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AdventureDex: A Conversation about the State of the Adventure Genre

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AdventureDex: A Conversation about the State of the Adventure Genre

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Mon 9 September 2013, 12:49:30

Tags: Infamous Adventures; Mark Yohalem; Steven Alexander; Wormwood Studios

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Before we begin, why don't you tell us a bit about yourselves? What are your backgrounds, as gamers and as game developers? What games did you grow up playing? How did you get into game development?

Mark Yohalem:

The first game I ever played was Space Quarks on the Apple IIc. My grandfather -- a NASA engineer -- got us the computer, which we had hooked up to a black and white television. I think this was in 1983 or so, just when I first start having memories. The games I remember having an impact on me when I was really young are The Ancient Art of War on a friend's Macintosh, Contra on a friend's Nintendo, and Choplifter and Karateka on my Apple IIc. How can you not fall in love with, "High atop a craggy cliff . . ."? (Answer: because of that goddamn eagle, I suppose.) The only adventure game I played back in those days was a little bit of King's Quest II, again at a friend's house. I remember being completely nonplussed, even as a five year old, when the Batmobile came out of that witch's cave. And I definitely remember doing a lot of guess-the-word with the parser. I also played Dragon Warrior a fair bit; it was the only RPG my brother (who's a bit older) ever played, and we would trade off grinding up our levels. I distinctly remember coming home after a soccer game and finding out that he'd successfully found the fighter's ring in some dungeon, only to discover that the NPC who suggested we should find it merely dismissed it as a "wedding ring." So it goes.

At that age, even though I'm sure I wasted lots of time on computer and video games, the main game I played was something called the "narration game" -- a kind of no-rules, no-dice, no-paper P&P RPG where I would be the "narrator" and my brother and other neighborhood kids would play characters. I think I developed the idea prior to hearing about D&D or anything. Anyway, after a few years of that, I had the idea that maybe I could program the narration game (!) in BASIC (!!) by forcibly halting the Apple IIc's start-up (!!!). I didn't get very far, but that was the first time I tried making a game. Then, in fourth grade, I collaborated with a friend who was good a drawing, and together we tried to design Megaman 3. (This was before the real one came out.) We never got any farther than sketching up levels, but I'm pleased so say that I beat Capcom to the Magnetman punch. Around the same time I coded some rudimentary CYOA games in BASIC (still unable to save, since the Apple had no hard drive), and I wrote up a gamebook for a narration game that involved dice and stats and things. I'm assuming that I was copying from D&D at that point.

Anyway, that's all ancient history! The games that wound up having the main impact on me were the ones I played from like age 12 to age 20. That's when I got really into jRPGs (Shining in the Darkness, of all things, was my gateway game), strategy games (especially Blizzard's games but also the Warlords series), and -- to a somewhat lesser extent -- point-and-click adventure games. Games like Loom, Final Fantasy II and III, King's Quest V, and Warcraft II dominated my consciousness. Also, the SNES classics: Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Super C, super this, super that. As I got older, I got more into cRPGs -- Darksun: Shattered Lands was a first love, and Planescape Torment and Fallout remain among my defining games.

Anyway, during essentially the same time when playing games dominated my life, I was desperately trying to make an RPG, more or less a jRPG. I tried a variety of methods: BASIC, QuickBasic, LogoWriter (!), Unlimited Adventures, and Turbo Pascal, to name a few. Never had any success, whether going solo or working with others. I did manage to code a really fun Space Wars! clone, a couple of BBS doors (though they just ran locally in the school computer lab), a couple text adventures, an artillery game, and a first-person-shooter of sorts. I tried and failed several times to make a graphical adventure game with the help of a friend who was a bit better at coding.

When I was 20, I was hired -- for the extraordinary sum of $5,000 -- to write the story for a GameBoy Color jRPG called Infinity. (Unfortunately, the video only shows the start of the game -- where it really shined was the combat engine once you had the full four-character party.) The prior writer had flaked, and the composer for the project, Eric Hache, recommended me for the job because we'd worked together on one of my failed projects. (For those who weren't a part of the failed indie computer RPG project scene in the 90s and early 00s, Eric Hache was one of the great composers on such doomed efforts. You can listen to his stuff here.)

Infinity's story only took me three days to write, as it was basically something that had been bubbling in me for years -- whether it's better called a pastiche or a homage, it was very much inspired by the jRPGs I grew up playing. Anyway, out of guilt at being paid so much for so little effort, I wound up doing a lot of other things on the game (combat design, some map design, testing and balance, stuff like that). For a mix of stupid reasons, the game was never made, but I had my foot in the door.

After that, I did a bunch of other commercial projects: the story for a racing game made by Nikitova Games (never released, as far as I know); publicity fiction for Warlords IV (no idea why it's on this site and nowhere else); stories for TimeGate Studios (Kohan II, Axis & Allies, and some unreleased stuff); an origin story for Dragon Age: Origins (alas, to keep working for them, Bioware wanted me to move to Edmonton, which I couldn't do); and stories for S2 Games (Savage II, Heroes of Newerth, and some unreleased stuff).

Around the time when I decided that I'd done enough commercial work-for-hire stuff, I came across a writer-wanted ad on the Adventure Game Studios forum. Since a graphical adventure was one of those things I'd always wanted to make but had never been able to, this seemed like a golden opportunity. So Victor Pflug and I hooked up, and eventually we added James Spanos, and the three of us made Primordia, which WEG published. Since I've flogged Primordia endlessly here on the Codex, I probably don't need to say anything more about it now.

Steven Alexander:
Well, I grew up in the hallways of now extinct malls in Central New York State. I spent a lot of time in arcades with my older brother, and definitely cut my teeth on arcade classics like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Tron.... and lots of time playing my Atari 2600 - including my first adventure game, "Adventure" by Warren Robinette. I'd always fooled around with computers when I could - I learned LOGO on an Apple II as a child, and fooled around with my Dad's Macintosh (he got a very early model), but I remember most playing Sierra games on my Cousin's Apple IIgs - King's Quest, Space Quest and The Black Cauldron. I got my very own PC XT when I was about 11, and I bought my first adventure game, with money from mowing lawns - it was King's Quest IV. Space Quest III and Hero's Quest soon followed - and I spent most of my early teens in the 90's playing Sierra games - and LucasArts games. I sort of lost interest in them after King's Quest VII came out - and I later started college - but towards the end of my college career, I got The LucasArts Archives collection, and all the Sierra Collections to replace the games I'd lost! I found Grim Fandango around that time, too.

Getting into game development was kind of a fluke. I was a working musician for several years, playing local sessions, and doing some touring with my band - when I started to feel odd. Turns out, I had end-stage renal failure, and I was immediately put on dialysis and told I would require a transplant.

With the wind out of my sails, I spent a lot of time on the internet - and discovered AGS, where upon, possessing so much down time, I started to make games like the ones I loved as a kid. I met Shawn Mills (Klytos) on the forums there, and together we started Infamous Adventures, as a way to make our great idea of a game - Quest For Infamy! We soon realized that project was out of our depth at the time, but we thought we could hone our skills by doing a remake - Tierra (AGDI) had done King's Quest I and II already, and we thought it would be cool to give the fans King's Quest III. A little over two years later, we released our first game. We continued on by making Space Quest 2.

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On the left, Karateka and its stupid, stupid bird. On the right, the wannabe Disney cartoon called King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride.

Mark Yohalem:
I also jumped off the King's Quest wagon at KQVII. I'm sure we weren't the only ones. Something to ponder: do you think that for some gamers, KQVII hit at exactly the right age such that it's their favorite game in the series and a childhood-defining moment? Because I'm skeptical that the earlier games hold up that well when you take adult nostalgia and childhood innocence out of the question. (KQIII had enough interesting things going on with it that perhaps there's something genuinely great about it, but I'm pretty sure that the po-faced tone of KQVI only worked because of our adolescence. By contrast, I'm confident that QFG and the Lucas games would hold up well today.) So are there millenials out there who swap stories about KQVII the way we could talk about typing fast enough to stake Dracula, or emptying the evil wizard's chamberpot, or shapeshifting against the villain of KQV?

Steven Alexander:
How could I forget Karateka! That STUPID, STUPID BIRD. GAH! I also got killed by the princess the first time I bear it. Gah!

I definitely think that for a younger set of adventure gamers, KQVII hits them as a favorite childhood memory. I mean, much like I can watch He-Man now, or even (god forbid) something like "The Smurfs and The Magic Flute" and feel a connection!

Definitely some games wouldn't hold up without Adult Nostalgia or Childhood Innocence, but me - I can't really separate them. It's all I know - it's how I formed my experiences. I mean, I still - as a 35 year old man - love playing the original AGI version of King's Quest I - it's just a hokey treasure hunt, really, and I can easily look at it like that. But damn if I can't remove the smile that crosses my face when I remember the kid who discovered the witch's candy house in the same game.

I've noted some millenials that talk about KQVII with reverence on our forums, and other adventure gaming forums. So, I really think it depends on your point of view. I mean, I grew up and developed WITH video games. My first adventure hero was a DOT who was chased by some weird looking Ducks! But, man, going in the castles in Adventure was amazing!!

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Broken Age, AKA Double Fine Adventure. Successfully Kickstarted itself, failed to kickstart a big budget adventure gaming renaissance.

As you know, crowdfunding is kind of a big deal these days. Unfortunately, it seems that adventure game crowdfunding campaigns have generally not been as successful as their RPG counterparts. Even though the genre had a strong start on Kickstarter with Double Fine Adventure, nobody else has really been able to strongly follow up on that success. If I'm not mistaken, the second most successful crowdfunding campaign for an adventure game was for the relatively "newschool" Dreamfall Chapters, which raised 1.5 million dollars. All the rest have gotten well under a million. In particular, the various "Sierra revival" Kickstarters haven't really done that well. What do you think are the reasons for that? Do you think there's still a chance that we'll see a big adventure game Kickstarter that outdoes Double Fine in the future?

Mark Yohalem:

Well, Steven's been through the process, so he'll know better than I do, but I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your question.

There are really four big-ticket cRPGs (Torment at 4.1M, Eternity at 4M, Wasteland at 2.9M, and Shadowrun at 1.8M) and four big-ticket adventure game (Broken Age at 3.3M, Homestuck Adventure at 2.5M, Dreamfall at 1.5M, and Armikrog at 1M). I'm not sure that that's such a poor showing on the part of adventure games. It's true that RPGs have done a bit better, but it's not a trouncing. Perhaps the difference is that the big-ticket cRPGs have trended upwards, while the opposite has been true of adventures.

I think there are a few possible explanations. To begin with, none of the major Sierra folks have done anything of note since the golden age of adventure games. (By contrast, DoubleFine had released the beloved Psychonauts.) So their "brand" has gotten a lot weaker in that sense. Also, while there is a golden age of cRPGs where everyone today says, "Wow, those were amazing games!" (take PS:T), the golden age of adventure games has lost some luster with time, particularly regarding Sierra (less so with Lucas Arts). (The Old Man Murray takedown of Gabriel Knight being an example of this.) So they come into the Kickstarter process with a lot less cachet.

Moreover, when these folks were at Sierra, they had remarkable creative freedom and huge budgets. And they all had the opportunity to make several games; in other words, they were all veterans working under close-to-ideal conditions. So I have no reason to think that the Sierra designers could have produced anything better than what they made at the peak of their success. And, frankly, there is considerable reason to think that what they would make now would be worse: most of them have gotten rusty, they've lost the support network of working at a vibrant studio, and they've lost the discipline of an excellent production team. By contrast, there are reasons to think that even at Black Isle Studio, conditions were not ideal for cRPG development. And the core folks at InXile and Obsidian have continued making games; it seems to me that they've gotten better, not worse. So there's an excitement in seeing what they can do without shackles. We might get something better than PS:T, whereas I don't think anyone imagines that the Coles will exceed the QFG series or that Broken Age will be better than Monkey Island.

From a larger perspective, I think it's important to realize that -- narrative of decline notwithstanding -- the cRPG genre has exploded in popularity since the 80s and 90s, while the adventure-game genre has dwindled considerably. While many new cRPG fans may like the faster-paced, more cinematic, and streamlined games ("dumbed down," in local parlance), surely some of them have gone back and played and enjoyed the old games, and other may never have played the old games, but have imbibed legends of how great they used to be. Thus, the base of potential donors must be much larger for cRPGs than it is for adventure games, even with the success of The Walking Dead.

Next -- and likely as a consequence of the cRPGs being pitched by people still in the industry and the adventure games being pitched by outsiders -- the pitches for the successful cRPGs were just way, way better.

Finally, one can't help but feel a little weird about the fact that the Sierra folks are asking for an order of magnitude more money than people like Steven have asked for, even though the games are roughly comparable. Now, $10 is $10, whether you pledge it to Infamous Adventures or the Coles. But it dampens enthusiasm a bit, I suspect, to see the Coles saying they need ten times as much money as these other guys do.

That said, look -- at the end of the day, the big name Sierra people each got about half a million bucks, despite having been gone from the industry for a while, despite have pretty thin pitches, and despite all the other factors I mentioned above. That's remarkable, isn't it? If you added up all the money pledged for adventure game Kickstarter projects, it is probably, what, $15M? For a genre that everyone said was dead!

As for your last question . . . no, I don't think Broken Age will ever be exceeded in funding by a traditional point-and-click. I'm not sure the project has "justified" its budget, and I can't imagine a more compelling pitch coming along. I suppose if Broken Age is a wonderful game and DoubleFine comes back asking for money to make a Psychonauts-themed point-and-click, that might go gangbusters. But otherwise, my guess is that we've seen peak funding.

Ah, my bad, I forgot about Homestuck. And yes, of course, I'm using a very particular definition of "success" here. I realize the amount of money the Sierra guys have pulled in would go a long way in the hands of you or Steven. On the other hand, this isn't just about money - it's also about the number of backers. And no adventure game has gotten anywhere near Double Fine's army of 87,000. Where did all those people go?

Mark Yohalem:

I would guess that they were either fans of Double Fine but not necessarily point-and-click diehards, or were fans of Lucas but not Sierra, or were simply unpersuaded that the Sierra projects were going to come out that well.

Incidentally, I realize I forgot about Precinct's lack of success -- so one Sierra veteran did flop. But Police Quest was always a strange beast, and its later iterations drifted far from traditional adventure gaming.

