Begin again: Adventure games respawn

By Peter Allen Clark

 

One of the first popularized genres of video games has made quite the comeback.

Minecraft developer Mojang announced a story mode spinoff to the incredibly successful game Dec. 18, putting a period on 2014’s revival of adventure games.

An adventure game of a thousand steps...

Upon purchasing Mojang and the Minecraft property that sold with it, Microsoft assuredly seeks to develop the franchise beyond its current capacity. Which is saying something, because its current capacity has captured over well over 100 million PC users alone.

 

So, it’s notable that Mojang, and Microsoft, chose the games first expansion to take the form of an adventure game.

It’s been a big year for adventure games.

> Adventure instead of Action

Adventure games have a marked difference than other genres, though many overlapping aspects remain. For starters, adventure games have a strong reliance on storytelling and puzzling. In their 2003 book On Game Design, authors Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams spell out the distinction of what makes an adventure game. “Although the genre has changed considerably over the years, the games are characterized by certain qualities that they all share: exploration, collection or manipulation of objects, puzzle solving, and a reduced emphasis on combat and action elements,” they wrote. “This doesn’t mean that there is no conflict in adventure games… only that combat is not the primary activity.”

At least seven adventure games on PC and six on consoles were released in the last 12 months. It’s not quite the 46 that exploded onto the scene in 1995, but still a far cry from the dwindling representation that has marked the last decade.

Additionally, adventure games have grown rapidly in popularity and sales. Telltale games, founded by former LucasArts developers, reportedly announced in July that The Walking Dead episodic video games had sold 28 million copies since the initial 2012 release.

The genre, which spurned many other narrative games types, began with 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure game designed by William Crowther. Crowther said he wrote the game, a text-based exploration that virtually explored a semblance of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system, as a “program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.”

From there the genre expanded in form and popularity. From LucasArts’ many games to the juggernaut of 1993’s Myst, adventure games dominated much of the early video game landscape.

Spoiler: this ship is a clue. 

Spoiler: this ship is a clue. 

Many factors contributed to the decline of the genre in the late 1990s. Writing in 2003, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams said emphasis on graphics might have led to less consumer and developer interest.

“Adventure games depend less on display technology than fast-paced action games do; as a result, they get less attention from the gaming press, which has led to a misconception that the adventure game genre is ‘dead,’” they wrote.

They also brought up the idea that limited replayability had led to less interest compared to the shooter and open world games that dominated the early 2000s.

Other opinions said Myst began the decline or that adventure games couldn’t scale puzzle difficulty adequately to appeal to the broadening base of new game players.

Regardless of the reason, only a few years ago, industry press regularly wrote about how to save the genre and why it deserved to die.

 

Tell the tale of renewal

Let’s face it, Telltale brought popularity back to adventure games.

Though surely many factors led to the renewed interest in the genre, both the critical and consumer reaction to 2012’s The Walking Dead did much to propel adventure games into their current renaissance.

Announcing the game in 2011, Telltale approached the title in a similar style to their last few outings. Working on titles like Law & Order: Legacies, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park: The Game, Telltale had developed a familiarity with using licensed materials while still cultivating their style of storytelling in place since the studio opened in 2004.

A sure difference about The Walking Dead is that it came hot on the heels of the incredibly popular AMC television show of the same title.

Instead of relying on that popularity to buoy the game, Telltale wanted to create a unique experience on top of that fandom.

“[I]t’s going to be harrowing,” Telltale developers said on their blog in the middle of creating the game. “Decisions will range from relatively innocuous (do I lie here and if so, how should I lie?) though to world changing (I can only save one person here, who will it be?). Furthermore, you’ll come under pressure to make decisions quickly.”

Whether it was the popularity, the execution or both, the game’s first episode managed to sell one million copies in its first two weeks.

The developer (and others) hope to duplicate that formula of taking a popular franchise and creating a compelling adventure story around it. 2014’s release of Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands’ first episode highlights the continuation of the lightning in a bottle captured with The Walking Dead.

 

Onward! Towards adventure!

Minecraft isn’t alone in the future of adventure games. Telltale has set up a solid slate of new episodes, with already announced sequels to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and more episodes of Tales from the Borderlands on the way. Other studios plan to hop on the bandwagon with the rerelease of Grim Fandango and the second half of Broken Age, both by Double Fine.

Dec. 18 also saw the notable end of the most recent video game Kickstarter success. Ron Gilbert of classic adventure game Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle fame returned to his roots by requesting funding to produce a new game called Thimbleweed Park.

The Kickstarter is notable in a few ways. First, the proposed game truly returns Gilbert and company to their roots by trying to emulate the feel of the old SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine giving the game a distinctive feel that echoes back to the 1980s and 90s.

“Why do we want to make Thimbleweed Park?” Gilbert and creative partner Gary Winnick wrote on the Kickstarter page. “Because we miss classic adventures and all their innocence and charm… We want to make one of those again and we want to do it right. We don’t want to make a game “inspired by,” or “paying homage to” classic point & click adventures, we want to make a real classic point & click adventure.”

The second notable aspect of the Thimbleweed Park Kickstarter is that it earned quite a bit more than the $375,000 initially requested. The campaign closed Dec. 18 with a pledged $626,250 to produce the game.

That third point apparently convinced a whole lot of people to contribute.

That third point apparently convinced a whole lot of people to contribute.

While surely a few deeply interested pockets came out of the woodwork to fork over several thousand dollars to fund the game, the vast majority of the support game from sheer numbers.

15,230 fans of the adventure genre donated anywhere between $20 and $150, thus sealing the fate of the Kickstarter campaign. While that high number doesn’t quite match the sell through stats of the triple A titles, Thimbleweed Park did rank 173rd of the highest grossing Kickstarter campaigns, keeping close company with the Occulus Rift and the Pebble watch.

All to say that the fan base for adventure games remains savvy enough to watch for new games and maintains a willingness to pay for development.

This late-in-the-year crop of news also follows publisher Activision Blizzard’s summer announcement to revive Sierra Entertainment. Sierra expanded adventure games into the graphical era after its start in 1980, providing some of the following decade’s biggest titles like the Kings Quest series and Phantasmagoria. Activision shuttered Sierra, then under the Vivendi umbrella, in 2008 after purchasing the collection of studios a few years before.

Whether because of the growth in smaller titles or renewed interest in adventure games, Activision unveiled the new Sierra-name last August.

“Sierra caters to the individual needs of each indie studio,” the new website reads. “Sierra games will be primarily digitally distributed on platforms including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam for PC.”

 

Whether adventure games have merely the happenstance of Walking Dead popularity to thank for the revival or a genuine shift of taste changes in game playing, the fact remains that the genre will stay alive for a few years longer.