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Quo vadis, Adventure?
Quo vadis, Adventure?The adventure is dead - long live the adventure. The genre with a long tradition seems to have stepped over the threshold into the new millennium only limpingly. While adventure gamers strolled through a land of milk and honey at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the source of (top-notch) titles has almost run dry in the meantime. Maybe it's the increasing boom of action games that has led to flagging interest in the more docile adventures. Or maybe it's simply the fact that there hasn't been a game that might come up to the likes of Day of the Tentacle for some time now. In the course of the past 20 years, adventure games have passed through several evolutionary stages that ensured the fans' enthusiasm only 10 years ago, but which leave people strangely cold nowadays. So where's the dent in adventure land?
Parser & blocky graphics:
King's QuestIn the beginning there was the word. When computer gaming was still in its infancy and even crude blocky graphics made you reel with exaltation, it was the written word that demanded the occasional gamer's full attention. Similar to an interactive novel, you could decide at certain points in the game which thread of the story you wanted to pursue or how to solve a puzzle. The magic word in this context was called "parser", a database comprised of words and phrases that enabled the game to react somewhat intelligently to the gamer's entries made via the keybord. Back then, the majority of text adventure classics were developed by designer legend Steve Meretzky and his guys at Infocom, making it to some renown with titles such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy or Planetfall in the early and mid-1980s. Roberta Williams took the next step on the evolutionary ladder and published the hugely successful King's Quest: Quest for the Crown (Sierra, 1984), the first graphics-based adventure ever that still required the parser technology to control the game. The same was true for the first part in the Police Quest series (Sierra, 1987), but at that point the technology had become seriously endangered.
Point & click:
Maniac MansionIt was in the very same year that Lucasfilm Games released Maniac Mansion, a cartoon-style game that introduced a modern point-and-click interface called SCUMM which could be easily and entirely controlled via the mouse (SCUMM = Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). By choosing from a list of verbs, you clicked on an object or a character in the gaming environment in order to trigger an action. Legendary compounded sentences such as "Use hamster with mircrowave" left their distinct mark on a whole era of adventure games. The consequence of this ground-breaking development was that from that point on any cultivated adventure game featured such posh mouse controls. Naturally, in particular the Lucasfilm adventures spearheaded that trend. In 1988, Zak McKracken and The Alien Mind Benders hit the shelves, followed by Indiana Jones III and The Last Crusade in 1989. Thanks to a high density of hilarious gags, one of the best adventures of all time saw the light of day in 1990, The Secret of Monkey Island. Adventure games experienced a surge in popularity due to Lucasfilms's efforts and almost any of the company's games dominated the sales charts for months. The one to blame for all these handling and gameplay innovations was Ron Gilbert, who left the (freshly dubbed) LucasArts Entertainment Company after the release of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge to found his own software label. Apart from the ingenious Indiana Jones IV and The Fate of Atlantis (1992) developed by film producer Hal Barwood, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman filled most of the gap Ron Gilbert had left. Schafer and Grossman, who had been with the company since the first Monkey Island, then created adventure landmarks such as Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max: Freelance Police - Hit the Road (both 1993). By the way, the latter didn't feature the familiar SCUMM interface any more but made use of a more abstract icon system.

Legend of KyrandiaIt goes without saying that LucasArts wasn't the only one around: In 1992, the British Revolution Studios published The Lure of the Temptress, followed by Dave Gibbon's namesake comic conversion Beneath a Steel Sky in 1995, making them a software house to be reckoned with. Also from the Isles shipped Adventure Soft's Simon the Sorcerer (1993) that introduced the charming but eccentric Simon as a hero who couldn't deny his Guybrush roots. Nevertheless, the game landed a substantial success and was awarded a likewise profitable successor in 1995 - Simon the Sorcerer 2: The Lion, the Wizard and the Wardrobe. Even the later real-time strategy specialist Westwood dared to enter the realm of adventuring with The Legend of Kyrandia (1992), featuring both wonderful graphics and sound effects but lacking a reasonable interface. Sierra, one of LucasArts's greatest competitors at that time, expanded their range of adventure games with the nice Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hoody (1992), as well as with various installments from the Police Quest, Larry and King's Quest series.
CD-ROMs und Rendergrafik:
MystIn 1993, the CD-ROM was able to establish itself as a new type of media for computer games, opening up undreamed-of possibilities with its 650 MB of storage capacity. Though it was LucasArts's action game Rebel Assault that turned out to be the CD-ROM's so-called "killing application", also adventures took advantage of the novel media. All of a sudden, it was in the developers's hands to create both lavishly rendered graphics for intro and in-game sequences and universal voice-overs for all characters appearing in a game. The first steps into a seemingly brighter future were taken by Trilobyte in 1993 by publishing the horror adventure The 7th Guest that featured gorgeous graphics and a sloppily designed gameplay. Drunk by euphoria and stimulus satiation in the face of these new CD-ROM games, developers indulged themselves in graphical orgies while forgetting to create a decent game around its graphical hull. With their somewhat sterile touch, rendered graphics alone didn't pass for a game, as impressive as they might have been at that time. Unimaginative and unassuming puzzles along with - to put it positively - innovative controls were ingredients that took some of the polish off the brave new adventure world away. But the greatest scourge were the hordes of lay actors who were suddenly let loose on the unassuming gamer (as e.g. in Sierra's Phantasmagoria (1995)). Even pixel characters had acted with more dignity than some of the self-proclaimed "actors" who weren't capable of turning a simple adventure into an interactive movie.

