Once upon a time, adventure games were the proverbial kings of PC gaming, entertaining gamers everywhere with a heavy focus on well-written stories and strong, realistic characters. Adventure games had their best run during the late 80′s and early 90′s, before suddenly dying out. So what happened to the adventure games, and where are they now?
In this three part series, we’ll be taking a look at the history of the adventure game and possibly try to predict a future for them as well.
In this second instalment we take a look at the decline and near eradication of adventure games
In the last article we examined the factors that helped the adventure games evolve as a genre, a means to tell stories and how they helped tickle the grey areas of the brain. They were once kings, but pride must always come before the fall. Both Sierra and LucasArts were competing for the adventure game throne; Sierra focused on fiendish puzzle designs and franchise installments that constantly pushed graphics and gameplay to new heights while LucasArts took a friendlier approach with humour, slapstick and absolutely no dead-end situations.
Unfortunately, while the adventure games had changed from their humble beginnings as interactive fiction, so too had the industry changed with them. Sierra was founded in 1979 by a couple who sold software out off the trunk of their car, hoping to simply earn some money on their games.
he rapid popularity of adventure games had forced the company to continuously expand its operations by buying up other studios and having their shares go public. on February 22, 1999, a date that would be known as “Black Monday” among Sierra’s employees, the company announced they were going through a major reorganization, which lead to the shutdown of several development studios. About 250 people lost their jobs, among them being Al Lowe (creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series) and Scott Murphy (one of the creators of the Space Quest series).
Al Lowe, in an interview with Edge: “Sierra went from being driven by a couple of gamers with entrepreneurial spirit to one where the attitude was: You tell me how much this is going to sell, and I’ll tell you how much money I’ll give you to develop it.’ Which was the kiss of death for originality.
When Ken and Roberta Williams got bought out, the company had around 1,200 employees. Within five years they closed the doors and soon became little more than a label on a box. It was like one of those old WWII dogfight scenes in which an aeroplane’s wing is shot off and it starts its downwards death spiral with smoke screaming from it. That’s what watching Sierra was like.”
Adventure games weren’t profitable anymore and their US market share began to drastically decline. There have been many fingers pointed at the cause of this, the most common being the onset of the Quake era. Full 3D had kicked in with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and finally Quake. Around this time of 1996 the PlayStation had just recently launched and the general public seemed to favour action games and instant gratification rather than heavy story telling.
Some of the fault could also be placed on the nature of 3D graphics themselves. Most of the 90′s and early 2000′s, 3D graphics were more oriented toward fast movement rather than graphical detail, which is easy to notice in genre defining games such as Quake. Most adventure games of the day did the opposite by using detailed and static imagery. This could have been perceived as technologically regressive by many consumers. LucasArts did attempt to jump into fast and flowing 3D with “Escape from Monkey Island” and “Grim Fandango”, but by that time it was too late. Gamers had moved on, and action games had supplanted the adventure game as the public’s favourite.
Yet there is a third cause many gamers point to as the true cause of the adventure games’ decline; the games themselves. While they were praised for their well written and engaging stories, most adventure games (usually those created by Sierra) employed what has later been referred to as “moon logic” to most of their puzzles, in which players would walk around, collect various items and patiently rub them together in various combinations in order to advance the story.
The worst of such moon logic puzzles has been identified by sites such as GamesRadar and OldManMurray as the “disguise puzzle” from Gabriel Knight 3, in which the protagonist, Gabriel Knight, must disguise himself as another in-game character, Detective Moseley, so he can “borrow” a motorcycle in order to advance the story.
To make an incredibly long solution short, Gabriel uses duct tape, a spray bottle, a black cat and syrup to make a false moustache, a piece of candy and a hotel call button is used to steal a jacket and passport while a hat is readily found in a lost-and-found box. A black marker is used to draw a moustache onto the passport and, voila! Gabriel has disguised himself.
What’s interesting to note is the fact that Moseley is balding, short, fat and doesn’t even have a moustache!
Thus it can be argued that adventure games managed to commit suicide by accident.
Much like with Sonic the Hedgehog the leap into 3D wasn’t easy for adventure games, but that alone can’t be said to be the entire cause of the genre’s decline. Neither can the Quake era or moon logic puzzles, but a combination of the three seems to be a viable solution as any.
As previously stated the industry had changed from the 80′s and was continuously changing, with the final nail in the coffin being the 1998 release of Half-Life, ironically published by Sierra Studios. Gabriel Knight 3 was Sierra’s last foray into the adventure game genre, after which they moved onto bigger and, arguably, better titles, only to become part of Activision Blizzard and a mere shell of its former glory.
At the same time LucasArts discovered the Star Wars franchise was much more profitable than simple adventure games and decided to milk the Star Wars cow for all it was worth.
While the American market moved on to more action packed games, the situation was a bit different in Europe and Japan.
The Dreamcast and PS2 both had memorable adventure titles like Sega’s Shenmue and Konami’s Shadow of Memories, presented in 3D with a third-person. There’s also Hideo Kojima who created the classic adventure games Snatcher and Policenauts before returning to continue the Metal Gear franchise. As a designer who adores storytelling above all else it it’s not surprising he turned to the adventure game for a while.
The PlayStation also helped introduce new players to the Broken Sword series in Europe, with the first two games being released on the console. Charles Cecil, designer of Broken Sword, has since then declared the genre dead, but that didn’t stop his company creating both a third and fourth entry to the series, the last being released in 2006.
An honourable mention must be given to FunCom’s The Longest Journey, considered by many to be the final true adventure game ever to be released. The game was first published in Norway in 1999 (developer FunCom is a Norwegian company), but was later localised and released in France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia and the US.
The Longest Journey told the story of April Ryan, an 18-year-old art student living in the world of Stark. April learns the world was once split into two dimensions; Arcadia, a world of magic, and Stark, a world of science and technology, and that the border that keeps the two apart is slowly failing. Chaos ensues, April’s power as a Shifter is awakened and she is tasked to restore the Balance between the dimensions.
While some of the puzzles were considered to be a bit too obscure, the game garnered a lot of praise and won the Adventure Game of the Year award by GameSpot and IGN. By mid-2002, the game had sold 450,000 copies and remains a perfect example of the right game released at the wrong time.
This concludes our second look into the history of the adventure game. Next time we’ll be taking a look at what became of adventure games after their decline in popularity, as genres begin to interbreed and storytelling and gameplay go hand in hand.