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The Designer's Notebook: The Genre That Would Not Die!

April 14, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[In his latest column, Ernest Adams discusses the creeping return of the adventure game, discussing 'what got better' and 'what didn't get better' in the genre after its famine years.]

Life has been a bit weird recently. The other day I decided I wanted to be an opera singer, but along the way I got trapped in a vampire's castle. A couple of hours later, I turned into a ditzy 17-year-old girl, and somehow went back in time to era of the Caribbean pirates, and OMG I can't find my makeup case!

Then I became a cop named Phoenix Wallis, investigating a murder in a deeply ambiguous utopia, and now I'm a tiny tyrant who's trying to get his kingdom back from a usurper.

In case you haven't guessed, I'm playing four adventure games at once. It's fun, if a little disorienting. And that's just in one day. Earlier in the week I tried to become prom queen at my high school, and also to help a famous archaeologist figure out the secrets of a magic amulet.

Game journalists often glibly announce that adventure games are on the point of extinction, but they're wrong. Adventure games will never again be the dominant genre they once were, but they have a well-established market niche and the overall number of people who play them is rising, thanks to the recent arrival of large numbers of female and casual players.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote a Designer's Notebook column called It's Time to Bring Back Adventure Games. Because nearly a decade has passed since that original article, I decided to look at a few of them to see what has happened to adventure games in the interim.

I'm not talking about action-adventures -- action games with a large storytelling element -- but pure adventures, whether they're point-and-click or direct-control games. Here's what I found:

What Got Better

Animation. This is the most conspicuous advance. Most other genres offer their players a limited number of activities -- a shooter is about shooting and a pet simulation is about looking after a pet. But in an adventure game you might do all kinds of things -- load a cannon, oil a door, dance a jig. This means the avatar needs a great many animations.

Most of today's games are still in 2D, but their characters are often displayed with pre-rendered anims built from 3D models. It's easier to build and render a wide variety of animations from a well-rigged model than it is to draw them all by hand.

The movements are smoother and more natural. They're not up to Pixar quality yet, because adventure games don't have Pixar budgets. But they're much better than they used to be.

The roles the player can play. Adventures have always offered the largest variety of roles for the player to play, again because the games are not tied down to a particular set of actions.

As you can tell from the ones I'm playing, there are a lot of options -- probably even more than when adventure games were at their peak. Comedy naturally offers a wide range of possibilities for player roles, and a good many adventure games are comedies.


Strategy First/Momentum DMT's Culpa Innata

Environments. As with all other genres, the environments in adventure games have gotten a lot better over the last ten years. This is particularly important, because in this genre players like to enjoy the scenery.

Despite the huge impact of 3D accelerators on the rest of the gaming world, many adventure games still use the traditional painted backdrop for each scene.

3D environments are a mixed blessing for adventure games. They're wonderful if the art team can build an environment as rich as a painted backdrop. But with the limited budgets now available, the developers often don't have the resources to model everything, and the result is a game in which the player is constantly running through vast, empty spaces.

Why, for example, do Phoenix Wallis' police headquarters in Culpa Innata look like a gigantic cathedral with about six offices in it? It takes a measurable amount of time just to walk from Phoenix's office to the front door. Still, I'd love to see an adventure game made with Crytek's engine and level of detail.


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Comments


Adam Bishop
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While adventure games may never be as prominent as they were during their peak, I think there's still some really fascinating stuff in the genre. Two of my favourite games of the past few years - Dreamfall and Indigo Prophecy - were both essentially adventure games, although they also both did a lot of things much differently than adventure games typically do. Indigo Prophecy had no item collection puzzles, for example, and the very small number of collection puzzles in Dreamfall were all pretty straight-forward. Though, that's what a lot of people *disliked* about Dreamfall, so I guess you can't please everyone.



I think the one area where adventure games really can shine is in their stories, since virtually all adventure games feature narrative prominently. And that's definitely the strength of the two games I've mentioned. Both of them feature dialogue that is not just well acted, but *believeable*. I could actually imagine real people saying the things that the characters in those games said, which is true for an extremely small percentage of games released.

Joseph Garrahan
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Adventure Games are on the rise, just check this one out, done by Double Fine:



Host Master and the Conquest of Humor

http://www.doublefine.com/news.php/minigames/Host_Master



Web based Adventure games should be explored more...

Maurício Gomes
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I am a person that enjoyed adventure games for some time, even text ones...



But after so much cheesy writing, bizarre acting and other things, these games are not much anymore intersting, but nothing is worse than the games that are not games (ie: you do not need to do anything in fact to see the history...) unfortunally with the "casual wave" this is affecting other genres too (Prince of Persia and your auto-turning, other autothings and imortality, I am looking to you).



I miss Lucas Arts adventures... :(



And those adventures from a company that I forgot the name that used the same engine on all them (they did Gateway, Eric the Unready, Gateway 2...), that altough it was a bit bizarre (their engine was BOTH text and visual based... really strange) it was really cool...

Bob McIntyre
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Agreed, Hélder. Sierra and Lucas used to put out some amazing products loaded with challenge and humor. Even though you could never "lose" or "die" in games like Monkey Island, those challenging puzzles were really fun and rewarding. I think that the "casual wave" will pass or die back down in time and we'll see more good, challenging games other than "Shoot The Alien/Zombie Right In The Face." Not that those are bad games.

Reid Kimball
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I met a couple designers from Her Interactive at GDC in 2004 and they told me an impressive statistic. That 60% of their customers who bought one Nancy Drew title, ended up buying all of them and at that time they had released 12.



Dave Gilbert, writer/designer/programmer for The Shivah and the Blackwell games has a quite a following and just released a new casual adventure game with Playfirst.