Broken SwordIt should be mentioned that there were a number of games that used the new wave of data to improve the adventure itself. In Electronic Arts's Little Big Adventure (1994), cute hero Twinsen saw the light of day and deftly mixed action and adventure elements. The most surprising smash hit was Broderbund's Myst (1993), one of the most successful games of all time. Myst abandoned any character interaction and made the gamer roam through clinically beautiful locations, always on the search for the underlying meaning of it all. Standing out among the rabble despite its symbiosis between actors and rendered graphics were both Woodworks Studios's The Riddle of Master Lu (1995) and Burst's Toonstruck (1996), the latter starring the experienced actor Christopher Lloyd who played in a psychedelically cartoon-like universe. The adventure medal in gold can rightly be bestowed upon Revolution Software, whose Broken Sword (1996) combined old adventure virtues such as a riveting story revolving around the myterious order of the Knights Templar, logic puzzles, peppered dialogues, and lavishly hand-drawn locations. Also the voice-overs came up to the ingenious graphics' high standards. Only one year later, the likewise motivating sequel Broken Sword 2 - The Smoking Mirror was released and showed how modern adventure games had to look like.
Quo vadis, Adventure?
Full ThrottleIn the mid-1990s, the crisis of the classical adventures deepened, in particular as games like Tomb Raider shifted the focus from simple puzzling to fast-paced 3D action. In 1995, LucasArts's Full Throttle had tried to do the splits between traditional 2D and novel 3D elements, but had sacrificed the wonted LucasArts puzzle quality for the sake of the "interactive road movie's" terrific presentation. Gradually, tiresome dialogues and hand-drawn 2D models lost their appeal, a fact that was at first met by crude 3D experiments such as Gremlin's Normality in 1996. However, the 3D barrier had been breached and from that point on 3D graphics became more and more obligatory. Adventure Soft's The Feeble Files (1997) and LucasArts's Grim Fandango (1998) proved that adventures in a pleasant 3D environment were feasible indeed. Another eye-catcher were the beautifully styled worlds of Blade Runner (Westwood, 1997). Classic 2D series finally went 3D such as the fourth installment of Monkey Island (2001), or the heavily delayed Simon 3D (2002) were far from flawless - the first had awkward keyboard controls and the latter killed some of the fun with hopelessly obsolete graphics.

Broken Sword 3In general, however, it's not due to outdated technologies that adventures are suffering from ever dwindling sales figures. More recent titles such as The Longest Journey (Funcom, 2001), Largo Winch (Ubi Soft, 2002), or the just published Runaway (Pendulo Studios, 2002) can score in every graphical respect. Across the genres, technology has made siginificant leaps towards perfection over the previous 20 years, but the core principles (talking, puzzling, combining) of adventure gaming have remaind almost unchanged. In an interview with Computer & Video Games, LucasArts's PR director Tom Sarris recently said that the players' preferences had changed towards more action-oriented titles. LucasArts intended to take this aspect into account for future adventure development, e.g. they plan to incorporate more diverting mini-games into upcoming Sam & Max 2. Whether the next Monkey Island or Grim Fandango installments will be designed in accordance to this policy, remains to be seen. What's for sure, however, is that Revolution Software have the most anticipated adventure up their sleeves - Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon. With the help of a brand-new 3D graphics engine and a plethora of fresh ideas, Charles Cecil and his team want to wake the entire adventure genre from its comatose slumber it fell into some years ago (read more on Charles Cecil's views on the game and the adventure genre in general in an interview with Adventure Gamers). If the first two installments are any indication, their efforts might very well be crowned by success, hopefully resulting in as strong an impetus as Baldur's Gate had on the role-playing genre. It is to be desired that things develop as positively as that for the fans of Guybrush, Simon, George Stobbart and Co.
© 11-22-2002 by CE