Steven Alexander:
Well, as Mark covered well, I think adventure games have had a really decent run on Kickstarter - I think the thing is many of the cRPGs have had better post-Kickstarter developments than many of the adventure game folks. I enjoy reading my updates for Wasteland, Project Eternity and Torment, for example - while we all know the debacle with Broken Age... and even Homestruck. These campaigns that have raised millions barely have anything to show for it, while take Phoenix Online, who raised about $30,000 for "Cognition". They' released, what, three episodes of their game now? They took the money their fans graciously donated, and really worked hard to get their game out. As Mark said, a lot of these adventure developers have not worked in years, and their developments are stuggling a bit as a result. Smaller groups like mine, or Himalaya Studios - we've been actively working, and working hard, for over a decade to keep the classic adventure gaming alive - we've never left. We have 10+ years of experience, in this market, of knowing what it takes and how to make and release games. That really means something. Though name recognizition will get you a lot - honestly, Tim Schafer had NO pitch to DoubleFine Adventure other than "I wanna make an old school adventure" BAM. Millions. Smaller groups, we really have to display what we've got. We took over six months to craft a fully playable demo, to show what kind of game we'd be making, we producer music, art, concepts, and had a clear goal for our game. I think some of the older, bigger names in the biz are used to not having to make a real impassioned pitch to get money to develop. But, we play a different ball game. We're hoping to sell more on the back end - as we didn't get 87,000 backers! (OH WOW) but maybe if we finish a game, some of those people will buy it and like it.

The recent failure of the Precinct, Jim Walls game, I think is indictative of the fact that the early buzz and hype about Kickstarted adventures is over. People backed a lot of projects last year, and many have yet to come out - and some don't even look poised to come out for another year, perhaps two. I think it makes them weary of a pitch that has a few screen shots, a short video, a blurb about the game, and several hand-drawn ideas for game mechanics (Which also looked a but like the Quick Time Events that seem to be pervading games these days). The niche core audience who loves Adventure Games and Kickstarter were wary about it - and one thing about Kickstarter is you, personally, the developer need to be out there - talking to the backers, the fans. You need to be in the comment section of the KS, honestly answering questions, and visiting forums to talk to people who might support your game. You can't just hand out the standard PR double-speak that pervades the industry today. Gamers, in the adventure niche, are much to smart and much too jaded for that. You can't talk down to them - you might make games, but honestly, they're your peers and your potential customers. You want to be involved with them as much as possible, and that means thinking outside the box - and not following the traditional models of PR and promotion. You're funding your game outside the box - using nontraditional funding methods demands that you try something else.

Now, Hero-U and SpaceVenture may have just squeaked by with around $500k (Hero-U got like $410k, I believe?) and they were heavily involved with their fans. In the grand-scheme of game making, that is not much of a budget - but if you want to make the game, and make the fans happy - you make it work. I know that either of us, with a $500k budget, could make a spectacular game! Several, maybe even!!

I think that it may take a couple years to see how this funding model works for everyone - if people release some good games that everyone loves, it may be a sustainable funding method! But right now, we just don't have enough games completed to see how it's working out. I, for my team's sake, hope our game is enjoyable and successful enough for us to produce our next game without relying on Kickstarter to fund our game! It's almost turned into a "pre-order" and "swag-emporium" as well, which isn't really the deal.

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Precinct. The first Sierra revival Kickstarter to fail to reach its funding goal.

Mark Yohalem:
Steven's point about the QTE stuff in Precinct is a good one. One thing that's striking is the degree to which the point-and-click revival games aren't really trading on our nostalgia for the point-and-click form itself. The most successful Sierra Kickstarter was the Leisure Suit Larry remastering (bringing in $655k!), which -- being essentially a high-res remake -- was the most faithful to the classics of the bunch. By contrast, Hero-U and Precinct aren't anything like the classic Sierra games whose memories they're invoking. SpaceVenture and Moebius are a bit closer, but their aesthetic is totally different from classic Sierra games. The projects feel quite a bit like a Marvel What If? comic with a premise like, "What if Jane Jensen were hired to make the next Heavy Rain?" or "What if the Coles wanted to make a successful iPad game?" Broken Age escaped this problem because everyone assumed (erroneously, as it turned out) that "DFA" would be a classic adventure game like Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island. A lot of people seem annoyed that it's not as retro as they expected. Some people seem to have the same reaction to the Dreamfall continuation.

Unlike the high-end adventure Kickstarters, the successful cRPG projects, particularly the top three, and most particularly the top two, are extraordinarily faithful to the classics: Project Eternity might as well be Baldur's Gate II and T:TON might as well be PS:T. Wasteland is a slightly different creature, but it is clearly backward looking in its inspirations and aspirations. In its design, Shadowrun is the least "retro" of the bunch, but visual aesthetic was not a modern one.

I wonder whether this might explain part of the difference in success rates: even though the adventure Kickstarters invoke famous designers' names, the games they're selling aren't the ones for which oldtimers feel nostalgia.

Steven Alexander:
Exactly - a lot of people rushed out to support their old heroes, but their old heroes weren't exactly delivering them the kinds of games that they loved. I'm all for a developer doing what their muse tells them to do - but when you're using other people's money, and those people are your fans, you give them what they want. In the case of Quest for Infamy, my muse told me to make a classic style point and click adventure - and that's exactly what we did! We didn't attract 87,000 backers, but we did get close to 1,700 people who were willing to support that, and to me, as a startup, that is a rousing success.

Mark Yohalem:
I'm going to push back a little on Steven's statement that "when you're using other people's money, and those people are your fans, you give them what they want."

I certainly think that if you take people's money -- whether from fans, publishers, customers, grant-writing agencies, whatever -- then you have to do your best to do whatever it is you promised to do. Sometimes those promises are explicit, and sometimes they're unspoken. If Double Fine had made a Tomb Raider style game and declared that it was an "action adventure," that would have been a breach of their promise. And, perhaps by promising a "classic" adventure they boxed themselves in and have broken the promise.

But set that aside for a moment because I'm not sure that's exactly Steven's point. I think Steven is talking about the moral obligation that exists between a creator and his or her fans, and I do think such an obligation exists. You need to treat your fans with respect and be mindful of their pleasure in your creation; in other words, I don't think it's appropriate for a creator to say, "It's my game [or movie or book or whatever], if you don't like it, screw you." I really do think, for example, George Lucas had a moral obligation to husband the Star Wars universe well.

But treating your fans with respect sometimes means not giving them what they want. Perhaps this is paternalistic, but I think fans -- and I include myself in fandom here -- don't always understand exactly why they love something, so the very things they want from it can destroy what they love. The phenomenon of "Mary Sue" characters is driven as much by fan-service as by author-service. Endless sequels that degrade a work are often in response to fan demands. Fan fiction is often terrible -- I say this as someone whose first successful work for public consumption was fan fiction, and was terrible -- not necessarily because the writing is bad on a technical or stylistic level, but because what fans want (romances between every popular male and female character, displays of outlandish bad-assery from every anti-hero, and so on) is often terrible.

In that sense, I would say that a creator has an obligation to create what he thinks will enrich his fans' lives -- I know, Very Serious and Self-Important -- not just what they want. That's part of why I'm withholding judgement on Broken Age. It isn't what people wanted, but it might be something wonderful all the same, in which case, how much better that Double Fine surprise and delight us, rather than just pandering to our wants.

Steven Alexander:
That is a good point - "I would say that a creator has an obligation to create what he thinks will enrich his fans' lives". In fact, that's a great little bit there. Well said, man.

In regards to NOT giving them what they want, I like to play around with the established tropes of what people expect, but try and stay inside that box and shake it up a bit. Sometimes trying to stay within a parameter, but shaking it from there makes for something interesting. I think living in an age where there's almost no limits to things can actually stifle creativity. Hah, it's the same reason why parents set boundaries and limits for children. Great. I think I've declared that game designers are rampant children, hah!

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AdventureGamers.com, a major adventure gaming fansite. Probably not as hardcore as the Codex. But who is?

Although there's a large degree of overlap between RPG players and adventure game players, I must admit that I'm not very familiar with the various adventure gaming communities on the Internet. So, you can consider this a sociological inquiry of sorts. How would you compare the oldschool RPG and the oldschool adventure game fanbases? I have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things RPG fans look for in a game. What is that adventure game fans are looking for? Do they share the same amount of dissatisfaction with the state of the industry that you tend to find among RPG fans?

Mark Yohalem:

I'm not that familiar with the scene. Honestly, while I liked the classic adventure games when I was younger, I lost my taste for them over time. I was mixed but overall positive about The Longest Journey, which is probably the last major adventure game I enjoyed. After that, I haven't liked many, and I've never really paid much attention to the community, outside of AGS. Even with respect to AGS, I've been at most an occasional lurker.

The main exposure I've gotten, then, has been from people reacting to Primordia. Obviously, that's only a subset of the retro-adventure-gaming community. But what I've seen strongly suggests that there is much less yearning for the old games than there is among RPG fans. In my (highly biased) opinion, Primordia has pretty logical puzzles, a small number of repeatedly reused items, and very minimal pixel hunting. (Indeed, it's not "pixel" hunting at all, since the hotspots are all labeled when you move your mouse over them, with one exception.) Yet the major gripes about the game, even from people who really liked it, are about: (1) the low resolution; (2) the puzzle difficulty and frequency; (3) the quantity of items in the inventory (too many); and (4) the "pixel hunting."

It seems to me that what people liked about classic adventure games was the third-person perspective, the visuals, the tone, and the focus on story -- not so much the puzzles. For example, I've never heard any groundswell of rage about Dreamfall's lack of puzzles or tiny inventory in the same way RPG fans get angry about "dumbed down" cRPGs. (Interestingly, I do remember some measure of grousing about Sierra's move from text parsers to icons.)

I think it's important to realize that the classic adventure games were often the best-looking games on the market, and often the only games (setting aside jRPGs) with a strong focus on character-based stories. By contrast, classic RPGs looked pretty bad and had fairly thin stories. There were of course some really nice looking cRPGs, and by the SVGA era they got even better looking. But compare, say, Ultima VII (1992) with Monkey Island 2 (1991) or King's Quest VI (1992); Daggerfall (1997) with Full Throttle (1995); or Baldur's Gate (1998) with Monkey Island 3 (1997). In each instance, I think the adventure games fares better from a look-and-plot standpoint.

People who are mostly into look-and-plot -- which I'm positing describes more classic adventure game fans than classic RPG fans -- are actually quite well served by the current market. Games have gotten much more story-driven, the stories are much richer, and graphics and art design have gotten better and better. The only adventure game fans who are shafted by the current market are those who miss classic adventure game gameplay; but my experience with Primordia suggests this is actually a relatively small demographic even among those who loved classic adventure games.

That said, Steven actually knows the scene, and he may say I'm totally out to lunch.

Let me just add -- to the extent it sounds like I'm criticizing adventure game fans, I was much more of an adventure game fan during the golden age than I was a cRPG fan. Look-and-plot are hugely important to me; more than anything, those probably help chart the games that I really like, from Planescape: Torment to Freespace 2 to Sacrifice to Soul Reaver to Final Fantasy III to Dragonsphere to Out of this World, etc., etc. So when I say that adventure game fans might've cared more for look-and-plot than they did for gameplay, that's not meant as a criticism.

Steven Alexander:
Adventure game fans are a varied and fickle bunch! Some people love the in-depth stories of them - I know I loved the almost interactive cartoon/movie/story feel it had in my youth, but it was still it's own thing. Now that games CAN be an interactive cartoon or movie, I realize that the separation of those forms from video/computer games is so important! When adventure games crossed that line, I feel like some kind of magic was lost. We've talked earlier about King's Quest VII, and I definitely felt the disconnect then with that game. And it continued to spin out of what I found enjoyable at that point.

When I found AGS in 2001, I found a lot of people who appreciated that older aesthetic - where you could tell a story, have an interactive medium - but NOT have it be exactly like playing a cartoon. I think adventure games are at their best when they are their own thing - and not trying to masquerade as something else to try and build a bigger audience.

Of course, this also comes with an age divide - I was born in the late 70's, and I find that people my age (Early to mid-30's) appreciate this earlier form of gaming more, while younger and newer fans can really identify with newer games that I found to be wanting. But there are exceptions - one of my team members, James Broom (Broomie) was 14 when we founded our group! He was just an eager teenager, who loved the classic Sierra games because of his Dad.

I think old-school RPG fans and Adventure Game fans have a lot in common - more than they might realize! I know there's overlap, because Shawn and I are both old-school fans - Ultima, Wizardry and Zork are definitely in our favorites... as well as Baldur's Gate... Shawn loves Betryal at Krondor... There was this odd dichotemy of depth and simplicity in both classic cRPGs and adventure games, which I still find highly appealing - and with the success of games like Primordia, Gemini Rue and Resonance - it's obvious, at least for adventure games, that others are still feeling that too.

I also love that there's still arguments over which game is better, King's Quest V or VI, or Monkey Island 1 or 2 - or whether or not Monkey Island III is a classic or note, haha, we still argue over it. Some of us fight in a friendly way, but there are some serious folks out there that will seriously go at it about these things!

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Horatio Nullbuilt, a natural adventure game protagonist. For a given definition of "natural", anyway.
RPGs are known for the rich terminology that informs their underlying gameplay mechanics. In discussions, both fans and developers use terms like "encounters", "side quests", "skill checks", "choices and consequences", etc, to describe and reason about gameplay in a formal manner. In contrast, the underlying framework in adventure games (which means the puzzle design, I suppose) is not as easy for a layman to discern. The impression is that, compared to RPGs, adventure game design is more of an art than a science - more holistic and less amenable to analysis. To what degree would you say that impression is true? Could you reveal some of the design patterns and relevant terminology used by adventure game designers? Do you think fans should be more informed about the behind-the-scenes intricacies of adventure game design, or is it better that the man behind the curtain remain hidden, so to speak?

Mark Yohalem:

I agree with you that cRPGs have a richer terminology, though I wonder to what extent that is (1) simply taking terms that were developed in the P&P context and (2) otherwise a phenomenon that has developed in recent years. Like, it seems to me that the Codex basically invented the label "choice and consequences," or at least beat that drum so loudly and so often that it became a mainstream term. I don't remember hearing it back in the day.

Also, adventure games do have some terminology: "pixel hunting"; "inventory puzzles"; "dialogue puzzles"; "logic puzzles"; etc. They're perhaps less precise and less numerous, but those terms are used regularly by lay people.

In terms of the techniques I used, the best I can do is furnish this article I wrote for the escapist, "The Four Virtues of FreeCell." That's probably the closest I ever got to analyzing the issue. I also read a fair number of articles about puzzle design before starting Primordia -- if you Google "adventure game puzzle design" they should come up. They were somewhat useful.

