‘These games derive from one of the oldest computer games, called “Adventure”. In these games the adventurer must move through a complex world, accumulating tools and booty adequate for overcoming each obstacle, until finally the adventurer reaches the treasure or goal.’ (The Art of Computer Game Design, C. Crawford, 1982)
‘Adventures. Games which are set in a “world” usually made up of multiple, connected rooms or screens, involving an objective which is more complex than simply catching, shooting, capturing, or escaping, although completion of the objective may involve several or all of these.’ (Genre and the Video Game, M J P Wolf, 2000 from The Medium of the Video Game, University of Texas Press.)
From the advent of the game which would spawn the genre, the adventure game has existed and evolved as a means to prioritise player exploration and engagement with secondary worlds and narrative as it’s foremost design principle. Unlike the otherwise comparable roleplaying game it did this without delving into numerical abstraction and by putting an emphasis of story/puzzle based logic over tactical strategy as its centralising mechanic. Additionally, the adventure genre term would be used as a marketing and consumer label by the developers of these titles.
By using these (largely conventional) parameters as a working definition this essay will chart how the adventure genre has changed through the coming technological affordances that morphed the text adventure into the graphical adventure, as well as examining the collapses of the genre’s business models and concluding with a consideration of the late revival of the genre through crowdsourcing and independent development, in parallel with a changing internet of greater accessibility of development and niche consumer products.
The oft-cited originator of the adventure genre is the 1976 Colossal Cave Adventure (and latterly known as Adventure). This text based game was created as on the PDP-10 mainframe inspired by its creator Will Crowther’s experiences of cave exploration. Players would be able to read description of the environments of this game through text as well as inputting commands and directions through a basic text parser.
Several prominent video game genres are conventionally thought to begin with a title that was seen to create the genre ex-nihlo. Thus many in the gaming world talk of Super Mario Bros as being the “first platformer”, Doom as the “first first-person shooter”, or Everquest as the “first massive multiplayer game.” However all of these commonly held beliefs are erroneous and are most often the result of an important, well-timed commercial hit that has eclipsed various examples of earlier experimentation.
As with other genres Adventure is in fact pre-dated by other games featuring text based interfaces, room exploration and puzzle solving e.g. the 1975 text game Hunt the Wumpus. Nor either is it the first piece of software to feature text parser inputs or outputs, which is documented as the 1960s based computer programmes ELIZA and SHRDL. However Adventure is considered nonetheless to have ‘inspired a generation of hackers’ (G. J. Gerz, 2007). It remains a deeply influential title on its genre providing a name, a parser interface that would last several decades and a greater prioritisation of narrative approaches with text based interfaces than had been seen prior.
Due to its unique appeal, Adventure would go onto to be shared across campus mainframes, (echoing the spreading of Space War several decades earlier). This meant Adventure would achieve significant popularity amongst an influential milieu of those possessing access to the most advanced technology of the era. Soon various attempts were made to rewrite, improve, and port the game to differing platforms. This culminated in Microsoft releasing Adventure as a launch product with it’s IBM PC in 1981. Taking a near half-decade to arrive, this moment would represent the beginning of the process of commercialisation of the genre.
Commercial Models – From Text to Graphical Adventures
Around the same time as the release of Adventure commercially a group of it’s players at MIT decided to make their own game in a similar engine with a much deeper focus on puzzles. This became Zork and the founding of the company Infocom. This game would perform extremely well commercially leading to the company hiring further staff and creating more text based games. Within a few years the company was valued at tens of millions of dollars and seen as the foremost successful developer of text based adventures.
The growth of Infocom demonstrated the power of an early file-sharing, open and contributing network of individuals to produce the space for meaningful creative works. It also proved how readily commodifiable this would be in the nascent gaming and computer consumer markets of the 80s.
However this process would not last as the 80s pressed on there was a greater pressure for games to feature graphical content. Infocom had been acquired in 1986 by Activision for $7.5 million. Infocom’s new parent company would encourage it to produce graphical games such as Fooblitzky which was a commercial failure. Other issues emerged from Activision pushing Infocom to release twice as many games and desist from selling their otherwise lucrative back=catalogue.
