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

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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