In Too Deep

Not with a Bang, But a Click


It’s a situation we’re all likely to face eventually: There’s a hooker upstairs, behind a locked door, and she’s waiting, willing and … waiting. Problem? A burly bouncer bars the way. He wants a password before he’ll open the door and let you find your own personal nirvana in the arms of the woman-for-hire. But even if you were to somehow find the magic word, he’s not likely to step aside and let you ride for free. You’re broke, see, and you seem to have left your marketable skills in your – erm – other pants.

What to do?

Well, if you’re playing Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, the solution is simple: examine everything. Upon doing so, you will find that a number of everyday household objects may be used to solve seemingly insurmountable puzzles. This, after all, is the magic formula for adventure gaming. Long before MacGyver macgyvered his way out of every tough spot imaginable (using only a thumbtack, a piece of chewing gum and a leaf), adventure gamers had been using a similar assortment of “found items” to construct insanely complicated Rube Goldberg-ish solutions to outlandish puzzles in the world of the adventure game.

In Leisure Suit Larry, the drunk at the bar, for example, will give you a television remote control if you lubricate him with enough whiskey, and a graffiti-encrusted bathroom stall will reveal the password if you look at it long and hard enough. Whisper the password through the door, then, once you’ve penetrated the inner sanctum, use the remote control to turn on the TV and BAM! Bye-bye bouncer. He’ll be too busy leering at the boob tube to pay you any mind. Now, mount the stairs (but don’t forget your condom) and you’ve got it made. Literally.

Released in 1987, Al Lowe‘s Leisure Suit Larry was not the first of the great adventure games, but it was the most salacious. It was also graphical, which the earliest of the genre were not. Games like In Search of Dr. Livingston, released in 1980, were text-based and, in lieu of a high-end graphics card, required instead that the player have a high-end imagination. Players had to mentally visualize the scene being described in on-screen text in order to arrive at (often through trial and error) the best course of action. To make your character look to the left, for example, the player would type “LOOK LEFT” into the game’s text entry box, which would then (if you were lucky) trigger a response from the game. Some of these games added a bit of extra frustration through persnickety parsing of commands. In Dr. Livingston, for example, the player (on a quest through the African jungles to find the elusive Dr. Livingston) was required in most cases to input text in all caps, but occasionally (and inexplicably) the game would require lower-case text input. It didn’t tell you when to use which – you just had to guess.

Still, like a book, these games had the redeeming virtue of offering experiences limited only by the player’s imagination and are fondly remembered to this day as creative masterpieces, often before their more graphically advanced descendants; frustrations and all.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
As computers became more powerful, game makers began throwing their efforts behind graphical adventures, like Leisure Suit Larry. Some of these were merely updated versions of old text adventures, but some quite literally created new worlds.

The first of the graphical adventures was Ken and Roberta Williams’ Mystery House. Based on an Agatha Christie mystery novel, Mystery House was little more than a text adventure game with overlaid static images, but the resulting immersive effect was startling. Gamers ate it up and demanded more; which the Williamses and their company, Sierra On-Line (originally On-Line Systems), were happy to deliver. Sierra would go on to make hundreds of adventure titles, including the innovative and award-winning King’s Quest and Space Quest series, and naturally, imitators followed suit.

Some, like MECC’s Oregon Trail, and Broderbund’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? attempted to capture the rapidly-growing educational software market, blending newly-immersive game experiences with adventure gaming’s storybook roots to create a whole new genre of “edutainment.” But the most successful and innovative game manufacturer to follow in Sierra On-Line’s footsteps was LucasArts.

LucasArts focused on the possibilities of more cinematic entertainment. Not surprising from a company built on the back of the most successful film franchise ever made. In 1987, LucasArts (then known as Lucasfilm Games) released Maniac Mansion, offering gamers a number of radical departures from the standard adventure game formula. Among them: multiple playable characters and multiple endings. Both introduced the concept of replay-ability, allowing players to experience the game from the multiple perspectives of the various characters. But the innovations didn’t stop there. Sensing that gamers had become frustrated with the tired mechanic of guessing and typing, LucasArts simplified the text entry command structure by reducing the number of valid commands to just a few verbs and identifying objects with which the character could interact. It was, in effect, a prototype of a point-and-click interface. And in simplifying the act of playing the game itself, LucasArts opened the door to a whole new market for the adventure game genre while simultaneously pounding nails into its coffin.

id Software and the Decline of the Attention Span
As is the case with so many stories about the game industry, the next chapter in this tale begins thusly: In 1991, four guys started a company to make games.

