Adventure Games Never Died, They Just Stopped Being Good

So, I hear they’re making a new Monkey Island. I mean, one could hardly have avoided hearing about it if one lives anywhere but the dark side of Mars. Oh boy, people kept saying. Finally a proper Monkey Island sequel. Besides 2. And 3. And that 3D one that we don’t talk about. Oh, and the episodic series that Telltale made during their “make sequels to abandoned adventure game franchises” phase that came before their “slap any IP we can get onto choices matter interactive movies where your choices don’t actually matter” period. Oh none of those count, do they? It’s very collectively arrogant of modern culture to do all this rebooting and resetting, what right does anyone have to simply declare that any number of past sequels didn’t happen. Culture shouldn’t be that disposable. Oh, Halloween 4, 5 and 6 don’t count? Funny, the people making them didn’t seem to think so. They put a lot of work in. Donald Pleasance kept coming back. Paul Rudd was in one.

But I digress. The Secret of Monkey Island was probably the most popular point and click adventure game of its genre, a genre that these days is something of an indie niche. In fact after the announcement there were several tweets from developers in that niche panicking that their proposed release dates were perilously close to the new Monkey Island’s. Its a niche I used to be part of, which is probably why Twitter was collectively bashing down the door of my feed to let me know about it. I used to be big into point and click adventures, made a few of my own and everything, but I went off the entire genre. Here’s why.

Way back in the earliest days of gaming, before the industry was the steaming malaria-riddled swamp that it is today, there was a clear distinction between “video game” and “computer game” The former came from the arcade tradition, largely action-focused and played on home consoles that had no purposes besides running games. Computer games, in contrast, were games designed for the machines that people were already using for other things like word processing and whatever the hell people do with Microsoft Access. Computer games were therefore catering to a somewhat more sophisticated audience of computer users, bored office drones and university students, so there was more emphasis on good writing and cerebral, puzzle-based challenges than the twitchy action of the consoles.

With the keyboard already being right there the text adventure was devised, interactive stories in which the player had to deduce the correct action to proceed. As graphics technology improved it became possible to show the player what they were dealing with rather than just describe it, and as graphical operating systems took over the mouse became standard hardware, and it was a lot more intuitive to let players click on the things they wanted to interact with than type their whole names out. Thus was born the point and click adventure.
The Secret of Monkey Island was the tentpole of the genre, developed by LucasArts along with several other IPs of a consistently high standard, but there was no shortage of rivals, from the prolificacy of Sierra to the charming eurojank of Delphine Software and Coktel Vision. The adventure game thrived for many years before the genre mysteriously waned in popularity and died out.

Well, that’s bullshit. It never died out, it was relegated to a niche when the popularity of other kinds of games overshadowed them. And there’s no mystery behind it, either. See, early on the limits on memory meant a game could only focus on one thing. You could have in-depth storytelling OR engaging action but rarely both. Computer games and video games served opposite ends of the spectrum but as technology improved gradually moved towards each other. PC games became more action-y, console games became more story-y, until the two finally merged and crystallized around the late 90s. This was a golden age for a different kind of narrative PC game, Half-Life, Thief, System Shock 2, Deus Ex. Suddenly you could have it all – solid writing and interesting gameplay. The sad truth is that adventure games, while known for their great writing, mostly weren’t good games.

All you usually did in them was wander around gathering up inventory items and clicking through dialogue trees, looking for the one combination of objects that would progress the plot. It was terribly inorganic and would frequently devolve into guessing games as players struggled to board the one single specific train of logic the designer had in mind. I think what we’ve learned – well, what I’ve learned – from the evolution of interactive narrative over the years is that it’s better served by immersive experiences where character and themes are explored through gameplay mechanics – Dark Souls springs inexorably to mind – than by linear stories that keep stopping until we can figure out which of the many keys on our big jangling ring opens the next door.

It also bears mentioning that adventure games were one of the many casualties of the painful transition to full 3D. Adventure games of the time felt pressured to keep up with their peers ‘cos bitches gotta have their fancy screenshots, but what otherwise superb games like Grim Fandango demonstrated was that “click on the thing to do the thing” was a hell of a lot more intuitive than “navigate a character through 3D space and multiple camera angle changes until they’re next to the thing, carefully stand at exactly the right rotation and press a button to do the thing.” Also, while the more action-y genres of PC gaming could make the transition to consoles relatively painlessly, moving a mouse pointer with a stick controller has never not been a clunky pain in the arse, and incidentally I wish in-game menu designers would fucking realise that.

So that’s why I’m not particularly excited at the prospect of a new adventure game, because since their heyday, games have found much more interesting ways to explore interactive narrative than strings of inventory puzzles that are essentially just key hunts. I’ve actually given thought in the past as to how to update adventure game style inventory puzzle gameplay so it isn’t just about finding the one specific key for each specific door. I once went so far as to prototype a concept where inventory puzzles could be a recurring, organic gameplay system. What if the obstacles in the way of your progress had numerical ratings. Like a manhole cover needs 30 Insert points and 80 Leverage points. Then instead of finding the one specific tool to open it every inventory item also has a numerical rating, so anything with the right point values would do, or combine the values of several commonly found items to achieve the same result. And then I realised, oh fuck, I’ve invented a crafting system from first principles.

Then again, it wasn’t inventory puzzles that gave the good adventure games their appeal: the reason why Secret of Monkey Island was top of the heap was that it didn’t just rely on strings of inventory puzzles. It had some, but that was just a foundation. It also had some very cleverly designed puzzles that required thought and intuition. The insult sword fighting thing was genius, you brute forced your way to figuring out what counters matched what insults, and then for the final boss it throw away all the insults you know and you have to demonstrate understanding of the text to be able to match your counters to the new insults. There was that whole recipe cooking section in the second act where we had to deduce what random bollocks we had lying around could substitute for the exotic ingredients listed.

Of course it’s very easy to say “come up with clever puzzles” but not so easy to do. For every time LucasArts smashed it with something like Monkey Island insult sword fighting they also had something completely awful like that one puzzle in Full Throttle where you have to stare at a crack in a wall. So I think my one final additional conclusion is that adventure games aren’t big anymore partly because they were too hard to make well. Even if you can come up with an utterly inspired puzzle that combines intuitive design with worldbuilding and rewarding the player’s cleverness, that’s just one puzzle. A full adventure game needs a constant procession of the fuckers, all designed bespoke for each specific moment. What, you think one clever puzzle could be stretched out far enough to get a whole game out of it? A game called, say, Return of the Obra Dinn?