Like most genre names, the term “Adventure Game” is an unfortunate wreck. The genre is typified by gameplay where you WALK around, LOOK at STUFF, TAKE STUFF, and USE STUFF, which sounds more like a garage sale than an adventure. Meanwhile, platformers, shooters, brawlers, and roleplaying games (the latter of which has its own naming issues) are pretty much nonstop adventure. So the term “Adventure Games” generally refers to the genre of games that have less adventure than all the others. It’s enough to make me question the feasibility of pigeonholing gameplay mechanics in an ever-evolving hobby.
Sometime during the age of Rubik’s cubes and breakdancing, I encountered King’s Quest III and Leisure Suit Larry in the computer lab at school, and fell in love. (The latter was a lot more educational than most of the actual class material. The game isn’t nearly as dirty as its reputation warrants, and might even seem tame on broadcast television today. But the jokes and pop-culture references for the over-forty crowd gave me a look into a world I never knew existed. Who is Peter Fonda? The Chicago Seven? And what the heck IS a leisure suit, anyway?) Those games presented a chunky pixelated world where you could freely explore and experiment to solve puzzles. This was a radical new thing for me. Up until then, the games I played were plot-less, endlessly escalating reflex challenges designed to eat quarters.
Kings Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Gabriel Knight, Sam & Max, Monkey Island. Throughout the ’90s, these franchises were as much a fixture of gaming as Lara Croft, Metroid, and Sonic are now. And about as variable in terms of quality. The problem was that adventure games didn’t age well or evolve fast enough. Gamers were coming to realize that random “gotcha” deaths weren’t all that fun. And while everyone loves a good puzzle, not even the most die-hard adventure game fans enjoy getting stuck for six hours because they were typing “PUT MAYONNAISE ON MINOTAUR” instead of “USE MAYONNAISE WITH MINOTAUR.” And for those of us who loved games as a way to explore and see cool places, other genres came along that offered us a lot more cool stuff for a lot less hassle.
It wasn’t that the games were made poorly, it’s just that adventure game designers didn’t seem to be learning from past mistakes or reacting to what gamers wanted. They just cranked out one annoying gibberish puzzle after another, until gamers got sick of it and stopped buying them. And then people lamented that gamers were just too shallow and graphics-obsessed to enjoy a classic adventure game. As if “PUT SYRUP ON MUSTACHE” was the gaming equivalent of Charles Dickens.
The ’90s ended and so did the long, inglorious, self-inflicted death of adventure games. Years would pass between titles, and when one did show up it was usually a remake or re-release … like Tupac or Elvis coming out with a new album. I had started out as an adventure game fan, but by the time they gave up the ghost I’d pretty much stopped caring. It’s sad to see something die, but “it isn’t any dang fun” is a pretty good reason to stop making a game.
But then Telltale Games came along, dug up the corpse, sewed it back together, hooked up some electrodes, and jump-started the whole show again. If you were ever a fan of adventure games but abandoned them because you got sick of putting up with their crap, then I implore you to check out this new generation of hipper, sexier adventure games. (Not to say that the games are by themselves hip or sexy. We’re talking about pirates and talking dogs here.) You deserve to have some fun after solving all of those find-the-pixel puzzles, and the people at Telltale deserve the business for doing brilliant work in a risky market. These new adventure games are smarter, wittier, better looking, and more fun than their ancestors ever were. The key to their recent success is that instead of whining about how gamers are just a bunch of shoot-happy stupids who are easily distracted by bling-mapping, Telltale sat down and re-thought the entire genre. They figured out what made the games fun and they ripped out and re-designed everything else.
They figured out that these games are better consumed in bite-sized portions and that instead of charging $50 for a fifteen-hour game, people would rather pay $9 for a three-hour game. (And this is a really nice change from other developers, who are doing their best to make three-hour games and still expect us to pay fifty bucks for them.) They realized that unfair puzzles – while a great tool for selling hint guides – are actually a killjoy and so they did away with the acid-trip puzzle logic of the past. They realized that being stuck for too long can cause players to either turn to the internet or lose interest, so they added a built-in help system that can give you a nudge in the right direction without spoiling the game outright. They discovered that when the central source of entertainment comes in the form of verbal feedback, adventure games live or die based on the strength of their writing. So Telltale hired a bunch of smart, funny people with big imaginations and had them turn out page after page of solid gold material. And then they handed those pages to genuinely talented voice actors.
I’m bringing this up because their work doesn’t fit into the normal review cycle of gaming journalism. A season of games is released in monthly episodes, and who wants to review part of a game before the whole thing is out? What are we going to do, review one-fifth of a game every month for five months? Where would we find room for these Kayne & Lynch 3: Ugly Old Dudes Murder Lots Of People screenshots? And then when the series is done and Telltale is selling the whole thing at an outrageous discount, who wants to review six-month old content? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m saying magazines and websites haven’t adjusted to the idea yet, and so I think these games are getting a lot less attention than they deserve.
Sam & Max and Monkey Island are both classic ’90s adventure game franchises they’ve brought back. Strong Bad (and Homestar) are brilliant work, to the point where it feels like the characters really came into their own when they made the jump to videogame form. As if the website existed for all those years just so that it could someday serve as the setting for the game. Puzzle Agent is a charming Professor Layton-esque adventure. And they continue to tease us with rumors of a Back to the Future. And there’s also Wallace and Gromit, which is … okay I haven’t played it yet. But you get the idea. All of this comes from just one company.
Smart people are making cool stuff and selling it for cheap. Gaming needs more of this. Next time you’re playing another Space Marine shooter and wondering how your life became such a colorless wasteland of joyless mediocrity, give these guys a look.
Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. He’s never run any business ever and you should probably not rely on him for business advice. Use your head.