Why Adventure Game Design and Narratives Had to Evolve

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Adventure games are always going to hold a piece of my heart. I'm hardly the first or last indie developer to say and feel that, either: after all, it was my love of adventure games that led me on board with Himalaya Studios for the better part of a decade even after I swallowed the Kool-Aid that I had to kill my dream of going into games. This was because I happened to come of age when the industry was going through its awkward teenage years and adventure games were considered passé as far as large profitable studios were concerned. Long before the days of game design programs in school, industry recognition from state legislators, and indie developers becoming a serious force to reckon with.

Many die-hard adventure game purists think of them as the Sierra and LucasArts third-person point-and-click classics like King's Quest and Monkey Island but adventure games come in various forms. There's also the classic text adventure, first-person point-and-click, action adventure, adventure-RPG hybrid, and more new iterations and mash-ups that other indie developers are creating in secret as you read this. Adventure games have definitely evolved a lot since indies have risen up, with some fans really liking the new direction that the adventure genre has gone in and others longing for those twisty plots and building puzzles of olde.

But thinking about those classics that I and many of my compatriots grew up with which wound up inspiring the new breed of adventure games that tend to have heavier emphasis on the story, there's a reason that they've stuck with us after all these years.

Telling a Story the Player Actively Got Involved In

What made King's Quest stand out from other games that were coming out at the time was that you took control of a character and played out an actual story. Equally popular games at the time for other platforms like the NES were primarily based on reflexes and there was little to no story involved. If there were any narrative elements, they weren't centric to the gameplay or the premise of the game itself. Then for the countless licensed NES games based on popular movies of the era, the game was usually irrelevant to the source material like the infamously horrible Back to the Future Nintendo game. Where THAT was not only narrative-poor, but where the hell was the part with the bowling balls in the movie?!

Console gaming was just a totally different world from computer games, and while there's a little more overlap between the two nowadays the fanbases for both types of games frequently get confused as being one in the same. (Case in point, I frequently get weird looks when I pick up controllers at game expos because it's not as innate to me as using a mouse and keyboard.) Computers weren't as common in households just yet when classic consoles like the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis were at their peak, but they were a big enough niche that having storytelling eclipse graphics and overall gameplay was incredibly revolutionary at the time. Adventure games offered a more active experience than a book or movie, but were more passive than their reflex-based cousins in that you had to figure out a character's needs or motivations and potentially follow a backstory in order to proceed.

We fondly look back on those Sierra games despite their many design flaws like falling to your death off a set of stairs and having no second chances after you died, and the game being Unwinnable By Design if you forgot that one item or didn't push that one switch much farther back in the game. This was because we just hadn't seen anything like it and the production values were incredible for their time: all those hand-drawn backgrounds then with the advent of CD-ROM drives and SoundBlaster cards, professional voice actors who would take all those long and rich narrations and dialog to a whole new level. LucasFilm followed suit with the Monkey Island series as well as Day of the TentacleFull Throttle, and other adventure games that are still so revered to this day because the premises were often the same with a linear story but no deaths or dead-ends.

A notable exception is Indiana Jones: Fate of Atlantis which not only presented you with multiple gameplay paths long before they became more widespread and expected, but it blew our minds in terms of the quality for a licensed game and it was the only LucasFilm game WHERE YOU COULD DIE.

So, Sierra's and LucasFilm's classic gems left players wanting more. More characters, more agency from the characters, more intense puzzles, more memorable dialog, and more in-depth stories that weren't as linear. Other developers wanted to get in on the adventure action and gave us a mix of memorable epics and cult classics like Myst and Kingdom O'Magic respectively.

But the Clarion Call for More Was Answered Pretty Oddly

The mid-90s came and with more computers appearing in households and the pressure rising to keep on innovating, adventure games were about to reach an impasse. King's Quest VI blew our collective minds with its rich storytelling and multiple ways to solve puzzles and reach different endings, and people still analyze the ending of Monkey Island 2 to death. (I'm in the "It was all a fever dream" camp.) Design flaws and minor plot holes notwithstanding, adventure game junkies were getting their wishes until that pressure to innovate was being applied more to the technology and aesthetics of the game rather than the narratives, settings, characters, dialog, and story quality that were the primary things which led us to adventure games in the first place.

Early 3D was becoming in vogue and phased out the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and pixellated character sprites we'd come to expect in our adventure games. After all, there were cost considerations: producing 3D modeling and backgrounds was so much cheaper than 2D, even if the aesthetic was more blocky and utilitarian.

But who could forget full-motion video (FMV) which was mind-blowing at the time, but mostly reflected upon in amusement now?