This is perhaps a bit off-topic, but to me a major guiding principle in terms of how to integrate the puzzles and the story was: What kind of protagonist would solve adventure-game type puzzles, and what kind of puzzles would the protagonist solve? Which is to say, you need a protagonist who will pick up a bunch of junk and fiddle around with it. But even if you come up with a good adventure-game-puzzle-solving protagonist (in our case, a scavenging engineer; in the case of Space Quest, a janitor), there will still be some kinds of puzzles he or she won't solve, and some kinds of solutions that don't make sense. For Horatio, it meant he couldn't take private property and he generally couldn't use violent force. I always get frustrated when adventure games give me a protagonist who either should be able to take a more direct approach (like the tough-as-nails protagonist of Gemini Rue, who still has to do all the adventure game tropes) or who would never go around vacuuming up trash everywhere. It creates an unnecessary friction between game and plot.

Steven Alexander:
You know, sometimes people forget that there is science in art - heh.

I probably use adventure game terminology a lot, but I rarely realize it. Plus, with Quest For Infamy, it's an adventure RPG hybrid - so we have encounters, side-quests and other such things - in addition to the usual adventure game tropes - "item hunts","conversation puzzles","logic puzzles", etc.

For me, I just try to service the story using what we need to tell it, but also provide an interactive experience. We make retro style games, so yes - there are some pixel hunts, though we try to approach those a bit differently, and spin it on it's head and make it a part of the experience. Often we'll load a situation like that with humor to address that trope, while still having it in the game, as a complete nod to classic adventure gaming.

For me, the framework of an adventure game - well, I lay it out in a flowchart. I find that helps you decide the flow of the game - and I've tried to design events in a non-linear way, when I can. There will always be the overall story arc, of course, but there are several events you can complete in Quest For Infamy in any order that you want - and while criss-crossing some activities, they can be completed in different ways. Say in Quest #1, you accomplish a task, and interact with a character - in Quest #2 that character can be useful, or offer up some information. But you may do Quest #2 first, and that character doesn't know to help or interact with you.... I've gone cross-eyed.

I have to admit, I'm not much of an analyst about how things work - I feel if you break things down too much and become too mercurial about how you build and create something, you lose a bit of that edge and heart. It feels too rigid - and sometimes the most wonderful things happen when you improvise and break the rules. So, as a developer, I do rely on outside opinions after I create something - people will test the game, and tell me if it worked or not. It's funny, people often use the term "Thinking outside the box" to describe what they do, but "thinking outside the box" has become it's own trope, with it's own rules and limits. It's amusing to me that even being "different" or "alternative" now has so developed into something with it's own set of rules, heh. I digress, though.

I'd like to expand on the previous question a bit. You see, I have a particular interest in aspects of game design as they relate to the player's sense of pacing - something which is particularly important in story-driven genres like adventure games. Now, what exactly constitutes "good pacing" can be hard to define, but I think we all recognize bad pacing when we see it. For example, I believe the final stretch of Sam & Max Hit The Road received some complaints about this. Just as the villains were defeated and the story seemed to enter its final act, you were suddenly sent wandering across the world again to solve more puzzles and collect more items.

So, I guess what I'm interested in here is how you design your games to account for that sort of thing. Where and when is it appropriate to use what puzzles, so as not to disturb the game's pacing? This ties into puzzle difficulty, of course, and also to what you might call "puzzle locality" - the radius of the exploration the player needs to undertake to solve a particular puzzle. When should you use scavenger hunt type puzzles that require items from across the world, and when should you use puzzles that can be solved locally, without the player needing to have solved other puzzles beforehand? And then there's the issue of density and repetition. How "puzzle-dense" should individual areas in the game be, and how often should a player be expected to revisit them?

Mark Yohalem:

Well, Primordia was pretty roundly criticized on this score -- in terms of the pacing of the end game (too abrupt) and the density of the puzzles (too dense) and the difficulty of the puzzles (too hard) -- so I'm a dubious adviser.

Let me start by saying that puzzles are integral to the game's pacing. An adventure game is not a cartoon interrupted by puzzles. If that were the case, then the question of how to use puzzles relative to the game's pacing would go something like this: "Is this a good point to stop the narrative with a puzzle because, for example, I want to drag out the tension of what lies behind the door? Or would I ruin the story's excitement by putting a puzzle here?" That is inevitably part of the reasoning, but that's mostly because -- as I said earlier -- most puzzle design (including my own) is not very good.

In a really good game, the puzzles don't interrupt the narrative pacing at all because different kinds of puzzles are used that accommodate different paces. In other words, to the extent an adventure starts with a story to tell (which generally they do), a really good adventure figures out a way to tell that story through puzzles, not in spite of them.

Let me give three concrete examples. The ending of Monkey Island 2 is, as I've said earlier, the best finale puzzle in any adventure game ever. There are three reasons for that, two of which aren't really germane here (first, it's a culmination of a series of puzzle-solving skills the player has developed throughout the game; second, it's an opportunity to directly fight the boss through a puzzle). The relevant quality of the puzzle is how it works with the game's pacing: the puzzle doesn't stop things at all. LeChuck chases you around, and if he catches you, inflicts so much pain on you that you're (through some mumbojumbo) teleported elsewhere in the final area. Because this can constitute a setback in your puzzle solving, there's a large incentive not to get caught. So the player's experience and Guybrush's experience are simpatico: both are desperately trying to avoid LeChuck. Because there's no death, there's also saving/reloading necessary, and the tension isn't ruined.* And because the player knows he has to go through the different rooms to find the necessary components for the new voodoo doll, the puzzle actually adds to the tension: you can't find a spot to hide, you have to keep moving. The player's need to frantically scan the environment to find items makes even the hotspot-searching aspect of the puzzle a complement to the pacing: the player's eyes, like Guybrush's, are darting around looking for something, something to stop the ghost pirate. (* Amazing that in 2007, I called Age of Decadence a promising future game. Well, it's still promising, and the future is always one step ahead of us, I guess.)

Next, take the text adventure Anchorhead, in my view one of the finest out there. Anchorhead has some brilliant "research" puzzles, in which you're combing through old records, putting together clues, and slowly getting closer and closer to a necessary piece of information. Again, the mechanics of the puzzle are themselves what generate the pacing, and that pacing is a natural complement to the plot. The player gets frustrated because a line of research is a blind alley? Imagine how the character feels! (Actually, don't bother; no imagination is necessary.) Anchorhead also features a later puzzle in which the protagonist must hide from a monstrous adversary. As I recall, the solution requires finding the hiding spot, and then simply waiting (command shortcut is "z") until it departs. Inputting "z" or "wait" is part of the puzzle; doing anything else leads to failure. Here, again, there is an ongoing puzzle, and the puzzle is in no way at odds with the pacing.

The third example I would give is the famous babelfish puzzle in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; here, again, the puzzle is driving the narrative, not fighting it.

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On the left, Guybrush Threepwood applies his knowledge of voodoo in the ending to Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. On the right, Sam and Max climb up that damned ball of twine AGAIN.

Okay, with that giant preamble done, let me move to your specific questions. Before I do, though, one last bit of throat-clearing.

There are three legitimate kinds of puzzles: (1) puzzles that are fun in and of themselves (e.g., the puzzles in Portal); (2) puzzles that encourage the player to do something else that is fun (e.g., a hotspot-hunt "puzzle" that requires the player to scrutinize a scene full of clever visual elements, such as in the Where's Waldo? books); and (3) puzzles that advance the narrative by presenting an opportunity for a character to demonstrate some quality (e.g., having Horatio fix a broken machine in Primordia) or by causing the player's experience to echo the protagonist's experience (e.g., by sharing the character's frustration). What is never legitimate is a puzzle, or an aspect of a puzzle, that exists purely to pad out the game.

With that in mind, the question about "local" puzzles versus puzzles that require you to go elsewhere becomes pretty easy to answer. Generally speaking, asking the player to backtrack is a bad idea: there's nothing inherently fun about walking in an adventure game, if you've already seen the rooms before there's nothing fun about being asked to walk through them again, and -- typically -- the plot doesn't compel (or necessarily benefit from) a puzzle where the lock and key are located a long way apart. Yet the funny thing is, puzzle designers will often stick the lock and the key as far apart from each other as possible even when it hurts the plot. In the basement is a birdcage bolted to the floor; in the cage is a parrot; the key to the cage is in the attic; when freed, the parrot clearly wants to be returned to nature; the only window is in the attic; when released out the window, the parrot tells you the magic words to open the secret passage in the basement; in the seret passage you discover a solar powered calculator; the only sunlight enters through the attic window, etc., etc. The Longest Journey is shameless about this long-distance ping-pong design. Such design is inexcusable though not inexplicable ("The puzzle is too easy as is; at least make the player work for it!" "There's hardly any gameplay; at least give the player something to do!").

In Primordia, we generally tried to keep the puzzle solutions as close together as logic would bear. We had a sense of what areas we wanted, and the items you collected were generally where they ought to be. Where movement between areas was required, we simply allowed for fast travel. Wherever possible, we tried to make sure that the majority of time with puzzles was spent figuring out the puzzle rather than either (1) looking for solvable puzzles or (2) implementing a solution once you've figured it out. I talked about that a bit in "The Four Virtues of FreeCell." Insisting on making players very slowly drag blocks into place or whatever is totally silly. Unless you're trying to dramatize for the player how shitty the protagonist's life is.

There are, however, reasons not to have all puzzles local. Several reasons. One is that the idea design is one in which the player has a lot of different puzzles all going on at once, so that if he's stumped on one he can turn to another. Having some geographic separation between the puzzles helps the player mentally focus on the one in front of him. Also, puzzle diversity is often helped by geographic diversity. There are only so many puzzles that a single area can logically bear; and only so many items that can logically be found in a single area. Sometimes you can't really logically have the "lock" and the "key" in the same room; spacing them out helps the plot and coherency of the game. That's especially true for complex puzzles that aren't just "use X on Y." Finally, separating locks and keys can help make the game world more cohesive by building relationships between the different areas.

I should also add that to the extent that a "lock" and a "key" are going to be geographically separate, a good puzzle typically should require backtracking because -- as Ron Gilbert explained -- it works much better when the player sees the lock before he gets the key, that way he has a reason for wanting the key in the first place other than merely the fact that it's there and can be taken. My main objection isn't necessarily spacing things out, then, it's spacing things out too far without any good reason.

In terms of density, I think it's good to have a relatively high density of easy puzzles. A random analogy follows. To get onto this journal I worked for in law school, there was a week-long competition. Part of the competition involved editing an article by hand. Applicants were given one copy of the article. Anyone who was the least bit savvy knew that the first thing you should do is make a photocopy of the article; with one copy, you could do whatever with your chicken scratch and notes to yourself. Then you would reduce that to a final clean copy, which you would submit. Anyway, a question arose whether we should just give applicants two copies. Various arguments were made. But one of my colleagues made the most perceptive one for not giving them two copies. At the point when you received the packet of competition materials, you were inevitably paralyzed with stress. Getting onto the journal was a big deal, and the competition was sprawling and complicated. But there was immediately one thing you could do, and do right: copy the article to edit. It didn't take much time, and it got you over your initial paralysis. Once you had the copy made, diving into the substantive work seemed much easier.

The same is true, I think of easy puzzles in adventure games. It's very easy to get stumped by hard puzzles, and to get discouraged by a lack of success. But if easy puzzles surround the hard puzzles, a player is kept from collapsing into paralyzing despair. The player is constantly told, "No, no, you're not an idiot. Look! You just found that lantern on the shelf! And look, you just fitted together those two pieces of the broken amulet. Oh, and fancy that, the amulet matches the impression on the door. Who would have thought? Why you, brilliant player, you thought of it! Now, about that Tower of Hanoi . . . ."

The lesson I've learned from Primordia, though, is that these easy puzzles generally shouldn't limit your ability to enter new areas. Primordia was rightly derided for stopping your geographic progress every screen with some new obstacle. Many of those obstacles (like the sparking cable by the crash site) were stupidly easy to overcome. But they still contributed to a feeling of claustrophobia and a sense that the game was nagging: I can't go anywhere without the game shoving something right in my face and insisting that I do it right now. So my instinct would be to have multi-part simple puzzles that culminate in overcoming a particular obstacle, rather than having single-part puzzles embodied in a series of obstacles.

Even with that in mind, I think Primordia's puzzle depth was too intense. Adventure games have a rhythm to them. There's exploration, dialogue, cutscenes, item collection, item combination, "use X on Y" puzzles, and more complicated logic puzzles. The exploration and, to a lesser extent, dialogue and item collection is "quiet time." Music (even heavy metal!) and movies (even summer blockbusters!) need quiet time, or they become exhausting and overwhelming. The same is true of adventure games. The player needs to sometimes feel like no demands are being made on him, and I don't think we ever quite achieved that in Primordia. There were just too few areas (my fault -- I kept insisting that fewer, denser areas was better) and too many puzzles.

On repetition, while I think backtracking is generally bad, I think having multiple puzzles solved the same way can be quite good, especially if you can make the solutions variations on each other. There's a small puzzle in Primordia where you transmit a code to achieve a familiar effect by using the same code "logic" that you employed earlier. It's no LeChuck voodoo doll, but it's the same idea. Likewise, many puzzles in Primordia are resolved by use of the plasma torch, but that is thematically significant: heroes are often defined by their tools (take Batman, Indiana Jones, or Gordon Freeman), so developing the usefulness of the tool often helps develop the character. The "tool" here can be an item (like the plasma torch) or a special power (as in Loom) or even an argumentative technique (as in The Shivah).

Blah. I can't believe I just wrote that much.

Steven Alexander:
You know, puzzles are part of the game - if they weren't, we'd just be making animated movies,really, or interactive -choose-your-own-adventure books. But making a puzzle feel part of the game - making it feel like part of the storytelling, well, that's a not so subtle and easy path. I guess I like to try to fill the classic tropes, as I'm making the game for gamers, but I also like to have it fit in with my story. In the end, I try not to over think it too hard, and let it flow "organically" as people say. Though sometimes, it's all about revision - your original idea may go through several iterations from conception, to implementation and programming. I just recently had a puzzle change in game - my original thought proved far too complex to program, and the portion of it that required that wasn't really necessary, so I cut it - changed, and simplified it.

Backtracking, I truly believe, is a necessity of adventure games - exploring and finding something later that helps with something earlier, that LEADS to something later... that's what it's all about.

You do have to know where to place them, and when to follow the established traditions in story-telling. The three act structure of a traditional screenplay helps you keep an eye on things - the ending of Sam and Max, as you said, gives you kind of a fling out there after you thought the story was done.

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Quest for Glory, an "adventure game with stats". Doesn't have much choice and consequence. Still better than most RPGs.

