like Shogun, but Sierra really raised the bar with their pseudo-3D titles like King's Quest.  Incremental improvements in the 2-D era followed, and CD-ROM enabled more elaborate animation (and experiments with live-action video footage.)  Today, adventure games are usually rendered using 3-D polygons, and/or pre-rendered CG sequences, enabling fluid and subtle animation and lighting, given the appropriate development investment.

-- Voice acting.  It's come a long way since Kid-Venture #1, and the early in-house Sierra efforts.  Today's games feature professional voice actors whose performances greatly enhance the drama and humor of the best adventure games.  Writing deserves a lot of the credit, of course, but the talented actors who interpret the dialogue really bring these games to life.

-- Conversation-based puzzles.  These were not really seen in the old days, although modern Inform-based games can use conversation-tree extension libraries to achieve a similar effect.  In the old days, characters generally had a line or two of canned dialogue, and seemed more like machines than human beings -- bring them the right thing, say the right word, and a switch was flipped.  Natural language experiments failed -- a computer character still can't pass the Turing Test in a game, and trying to find the key words a character might respond to wasn't much fun.  But conversation puzzles aimed at talking characters into something, provoking them to action, or eliciting information have become an entertaining addition to the genre, lending depth and personality to game characters.  Within the limits of scripted dialogue exchanges, we've seen insult swordfighting, riddles, cue card substitutions, call-and-response puzzles, and more, most of which have enhanced the adventure experience.

-- Visual puzzles.  Based on visual cues, broad or subtle, like geometry, color, and functional appearance, these have brought a different, but completely appropriate, type of puzzle to the adventure game.  The 7th Guest and Myst were heavily puzzle-based, at some cost to storyline, but more recent games have incorporated such challenges into traditional adventure stories.

-- Episodic gaming.  The adventure game market has become viable again, thanks to the low-distribution-cost, incremental-revenue model afforded by downloadable monthly episodes.  Similar in value to vintage adventures, Telltale's titles are always on my must-play list.  And their success has inspired Lucasarts to reevaluate the genre also.

New and Not Necessarily Exciting:

-- Graphics per se.  Don't get me wrong -- I love the Sierra, Lucasarts and Telltale games.  But there are times I long for the literary, theatre-of-the-mind quality of the classic text adventures, and wish they were still being produced for the mass market.  Fortunately, there's still an active interactive fiction hobbyist community creating new stories for us to enjoy.

-- Point-and-click interfaces.  New adventure games can still be challenging, no doubt, but simplified modern interfaces make some types of interactions a little too automatic.  I preferred the interim hybrid, where the available verbs and objects were on a menu, avoiding the guess-the-verb problems of early text adventures, but the player still had some options to experiment with.  I think these kinds of "puzzles" have been replaced by equally challenging visual and conversation-based conundra, but I miss the illusion of greater control.  There's also the pixel-hunting problem, although it's not really an issue with newer games; at least, it's not any more vexing than the word-guessing problem of the text adventure era.

-- Team development.  I know, it's no longer feasible for one designer to sit at the kitchen table and put out a quality game.  But I miss hearing distinctive authorial voices like Scott Adams, Michael Berlyn and Steve Meretzky, and even the early graphic adventure creators like Roberta Williams, Al Lowe and Ron Gilbert had distinctive styles.  Modern games are of necessity handled more like TV productions, and are often subject to constraints where licensed characters are used. While the designers and programmers and writers and artists generally do a fine job of capturing the property and creating a playable adventure to boot, the end product is a little more bland and less quirky than in the old days.  Of course, they're also accessible to a broader audience -- the producer/director approach, coupled with heavy playtesting, does tend to smooth out the more aggravating rough edges.  But I occasionally miss those too.

I am not dead!

What I'm most happy about is that adventure games today still feel like adventure games.  And there are still many I haven't played.


  1. There are wealth of single author games now published freely to the Interactive Fiction group. I assumed you are aware of this, but figured I would mention it anyways!

    Happy Adventuring!

  2. Yep, I mean to cover the modern-day goings on in a future post. There are some very talented people creating great work -- I just wish there were still a commercial market for text adventures. I have done some coding using Inform and want to talk about that whole scene. I also ported Lance Micklus' Dog Star Adventure over to run in Microsoft Excel's version of Visual Basic last night -- a kludge, no doubt, but it allowed me to run the game!