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Designer's Notebook: It's Time to Bring Back Adventure Games

November 9, 1999
 

One thing you don't hear that much about any more is "interactive storytelling." At the Game Developers' Conference, there used to be a lot of round table discussions devoted to interactive storytelling, and they would continue over drinks in the bar. That was back when adventure games were king. When LucasArts and Sierra On-line were at the top of their form, adventure games were the best-looking, highest-class games around. They were funny, scary, mysterious, and fascinating. Adventure games provided challenges and explored areas that other genres didn't touch.

At that time, the early '90's, wargames were moribund - they were little turn-based, hexagon-based games that sold 5,000 to 10,000 units apiece. First-person games were almost non-existent; we didn't have the technology for them. In the world of action, side-scrollers ruled. Flight simulators were crude and blocky-looking. For richness, depth, characterization and sheer artistic effort, adventure games were head and shoulders above the other genres, and it showed in both their development and marketing budgets. A lot of people worked on them and more people wanted to.

Adventure games have since faded into the background, pushed aside for the most part by 3D shooters and real-time strategy games. The term "adventure game" itself is a bit of a misnomer nowadays. It's a shortening of the phrase "Adventure-type game," which itself is a tribute to the first adventure game of them all, sometimes called Colossal Cave but more often simply known as Adventure. But for the real white-knuckled, heart-in-the-mouth feeling of danger that should accompany an adventure, it's hard to beat a modern 3D game like Half-Life or Thief: The Dark Project, especially when it's played alone late at night. The term "adventure game" came to mean a game with characters, puzzles, and a plot to be unfolded, usually without any twitch elements.

3D accelerator cards had a lot to do with the adventure game's decline. 3D engines allow ease of movement, unlimited perspectives, and above all, speed. 3D acceleration is one of the best things that ever happened to the industry, but in our rush to make the games ever faster, we've sacrificed the visual richness of our settings. What's the point of having a stunningly beautiful environment if you're going to race through it ignoring anything that doesn't shoot at you?

The other thing that pushed the traditional adventure game out of the limelight was on-line gaming. When I first got into the industry, most developers didn't know that the Internet existed, and on-line gaming was a tiny little niche occupied by companies like CompuServe and GEnie. Publishers couldn't be bothered to even learn about it, much less develop for it. Nowadays on-line gaming is all the rage, and very few games are produced that don't have a multi-player mode. Some games, like Quake and its successors, are designed primarily for multi-player mode, and single-player mode is more of an afterthought.

There's an old joke that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the kinds of people in the world into two kinds, and those who don't. On the whole, I'm one of the latter - oversimplification is responsible for many of the world's problems. However, I do believe that there are two kinds of gamers in the world, those who like playing computer games by themselves, and those who like playing them against other people.

Multi-player games, despite their current popularity, aren't for everyone. For one thing, they require (surprise!) other people, and that means that you have to have the opportunity to play together. If you don't have much leisure time, and like to play games in short segments, you need to be able to quit a game without disappointing anyone else. You could obviously play very quick on-line games like poker and blackjack, but if you prefer to play long games for short periods, you need a large single-player game.

Another reason some people prefer to play games by themselves is a matter of temperament. I play games for fun, and I want the people I'm playing with to enjoy themselves as well. I'm not there to rip their hearts out; I'm there for a pleasant social occasion. I'm sure as children we've all played games with someone who gloated over his victories, sulked over his losses, and generally acted like a jerk. Too many of the on-line worlds are filled with such people: teenage psychotics whose only pleasure in life seems to be taunting strangers. I have better manners than that, and I got enough taunting on the grade school playground to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.

But the most important reason to play alone has to do with the sense of immersion. Many people are attracted to games because they enjoy being in a fantasy world; they like the sense of exploration and discovery, both of the setting and the plot. Sharing that world with real people tends to destroy your suspension of disbelief. It's one thing to pretend you're the mighty knight striding alone through the forest; it's another thing entirely if your friend Joe is right there beside you. Joe is a product of the 20th century, and unlike the artificial characters in the game, he doesn't speak in that mock-Chaucer dialog that medieval fantasies seem to require. ("Hail, fair Sir Knight! And what bringeth thee to these woods so perilous this fine eventide? There be rumors of a dragon hereabouts!") When Joe talks, he sounds like Joe - which is fine in real life, but modern English sounds wrong in the mystical land of Albion. And sharing a world with strangers is even worse. If I'm seeking fame and fortune and the love of my lady fair, the last sort of person I want for a companion is a guy named Sir KewL DooD.

What interests me most about computer games are the people and places, relationships and events unfolding, and getting a chance to interact with them. I played all the way through StarCraft (cheating occasionally) not because I was enthralled by the wargame itself, but because I wanted to find out what happened to Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan. No disrespect intended to StarCraft's game mechanics - I enjoyed the game a lot - but what really kept me playing through thirty missions was the story.

Adventure games are the quintessential single-player experience. Many single-player computer games are really multi-player games in which the machine is a poor substitute for a human opponent, and now that it's possible to play against human opponents, that's the way the industry is going. But adventure games aren't about competition; in fact, they're not really "games" at all. There isn't an opponent in the usual sense, nor is there a victory condition, other than having solved all the puzzles and reached the end of the story. Adventure games are about the actions of an individual in a complex world, usually a world where brains are more important than guns. If you play them with someone else, it should be someone sitting in the same room with you helping you think - adventure games reward lateral thinking.

The genre is not without its problems, the worst of which is its development cost. Infocom and LucasArts got quite good at developing reusable engines, with their Z-machine and SCUMM respectively, but the real money sinks were all that artwork and all that audio. Stories require content, and interactive stories require three to ten times as much content as linear ones do. Publishers put a heck of a lot of money into developing their adventure games (Phantasmagoria came out on seven compact disks) and they simply didn't see the kind of revenue needed to justify the expense. When you could make at least as much money with a Quake-based game at a fraction of the cost, why bother developing an adventure game?

In spite of all this, I think they're due for a comeback. There's still a market for the slower-paced game whose challenge is primarily mental. Filled with clever brainteasers and visual delights, adventure games were always popular with women. And although more women are using computers and playing games than ever before, in terms of providing entertainment that many women like, I think the industry has actually slipped backwards a bit. The current emphasis on driving and flying and shooting (all thanks to 3D accelerators, of course) doesn't really appeal to a lot of women; nor does the nitpicky business of managing weapons production that takes up so much of your time in real-time strategy games.

The other market that adventure games are great for is younger kids, particularly if the game doesn't require a lot of motor skills. Kids have very little trouble suspending their disbelief (I cannot believe I used to love Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), and they like figuring things out just as much as adults do. The huge success of the remade Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo 64 demonstrated both that there's clearly still a market there, and that 3D engines have just as much to contribute to adventure games as they do to other genres.

We'll still have to face that issue of development costs, but with companies now routinely spending a million dollars or more on their games, it's not as if the other genres are cheap either. The voice-overs and video segments that used to be found only in adventure games are now included in all sorts of games. Recording video costs the same amount whether it's for a wargame or an adventure game.

Adventure games appeal to a market which is unimpressed by the size of the explosions or the speed of the engine, a market that for the most part, we're ignoring. But those people want to play games too. It's time to bring adventure games back.


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