On the Codex, RPGs that are perceived as being insufficiently complex, deep or non-linear are sometimes derisively called "adventure games with stats". Genre snobbery aside, RPGs and adventures do share many similarities, especially since the late 90s, when the former started becoming increasingly focused on characterization and storytelling. Considering how notoriously difficult it is to define what an RPG actually is, this might very well be a trick question, but I have to ask - what would you say are the essential differences between adventure games and RPGs? Where do you draw the line between the two genres?

Mark Yohalem:

I've always found that line of rhetoric silly. I know I was involved in a debate about it in the Codex forums years and years ago -- under one of my older accounts -- and basically made the following argument.

(1) Rely on convention: people tend to do a pretty good job of calling some things adventure games and some things RPGs, and we should just defer to common usage.

(2) Rely on ancestry: if a game is traceable to Dungeon or dnd, it's a cRPG; if it's traceable to Colossal Cave, it's an adventure game.

(3) Rely on key features: if a game has most of the following -- hit points, currency, skill points, experience points, combat, party -- then it's a cRPG; if a game has lots of inventory or logic puzzles and has a story but does not have most of the preceding things, then it's an adventure game. You might also say that adventure games are often from a non-isometric third person perspective, while cRPGs almost never are; cRPGs are often from a third-person isometric perspective or a top-down perspective, while adventure games almost never are. (And yes, obviously there are exceptions like Sanitarium.)

A lot of people got indignant and argued that cRPGs are defined by "choice and consequence," but that seems quite wrong to me. An adventure game is not "a cRPG I don't like." A cRPG you don't like is a cRPG you don't like. Debates about whether something is good or bad should be fought over substance, not nomenclature, and it's especially ill-advised to try to change a term from its well-established usage in order to exile something you don't like.

Obviously Quest for Glory presents a hard case; so do some of the older games featured on the CRPG Addict blog. But I don't think we should stress that much about it. By contrast, the normative definitions (like "it has C&C") lead to absurd scenarios where almost every cRPG for the first two decades of the genre is no longer a cRPG, as is almost every console RPG -- which almost everyone in the world considers. There's a point at which, "He's no true Scotsman" runs out of steam.

I guess my shortest and most annoying answer would be that cRPG gameplay is mostly about combat and adventure gameplay is mostly about puzzle-solving.

Steven Alexander:
The difference between RPGs and Adventure Games is Nerds vs. Geeks. Haha, I'm kidding - well, I mean for one, your typical adventure game doesn't have a character that uses statistical data to influence its tasks. And this comes from the world of table top Role Playing Games - Mark really covered the idea of origin well, as far as computer games go, I think he's spot on with the origins. For instance, King Graham or Guybrush Threepwood are just two characters - in programming code, there's never a "check" to see if you can accomplish a task. In RPGs, sometimes with tasks, a check is made to see if a character can do this. And with RPGs, there are encounters with enemies - and your statistical data comes heavily into play. This is also where leveling up and stat grinding can come into play - and this is often the most contentious of areas in RPGs. Some people love to stat grind, and others find it tedious. For instance, on QFI recently, there is a point where you do have to do some simple stat grinding to be able to climb a tree... or a gate into town. We put this small bit of stat grinding into the game more as a wink and a nod to the trope, but I still have a couple of people on the team who absolutely HATE it! And it's minor! It literally takes 30 seconds out of your game! So pure adventure gamers really don't like that kind of stuff!

As for story, I used to find that RPGs stories were more sprawling and epic, but I think that gap closed in in the late 90's. Now you have adventure games with plots just as ambitious and epic - AND vice versa, you have some smaller, more personal RPG stories. So I like that the balance came and possibilities opened up. I'm very much of the thought that a story does not need to be "EPIC™" to be amazing. I think that is something people suffer from a lot, (Also, the trope of "Dark & Gritty™=Realistic) the notion that a story must be large, sprawling and world-re-defining to be of any value. There's a lot to be told in stories of all types, and the old maxim of "bigger isn't always better" applies here. Look at "To The Moon" for example - I think the story is much smaller and personal, and I really enjoyed it.

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Maniac Mansion, an early innovator in non-linearity, multiple solutions and C&C. Unfortunately, later LucasArts games would back away from its design philosophy.

Non-linearity, multiple solutions and choice & consequence are considered by many to be essential elements in any truly great RPG. Would you say that they're important in adventure games as well? How well have adventure games implemented these elements historically, and which games have done so particularly well?

Mark Yohalem:

Because I'm a pedantic and terrible person, I'm going to start by saying that the term "non-linearity" needs to be defined.

We need to begin from the premise that, from the player's perspective every game is "linear." This is an obvious point, but it's still worth making. (Or, anyway, I still like making it.)

When we say "non-linear," then, we don't mean that the playerexperiences the game as something other than a sequence of events; we mean that, at the outset, you cannot exactly say . . . what? Which order of events the player will experience? Or is it that you cannot say which events the player will experience? The two are not exactly the same.

To give an analogy, the latter kind of non-linearity is like a college student selecting his major: he has to pick one, but any one will do, and whichever he picks will get him to the end (i.e., graduation). The former kind of non-linearity is like satisfying the distributive requirements the college imposes: at some point you have to take science, math, English, and so forth, but the order is up to you. You just have to get them all done by the end. (Incidentally, this is a simplified account of how college works.)

You typically see both in an RPG, and the university analogy is kind of helpful, only it's like you keep going to university over and over again -- in other words, you have these periods of choice, but the choice always ends at the same point (graduation). If it's a good game, the choices matter for the next "university"; if it's a bad game, they don't matter at all. (Life as designed by Bioware: pick any liberal arts major and you have to go to law school or lose the game!)

Adventure games commonly let you pick the order of events, but they seldom let you pick among the events themselves. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of any adventure game that didn't give choice in the order of events, and I'm straining to think of many "traditional" adventure games that let you pick which events to do -- there are games like QFG or The Last Express or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis or Conquests of the Longbow, but those are the rare exceptions, right? The Sierra games generally did allow for a degree of event-picking insofar as there were little optional puzzles that could get you more points here and there, but they were generally pretty small.

I would also note that choosing events is not the same as choosing outcomes. For example, take Fallout and the Master: you can convince him to kill himself, or you stick dynamite on him (right?), or you can kill him in a gun-fight, but at the end of the day, dude's gotta die. There's a choice of event (i.e., you're choosing among a "dialogue" event, a "pickpocket" event, and a "combat" event -- I'm using event here loosely), but there's no choice of outcome. You can also have a choice of outcome without a choice of event: in Suikoden, after you beat various enemy generals, you can kill them or grant them clemency, but it doesn't change the gameplay (other than giving you another character in your roster).

For adventure games, I think it's essential to let players choose the order in which they play through the events. The reason why is that the "events" are puzzles, and the way most people's brains work is that they can get stuck on a puzzle, leave it for a while, and have an epiphany. So having multiple puzzles open at a given time means that a player doesn't just bang his head against a locked door; he goes to another door, picks it, and by the time he gets back to the first one, he's figured out how to unlock it, too.

Adventure games tend to do this kind of "non-linearity" extremely well, and the older the game, they better they do it. The "golden age" games all had many puzzles running at any given time.

Letting players pick events seems like less of a big deal to me. Choosing events in RPGs is intimately connected with defining your role, but adventure games tend not to really be about defining a role so much as inhabiting one. I think letting you choose events doesn't hurt, but it's a lot of extra content that many players won't notice one way or the other. Particularly now it seems like players are compelled to seek "ideal" solutions -- most players just save-scummed Primordia, even though it had no impossible scenarios.

In the ideal world, the more flexibility you give the player the better -- choosing which events, choosing the order of events, and choosing the resolution of events -- provided that you can maintain the integrity of the game. I would say that QFG is probably the best adventure game to do this, but it's not, of course, a pure adventure game.

What concerns me sometimes about "non-linearity" is that it sometimes leads people to treat the game's narrative as series of modules you can link together in any order, like those plastic things that my kids make chains out of (can't find a pic and can't figure out a good search term to pull one up). But that's a terrible kind of narrative. "The hero was called to adventure. He did a lot of things. Then he beat the last boss." The meat of the story is what happens at the "he did a lot of things" stage; each part should fit into the next, not because they're interchangeable parts but because they're a logical sequence. Really good game designers / writers -- and I don't pretend to be one -- have sometimes managed to have the "modules" dynamic enough that they change depending on the order you play them. But if you're not doing that, then you have to make sure that each "university" is a pretty short one, and then have each "graduation" serve to develop the beats of the characters and the narrative.

Whew!

Steven Alexander:
Well, you know, I think there were seeds of this early on, in adventure games, and that was coming more from LucasArts - I mean, Maniac Mansion had several different ways to do things. I always enjoyed that - I mean, games are going to have some kind of linear movement - you start the game, and you beat the game - what happens in the middle can be varied, but unless your game has, like, 8 honestly different endings (with different outcomes, enemies, goals, etc.) then the game is still pretty linear, at least in an overall sense.

I think, for me, Hero's Quest (Quest For Glory) was an early implementation of non-linearity, choice and consequence, etc.... it's an RPG/Adventure hybrid, so that's not surprising to me! Other adventure games didn't always have that kind of gaming mechanics - but I remember The Colonel's Bequest having that too - and that game did have several different endings; characters would react to you differently depending on how you acted, etc.

I think in modern adventure games, these mechanics have become important, as gamers have become more discerning and savvy - but there definitely is a contingent of gamers who are aging, and have a nostalgic eye towards games they played in their youth. I know I'm one of them, and that's the kind of niche I think we're filling - though, heh, there is a lot of non-linearity and choice & consequence kind of stuff in Quest For Infamy - though I try to keep it simple, and not be too convoluted.

Mark Yohalem:
I realize that despite all that rambling -- or perhaps because of it -- I never answered the multiple puzzle solutions question. It's obviously not required of good adventure games; interestingly, I think Lucas Arts adventures, which are much superior to Sierra adventures (setting aside QFG), almost universally lack multiple solutions (the Indiana Jones games being the clearest exception). Sierra games did sometimes have multiple solutions, but not often; typically the "solution" was actually a blind alley that made the game unwinnable.

Multiple solutions are great! They keep the player from getting frustrated and the make the game seem both richer and more fair. I wish more games utilized them more often.

Incidentally, aside from QFG -- which does all this non-linearity stuff fantastically well -- there are a few interactive fiction (i.e., text adventure) games that do a nice job of it. One small and very elegant one is Metamorphoses by Emily Short. A huge variety of puzzle solutions, with puzzles solvable in a variety of orders, a variety of consequential choices, and lots of endings.

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Punching out Biff in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I can still hear that music in my head...

Over the years, adventure games have occasionally been hybridized with other genres. Often the non-adventure ingredient in the mix was an RPG element, but sometimes other genres made an appearance as well. Sometimes the non-adventure element was well integrated throughout the game, other times it was nothing more than a minigame. Besides the obvious, ie, Quest for Glory, what other hybrid adventures have there been that pulled that off particularly well? Also, do you think there are any intrinsic advantages that a "pure" adventure game has over a hybridized game? Experiences that only a pure adventure can provide?

Mark Yohalem:

From the standpoint of gameplay alone, QFG is by far my favorite adventure game ever. So I think hybridizing works well, provided that it's done thoughtfully. One possible distinction I thought of trying to draw would be between "hybrids" (where the "foreign" gameplay matter is thoroughly integrated into the adventure) and "graftings" (where the "foreign" gameplay is just stuck onto the the adventure). But as I thought about it, it's actually quite difficult to figure out what counts as what.

Let me explain why I'm having a bit of trouble here. From very early on, adventure games -- though almost never Lucas Arts adventure games -- included gameplay elements that we might, now, call "foreign." For example, the early text adventures included resource management (such as torches with time limits) and occasional combat with stats (some of the Zorks, though the stats might have been behind the curtain, I can't remember); once you got to the early Sierra games, action sequences (such as staking Dracula in King's Quest II) or even manual-dexterity elements (such as walking down the mountain path in King's Quest III); action-arcade sequences weren't unheard of (in Space Quests, in Dynamix games, in the Indiana Jones games). These "foreign" elements are sufficiently common that it starts to get hard to say what is "foreign" and what is simply a rare but natural, even venerable, element of the genre.

I guess what I would say is that there's a relationship between story and gameplay in every genre, and maybe especially so in adventure games. If you're telling a story that cries out for shooting segments, or sword fights, or precarious climbing, or whatever, then your gameplay needs to accomodate that. If you did a Star Wars adventure game and didn't have a dogfight, a blaster shoot-out, or a light-saber duel, you'd be doing a real disservice to your players, who would come to the game rightly expecting that sort of thing. That's why Indiana Jones had to be able to punch people out (I guess? I never thought of him as a pugilist, to be honest) and why Full Throttle had to have a kind of lame Road-Rash-esque racing sequence.

At the same time, though, you have to balance two other concerns. First, don't be a jerk to your player base. If you're making an adventure game, you have to consider the fact that a large segment of your core audience doesn't like action sequences and is seeking out a more contemplative game experience. Is there a way that you can do "action" sequences that are, in fact, cerebral, even while conjuring the feel of action? (The insult swordfighting in Monkey Island is a good example of this.) Second, recognize that you're opening a can of worms. I pick on Gemini Rue a lot in this regard (it's so successful a game, I don't feel bad criticizing it!), but once you present a hardboiled protagonist with a gun and let him sometimes shoot some bad guys, you're trapping yourself: you either have to have a lame metagame "just bear with me" aspect of having your otherwise badass protagonist stuck doing lame adventure stuff, or you need to come up with plausible excuses in every interaction as to why the gun can't be used, or you need to actually, like, let people go gun-crazy (see Arcanum). Also, I would add -- the non-adventure segments should be fun. Dreamfall's fighting sequences were terrible; they would've been better handled as cutscenes, as lame as that would've been.

I think Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was a good hybrid; like my hypothetical Star Wars game, it had to be a hybrid, but my recollection is that the various aspects worked well. Dreamfall is a bad hybrid. (It's just a bad game, period, though; it's not like the adventure game aspects are fun.) The action sequences in Rise of the Dragon were poorly handled, I thought -- not terrible in and of themselves, but not great, and totally out of synch with the rest of the game (the rest of the game used a semi-realistic comic book style, while the action sequences looked like Genesis sprites).

The main advantages that a "pure" game seem to have are: (1) you don't have to design, program, and balance fun systems for handling the non-puzzle-solving stuff; (2) you avoid the "why can't I shoot him?" problem; and (3) you make sure that climactic parts of the game are handled using the tools that the player has relied on (e.g., his wits, his plasma torch, whatever) rather than falling back on some random action sequence (as was the case in Rise of the Dragon). Because once you have a cool subsystem for doing combats or racing or whatever, there's going to be a temptation for the finale to be resolved in that manner -- especially because adventure-game "boss battles" are hard to pull off. (Monkey Island 2 has an amazing one; King's Quest V isn't bad; otherwise, I'm hard pressed to think of any memorable ones.)