By 1989 Activision had closed Infocom. Text adventures in this period were no longer produced (Aarseth, 2004). Many believed the text adventure genre to have been replaced by the graphical adventure game genre. Text adventures would go on to be produced by hobbyists online under the new name of interactive fiction. This process represented a continuation of the initial field of enthusiastic technologist collaborative creation that had started text adventures back in the mainframe labs of American campuses..
Throughout the 80s graphic adventures games had been developed in parallel with the text adventure. However more so than text adventures, graphical adventures in this period had to contend much more with greater limitations of memory, colour and sound output. With the arrival of the CD-ROM in the beginning of the 1990s, far greater output of audio and visuals became possible. It was around this time that the graphical adventure genre grew to become a successful commercial market. Sierra Online and Lucas Arts would dominate this era with multiple franchises such as the Kings/Space/Police Quest games and the Monkey Island and Indiana Jones franchises (respectively).
In Japan the graphical adventure genre was also developing independently. The 1983 NEC PC-6001 game The Portopia Serial Murder Incident spawned both the detective and visual novel genres within Japan. These remain highly influential sub genres of adventure that remain highly commercially relevant to this date.
As the growing desire to push technological limitations grew, much richer sounds and colour output was made available to the developers in this period. The advancement from CGA to EGA to VGA meant an increase from 4, to 16, to 256 colours. This not only greatly increased presentation abilities were available but also increased the potential conceptualisations of fidelity in general. Several games such as Loom, Quest for Glory 1, and Space Quest 1 would receive enhanced rereleases including elements such as transitioning from floppy disk to CD-ROM, adding voice acting, moving from text to mouse based parsers, or progressing and reimagining the graphical design based on upgrades from EGA to VGA.
It was this wider cultural rush in 90s digital media to chase higher presentational values that culminated in another offshoot of the genre, the full-motion-video (FMV) game that would use screenshots and video clips of live actions footage and pre-rendered backgrounds. Titles such as Myst and 7th Guest would go on to become large successes in this field, but many of these games were criticised for having poor acting/writing and within a few years they were no longer seen as commercially viable.
The graphical adventure would itself reach a tumultuous decline around the turn of the millennium. It’s widely believed that the growing success and demand for games to render 3D action experiences of this time lead to the decline of the contrasting 2D cerebral adventure game. This period would see similar declines in sales of board games, the collapse of the gamebook industry and a moment of low output for independent studios. The more traditional and archaic forms of play were being squeezed by the birth of the triple AAA multimedia digital game industry as we know it today.
As sales began to decline Lucas Arts’s recognition of the competition of 3D games would lead them to attempt twice to bring the adventure genre into this new format resulting in the creation of Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island – both proving to be commercial failures. Similarly after Sierra Online was acquired by a conglomerate in 1996 it was reorganised internally and after two failed attempts at bringing their Kings Quest and Quest for Glory franchises into 3D, the company no longer would produce adventure games.
Both Lucas Arts and Sierra’s stepping away from the production of adventure games echoed similar issues that Infocom had experienced of a failure to step into the new graphical formats the medium was embracing and conglomerate owners who didn’t understand or wish to invest further in production of the genre whilst other formats and approaches became more popular and lucrative.
While this process was largely absent in Germany’s markets the winding down of the industry’s two most iconic graphic adventure games companies was a clear sign to many developers that the genre had reached a dead end. In the vast majority of the western world adventure games were no longer considered commercially viable products.
Many gaming critics would latterly argue that in this period the principles of adventure games were absorbed by action games, creating the new genre of the action-adventure (e.g. Tomb Raider) as well as the 3D platform adventure (Banjo Kazooie). This meant three-dimensional action games had succeeded where traditional adventure games had failed and managed to incorporate environmental exploration and puzzle solving into a 3D space. Many Japanese survival horror games notably also incorporated copious puzzle solving to progress through labyrinthine environments e.g. Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
Even going as far back as 1980 the game simply titled Adventure for the Atari 2600 was imagined as a graphical interpretation of Colossal Cave Adventure. While its visuals and gameplay was extremely basic this example suggests this process should be seen as one that did not suddenly come into fruition a priori, but was present as a divergence throughout the genre’s history. Nonetheless the ability to produce action games with greater complexity and more detailed environments in this period does suggest an increase in the influence adventure games had on secondary mechanics in this particular period.
