Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adventure Games: They're Not Dead, They Just Smell Funny

Monkey Island 2 and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the FathersMonkey Island 2 and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

You can always spot cranky old gamers by their insistence that everything was better in the earlier days of gaming, and one of their chief laments is that they don't make adventure games any more. It's not not hard to fathom why - those of us who had played the Space Quests, King's Quests and Police Quests, the golden age of LucasArts games, from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2 to Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, the Gabriel Knight series, probably the last of the high profile adventures of the era, will probably include one or more of these games in their favourite games from the past. Some of us may even remember playing text adventures before that (while I remember them, I don't think I ever got very far in any of them, in the pre-GameFAQs days when it wasn't the gamer's right to complete every game).

So where are these games now? It may surprise some to know that they're still around, and in fact more plentiful than they've been in over a decade, it's just their profile has changed a bit.

Runaway: A Road Adventure and Secret Files: TunguskaRunaway: A Road Adventure and Secret Files: Tunguska

For one, Spanish, German, French and Eastern European studios continue to produce these games. These markets tend to be more traditional than the UK and US markets, and haven't shifted as strongly towards the action based, console-centric ethos (perhaps PC games even make money there?), so a lot of games from older genres are still made their. The problem is, with a game as story and dialogue driven as a graphic adventure, language is a big deal, and these games reportedly often suffer ropey localisation to go with their already ropey programming (smaller developers in these markets often hark back to the old days of gaming in more than just genre selection). Probably the most notable are Spanish developer Pendulo's Runaway series German developer Fusionsphere's Secret Files series. No doubt anyone actually more familiar with the genre will be incensed that I've mentioned those but ignored something more worthy, but I'm not sure how many of those people actually exist, and I'm pretty sure none are reading this blog.

Sam & Max and Wallace & Grommit
Sam & Max and Wallace & Grommit

Next up is plucky American upstart Telltale Games, who had been making adventure games since 2005, based on the CSI license as well as the family-friendly Bone comics, but were really noticed when they released the new series of Sam & Max games in 2007. Telltale was actually founded in 2004 by former LucasArts staff who were working on a sequel to the 1993 classic Sam & Max Hit The Road when LucasArts cancelled it. In addition to Sam & Max, they've released Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People (in conjunction with and Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures, and have been entrusted with the new Tales of Monkey Island series (not to be confused with the release of the Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, which they did not work on). Telltale has probably been the most successful publisher of episodic content in the games industry, as the adventure genre is suited to the release of short but regular chunks of game. I've played both seasons of Sam & Max, as well as SBCG4AP, and it's a company I'm usually pretty happy to throw money at.

Space Quest 3 and The DigSpace Quest III and The Dig

If you aren't interested in these new games, it's actually easier than before to play some of the old games, even if you don't want to dig around abandonware sites (although most of these games technically aren't abandonware) and mess about with Dosbox. As I mentioned a few weeks back, LucasArts have release an aurally and visually upgraded version of the first Monkey Island, but the game itself is as before, and the old graphics are only a button-press away (just be aware that the PC version is a big download). LucasArts have also starting re-releasing some of their classic games onto Steam. Currently, only The Dig, Loom and the two Indiana Jones games are available, but it's a good start. Good Old Games has a fair number of old adventure games available, and you can get Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky for free. Sierra (now part of the ActiBlizz hegemony) have released collections of their Space Quest, King's Quest, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games (but sadly, no Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory compilation).

Peasant's Quest and Ben There, Dan ThatPeasant's Quest and Ben There, Dan That

Finally, if you're looking for some sort of freakish hybrid of old and new, there are several free games which pay homage to / gently mock the adventure games of old. A good example is Host Master, which sets up adventure game legend Tim Schafer's presentation to the Games Developers Conference in 2008 in the style of one of the old LucasArts games. An even better example is Peasant's Quest, a nearly full length pastiche of old Sierra games put together with so much love you'll feel nostalgia from the moment you hear the simulated PC speaker music, even though the game itself is entirely new. Also highly recommended are Zombie Cow Studio's Ben There, Dan That (which is free) and it's sequel, Time Gentlemen, Please! (which is a measly £3). There are also hordes of amateur attempts created in Adventure Game Studio, but I'm fairly certain that most of these are rubbish. I did download The Dig-inspired creation The Infinity String a while back, but while it sounds interesting, I just haven't got round to playing it.

Beneath a Steel Sky and The Infinity StringBeneath a Steel Sky and The Infinity String

Actually, one thing which has occurred to me while typing out this horrendously long post, is how many of these games I haven't played, despite the fact that I have bought or downloaded them already. I actually bought a copy of the first Runaway game when it was on a clearance sale for R40 or so, but it's still in the wrapper, and unfortunately, it's a long way down in the queue. I've downloaded Beneath a Steel Sky, Infinity String and Ben There, Dan That, but have yet to play them. Despite enjoying the previous Telltale games I've played, I'm not keen to add any episodes of Tales of Monkey Island to the backlog just yet. So the problem clearly isn't the lack of games in the genre, it is perhaps that we've moved along a little. As actual games, I don't think adventure games are that strong; they live and die on the strength of their writing, and perhaps the interactivity doesn't add to the experience as much as it does in other genres.

So, yes, adventure games still exist, but they aren't the headline releases they used to be, which is perhaps one of the things the retro-gamer misses about them, but due to the fairly widespread incidence of "genre creep" in modern games, their place has largely been taken by RPGs, which now usually contain all the exploration, interaction and storytelling that adventure games used to, just without the obscure object puzzles ("use duct tape on stray cat"), and the adventure game is not going to reclaim its former prominence. Still, if you want to play another, there are plenty of options out there.

1 comment:

  1. I finished playing the remake of Secret of Monkey Island last night, and I can say that I was often pretty frustrated with it. My complaint has nothing to do with the modern re-creation, but rather the design of the original game. On several occasions, I became stumped and unable to progress in the game. Where am I supposed to go now? How can I get past this point in the game? The answer - which seems to have been the norm back-in-the-day) - attempt to "use" every item in your inventory with every other item in your inventory, or attempt to use every "verb" with every clickable feature of the landscape.

    Of course "push canon" seems like a reasonable command when you read it in a game design flowchart, but in reality when there are six other clickable features (rock, horizon, path, tree, rope, breath mints) and also six other verbs (pull, open, close, pick up, talk to, use) and twenty whole other locations at the player's disposal, then it just becomes a dead end. Perhaps we had more patience back-in-the-day? Perhaps we were more open to trial and error as a valid strategy for problem solving?

    Anyway, it didn't take me long to lose my patience with Monkey Island SE and to download a walkthrough. It fixed my frustration, but I got a nagging guilt instead.