The upside of hybridizing is that it gives you more ways for the protagonist (and the player) to interact with the world, which breaks up the gameplay and offers more storytelling tools. And it seems to be a commercially successful technique: I don't think it's a coincidence that the best-selling WEG game relied on simplified adventure gaming coupled with action sequences, or that QFG-styled games are doing so well on Kickstarter.

Steven Alexander:
You know, going back - I'd say The Legend of Zelda was a hybrid action/adventure game. It's continued to do well in that kind of genre, and I really dig that. Though I haven't played the series much beyond Ocarina of Time, I will admit.

Adventure game crossed with simulation? Geez, again, I'm copping Nintendo, but Animal Crossing kind of does that - though it lacks a final goal, there is something almost adventure game-ish about it.

And, well, I feel like Grand Theft Auto IV was a big adventure game combined with SEVERAL genres - shoot em ups, driving, etc.... but there was a very adventure game like feel in it's non-linearity at some points; going on quests with and for different people, etc.

I do love a good hybrid game - Actraiser, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

You know, I can't really think of advantages a "pure" adventure has over another, I mean - I suppose its relevant to the player's taste and mood sometimes. Like, In The Secret of Monkey Island - I don't have to worry about leveling up Guybrush - and it definitely turned action sequences on their head with insult sword fighting. For me, I like both kinds of games - the "pure" adventure games and the "hybrid". I think playing them has their own unique set of challenges, and creating them also has it's own unique set of challenges. Infamous Quests hasn't announced anything yet, but we have another game in our pipe-line that has a lot of preliminary work done on it, and it's a straight adventure game, as compared to the RPG hybrid of QFI.

Ooh. Care to tell us anything more about that preliminary new game?

Steven Alexander:

Well, this one, like I said, it just another straight adventure - it's another retro classic style game. It's a straight up adventure, though, not a hybrid. I think it'll be fun for fans of games like King's Quest, Kyrandia, etc. We also have another game that's really only in the concept stages, but I'm excited about it. It's an investigative crime thriller set in "The Dirty South" of the United States - it has kind of a timeless feel to it; I'd like to think it could be set anytime in the past 40 years.

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Eric the Unready, one of Legend Entertainment's outstanding "graphical text adventures". Why haven't these games been rereleased on GOG.com yet??

Let's talk about text adventures, or "interactive fiction" as they've been called since they became hip. Nowadays, people tend to think about graphic adventures as a completely separate lineage that began at Sierra back in the early 80s. I wonder, though, if it was really that simple. Has there been any cross-pollination between text and graphic adventures over the years? In terms of design, how did text adventures influence graphic adventures when both genres were still young? Is there any relation between contemporary interactive fiction and graphic adventures today?

Steven Alexander:

Well, let's be honest - Mystery House - hell, any of Sierra's Hi-Res adventures, are just text adventures with some simple graphics. Of course there's been cross pollination over the years - but I feel like the text part of the adventures, commercially, waned in the late 90's. We're only seeing a kind of resurgence of the text part of adventure games recently. I think the text HAD to serve the games early on, as the graphics were simple. In early Sierra AGI games, you'd often have descriptions of actions instead of animations to show them - or the room descriptions enhanced the graphics and clued you in to what was supposed to be there.

I'm really not too up on contemporary interactive fiction, sadly - my experience lately has been with Cypher, by The Cabrera Brothers, which I think is fantastic.

Mark Yohalem:
Well, there definitely was a transitional period of graphical adventure games that nevertheless used text-adventure-type parsers and conventions, like Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur or Eric the Unready. In fact, in pulling these links, I discovered that MobyGames has an entire category devoted to such games: Interactive Fiction with Graphics. The most fully realized of this sort is probably Return to Zork.

It seems to me that the Myst-style of adventure games was the inheritor of the classic text-adventure model: there's a lot more tinkering and thinking and a lot less narrative, as compared to the third-person Sierra / Lucas / Revolution style point-and-clicks. But I'm not sure Myst-style games even get made any more.

In the third-person point-and-click context, one reliable trend has been narrowing: fewer rooms; fewer objects; fewer ways to interact with objects. As I mentioned earlier, I was stunned when people complained that Primordia had too many inventory items (I think it maxes out at thirteen or something, if you deliberately stockpile, but typically is never more than seven or eight, and often is as few as three or four) -- but then, compared to, say, Dreamfall (where you never have more than three items), it is a lot. But if you go back and look at the old games, like Zork, the game is overflowing with items. Likewise, there were dozens of ways to interact with things (push, pull, rub, hit, lick, throw, eat, pour, etc., etc., etc.). The parser Sierra games had many fewer objects and many fewer verbs; the verb-bar Sierra games had about the same number of objects as the parser ones, but with yet fewer verbs; and then King's Quest 7 -- along with games like The Longest Journey or Beneath a Steel Sky and so on -- have a single verb, and even fewer objects. By this point, the interfaces are so different, I don't think there's much that either can teach the other.

That said, for my money, I think the adventure games I've enjoyed the most in the past decade have been interactive fiction -- Metamorphoses, Spider & Web, Anchorhead, Babel, Photopia, Lost Pig . . . I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting, but I liked those more than pretty much anything else I played.

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Captain Guybrush and his not-so-helpful crew.

I'd like to share a pet observation of mine with you. I've noticed that a lot of classical adventure games were infused with a pervasive sense of "loneliness", for lack of a better term. The protagonist in these games was typically an outsider, all on his own in a fundamentally uncaring, even hostile world, exploring desolate environments and basically just trying to get by. The interesting thing about this pattern is that it didn't have anything to do with a game's mood or theme. Take the Secret of Monkey Island, for example. A hilarious game filled with hilarious characters, one where you couldn't even die - but it still fit the description to the letter! Guybrush was almost always alone, wandering semi-aimlessly through bleak environments (dark forests, desert islands, ramshackle pirate shantytowns) and trying to deal with the remarkably uncooperative characters he encountered. In contrast, modern adventure games seem to have more of a sense of "belonging". The protagonist tends to have a defined place in society, friends he can trust, and clear overarching objectives. What do you think? Am I on to something? I have a few theories about the origins of this trend myself, but I'm interested in your opinions on the matter.

Mark Yohalem:

Huh. I'd have to really think about it to see whether you're right or wrong. I haven't played enough modern adventure games to know for sure. A fair number of Lucas Arts games (Maniac Mansion, DOTT, Zak McKracken, and The Dig, off the top of my head) had multiple cooperative protagonists, in King's Quest V you had Cedric along with you, in the QFG series there were lots of cooperative NPCs, and in Gabriel Knight there was Grace Nakamura. Pets and companions were reasonably common in Text Adventures. Also, I think classic adventure games were pretty good about clear overarching goals; if anything, I would say they were better than contemporary games (if better is the right word), insofar as the ultimate goal was usually quite explicit at the start (recover the crown jewels, become a hero, become a pirate, stop the Purple Tentacle, whatever).

So I'm not 100% sure that your factual premise is right.

But, assuming it is, I would hazard that the explanation is simply that modern adventure games have moved away from puzzles and in the direction of stronger character-driven narratives. The need to have "remarkably uncooperative characters" because essentially everything you encountered was a puzzle, which is to say, an obstacle to overcome. That also called for a "hostile world" because the environments also needed to generate puzzles. Once you stop having puzzles and treat environments simply as corridors to move through before the next semi-interactive dialogue cutscene (ahem, Dreamfall), you can have friendly environments and friendly inhabitants of them.

As for the protagonist being an "insider" or an "outsider," I think that when you're telling a fantasy story -- and here I include science fiction, post-apocalyptic, comic books, whatever, any setting that is not either (a) the real world or (b) an intimately familiar world (like the early KQ's fable worlds) -- then it's much easier to have an outsider protagonist because it eases the cognitive dissonance between the player and a character. The player wants to ask, "What is that strange machine there?" If the character is an outsider, he'll ask it too. But if he's not, there's no reason for him to deliver exposition just for the player's sake. That's why we had Horatio been an outsider (an amnesiac outsider, at that!) -- it meant that he didn't know much more than the player did. (PS:T did the same thing; the more exotic the setting, the more pressure there is to use an outsider.)

Incidentally, while my preference is for old school adventures, I do think that modern interactive fiction has done really interesting things in moving out of the "combative" model of adventure gaming without simply becoming a semi-interactive cutscene. A game needs to have "meaningful doing" -- what you do matters, whether it's avoiding death by jumping on a goomba or opening a locked door by cracking a code. What modern IF has done is to make the "meaningful doing" basically a series of consequential choices without "halting" (i.e., being unable to go further until you figure out the right decision) or "losing" (i.e., ending the game if you make the wrong decision).

I'm not sure how viable this is for graphical adventure games, but I wouldn't necessarily be averse to it. What I don't like, though, is the modern trend of illusory choices (i.e., dialogue trees in which you wind up hitting every topic, or where all choices lead to the same conclusion, or "puzzles" that consist of simply using your only inventory item on the only hotspot) in lieu of "halting" and "losing." Such games may have "doing" but it's not "meaningful"; I might as well just be mashing the A button (or X button, or whatever controllers have now) to advance dialogue or combat in a jRPG.

Steven Alexander:
Well, heh, sorry it took me so long to get to this. You guys certainly had a good exchange on it! I get the loner syndrome - I mean, look at Wizard & Princess from Sierra - their early Hi-Red Adventures were certainly about the loner on the quest - and King's Quest really continued that. Graham was sent out alone by the King to go on his Quest. Roger Wilco was certainly alone in SQ's 1-3! I liked that aspect, now that I think about it. Loom? I know Bobbin interacted with a lot of people - but, like, he was ALONE! You got the parings and multiple character stuff from some games, in particular LucasArts with Maniac Mansion, Sam and Max... but even Full Throttle - Ben is seperated from the Pole Cats and has to find his way out of it.

I don't know, really, I guess it depends on the story teller. I think Gray Matter really tried to have the outsider, loner protagonist. I mean, I think the origins of having characters with more of a place in the world just came about in the mid-late 90's, as games got larger and there was literally more megabytes to devote to creating the space and characters of a world that the protagonist could exist in.


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Simon the Sorcerer (1993) vs Simon the Sorcerer 3D (2002). Why, God, why?

Here's a question from Zed. Starting from around the turn of the century, both mainstream RPGs and mainstream adventure games were forced to make the painful transition from 2D to 3D. In both cases, it was widely felt that something essential to the games' spirits was lost in the transition, and there was much outrage. Nowadays however, while 2D RPGs are still praised, the indie RPG scene has largely made its peace with 3D graphics and does not avoid using them. The indie adventure game scene, on the other hand, continues to eschew 3D for the most part. Why is that? Is it purely nostalgia, or are there practical reasons as well?

Mark Yohalem:
I think it's largely driven by the fact that the overwhelming majority of independent adventure games are made in AGS, which can't really handle real-time 3D. (There are actually a decent number of prerendered 3D AGS games, but they tend to look pretty unattractive -- a lot of Poser models with primary-color textures and no real lighting. As far as I know, none were ever commercial.)

Another factor is that the camera tends to be quite a bit closer in traditional adventure games than in traditional isometric RPGs, which means that you need more complex models and better textures. The fact that every room and every character is unique (typically) also means that you don't derive the same benefits that you get from 3D (or even 2D tiling and sprites) in RPGs, namely, the ability to recycle elements to expand the content.

Finally, I think a factor may be that there are just so few good 3D adventure games, including commercial ones, that it's not just a lack of nostalgia, it's a lack of familiarity. Even the highly selective cRPG players on the Codex play plenty of games involving prerendered 3D (the Fallouts, the IE games, Arcanum, TOEE) and even plenty involving real-time 3D (MOTB, V:TM:B, The Witcher, perhaps even a secret session with DA:O or Mass Effect). For less discerning players,all the cRPGs they've played for a decade have probably been 3D. By contrast, where are the good 3D adventure games? Grim Fandango we can agree on. Beyond that? The Longest Journey, I suppose, and Syberia. Perhaps some of the Telltale Games titles? Dreamfall, if you're a bad person? But not that many. And how many classic series were ruined with 3D? All of them?

I would guess that in the next decade we'll see indie adventure games shift to 3D once someone makes a good Unity adventure engine and once the next slate of 3D-centric adventure games comes out.

As a postscript, I'd note that there is a strong counter-example: the beautiful and successful 3D indie adventure game The Journey Down.

Steven Alexander:
For me, and for our group, we love the look the lower-res graphics. I think there's a challenge in taking a small amount of pixels and making them work and do complex things. Many people often assume that it's "easier" to make a low-res game or animations, and that just simply isn't true. I know that I really do not care for the look of 3D characters - even really, really well made ones just live in the Uncanny Valley for me, and I can't get into it. At least for realistic looking characters - more stylized and cartoonish looking characters can live really well in 3D... still, I played an adventure game recently that has a realistic style and uses models of characters that are supposed to look human, but I always felt like I was staring at a bunch of pod-people from Invasion of The Body Snatchers!

I guess I just haven't felt the connection to an adventure game with 3D in it the way I feel connections to the ones with hand-drawn and traditionally animated games. To me, there just feels like there was more of a human hand in it - articulating that feeling and that bond would take up screens and screens of text. For me, I make the games I do because it's what I want to see and play, and I know there's people out there that feel the same way. Maybe not everyone, but I think there's room in the gaming world for stylized, "old-school" looking games. I think some people are obsessed with 3D because it's "progress", but I really can't stand progress for progress sake, as it were. Some people still make films on 35mm film, and they use practical effects instead of filling the screen with CG. To me, this process is similar. I just think the notion that people have to, or should use 3D for their games (RPG, Adventure, Platformer or whatever) is just silly.

So, pure nostalgia or practical reasons? Probably a little bit of both - but it depends on the game maker. For me, the nostalgia definitely outweighs the practical reasons - I like making something that has a look and feel of an age gone past, while taking advantage of modern technical tools (and larger amounts of storage!) to make something that could be fun and enjoyable for a gamer, and maybe an alternative to the onslaught of stuff that all looks vaguely similar.


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Tex Murphy in The Pandora Directive. The Tex Murphy games are arguably the only FMV adventures that have stood the test of time.

In a pseudo-Spenglerian fashion, RPG fans often speak of different eras in the history of the genre. The early 90s Golden Age, the mid-90s slump, the late 90s "Silver Age" revival under Black Isle and BioWare, and so on. We all know what happened to adventure games in the 90s, but I was wondering if you could provide a broader historical overview of the different eras in the genre's history. What characterized each era, how did each era begin, and why did each era end?