Throughout the 2000s the adventure game proper would largely remain a non-commercial entity till the 2010s (though the most notable exceptions to this is Telltale who began making independent 3D point and click games from 2006 onwards). In this vacuum the genre would continue to be archived and championed by enthusiasts on websites such as adventuregamers.com and with DIY development software like Adventure Game Studio (echoing the way in which interactive fiction would continue after the collapse of Infocom). It was these two very processes of nostalgic praise and independent development that would lead into the revival of the genre in the coming decade.
Crowd Source Revival
In 2012 Tim Schafer, a former Lucas Arts lead developer, created a Kickstarter campaign to resume making adventure games with his successor company Doublefine. His request for $300,000 to support his project was famously expanded to $3,000,000 in backer’s money. The media spectacle this created and the wider untapped audience it demonstrated existed lead to an explosive growth of crowd funded games, featuring many developers attempting to similarly revive other collapsed franchises and genres. This often included other once well established adventure games franchises e.g. Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, The Longest Journey. This growing section of the industry is now believed to be valued at $250 million internationally. The growth of revivalist genre movements within gaming has lead to a renewed interest in the genre of adventure games from old and new audience members.
This process was twinned by the growth and fruition of the of modern indie games. With the increased technological viability of digital distribution as well as more approachable game creation software there is now a growing section of the industry able to create professionally crafted products for smaller audiences and still remain commercially viable. This has in turn lead to greater risks being taken with commercial products. In the same year as Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter Telltale released their adaptation of The Walking Dead. Taking an approach with more of an emphasis on narrative choices than puzzles (aka. The interactive drama) this game is believed to have breathed new life into the adventure genre with powerful emotional moments of player agency and dramatic crescendos.
Looking back over a history of the adventure game portrays a genre that has constantly evolved and changed its approach, mutating constant sub-genres (FMV, visual novel, interactive drama etc) but always keeping at its core a focus on bringing players into secondary worlds, building gameplay out of these worlds directly and pushing technological and creative boundaries on what sort of audio-visual interactive experiences audiences have had with games. In recent years the broadening of the games industry and growth of niche markets has lead to revivals of continuous genres and sub-genres as well as continued evolution of the genre. Like earlier models there remains risks of commercial waning of the genre’s popularity or staleness should it fail to evolve. Yet the industry now stands as a much wider and broader medium able to incorporate projects at a lower cost of development. With this process set to increase seemingly genres considered of the past can continue to exist in the present as long as there are developers who wish to continue experimenting with them.
- Crawford, C. (1997). The art of computer game design. 1st ed. Vancouver, WA: Washington State University Vancouver.
- Wolf, M. (2000). [online] Available at: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/1979904/9h2wevyakguizku.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1492749630&Signature=0WjbJlHDQPYebV8AE0m8Fd22O98%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DGenre_and_the_Video_Game.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- Aarseth, E (2004) [online] Available at: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://blogs.bgsu.edu/honors1120/files/2013/08/Aarseth_Genre_Trouble_selectable_text.pdf&gws_rd=cr&ei=Qt75WK3WF9LFwQLk7an4BA [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky (2007), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/001/2/000009/000009.html
- Kalata, K. (2011). The guide to classic graphic adventures. 1st ed. [S.l.]: Hardcoregaming101.net.
- Get Lamp, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o15itQ_EhRo [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- Machina’s History of Adventure Games, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEQcSvjLbA [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- EFMS – History of Point and Click Adventures, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR12j_qbhv4 [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- Lori Cole’s History of Adventure Games , Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90KjbFugYk4 [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].
- Why are We Still Talking about LucasArts’ Old Adventure, Available at: Games?http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/189899/why_are_we_still_talking_about_.php [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].