The company was id Software, and the games they created – on the back of technology chief John Carmack’s innovative game engines – were dreamed up primarily to relieve the four gamers’ boredom with the current state of PC games, which by-and-large moved slowly and weren’t all that colorful. Like adventure games.

Their first official product was a so-called “action-platformer” liberally copied from the successful Super Mario Bros. series for Nintendo’s NES home console. It was, in spite of its relatively simple appearance, a programming coup. No one, anywhere – ever – had been able to make images appear and move on the PC as fluidly as Mario moved on the NES. No one, that is, until John Carmack. Over the course of six installments, id’s Commander Keen made PC gaming history and helped launch id Software from its humble beginnings as a moonlighting gig conducted on the sly into the realm of successful entertainment software enterprises.

Having thus made their mark on the world of PC platform games, id then turned their attention to the next frontier: 3-D games. Their first, Wolfenstein 3D, was so successful it attracted the attention of none other than the king of adventure games himself, Ken Williams, who in 1992 offered to purchase id for $2.5 million and add the four young men to Sierra’s prestigious stable of high-profile game designers. id declined, opting instead to carry on as independents. The next year, they released Doom.

For PC gamers bored and frustrated with the clunky, imprecise and bland games of the early ’80s, id’s offerings hit just the right spot. Few could deny the thrill of “running” through Castle Wolfenstein, sending a hailstorm of bullets into zombified Nazis, who would then die horribly detailed deaths, clutching their hearts and saying “Mein leben!” There was no story to speak of, no mysteries to solve and no puzzles requiring quantum leaps of ingenious item combination in order to solve. Just running, gunning and dying. id’s games were blockbusters and at retailers across the country they literally pushed adventure games off of the shelves. The four brains behind id would go on to gaming stardom, and their games would change the world.

The reign of the adventure game was over, but adventure gamers were having the time of their lives. Instead of going quietly into the dark night, they’d found a new sensation; a meta-game, an extension of quest-driven exploration into the very fabric of their lives; a new form of entertainment unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Spinning the Web
Concurrent with id Software’s gaming revolution – changing the world, one gruesome animated death at a time – personal computers were rapidly becoming more powerful and less expensive. Consumers were practically lining up in droves to take the odd, beige boxes home with them. The invention of the CD-ROM had as much to do with this as anything else, offering consumers entire volumes of books worth of data on a single, shiny disc. But the most exciting development driving the popularity of computers in the ’90s was the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee, working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland was building upon the theory of “hypertext,” a method of linking multiple documents together by keywords or “links,” to create a whole new method of organizing information across multiple sources. Imagine reading a book, then clicking on a single word to produce a definition of that word, without ever once taking your eyes off of the page. Today, this method of “browsing” information via the world wide web is as natural to most westerners as breathing air, but in the ’80s, few had even conceived of the idea, much less thought of how to make it happen. Tim Berners-Lee was different.

In 1991 Berners-Lee produced the world’s first “web site”: essentially an explanation of the work Berners-Lee had done at CERN, instructions for how to use his new invention, and a growing list of web sites, all of which (including the technology responsible for making it happen) he offered for free to anyone who wanted to use them. Berners-Lee’s Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) provided a framework for creating, managing and interconnecting vast stores of data, and it was so simple that almost anyone could use it. Almost.

At the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, an undergraduate named Marc Andreessen was taking the next logical step. Working from Berners-Lee’s foundation, Andreessen developed a more user-friendly method for viewing pages constructed using HTML. He created Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers, and the first to run with Microsoft Windows. Andreessen then used his Mosaic technology to found a company (Netscape) and re-launched his pioneering web browser as The Netscape Navigator. Initially distributed for free, Navigator had finally made the internet’s store of knowledge readily available to anyone who could click a mouse. Images, text and soon even video and audio files were accessible via the internet by anyone anywhere. Navigator forced software behemoth Microsoft to develop its own browser, based on earlier versions of the Mosaic technology, which, when combined with Microsoft’s best-selling Windows 95 operating system, propelled the web into the mainstream consciousness practically overnight.