Mark Yohalem:

Ah, I'd just be regurgitating Wikipedia or something if I tried to answer this in-depth. My own thinking has always been to divide it between text adventures, graphical games with text parsers, graphical games with verb icons, and the era that follower that (typically a single context-sensitive cursor). This works pretty well for Sierra games but it doesn't quite align with Lucas Arts.

What I call the "golden age" runs something like KQV to Grim Fandango -- so that's, what, like 1990 to 1998? Certainly there was more diversity and perhaps also more creativity in the 1980s, but I still think of the 1990s as the pinnacle.

I realize that historical account utterly ignores the FMV adventure game movement (The 7th Guest and Project Journeyman and Phantasmagoria and so on) and Myst and its progeny. I never really played those games, so they don't feature heavily in my consciousness.

Steven Alexander:
Yeah. Uh, I'm with you on FMV games... besides Tex Murphy, which I found weird and bizzare enough not to take itself too seriously, they make my skin crawl.

Early 80's - Text/Apple II adventure games. Mid 80's Parser and Text Games, Late 90's higher res, 16 color, advanced Text Parser...


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Brian Moriarty's Loom. Proof that easy games can be good?

Looking back at the history of the genre, who would you say were the most important and influential designers? Who was overrated, and who was underrated? Is there anybody you'd like to see making a comeback who hasn't already?

Mark Yohalem:

Oh, I have no idea. I mean "importance" and "influence" requires insider knowledge I lack. It seems like the Roberta and Ken Williams would have to be up there. Maybe adventure games would've gone the way they did even without King's Quest, but it does seem like it defined the parameters of graphical adventure games. Ron Gilbert for his early work at Lucas Arts. Going back further: William Crowther, for kicking the genre off with Colossal Cave; Steve Meretsky for pushing ambiance and narrative a bit more in the text adventure days (though was that really influential? who knows?); and certainly the original Zork team, none of whose names I would have known without looking at Wikipedia (Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Bruce Daniels, and Tim Anderson). Maybe Brian Moriarty for making the transition from text to graphics so successfully; but, again, does that make him important or influential? (Important enough to be mocked in Space Quest IV; that's something, right?) And the guys who made Myst (Robyn and Rand Miller), I guess.

Beyond that, I'd just be naming people who worked on games I liked. :)

Err, wait. I guess there is one thing I should mention, Graham Nelson. I'm not sure Graham's text adventures themselves had much influence, but he made the Inform system, which basically led to the "interactive fiction" renaissance. By the same token, perhaps Chris Jones, who made Adventure Game Studio (largely responsible for the indie point-and-click renaissance), and Dave Gilbert, whose successfully commercialization of AGS games has created a lot of opportunities for people.

I guess if there were one person I wish would come back, perhaps it's Brian Moriarty, just because I loved Loom. But since his shtick has always been easier-than-standard games, I'm terrified to think what he'd do when the standards are so low right now. :)

Steven Alexander:
Loom, to me, was just so beyond the beyond when it came out. I love the musical staff, too - I'm a musician too, so doing things with tone and sound... that was cool.

I was always influenced by the Sierra guys, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Jim Walls, Lori and Corey Cole - and, of course, The Two Guys From Andromeda (Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe). The fact that I've had regular conversations with Scott still kind of blows my mind, and makes the 12 year old fan boy in me go "No Way!!" But Scott's just a good dude, like the rest of us out there.

Again, also I'd say Ron Gilbert, Tim Schaefer, Brian Moriarity... Dave Grossman... I loved what these people did. I still do. Mark really mentioned all the greats, you know - I think Sierra really brought the idea of the "star" designer to light... people love those folks. I think goodwill of their names alone helped raise some Kickstarter money. (Though that doesn't always work).

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King's Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity. What is this I don't even.

I know this topic has been done to death on adventure gaming forums, but I have to ask. Do you have any insights on the decline and "death" of the adventure genre in the late 1990s? Why did it happen, who was responsible, could it have been prevented, and if so, how?

Mark Yohalem:

I gave my best answer to this in an interview I did with a Polish website, and the answer was this:

As in the book Murder on the Orient Express, I think the genre had several killers. A major one would be the increasing cost of production. Adventure games, more than perhaps any other kind of game, rely on hand-crafted content without a lot of reusable assets. As technology advanced, the cost of producing that content went up: you added voice over, higher resolution graphics, more complicated cutscenes, and so on. It's hard to think of another kind of game that requires more developer hours per player hour. My cocktail-napkin calculation is that at least 1,000 hours of development time went into every hour of play time in Primordia. And that's to produce a low-fi adventure game. I cannot even imagine the effort that would go into making, say, The Curse of Monkey Island. But by way of comparison, Monkey Island 2's credits list 8 artists; CMI's credits list over 30 artists, plus five people just for handling voice acting, not including the voice actors themselves.

Another factor, I think, is that adventures games lost their monopoly on linear, character-driven story-telling in the West. When adventure games were thriving, they were really the only major story-tellers. The action genres -- like FPS games, platformers, and so on -- had no real story-telling at all. Western RPGs tended to have relatively light story-telling (compared to where things are now), and tended not to have protagonists who were "characters"; there were just ciphers representing the player. In the mid-to-late 1990s, however, Japanese console RPGs became much more widely available in the West. Western RPGs became much more story-driven (think Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Anachronox). RTS games got more serious stories (think StarCraft or Myth). And you started to see FPS games with cutscenes and plots. So players who were attracted to adventure games for their stories now had other options, and many of them probably left.

Finally, I do think there's something to the claim that people's tolerance for obscure puzzle design declined, maybe because games like Myst -- which I never really liked -- tried to use more logical puzzles.​

The only things I would add to what I said then are: (1) on reflection, the wider availability of FAQs probably, on the margins, led to players spending less time ruminating on puzzles or chatting with friends, which in turn lessened their engagement with the games; and (2) in the 90s, multiplayer really became king (to the point of even RPGs like Baldur's Gate nominally offering it, right?), while adventure games were exclusively single-player.I've also mentioned, I think on the RPG Codex forum, that I think it's possible that the great designers simply lost interest in the genre or used up their good ideas.

Steven Alexander:
Boy, Mark said it better than I could.

I think, simply put, rising game costs, changes in the gamer base and gamer preferences in games. I remember how all my adventure game loving friends because obsessed with Doom and Quake. I remember even I was mesmerized by them when they came out.

The game industry got much larger - and it appealed to a different kind of person. The easier computers became to own and operator, the more diverse the personalities of the users became. When I was a kid, you had to have some kind of computer savvy to own and operate one. In the late 90's, computers became accessible to everyone. That, coupled with rising costs of production - and as Mark said, different mediums for game story-telling, kind of left it by the way-side.

But, you know, it was always there - just kind of hidden underground. I mean, Tierra/AGDI started going in 2001, and Infamous Adventures, my group, started making games in 2003... it was just more of a niche thing. The fact that it's kind of coming out of that now is both a blessing and a curse; heh, us old-schoolers are protective of our "babies" and sometimes that makes us ornery. I know I can be an old cuss, and people often make fun of me for being an "Old Man". (I've had two kidney transplants. I basically am an 80 year old man!)

Mark Yohalem:
Is it morbid and outrageous to say that I kind of have a vision that Steven's kidney transplants involved some kind of absurd puzzle dynamic, like he had to wear a fake mustache and a beret to persuade the hospital that he was the patient who was supposed to get the kidneys, and then maybe performed the surgery on himself using a pizza cutter and jelly fish?

Incidentally, Steven's note of how long he's been making adventure games reminds me of a conversation I had with the coder on Primordia, James Spanos: Is there any other game for which the process of creation is so similar to the product of creation? As Infinitron mentioned earlier, the quintessential adventure game protagonist is quixotic outsider who, whatever his lofty goals, finds himself grinding through a series of absurd and almost degrading challenges. Anyone who has faced off against the AGS's irrascible and unpredictable behavior, or has tried to anticipate the ways in which players will break your carefully plotted logic, or has tried to squash the innumerable bugs that inevitably arise . . . anyone like that is, on some level, a kindred spirit to Guybrush completing the three trials of becoming a pirate or Gwydion emptying chamber pots. When Steven's Kickstart proved so successfull (as did the AGDI folks' Kickstarter), I was very pleased to see that their quests had finally had some reward.

Steven Alexander:
Hahah, not morbid at all - man, I wish that's the way it went down! That would be a funny adventure game...heh.

Boy, you said it - making an adventure game IS an adventure all itself. And it lasts for a long time! Every day is a new challenge, for sure.

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Grim Fandango. Was it too weird for its own good?

Normally I'd move on to the next question now, but I wonder if you guys haven't accidentally skipped over the second part of this one: "could it have been prevented, and if so, how?"

I rather enjoy thinking about these kinds of "what if" questions. For example, as an RPG fan, I often wonder where our genre might be today if Knights of the Old Republic hadn't been such a success. Do you think, for example, that if LucasArts had created something more familiar and dependable (and perhaps a bit boring) instead of the critically successful but commercially disappointing Grim Fandango, that the adventure genre might have ended up in a different place?

Steven Alexander:

Hah, sorry.

Could it have been prevented? No. That's just the way it went down. You can speculate all you want - but I think it was just a casualty of the growth of the industry. The companies tried to move forward - FMV, 3D, but the excursions out there just lacked the same spark the earlier games had - and the audience moved on.

Plus, for a game to be a success, it had to sell a lot more copies. Adventure games in their heyday sold more in the high thousands than the millions which are typical now.

Mark Yohalem:
I suppose there are always "what if" scenarios in which things could have turned out differently, but it's hard to see them. Grim Fandango was a very high budget, beautiful game with great voice acting and writing. It's hard to imagine a more outwardly appealing adventure game. I'm less fond of The Dig, but it was heavily marketed and was associated with Orson Scott Card and Alan Dean Foster, two huge science fiction writers, and with Stephen Spielberg. If the collective name-branding of Lucas, Spielberg, and Card isn't enough to bring out the business, what would be?

One answer, I suppose, is that Lucas Arts -- and it really would have had to be Lucas Arts -- could have turned to the Tell Tale approach and simply made licensed games. In this alternative universe, KOTOR is an adventure game, not an RPG ("What's alternative about that?" asks the wag). Rather than Full Throttle, we get, say, a Mad Max game. Maybe Lucas Arts also licenses some comic book properties, so rather than Day of the Tentacle we get, say, Days of Future Past.

I suppose in this scenario, adventure games might have been able to survive by slipping from their original exclusive niche (high-production-value, narrative-heavy, single-player games) into another one (high-quality licensed IP games). Lucas Arts proved with the Indiana Jones games that it could make really good licensed IP, and in some respects Star Wars would've been a pretty good universe for adventure-game puzzles. (Lucas Arts also had a history of making really good licensed Star Wars games.) Since high-quality licensed games have been quite rare, if Lucas Arts did a good job making licensed adventure games, I could imagine a market for them. Indeed, Tell Tale has proven that such a market exists.

Still, I wonder how plausible this alternative reality is. To begin with, while some IPs lend themselves fairly well to adventure adaptations (Blade Runner being a good example -- both Rise of the Dragon and the actual Blade Runner game are pretty fun), I'm not sure that there would've been enough for it to work. So many IPs require combat that you'd have a lot of pressure to make action adventures instead. But that is exactly where so many licensed games have foundered: capturing the kind of action that big IPs convey. Ultimately, it seems to me that the best model for translating IPs is not point-and-click adventures but rather the so-called "action adventure" game. Tomb Raider (or at least Uncharted) is probably a better translation of Indiana Jones than the Indiana Jones games themselves; the Batman Arkham games are much better than point-and-clicks would ever have been; GTA and LA Noire both capture a certain kind of IP pretty well; Jedi Knight was probably better than a point-and-click, etc., etc.

So I guess I would have to think that the the hypothetical scenario I'm imagining would have been pulled apart by its own "cetrifugal forces": if you had a studio that was dedicated to making really good, high-budget, faithful adaptations of top-flight IPs, they'd probably end up making action-adventure games rather than point-and-clicks.

In any event, does anyone really think that the world would be a better place if Lucas Arts had survived by making Tell Tale-style games in the 90s, rather than making Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, The Dig, etc.? You might have saved the developer, but at the cost of the kind of game we were trying to imagine a way to save in the first place.

Another approach would have been massive retrenchment: Lucas Arts and Sierra could have simply retreated to making games like Monkey Island 2 and King's Quest VI within their existing engines, without going beyond 640x480 resolution. Keeping budgets low would have allowed them to keep making those games even while selling to a smaller market. In this universe, the developers become a niche retro game maker, rather than trying to make cutting-edge blockbusters. Something like Broken Sword or The Longest Journey would be the most ambitious thing they would try to do, and because they'd have a stronger built-in fan base than Revolution or Funcom, I suppose they'd make a bit more money.

That's a nice idea, but I have a hard time seeing how or why it would happen -- it would require a spirit of benevolence completely at odds with the character of corporations or the apparent character of the designers themselves. It seems to me (maybe I'm mistaken) that the people like Ron Gilbert would not have been interested in retrenching; to the contrary, the post-Golden Age work of the big-name designers reflects a desire to continue to pushing their art forward. If Lucas Arts told them to keep retreading low-fi point-and-click terrain, wouldn't they just leave and go to, I don't know, Activision or something? And why would Lucas Arts want to keep making low-profitability small games, rather than chasing bigger profits in other genres?

So, ultimately, I think the answer is, no, there would have been no way to avert it. Sierra and Lucas Arts both seemed willing to try just about anything to keep making adventure games. Sierra tried hybridizing with the KQ and QFG IPs; Lucas moved to 3D in various ways, and tried a name-brand marketing approach. If there had been some viable way to keep going, I imagine they would've taken it.
Mark Yohalem:
I'd like to raise an issue that is very tangentially related to what we were just talking about. If such hijacking is impermissible, by all means nix it.

It seems to me that one thing substantially overlooked in the adventure game renaissance is how poorly designed the games are. And I include Primordia in this (although I think reviewers did aggressively criticize our poor design). Perhaps the bigger point, then, is that people don't ignore the fact of poor design, but they have made little effort to analyze the issue.

I'm not talking about interface or narrative design, but rather gameplay design. I would say that the best designed of the new adventure games are perhaps some of the Sam & Max spin offs or Resonance. But as clever as Resonance's design is, the puzzles tend to be dull, unsatisfying affairs by comparison to the great games of old. I would say that at its best, Resonance gets somewhere close to Zak McKracken territory; at its worst, its puzzles are simply mediocre. And many aspects of its design -- such as its handling of multiple characters -- seems to me quite a bit worse than Zak or Maniac Mansion or DotT. All the same, Resonance is -- in my view -- far and away the best designed of the Wadjet Eye Games titles (including Primordia).