If you can make quality adventure games, you will get a very loyal following because there is demand for them, just not in the scale of Halo as Ernest mentioned.



I'll write a post about adventure games soon, because they do have aspects to offer other genres.

Michiel Hendriks
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@Adam Bishop

Dreamfall and Fahrenheit? really? Fahrenheit started out great, but it eventually became nothing more than a series of quicktime events, hardly worth calling it an adventure at that point. And Dreamfall, it was barely an interactive movie. I have quite some problem qualifying either game as adventure.



It's a shame that the action/adventure genre hasn't developed much beyond the "action game with better story".

Andrew Goulding
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The adventure game genre is one that I love slightly obsessively (why won't you call!).



If someone can show me the size of the target market for point n click adventure games that's something I can take to publishers to get more games like the old Lucas Arts and Sierra games funded. At the moment there is a market in the casual game space for adventure games, but your target market is 40yr+ women, so games like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island wont fly. Also, many adventure games released for a casual market rely heavily on the hidden object mechanic, because that's what the casual audience wants, judging by sales of hidden object games, so that's what publishers want to see in a game. I would LOVE to know what TellTale's sales figures are!



I was the programmer on Dave's game for PlayFirst (Emerald City Confidential - go out and buy it now!). The whole team had a blast working on it, and while its doing well, the sales aren't currently enough to get casual publishers excited enough to take a risk on similar games (unless they have hidden objects), the sales are certainly not near those of a blockbuster hidden object game like Mystery Case Files. Well, I suppose that's not entirely fair to say that about the casual games publishers, their market is 40yr+ women, and I pitched several of them a game at GDC that would appeal to people who loved DOTT, Sam and Max and Monkey Island, because I think there's a market for it, but can't prove it.



On a related note, if anyone wants to fund point n click adventure, or knows someone who does, check out http://www.brawsome.com.au. =0)

Dave Endresak
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Mario didn't begin by having a large backing, either.



I want to point out that we need to be very specific about what we mean by "adventure game." Ernest actually means "Western adventure game" in this piece. Japanese and East Asian adventure games (and the related genres of visual novels and simulations) are completely different as far as structure and play mechanics, but they are also adventure games. In fact, many of the biggest problems of Western market adventures have been faced and resolved in Japanese adventure games: often excellent writing, acting, music, etc.



It's also worth noting that adventures (and visual novels and simulations) are the biggest quantity of games offered in Japan, including many popular, excellent doujin works. This is sometimes echoed by best seller charts, too - it's not all that unusual to see games in one or more of these genres hitting the top 100 at Amazon or elsewhere, and even the top 10.



Perhaps more exposure to these games would help Western market developers resolve some of their issues with design and other factors of concern.

Gregory Kinneman
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The best thing that has happened to adventure games in the last 10 years is episodic gaming. The second best thing is the amateur adventure movement.



While a few adventures like Longest Journey and Grim Fandango were able to keep me enthralled from start to finish, a lot of them were only fun until the really hard puzzle that caused me to give up. Episodic episodes of Sam and Max are incredibly fun, and I can finish a story in a little over an hour or two. It's all the great dialogue and wacky situations without the tedium of a 20 hour game.



For those who haven't played it yet, try '5 Days a Stranger', by Yahtzee (You know, the guy who now does fully ramblomatic). That's your example of how good an amateur adventure can be. There's a host of great amateur adventures out there. Even though they don't all have 3D graphics or incredibly long stories, they are a ton of fun, and they are free!



Are adventure games dead commercially? Yes! Only one or two franchises are left, and most games that come out are not even of average quality for a full-priced title. It's a niche and its hard to break into that small market. With episodic games becoming more and more popular, there's even hope for a few new gems out there (albeit small ones without a lot of depth). Are adventure games dead in the indie, amateur, freeware space? Absolutely not!

Ron Newcomb
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"Still, when I was doing the voiceovers for Madden NFL Football, I learned the benefit writing the content that we actually needed into the middle of a longer sentence or paragraph."



That is very interesting, Ernest. Thank you. I have been enjoying your articles and insights here since about '99 or so!



I find the article timely too. I've been mucking about the interactive fiction / text adventure scene for the past couple of years, learning the ins and outs of that community. I'm currently working on an article urging their need to study the gameplay in multiplayer card games as the alternative to puzzles.



-Ron

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RonNewcomb/293/

Meredith Weaver
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I'm one of those people that, once upon a time, might have been that "hardcore adventure gamer" you wonder about. Just the mention of Architecture games in your conclusion makes me foam at the mouth with passionate enthusiasm. (Um, is that sad? heh) That admitted, I agree that the state of the puzzle should be in the between. For years I wasn't able to play MMOs well because I was so brainwashed into picking up and keeping every single thing I saw. I wouldn't let go of anything odd looking no matter how clear it was I would never use it...just in case. Having puzzles be either backward or obscure is nothing but a lesson in learning how to get around a developer's device, not in thinking about the adventure at hand.



I might disagree with your thoughts on dialog. They should be in between as well. The same genre-shock which I described above left me reading reams of senseless material in MMOs for years, incapable of understanding that a secret wasn't ever going to be smashed in between rudimentary greetings and technical instructions. In that case, it wouldn't have been the end of the world if I had been right.



In an adventure game, maybe we shouldn't have to read 'Foucault's Pendulum' in order to find a clue, but precise dialog renders everything too obvious. 'Law and Order' is a great example but it only lasts an hour. An adventure game should take longer, and might cover a larger geographic area and span of time -- why not spread out the goods? As long as your "flavor" character development and red herrings are written and recorded just as well as your main plot lines, and you get a minimal sense of reward or belonging out of the effort, who cares if you go off on a 2 hour tangent with the owner of the local fish market? Adventure games need that extra, elective noise. It's part of the environment just as much as the art.


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