Know Your Genres: Adventure Games

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This week, we’re covering a beloved once-and-future staple of the PC: adventure games. From Mystery House to Monkey Island, the point-and-click adventure genre was a market-dominating staple of PC gaming culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s, popular with puzzle aficionados and narrative-hungry players worldwide. You might be surprised at just how this genre evolved in order to stay relevant throughout PC gaming’s graphics-driven explosion in the ‘90s, and how it settled into its current spot at the forefront of episodic content.

It all started with a homegrown company called On-Line Systems…

The Past

Well, actually, it all started with old-school text adventure games, such as Infocom’s Zork. These early adventure games were powered entirely by text parsers; you were offered a description of your current location, and typed in directions to move or actions to take, often collecting items and using them to solve the game’s various puzzles. From these text-based beginnings, a genre was born.

Roberta Williams – the wife of On-Line Systems founder Ken Williams – was captivated by games like Zork, back when the company began in 1980. She had a clever proposal that would start a gaming revolution: Instead of developing a Fortran compiler for their shiny new Apple II, Roberta told her husband, he should leverage the computer’s dazzling graphical capabilities to add visuals to these text adventures, and create “graphic adventure games.”

The result was Mystery House, a tale that put players smack-dab in the center of an Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery, with static backgrounds accompanying the parser. It was an instant hit; On-Line Systems moved to bigger offices and got renamed to Sierra On-Line in 1982, and was selling its games to the tune of $12.5 million by the following year.

In 1984, Roberta Williams developed King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown, which expanded the genre into a full-blown, 16-color fairy tale, in which the player could move about the screen and interact with nearby objects in a 3D environment. It was, at the time, the biggest PC game ever. Over the next two decades, Sierra leveraged new technologies (256-color VGA graphics! CD-ROM drives! Fully voiced “Talkie” games!) and ever-more accessible interfaces (who needs text parsers when you can just use icons?), resulting in one of the most storied corporate legacies of all-time. It was at Sierra that Al Lowe created the lecherous Leisure Suit Larry, Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe poked fun at sci-fi flicks with Space Quest, and Jane Jensen delivered her crime-thriller masterpiece Gabriel Knight (one of the first games with an all-star voice cast, featuring the talents of Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, Leah Remini, Michael Dorn, and the late-but-great Mary Kay Bergman).

LucasArts (known back then as Lucasfilm Games) followed Sierra’s lead with a series of hit adventure games in its famous SCUMM Engine, including the genre-defining Maniac Mansion (and its even-more-awesome sequel Day of the Tentacle), the wonderfully peculiar dark comedy Sam & Max Hit the Road, and perhaps its most enduring and beloved success, the Monkey Island series. LucasArts gave rise to top-tier game design talents such as Ron Gilbert (who founded a number of game companies in his post-Lucas years), Tim Schafer (who went on to found Double Fine Productions), and Dave Grossman (who spent several years as Design Director at Telltale Games).

Sierra and LucasArts led the pack, but plenty of other adventure games popped up during these golden years: Westwood Studios’ Kyrandia trilogy, Virgin Interactive’s The 7th Guest, Brøderbund’s Myst saga (now owned by Ubisoft), Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series, and Funcom’s The Longest Journey.

Adventure games fell by the wayside in the mid-’90s, mostly thanks to the rise of 3D graphics technology and the meteoric rise of more action-focused, graphically intensive games such as 1993’s Doom and 1996’s Quake. The genre’s puzzle-focused atmosphere eventually evolved with the times, though: It’s easy to spot plenty of adventure game DNA in action-heavy titles such as Resident Evil and Tim Schafer’s own Psychonauts, which provide as many brain-wracking conundrums as they do twitch-based tasks. Technology may have killed the traditional, slower-paced adventure at the time, but the elements that made these games endearing crept into plenty of other genres, effectively blurring the lines of what constituted a true adventure game.

And then Telltale Games came along, teeing up the traditional adventure for a veritable Renaissance.

The Present

When Telltale Games (founded by ex-LucasArts employees Dan Connors, Kevin Bruner, and Troy Molander) unleashed Sam & Max Save the World on PC and Xbox 360 in 2006, it cleverly provided the spark for a very successful content delivery strategy: bite-sized, episodic gaming. It’s a format that has worked especially well for the traditional adventure game genre, playing to audiences that are perhaps less-accustomed to devoting large chunks of time toward cerebral challenges. Play a two-hour episode; wait a month; jump into the next one.

The keep-it-manageable-and-they-will-come strategy has worked out remarkably well for modern adventure sagas such as Life Is Strange and early Kickstarter darling Broken Age, but Telltale Games itself has capitalized on the model best of all. The 2012 adaptation of The Walking Dead (based on Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse comic series) earned Telltale unanimous critical praise, netting the series a second season and resulting in a steady stream of high-quality licensed adventures. The Wolf Among Us (based on the Fables comic books), Tales from the Borderlands, and Game of Thrones all carry the high watermark set by The Walking Dead.

The Future

Of course, Telltale isn’t going anywhere: This year will see the release of the ambitious Minecraft: Story Mode, and a third season of The Walking Dead is on the horizon as well. In 2015, Telltale Games is truly the heir to the beloved legacy of publishers such as Sierra On-Line and LucasArts.

Those legacies are still going strong, too, thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. The platform has already resulted in successful Windows PC releases for games like Broken Age and Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded, but it’s also opened the door for luminaries like Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen and Space Quest architects Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe to court some very happy and active new audiences. And, to bring it full-circle: Publisher Activision Blizzard and developer The Odd Gentlemen are bringing an episodic, beautifully animated King’s Quest reboot to Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows PC on July 29.

We can only imagine what the future of adventure games will look like. Augmented reality devices such as Microsoft HoloLens and the Oculus Rift could certainly provide more immersive venues for the genre. Episodic game delivery will remain alive and well for years to come. And, at the end of the day – so long as gamers demand interesting worlds to explore and creative puzzles to solve – the so-called “graphic adventure” will never cease. It will simply continue to evolve and transform, like a beautiful digital butterfly.

10 Adventure Games Essentials
Broken Age (Windows – Double Fine Productions, 2014)
Day of the Tentacle (MS-DOS – LucasArts, 1993)
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (MS-DOS – Sierra On-Line, 1993)
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (MS-DOS – LucasArts, 1992)
Indigo Prophecy (Xbox/Windows – Quantic Dream, 2005)
The Longest Journey (Windows – Funcom, 1999)
Sam & Max Save the World (Xbox 360/Windows – Telltale Games, 2006)
The Secret of Monkey Island (MS-DOS/Xbox 360 – LucasArts, 1990/2009)
The Walking Dead (Xbox One/Xbox 360/Windows – Telltale Games, 2012)
The Wolf Among Us (Xbox One/Xbox 360/Windows – Telltale Games, 2013)