If you look at other games, particularly say The Journey Down or the lovely European adventure games like Chains of Satinav or The Whispered World or, hell, Primordia, what pops out at me is that it's relatively easy to have music and art that is as good as the classics and even stories and writing that are as good as the classics. But the design is terrible. That's true, too, of games like The Longest Journey or Dreamfall or The Walking Dead. These are regarded as triumphal games but compared to the best Lucas Arts games the puzzles are vastly less fun, less fair, less varied, as well as much less numerous and much less difficult.

What gives?

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Resonance, one of the best modern adventure games. Still not as good as the classics.

I think the answer is that we tend to overlook the fact that game design is an art form, or at least a skill, that is no different from writing or art in the sense that it requires a great deal of practice to do well. Good writers, or at any rate decent writers, are not especially hard to come by; nor should they be. We spend our whole lives writing or telling stories orally. Indeed, there is reason to think it's a skill we're almost hardwired to perform. The same is true for art: I'm not artist, but not a day goes by when I'm not doodling creatures or characters or scenes. I look at my three year old and the same is true for her: every day she's telling stories and drawing pictures.

But who really ever designs adventure games prior to designing an adventure game?

By the time I came to Primordia, I'd written something around half a million words of fiction or game scripts. I'd also written two and a half text adventures, each about fifteen puzzles in total. And I'd never designed anything akin to a graphical adventure game, a very different art from text adventures. The same is basically true for Vic and James: they had a couple small graphical adventures to their names, but not much. But James had written tens of thousands of lines of code and Victor had done tens of thousands of paintings, pixel works, drawings, sketches, and so on.

So, while there was reason to think we'd all be competent within our particular spheres of experience (writing, art, code), there was no real reason to think we'd be good at adventure design. To be sure, we'd played a lot of adventures, but so what? Contra Old Boy, watching kung fu movies doesn't make you a kung fu expert. Playing games doesn't hurt; it may be essential, even, in the same way that reading books is essential for me as a writer. But it's not sufficient.

Incidentally, this shortcoming is not unique to the independent scene. It's not like Ragnar Tornquist or Didrik Tollefsen had any experience with designing adventure games when they made The Longest Journey; and it shows. Their puzzles feel like imitations of Lucas Arts puzzles, but the kind of poor imitation done by someone with no grasp of the fundamentals of what he's doing -- like when I try to draw a picture by looking at a reference.

By contrast, in the Golden Age of games, you had all these designers with deep experience. There's no reason to think that Roberta Williams would be a great writer; her writing experience was limited and it shows. But by the time she hit KQVI, she'd done an enormous amount of puzzle design, and that showed, too. Moreover, she was working at a studio where she was surrounded by experienced designers, cross-fertilizing, I assume. The same is true of the Two Guys from Andromeda or the folks at Lucas Arts. What we saw was the work of people who were talented, to at least some measure, but above all well-seasoned.

I'm not sure the adventure game renaissance has had anyone at that level of experience yet. Dave Gilbert is as close as you'd get, and his games have gotten much better from a design standpoint. And maybe Steven and his crew are there! I'm eager to see how Quest for Infamy comes out from a design standpoint.

Anyway -- am I being too hard on current games, even those for which I have a soft spot (like the WEG catalogue)? Is the design not as bad as I think?

Steven Alexander:
Oh, boy, now you've put the pressure on me, heh!

You know, though, the classic adventure game designers FORGED that path, really - there were no models for them. Really, all the stuff in the early days came out of pure imagination. We might be beset with more problems simply because we have the influence! Coming from a really pure and creative place can make for some interesting stuff. Let's not forget, though, that there was a lot of trial and error, in game design and puzzle design, in the early days. But back then, they were really only competing with themselves to become better - maybe a bit of inter-company competition, but not at the level we have.

Not only will our game design be compared to these golden age classics, but to other innovative games outside the genre as well. For me, I tried to approach the creation of my game simply as this - "Would I like to play this?" Yeah, some puzzles and ideas came from things I liked, but other times I really tried to reach out of my comfort zone, and into that sphere of creativity that exists just outside of the world you know, and make something based on that. I don't really know if it will succeed - but I know that I enjoy playing it - on that base gamer level. I could see myself playing Quest For Infamy, sitting upstairs at my parents house, with the hum of the CRT, the window open, and my feet curled up under the weird plush computer chair we had in 1990. I can hear the radio downstairs blasting out something "Wilson Phillips" or "Michael Bolton" as my mom listened to the radio while working in the kitchen.

I think some of the games in the renaissance of the scene have been amazing - and others have fallen flat with me. Telltale was lauded by many in the scene as saviors, and I find their games boring and rudimentary, and the story telling wasn't good enough to make up for it. You know, I really, really enjoyed "The Shivah" because I never thought in my life that I'd play a game as a Rabbi, with a very good social and historical context behind it - along with interesting puzzles, mystery and intrigue. Of course, Mark is harsh on himself with Primordia, but I don't think it's badly designed at all - I can feel the honesty in the creation of it; whereas with some other modern adventure games, I get the feeling the creator was saying the whole time "Oh... my... god, this is going to be....like....so epic. It's going to blow people's brain-balls all over the place.... like, what, that twist? What the hell is that.... oh, this is the crux of my story.... oh, yeah, we need a puzzle. Make them move some shit, I dunno. Whatever, this story is amazeballs."

With Primordia, I felt that honesty of game making - where the fun of the GAME is as important as THE STORY. Sometimes I think a lot of wanna be adventure game "designers" are either failed screenwriters or failed novelists. Story is great.... but give me a GAME.

Mark Yohalem:
Bu . . . bu . . . but I am a failed novelist!

I think you make a really good point about our own creative vision being shaped and to some degree limited by our experience growing up playing the classic adventure games. I guess it's a double bind: many of us lack the same level of experience those designers have and we're consciously emulating them.

I do think a lot of contemporary designers have come up with clever gimmicks -- the four "stances" in The Shivah and the notebook puzzles in Blackwell, the short-term memory system in Resonance, etc. -- but I still think the gap between Monkey Island 2 and anything today is astoundingly large. Where is a puzzle that even comes close to the spitting one or to the finale voodoo one? It's certainly possible that with time we could see games developing to the same level of refinement; I'm just not sure it's there, or even close. But, I hope to be surprised!

To be clear -- my point isn't that, at a high level, the games lack "soul" or "integrity" or "vision" or anything essential to them being great in that sense. It's hard not to appreciate that aspect of almost every indie adventure game, even down to the ones that are kind of terrible -- they're all full for yearning and effort and love. I just think there is an actual skill to adventure-game design that requires study, practice, experience, "editing," etc.

I'm sure there are savants who are naturally awesome adventure-game designers, just as there are savants in any field, but there's no reason to think those savants would be great at self-identifying. Maybe they're slaving away as, like, Perl coders without any idea that they could revolutionize the genre.

Anyway, to end this on an optimistic note, I think it's a very promising development that designers with experience and passion like Steven and Dave Gilbert now have the financial wherewithal to devote their time and attention to making games. And I can't wait to see what Vince Wesselman comes up with next.

As for me, I'll work on trying to design half a million puzzles until I come up with something half as good as the spitting one!

Steven Alexander:
It's okay. I'm a failed screenwriter!!

You have to consider this - the golden age of Adventure Games, to me, only lasted for a few years. 1987-1994 - that was only seven years! And MI 1 & 2? Came out within a year of each other! We're talking about some major experience created out of thin air over a short period of time. Also, look how much the computer industry changed and developed between those years. Seven years ago now was 2006, and honestly - there hasn't been as much of a development of things in that seven years as there was in the 80s - 90s!

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Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games, bringing the incline.

Now that we've covered the past, let's move on to the present. What are your appraisals of the various adventure game studios operating today? What are their strengths and what are their weaknesses? How do they stack up against the development studios from the genre's Golden Age?

Mark Yohalem:
I don't really play many games these days, so my impressions are pretty general. Like Gaul, I'd divide commercially developed adventuredom into three parts: the Europe, WEG, and Telltale Games. (I leave out art games like what Amanita Designs makes, which seem like a different though delightful beast.)

European games have surpassed the Golden Age in looks, but it seems to me that the games aren't very much fun to play and are typically crippled by lousy translation and voice acting.

WEG's games, whether developed by Dave Gilbert or by other teams (like us on Primordia), tend to be better crafted from a gameplay standpoint, but they're woefully short compared to golden-age games. Moreover, and I include Primordia in this criticism, they seem to lack the vibrancy (for lack of a better word) that Lucas Arts had. The settings are a less fun and generally not super creative (I think Primordia is the best of the WEG games in terms of setting, but it's still not comparable to the sheer energy of, say, Monkey Island). Puzzle design remains quite a bit worse than golden-age games. Still, what's remarkable about the WEG games is that they're really brought back the age of garage development. Typically the teams are an artist and a coder/designer plus some sound folks. With Primordia we had four team members, basically. Gemini Rue had just one. That is itself really exciting, and it can lead to more of a "personal" feel to the games.

Telltale Games is too wedded to developing other people's IP, rather than creating their own -- that's something you really didn't see at all in the Golden Age. There's a commercialism to the whole thing that I don't like. I get that initially there was a kind of fan-service and resurrection of lost IP going on, but I'm not sure that's still true. The Telltale Monkey Island games are markedly inferior to the Lucas Arts ones, at best comparable to Escape from Monkey Island. The Walking Dead games aren't really adventure games in the classic sense; they're more like interactive cinema. But they clearly have managed to achieve a level of emotional potency unmatched by even golden-age adventure games; also, a level of mass-market appeal and playability. Those things are denigrated sometimes, but it's still to denigrate them; if you can make more people happy, why not do so? Moreover, The Walking Dead is clearly raising the stakes for other developers, the same way Bioware did with choice-and-consequence. Even if you don't like Bioware (I like them a lot), what they did with KOTOR's alignment system had major, positive effects in mainstream gaming. In the same way, I think The Walking Dead has probably pushed developers to consider more serious stories.

Obviously, my stupid three-way division leaves out bazillions of things (commercial interactive fiction, visual novels, various truly independent projects like The Journey Down, etc). But what's exciting is that the division is going to be even more stupid in a year because there a bunch of commercial Kickstarted projects that are totally distinct: Steven's project, for one, but there are lots of others. I'm optimistic, though I am skeptical that this batch will produce anything as good as my absolute favorites, which are the best of the Lucas Arts games. Still, I'm eager to be proven wrong.

Steven Alexander:
For me, my favorite is honestly Wadjet Eye - their games have that classic feel that I love, while having it's own style - and offering really great games. Wadjet Eye's strengths come from good stories and great puzzle, for me. I like that there are several developers who have made games with them, in addition to Dave Gilbert himself - and while they all have different styles, approaches and feel - there is a cohesive feel to releases with them.

A lot of people in our community shout "Tell-Tale" but honestly, Tell-Tale bailed on classic adventures and they're making games that are Quick Time Event fiestas. That's nice for the general public - and I will say their graphics and art are good looking - The Wolf Among us is very nice to look at - but the UI is designed for console users and casual gamers. Which, heh, business-wise, is probably a great move, cause they'll sell a whole crap-load of games like that. Honestly, though, I'm not looking to sell a ton - though selling a lot would be nice - I just want to sell enough to keep us afloat, pay some bills, and make games the way that we want to, and make games that some people would like to play. You know - adventure games are not for everyone, and that's okay. You don't always have to make a product that is palatable to everyone. I like catering to a certain group of gamer - cause I think not a lot of people are doing that.

Developers from the Golden age definitely used to cater to a certain kind of customer - the average PC user and game 20-25 years ago is a different kind of person than today. They catered to those users and gamers, and did pretty well for themselves. The reason so many of them went under, partially, was because they tried to expand the audience, and in the process, they lost what made adventure games special.

There's a few out there now, Daedelic has been mentioned - I've played some of their games, and I'm more wowed by the graphics than anything else. I think too often people are staring at the shiny, pretty things, instead of paying attention to the whole package.

I think it's good that there's several studios out there looking to fill this niche; "Keepin' it Old School" as they say.

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The Walking Dead, Telltale Games' blockbuster film. Rumored to contain interactive elements.

What are your thoughts about the future of adventure games? Where do you see the genre two or three years from now? Does it have anywhere left to develop? We all know about Telltale's inexorable slouch towards interactive movie making, but they're not the only ones out there. Are there any other trends, positive or negative, that you've identified?

Mark Yohalem:

I guess I'm overall optimistic, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that, as I said way back a number of questions ago, I think adventure-game design is a skill, and like any other skill, it improves with practice. For the past while, I think independent adventure games have been rather poorly designed from a puzzle standpoint (and also sometimes from a pacing standpoint); here I included both the AGS variety and the European variety of independent games. In particular, as noted earlier, there is probably too much reliance on "use X on Y" puzzles and too much linearity in terms of picking the order you solve puzzles. Moreover, there's a lot of conscious imitation of the classics, probably too much. But since most of the independent developers appear to be sticking around, there's every reason to think that design will keep getting better.

The second thing that makes me optimistic is that there's a lot more experimentation going on with the "form" of adventure games. Whatever the merits or demerits of what TellTale is doing, it's something new-ish. More importantly, if you look at Kickstarter projects, there are lots of things straddling the line between adventure and RPG, adventure and art game, and so on. I'm innately conservative about these kinds of things, so I'm skeptical that I'll enjoy these particular kinds of games. But having a ferment of new ideas is, overall, fantastic. For all that it seems like there was a model of classic adventure game design, with minor interface variations and player mortality, following the The Adventure Gamer's blog or just thinking back reveals that there was, in fact, a very wide variety. Hybrids, experimental interfaces, multiple player characters, timers, different camera perspectives, intergration of action sequences in different ways . . . a lot was going on. That kind of diversity tends to produce tons of duds, but it also helps things like QFG come about.

So, I'm hopeful that design will both improve along the traditional path and will evolve some new ideas. I guess I also hope that someone will create a better, more portable adventure-game development engine in the new Unity 2D suite, which would go a long way toward ensuring the longevity of independent game design.

Steven Alexander:
I'm hopeful, but honestly - my hope all lies within the independent scene. I really think people take Tell-Tale's games and laud them because they're the only larger company out there that was trying to make adventure games, but they've moved on from that it seems. So now you have their fans who stick tenaciously by them, all while getting fed something they didn't order originally.