By the mid ’90s, Berners-Lee, Andreessen and Microsoft had made good on the promise of the information superhighway, developing a system by which an ordinary person, with little or no computer expertise, could browse the web, finding answers to questions they never knew they had and filling their days with the pursuit of nearly limitless knowledge. It was all, literally, just a click away, and the clicking hasn’t stopped since.

Those who owned computers and paid for accounts with internet service providers after the arrival of Navigator most likely spent the better part of their time sitting at a desk in front of a computer either A) designing and publishing web sites, B) browsing web sites created by others or C) both. What these innovators soon discovered was the joy to be found in sifting through nearly limitless information, and – by clicking a mouse – examining everything. A web site created by a man in Wisconsin to display pictures of his cats, for example, could contain a link to a site devoted to the making of bombs from household chemicals, which could (and usually did) lead to a site containing another person’s half-baked theories on every possible conspiracy since the dawn of time, which would eventually lead the user back to a bona fide (if misquoted) university source on the nature of all of the above.

The usefulness of the majority of this information aside, collecting and examining it became an activity of its own. Very few people would ever make their own bomb, but knowing how to do so was exciting. So was the idea that every bit of information contained in every library in every city of the world could one day be accessed with a web browser, then clicked and examined endlessly.

What is Your Quest?
By the mid 90’s, the web had become so thickly populated with data that an entirely new technology, the search engine, had become an indispensable tool to help ease the strain of this embarrassment of informational riches. The earliest search engines were merely web-based extensions of pre-web search technologies (programs like Archie and Gopher), but it wasn’t until the 1994 release of the aptly-named WebCrawler that the search engine as we know it today came into being. WebCrawler was one of the first engines able to search the entire text of an HTML document. To find a document anywhere on the web and literally “go” to that site, a user need only type a single word into Web Crawler’s text entry box. The answers to most questions and the solutions to most quests could be found, just like in the text adventure games of old.

With a foundation for creating, delivering and sifting through web content thus established, internet entrepreneurs then set about trying make money from this new invention. With so many eyeballs looking at so many screens, advertising soon swarmed the net like a plague of popup locusts, but the established commercial concerns immediately discovered that the denizens of this new virtual market were far more interested in conducting business with each other than with any large corporation.

Launched in 1995, eBay, the world’s first online auction house, provided a means by which two people on opposite ends of planet could buy and sell from each other without ever meeting in person or even seeing the item to be sold, or the money used to purchase it. It was the most radically innovative new use for web technology ever devised, and after only five years the site hosted more than 4 million auctions, generating over $300 million in revenue; all brought home by a company that doesn’t manufacture a single thing.

eBay makes its billions by charging a small fee for every item bought or sold, and its clientele consists of web travelers searching for a long-lost items, hard-to-find trinkets or powerful icons of cultural significance. Buyers need only enter a description of the item they seek, and eBay’s search engine helps them complete their quest, connecting them to a seller and providing the means by which the two can complete the transaction. It is simple, efficient and fun; possibly even addictive, fueling a secondary market for therapists specializing in online auction addiction recovery. Some of whom accept eBay’s PayPal as payment for their services.

Today, many people who’ve never even heard of adventure games nevertheless spend their every waking hour playing one. They seek lost treasures on eBay, play Flash-based mini-games when the boss isn’t looking, interact with characters from all over the world via instant messaging services, type search terms into Google to retrieve arcane lore and use email to collect and keep track of assignments.

The history of gaming is one of a continual lessening of demands upon the player; an ever-widening accessibility which has brought more and more players into the market, widened the scope of the media and moved the industry into a position rivaling that of Hollywood for “dollars spent” and “eyeballs served,” the watermarks of the language of advertising. While traces of the adventure games of the past can be found across the entire spectrum of gaming genres, the true inheritor of the crown is not really a game at all, but the web itself. Containing information, stories, puzzles and games and propelled by the simple mechanism of clicking and exploring, the web has become the single most successful form of entertainment in the world, played by gamers and non-gamers alike, most of whom use it every day. There are even old-fashioned stories there, too, if one should care to look for them.

Al Lowe’s hooker has, in other words, been supplanted by literally thousands more, each accessible with less frustration, interface-wise, and (graphically speaking), far more titillating. But after more than two decades of evolution, the magic formula remains the same.

Russ Pitts is an associate editor of and frequent contributor to The Escapist and is the host and producer of The Escapist‘s podcast, Escape Radio. Pitts is the former producer and head writer of TechTV’s The Screen Savers, and has played every game console ever made.

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