A Guide to Adventure Games
Adventure games have been around since the beginning of PC gaming. Their popularity with the general public has waxed and waned over the intervening years, but they've always maintained a devoted following. This guide will explain several important things about these games: what they are, where they came from, and who plays them.
What Are Adventure Games?
Adventure games focus primarily on storytelling, exploration, and puzzle solving instead of combat. There are two basic types: text-based and graphical.
In text-based games, the computer verbally describes an area the player is currently in, and the player types commands to interact with objects in that area or move to another area. The interface will usually only work with a small list of commands, like "use," "open," "look," or "take." The player can apply these commands to different objects that the narrator has described, prompting a reaction from the computer. An example of this is provided below.
Computer: You have entered a dimly lit dungeon. There are chains on the floor.
Computer: You cannot take the chains, because they are too heavy.
Graphical adventure games have visual representations of the area the player is in. These visual representations can be 2D or 3D, but usually involve a point and click interface. This interface allows the player to advance through different areas and interact with items and/or characters in those areas by clicking the mouse. Most graphical adventure games make use of "screen hospots" that change the shape of the player's cursor when the player mouses over them, alerting him or her to the presence of something clickable.
The History of Adventure Games
William Crowther created the first true adventure game in 1975, a text game aptly dubbed Adventure. Crowther was an avid caver as well as a programmer, and had based his program on part of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave system. Don Woods later collaborated with Crowther to expand and modify the original program. Woods and Crowther's game became incredibly popular with computer aficionados, and versions of "Adventure" soon cropped up all over the ARPANET, a precursor to today's internet. The game's popularity encouraged the development of similar games. Thus, the genre was born.
In 1978, Scott Adams coded a version of Adventure that would work on personal computers. Shortly afterward, he and his wife Alexis founded Adventure International in order to sell his games. "Adventureland," the version of Adventure Adams had created for personal computers, was the first title Adventure International sold. His company went on to make a total of twelve games before going bankrupt in 1985.
Inspired by Woods and Crowther's "Adventure," Dave Lebling and Marc Blank worked with Tim Anderson and Bruce Daniels to create Zork. In 1979, they and several others formed a company to market the game. They called themselves "Infocom." Infocom is notable for having produced several of Douglas Adams' games, one based on the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series and another called "Beaurocracy." Infocom was eventually bought out by Activision in 1986. Three years later, Activision shut down their Infocom division in response to decreasing sales.
These early adventure gaming pioneers paved the way for three major long-lasting game companies to rise during the eighties and nineties: Sierra, LucasArts, and Cyan Worlds.
Sierra, like the other early game studios, started with Woods and Crowther's "Adventure." Roberta Williams played it and was disappointed to find that there weren't any other games like it currently on the market. She then decided to begin working on her own, a mystery game based on "And Then There Were None," an Agatha Christie novel. After finishing the design work herself, she enlisted the help of her husband Ken, a programmer. The game they created, eventually named Mystery House, was the first adventure game to incorporate graphics. Granted, these graphics were mostly composed of simple lines, but it was nonetheless a step into the future of gaming. In 1980, Ken and Roberta decided to found On-Line Systems, the company that would eventually become Sierra Online.
Sierra produced many different adventure game titles, including the groundbreaking King's Quest games. The "Gabriel Knight" games were Sierra's last series of adventure games, ending in 1999 after Cendant bought the company and sold it to Vivendi. Presently, Vivendi still owns the Sierra brand, now marketed as "Sierra Entertainment." Throughout the company's history, Sierra was known for pushing the boundaries of computer game technology, originating the "third-person" viewpoint and pioneering the point-and-click interface.
Lucasfilm Games, now known as LucasArts, was one of Sierra's major competitors. In order to distinguish themselves from Sierra, Lucasfilm Games experimented with several gameplay innovations designed to increase playability in their games. For instance, they removed the possibility of death in their adventure games, allowing players to continue without being frustrated by having to start the game over myriad times. Their early games included a version of the point-and-click interface, designed by Rob Gilbert, one of their programmers. The Secret of Monkey Island is one of their most famous titles, and it represents a leap in adventure gaming quality and technology. LucasArts pulled out all the stops with this one, using 256 colors, a more advanced point-and-click interface, music, and entertaining dialogue. "The Secret of Monkey Island was one of the first games to have a movie-style script. LucasArts is also responsible for creating many other adventure games, notably including Sam and Max Hit the Road, and Grim Fandango.
While LucasArts and Sierra were both great companies, Cyan, now called Cyan Worlds, is without a doubt the most famous in the world of adventure games. Rand and Robyn Miller founded Cyan in 1987, and their first game, Manhole, was released in 1989. "Manhole" was the first game to use CD ROM technology. Myst, Cyan's second title, was released in 1993, and was the best-selling PC Game of all time until 2002 when "The Sims" beat it. "Myst" used a combination of video, pre-rendered graphics, and sound to create an intensely immersive experience, distinguishing itself from all other adventure games of the time. Four years later, Cyan continued the story begun in Myst, releasing "Riven." Cyan eventually went on to release three other games in the Myst franchise, "Myst III: Exile," "Myst IV: Revelation," and "Myst V: End of Ages." The company continues to operate today under the guidance of Rand Miller, but it has not released an original adventure game in some time.
While the production of adventure games has generally slacked off in recent years, there are some publishers who continue to keep the genre alive. Telltale Games, a company founded by former LucasArts employees, is the most notable of these, having produced sequels to "Sam and Max Hit the Road," and a series of Monkey Island games collectively called "Tales of Monkey Island." Other current publishers include Funcom and Microids. Funcom has produced The Longest Journey, and Microids has produced "Amerzone" and Syberia.
Who Will Like These Games
Adventure games aren't for gamers who are bothered by slowness. These games require a great deal of time and focus due to their exploration and puzzle-solving elements. Adventure games are for the patient and curious.
They aren't for gamers who play just to let off steam. There isn't enough combat, and some of the puzzle sequences can be incredibly frustrating. Adventure games are for players who like stories.
That said, this guide is not meant to discourage anyone from developing their own opinions through direct experience. The only way to find out for certain whether or not you enjoy something is to try it on your own!