“You think you hear footsteps”.
Five simple words and my earliest memory of the graphic adventure genre.
It was a huge responsibility for a seven year old; to be tasked with escaping a scientific research ship besieged by alien pirates. As I navigated the decks of the ‘Arcada’, the occasional onscreen prompt “You think you hear footsteps” would act as my one and only warning that unless I dove into the nearest intergalactic storage cupboard, I was about feel the fatal burn of a Sarien plasma rifle. Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, developed by Sierra On-Line Systems was a staple of my childhood and of the early graphic adventure format.
I recently had the pleasure of chancing across an article from Kim at LaterLevels discussing the adventure genre and titled ‘Long Live the Adventure Game’, and very much inspired by a speech by Charles Cecil at the EGX Expo in September 2016.
Cecil stated that the adventure genre failed because it failed to modernise. Since the introduction of the text adventure in the 70s, the evolution was clear to see over the next 20 years. Sierra complemented the traditional text adventure by showing us where we were, not just describing our surroundings. Lucasarts would later refine this into the ‘point & click’ adventure that most of us remember today.
Rather neatly, the ‘golden age’ of Lucasarts‘ can be bookended by Maniac Mansion released in 1987, and it’s sequel Day of the Tentacle, released in 1993. Maniac Mansion was the opening chapter, Day of the Tentacle was the conclusion, and each page in between was filled with beautifully written tales of piracy and adventure, with a sprinkling of Nazi bad guys.
If we look at what else was happening in the industry in 1993, the reasons for the heavy decline of the genre after this time become quite obvious. In ’93, there were colossal changes happening. The games industry was seismically shifting to embrace the introduction of video cards specifically designed to accelerate 3D graphics and allowing developers to explore a world of realtime polygon-swinging goodness.
1993 was also the year that id Software would release their new 2.5D first person shooter, landing like a sledgehammer through a sheet of glass, and changing the future of gaming forever. The adrenaline rush provided by Doom couldn’t be ignored, and the FPS genre was the perfect fit for an industry eager to showcase the latest 3D graphics capabilities.
Of course, Lucasarts were also ready to take advantage; 1993 happened to be the year that the Star Wars license would revert back to Lucasarts, who took full advantage with the release of Star Wars: X-Wing in the same year. A game (along with it’s expansions and Tie Fighter sequel) that is still widely regarded as the best example of space combat simulation.
(1993 also happened to be the release date of Jurassic Park. That has nothing to do with this article but… what a year!)
Of course, Lucasarts continued to throw the dice with ‘point & clicks’, releasing the likes of Full Throttle, The Dig and Grim Fandango. Despite high production values and review scores, sales were in a state of decline. Having never played the aforementioned titles, I can truly relate. I am the example of the consumer whose attention had been shifted to the ‘more exciting’ 3D prospects. The kind of hardware-hungry titles that demanded that you not only purchase, but upgrade your graphics card to play.
So, did the adventure game really fail to modernise? I’m not sure I agree. It was a videogame genre that found itself on the wrong side of the 3D evolution, and simply couldn’t compete with other attention-grabbing, dopamine-inducing games by simply adding polygons.
The LaterLevels post also makes another very valid point in reference to the often time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating nature of the traditional adventure game format;
today our lives are faster-paced and we’ve become used to having everything in front of us instantly.
I’m currently playing the Ron Gilbert crowdfunded release Thimbleweed Park. An adventure game by the Monkey Island aficionado dripping in nostalgia and subtle references to the Lucasarts‘ games of old. You have to admire the game if only for having the audacity to implement pixel-sized collectibles (specks of dust), poking fun at the criticism of ‘pixel hunting’ that the genre is often subjected to.
Whilst I’m enjoying the playthrough, I do sometimes find myself reluctant to invest the time in solving puzzles in the same way I once did. As Kim mentions, maybe I’m just too used to having everything instantly. After all, once I had decided I wanted the game, I was literally playing it two minutes later. There is a ‘hints mechanic’ in place accessed by calling the hotline in-game, but it’s very difficult for a ‘traditional adventurer’ like myself to bring myself to use it.
The article concluded with a beautiful and strangely evocative quotation by Cecil;
…what adventures did back then, and still do brilliantly now, is they entwine the story within the gameplay. They’re absolutely, inextricably linked, and they drive each other forward. And that’s why people still love these games, I think.
Cecil neatly summarises not only why adventure games are so unique, but why I occasionally find myself disconnected from other games as they make the switch from ‘gameplay’ to ‘story’. If I had discovered this quote sooner I may not have had to use so many words discussing this exact topic in a recent post!
The adventure genre has undergone incredible hardship over a 20 year period, but I believe times have changed. After Party is one of my four ‘Picks for 2019‘, Röki from Polygon Treehouse is showing incredible promise for their debut title, and the wonderfully illustrated Jenny LeClue by Mografi are just a few of the huge amount of adventure titles that I’ll be watching out for this year.
The future of the adventure game is in very safe hands. Long live the adventure game.