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FMV games were being made for other platforms and consoles in addition to the ones adventure aficionados mostly remember like PhantasmagoriaHarvester, and Gabriel Knight II: The Beast WithinNight Trap still has a cult following to this day, and just like Phantasmagoria people likened to it to playing out a cheesy horror movie. Given the rising development costs that had to be meted out by cutting art down to 3D rigging for games that weren't taking up the FMV craze, the former was costing well into the millions to produce a single game. The Gabriel Knight series has the interesting distinction of using that classic Sierra style with modified interaction and dialog interfaces for the first game, FMV for the second game, and 3D for the third game in the series: the exemplary storytelling stuck with us all these years, along with some of the most gruesome game deaths ever. No amount of newfangled development tools could change that, but that's what was assumed when we wanted more.

So we mostly laughed at these FMV games that required more CDs than Black Sabbath's entire discography. Then had the saddening realization that the pixellated 2D beauty that was richer in story than special effects wouldn't return, the executives up above assumed that interest in adventure games was just plain done with. That we wanted new bragware to show off the latest hardware, rather than just enjoy a good story that got your emotions going rather than reflexes.

After all, from a cost standpoint, adventure games just didn't make as much sense business-wise as costs continued to spiral upward what with all that pressure to innovate instead of staying with the basics. You could reuse the same asset in an action game over and over again and not have to pay writers and voice actors nearly as much as you would for a story-driven and dialog-heavy game.

Interestingly, despite the interactive aspects, adventure games were seen as lacking in replay value compared to other types of games. This helped justify the industry largely forgetting about adventure games in favor of more profitable genres that took advantage of the newer hardware.

Indie Games Spurred Evolution and Subsequently, the Rebirth of the Point-and-Click Adventure

The whole adventure genre just became a curious oddity in the history of gaming's timeline between those awkward teenage years in the early aughts and when Himalaya (otherwise known as AGD Interactive) played a major role in resurrecting interest in point-and-click adventures which opened the floodgates for more indie developers to make original works made with Adventure Game Studio, Wintermute, and Unity to fanbases starving for more story-based gameplay where you had inventory and dialog puzzles opposed to missions and developing strategies. With the rich storytelling that was seen in indie adventure games like King's Quest II VGA+ and the early Blackwell games, people who were disinterested in what AAA development had to offer were opening their hearts, minds, and wallets.

Indie developers were creating what we initially wanted over a decade prior: the aesthetics could be the same pixels and hand-drawn backgrounds, or perhaps something entirely different, but we we wanted a more evolved storyline that wasn't riddled with plot holes. Characters that we could get to know and give us quotable dialog that would make its way across fandom pages and social media. Games that we could play with the whole family, as well as content more suitable for mature audiences that wasn't just sex and violence for the sake of it to get press.

In looking at adventure games that have come out in the past five years or so, The Cat Lady stands out as an example of actualizing wanting more. This game profoundly pulled no punches in its portrayals of depression and suicide ideation. The gritty aesthetics would've been a big no-no at major studios in the 90s, but they totally grow onto you as you play the game and flesh out the sepulchral and hard-hitting atmosphere and themes. But aesthetics aside, you're playing the game as a severely depressed 40-something woman with a heartbreaking backstory that unfolds. The story itself, and the way that it's told, are giving adventure gamers something they couldn't get when the industry changes began: and it still delivers on multiple endings and dialog choices that promise a great deal of replay value.

Daedalic's Deponia series also comes to mind in asking more of adventure games today, since it does more than provide some dialog and puzzle-based entertainment based on the raucous antics of Rufus and his mission to save Kuvac. Rufus undergoes serious character development in that he just wants to go to Elysium and take whatever he wants, including a woman named Goal, but then he genuinely comes to care for both her and the land he was dying to get away from. Deponia beautifully incorporates so many aspects of both classic and modern adventure games with its mix of puzzles and talking your way out of trouble, plus doing all those things to unlock every single Steam achievement like finding every platypus egg.

Much more is asked of adventure games nowadays. You can keep your aesthetics simple, but not the subject matter and/or storyline.

 

The monumental shifts and advancements in character and narrative design is the evolution we were seeking in adventure games all along. Technological evolution is nice, but it's not the heartbeat that kept adventure lovers going all this time. Perhaps adventure games will never push the envelope technologically like they once did in the 80s and 90s: but they definitely will when it comes to design and narrative quality and the expectations set.

We definitely need more diverse adventure games (and not just optic diversity, either.) More hard-hitting themes that players can relate to and were looking for portrayals of in media but couldn't find before, but also plenty of simpler but relatable characters in a more comical and entertaining setting. Making multiple endings that further complicates both the overall game design and the narrative may be expected, but you can still have a fairly linear storyline with multiple options to reach the same ending that provides plenty of replay value.

And even if replay value is low: does no one watch the same movie or TV episodes again to catch things they missed or just because they want to see a specific part?