I guess that's a peeve of mine; people want some things so badly, from some kind of "name" that they're willing to eat a shit sandwich and call it caviar. Honestly, Tell Tale's last few games have been QTE fests, and while that's great, and they're nice for the your casual gamer - that's not me, and that's not my market. To me, that's like adults playing with a Fisher-Price toy playset. Heh, I'm getting a little bit into "cranky-old-man" mode, but I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting what you like and what you don't. I know what I like isn't for everyone, but I also know there ARE other people out there who like it too! And they can find a place, and people, who will develop games for them. I don't think that's coming from anywhere mainstream - it's coming from smaller, independent developers and studios.

Mark Yohalem:
I got about a third of the way through the first episode of The Walking Dead -- not because I didn't want to finish, I just didn't want to finish it enough to forgo other things (like writing long emails). Otherwise, I dabbled a little in their prior games, but none more than an hour or so. So I'm not a particular fan. But it seems to me not quite right to say that the fans are "nice for your casual gamer." I'm not persuaded that casual gamers actually like QTE gameplay, which, after all, became famous in the God of War series, which isn't a casual game. I also don't think that you'd see the lavish praise heaped on TWD if it were truly a casual-gamer game. Much of the praise comes from publications that might be derided as sell-out (but sold out to whom? TellTale isn't Blizzard, after all). But the game also gets lots of praise from publications like Rock Paper Shotgun or Kotaku, right, which are pretty hardcore as these things go. (I think it's fair to say that some of the praise is coming from people who tend not to like adventure game puzzles, but those aren't necessarily casual games.)

This isn't a defense of TellTale so much as it is a defense of casual gamers, who I think get blamed for too much stuff. There are plenty of "serious" gamers whose love of cinematic story-telling trumps everything else -- they're probably the ones responsible for the shift away from gameplay to story in RPGs and adventure games alike.

I do agree that the explosion of commercial indie adventure development is the best hope, though.

Steven Alexander:
You make a good point there, in defense of "casual gamers", Mark. I was generalizing a bit, for sure. Maybe I mean "casual adventure gamer"... though some experienced adventure gamers really like some of the features I find abhorrent.

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The eternal quandary.

Before we wrap this discussion up, I thought I'd ask one last minute bonus question: Sierra vs LucasArts - which was better and why? Discuss!

Steven Alexander:
You know, I don't choose here - because I love them both for so many different reasons. I started with Sierra games - they'll always own my heart, but the quirky, zany and fun games LucasArts made were amazing. Loom was... wow, it was just a magical adventure when I first played it. Monkey Island? What can I say about it that hasn't been said? The level of humor, snark, and self-awareness was amazing. Sam & Max Hit The Road is one of my all time favorite THINGS ever, let alone a game!

Sierra, though, Hero's Quest captured my imagination hard in the summer of 1989, and I thought Space Quest III was the coolest game I had ever played.

So I really can't choose!

Mark Yohalem:
LucasArts. I would say that only QFG stands the test of time from Sierra's catalogue, perhaps some of Space Quest and maybe the first Gabriel Knight. QFG is a masterpiece; I actually think it still comes closer than anything else to feeling like you're playing a game run by a DM/GM. Fallout, V:TM Bloodlines, and Arcanum have some of that feeling too, but in most cRPGs, interaction feels very mechanical -- skills work a certain way, typically a quantifiable way. By contrast, QFG's skill use feels custom-tailored everywhere, like a human being is actually creating an interesting response to what you're trying to do. But QFG is the outlier among Sierra games. The other Sierra games that I like are good enough in their own way, but I can't imagine recommending them to anyone who isn't already an adventure game fan, and a retro-adventure game fan at that, and a highly tolerant one.

By contrast, I would have no problem recommending any number of Lucas Arts games: Loom, Sam and Max, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, the first three Monkey Islands, Day of the Tentacle, the Indiana Jones games -- those, at a minimum. Each has a strikingly distinctive visual style, a cast of memorable characters, extremely clever puzzles, a number of funny jokes, and a timeless approachability.

Interestingly, as a kid I tended to prefer Sierra, which I think is because, as I mentioned way back when, the more "serious" Sierra plots tended to flatter the adolescent need for "maturity."

Steven Alexander:
I still think people flatter that adolescent need for maturity. We call it "Dark & Gritty™" or "Dark & Gritty Reboot™", People still buy into that notion that generic darker themes = maturity.

Hmmm. Speaking of grittier reboots, do I dare ask what you guys thought about AGDI's King's Quest 2 remake?

Mark Yohalem:

As you probably could anticipate, I don't like it. It's obviously a labor of love, and the effort to create a deeper coherence between the games in the series is commendable. But I think it's misplaced. Given today's perspective, King's Quest II wasn't a very good game to begin with, and its fully of zany terribleness. But it has a distinct tone, and that tone is quite at odds with that of the remake.

I have no objections to remakes, even remakes that substantially change the original. But for a remake to work, I think it needs to seize on the essence of the original and then build outward from there. It won't quite do to come up with a new essence, and then dress it up with the original's trappings. When that happens -- and it happens a lot -- with movies, people are understandably upset. Now, because KQII isn't a particularly beloved game, and because the most fervent KQ fanboys are fans of KQVI, there wasn't (as far as I could tell) any outrage. But I think the same principle applies. If I were going to make an updated, expanded KQII, I would start by reading the novelization of the game and relying on that additional material as much as possible, since it was endorsed by Roberta Williams. Then I'd read (mostly, re-read, actually) all the western-canon fairy tale sources: the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, the major classic translations of The Arabian Nights, and look for classic stories that hadn't made their way into any of the KQ games. Throughout, I would make sure that the game's influences felt like fairy tales and fables (primarily), then mythology, with as little "fantasy" as possible. AGDI's remake, I felt, went in for fantasy more than fairy tale. (That Silver Lining sequel seemed to have the same problem.)

But honestly, as much as the game didn't quite work for me (perhaps because I have such vivid, if patchy, memories of playing KQII as a kid), it's a wonderful labor of love from a team that gave generously of its time to a forgotten fan base. How can you not admire them?

Oh, vaguely relatedly: while reading a book of fairy tales and nursery rhymes to my daughter, I came across a painting that I think was the inspiration for King Graham. I will try to dig it up and take a photo of it.

It's interesting to me that people think of LucasArts as the "funny ones" and Sierra as the "serious ones". Not that it's not true for the most part, but the thing about the LucasArts games is that, even in their humorousness, they were all so polished, consistent and recognizable. They were funny in a serious way.

In contrast, the Sierra games come across in retrospect as a wacky collection of genre homages, each with its own disparate mood and feel, united only by their engine and by the word "Quest" appended to the end of their titles. I mean, "King's Quest"? "Police Quest"? "Space Quest"? Even when the games themselves aren't funny, the totality of it is sort of hilarious.

Mark Yohalem:
Fair point. It's not so much that the Sierra ones were all serious -- KQV, for example, is pretty lighthearted despite the fact that you're rescuing your kidnapped family, and of course SQ lighthearted throughout. But I just don't think that humor held up very well. The SQ games are basically satires of a kind of adventure game that no longer exists, right? And the serious games -- most especially Gabriel Knight 2 -- just seem like fiascoes in retrospect.

Fiascoes? How so?

Mark Yohalem:

Because the content of what the player is doing is so at odds with the melodrama of the plot, and the quality of presentation is so at odds with the seriousness with which it is presented.

To me, GK2 feels like an indie movie made by a group of friends, none of whom had any particular experience in writing, directing, acting, etc., but all of whom were deadly earnest that they were making the kind of movie that Hollywood would never have the [guts, genius, artistic temperament, non-commercial motivation] to make. (I mean, the UnReal World looks considerably less absurd than GK2, no?) As high camp, GK2 would've been great fun (crazy S&M Germans who are secretly werewolves facing off against Wagner music!), but delivered with such po-faced confidence, it provokes (in me at least) an strong negative reaction. And as a game, nothing about it is very fun.

I think King's Quest VI actually suffers from similar flaws. Rather than having the mixed-up-fairytale feel of the Graham-based King Quests (I, II, V), it takes itself so seriously, which the gameplay and voice acting and writing can't really sustain. I mean, how many times do we have to hear "Lord of the Deeead"? "The Mirror of Truth cracks from the strain, and Death sheds a single tear." Indeed.

"Fiasco" is probably too strong a word, but I just think that Sierra generally did not do a great job of creating a harmony of gameplay, narrative, and "packaging" (art & sound). Of the point-and-click era, only Space Quest IV and the QFG series achieved that harmony, and perhaps KQV (although I'm not wild about Sierra's "learn by save scumming" design, so I don't think KQV is overall a great game) and the first Gabriel Knight. By contrast, most of the Lucas Arts games did.

[​IMG]
Samhain, Lord of the Dead, from King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow. Why so serious?

Steven Alexander:
I agree, heh, I've often had that argument about King's Quest VI with friends. People love that game, and while I like it very much, it suffers from the kind of over-wrought melodrama that's pretty much a signature of Jane Jensen. Some people absolutely love that - I think it's a matter of taste, and it's never been mine. Sierra games had their charm, but I do agree - LucasArts games hold up better over the years. I can still play them, and laugh and enjoy myself. Interesting case, though, I got the Monkey Island HD remakes when they came out, and though the HD graphics were nice in their own way, they just didn't have the charm of the original graphics, and I found myself playing the "original mode" more often on those.

Mark Yohalem:
We are clearly kindred spirits, as I had the exact same reaction with the Monkey Island remakes. The backgrounds mostly worked, but the sprites didn't. Partly it was because they didn't add enough animation frames to deal with the higher resolution.

Also: no shit, I never realized Jane Jensen was involved in KQVI. Hilarious! Here I thought I was being nice by not singling her out. . . . (By reputation, she's a very nice person.)

Steven Alexander:
Yeah, I've only ever heard nice things about Jane Jensen, personally, but I find her work and writing to be a little too melodramatic for my tastes. Honestly, sometimes I feel like her work is "Flowers in the Attic: The Adventure Game"-esque. But yeah, Jane was the co-designer and writer on KQVI.

Well, we've gone a bit off-topic here, but personally I think there's also a place for more "theatrical" dialogue, when it fits. Lest I remind you, you're being interviewed for a forum full of Chris Avellone fans! Actually, this conversation reminds me of something his coworker J.E. Sawyer said earlier this year. I guess you guys are probably on the same wavelength, as far as dialogue goes.

Mark Yohalem:

Oh, I think there's certainly a place for theatrical dialogue! (I'm not sure if you've played Primordia, but it's chock full of theatricality. Hopefully it works; perhaps it doesn't.) Planescape: Torment is my favorite game, and, back when we were starting out, I pointed out that I loved Karateka simply because it started with, "High atop a craggy cliff. . . ."

The thing is, theatrical dialogue (or, more generally, what Ursula LeGuin calls the "high mimetic mode") is easy to write but hard to write well. In fact, I think it's generally easier to write good prose or dialogue when it is less ornamented, less grandiose, more naturalistic. But many young writers, especially people like me who grew up on a diet of fantasy, space opera, and comic books, start with that mode before they can do it well. And it often goes hand-in-hand with long-windedness (ahem), pomposity (double ahem), and preachiness (triple ahem!), which can make for an unpleasant combination. Babylon 5 is a great example of that, one that worked at the time because of then-fancy effects and a couple of good character actors, but which doesn't hold up well now.

As a kid, the more theatrical something was the better, even to the point of being maudlin. Thus, for example, the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Mudslide," struck me as wonderful high art, a true tragedy when I watched it as a kid. (Even now it kind of does.) But as this thoughtful critic points out, the "tragic" element of it is actually absurd; it's melodrama, nothing more, and the show is in fact poking fun at the way in which Clayface (who is an actor) is essentially behaving like a mediocre actor in an overwrought performance. Even satirical melodrama seemed like awesome Maturity and Depth to me back then. So, on that level, it's hard to fault games for pursuing that kind of tone; much of their audience is young enough to appreciate it.

Still, having gotten older, I tend to think that you have to earn that kind of drama, and dole it out in small doses, and it has to exist within a medium that can really support it. The Wire could get away with long, theatrical speeches because (1) most of the show was at least passably realistic and most of the dialogue was naturalistic, so you weren't in an endless slog of speechifying; and (2) the show had really good actors, really good writers, and was a passive experience for the audience. By contrast, games that veer toward theatrically tend to pour it on from the outset without stop, and seldom have writers or actors in the same universe as those that The Wire had.

Steven Alexander:
Hah, yeah. I have to often remind myself that "brevity is the soul of wit." It's also like Harrison Ford said "You can write this shit, George, but you sure as hell can't say it." Sometimes the written word doesn't work as well as spoken dialogue. You have to consider that, though, these days. I was a theatre minor in college (Yay liberal arts educations. I also double minored in Game Boy.) and I try to be aware of writing dialogue as opposed to exposition or just meandering prose. No one's perfect, though, and I fall victim to the trap of loving your own written words.

As for AGDI's KQII, I enjoy it - as a game, it's pretty well made - but I find the incessant need to link everything to be kind of a modern trope. I liked KQII better when everything wasn't linked to an over-arching plot, and was more fairy tale than fantasy. That is the same problem that plaugued The Silver Lining. I'm friends with all of the guys and gals from both of those teams, and they know how I feel - but they also know I respect their dedication and effort into the games. It's not what I would have done, but that's exactly the reason I started Infamous Adventures and Infamous Quests. Because I had an idea of how I wanted to do things, I thought there would be other people out there who'd dig what I had to offer.

[​IMG]
An illustration of Peter Piper from the 1930s, by Mary Royt. A possible inspiration for King Graham? Or maybe it was this.

Aaaand we are done. Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure. Any last comments?

Mark Yohalem:

I've been a reader and sometimes poster on RPG Codex for a long time, and despite a tendency of posts to veer toward the offensive, I think it's pretty remarkable what the site has accomplished for cRPGs. It seems fair to say that the Codex is at least somewhat responsible for the current crop of promising RPGs by preaching a philosophy of C&C that actually influenced major developers, incubating its own games (like AoD), and helping fund and inspire many of the Kickstarters.

It's nice to see the site turning its attention to adventure games more heavily because my hope is that the same combination of rage, intellect, despair, genre knowledge, and vocal criticism that helped the RPG genre can do the same for adventure games.

Also, if anyone actually reads this gigantic interview, I'll be astonished!

Steven Alexander:
I'm glad there is interest in adventure games, and that it seems to be bubbling to the surface more. Many gamers at the codex are fans of the genre, as well as cRPGs, and no one is as passionate, or opinionated, as the codexers! But I really enjoy my time there, and interacting directly with the people who are interested in our games and supportive of what we do.

I had a great time in this conversation, and I really do hope people read this!

Thanks again to Mark and Steven for an incredible interview! This was my first interview for the Codex, and it'll probably always be the best one. Thanks also to Zed for the awesome logo.

There are 143 comments on AdventureDex: A Conversation about the State of the Adventure Genre

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