Nostalgia Lane: The appeal of adventure games

I can’t even count the number of times that I heard how the adventure game genre was dying, particularly in the ’90s.  Adventure games were among the very first computer games, with a rich lineage dating back to Adventure, Zork, Planetfall, SpaceQuest, Secret of Monkey Island, and the like.  If you were a computer gamer in the ’80s or early ’90s, chances are you got heavily invested in one of these titles and became a huge fan of them.

Even though they were “dying” — which they never quite did.

Adventure games could best be described as interactive novels (some just text, others graphical) that reward player persistence, deduction, puzzle-solving, and sometimes plain luck by unlocking the next stage of the story.  They were little movies where you were the star, and it was up to you to bring the story to its climax.

Some people, particularly today, have a hard time fathoming why adventure games appealed to gamers.  I’ve heard some folks slander the genre stating that it offered very little in the way of gameplay, that it was too on rails, and so on.  But that’s cherry-picking negatives while overlooking the bounty of the positives, so I wanted to explain why, at least for me, these games were (and are) so compelling to play.

First of all, adventure games offered substantial, often brilliantly written stories back when most games consisted of “chasing ghosts and eating dots” or “strafe and hold down the fire key to kill Nazis”.  A good, deep story told in a masterful way is the biggest reward I could ever ask for in a game, and that includes MMOs (which do share some common traits with adventure titles).  Unlike movies, you weren’t just handed the story on a silver platter, but were made to work for it, to earn it, to invest yourself in it.  By doing so, you ended up caring about this story so very much.

Second, adventure games put a premium on conversations and character-building.  The humor and characterization that went on in these titles were surprisingly deep, leading to memorable characters that would stick in your head for years afterward.

And as for the gameplay, adventure games focused on puzzle-solving, which is no more or less noble than any other form of gameplay.  Sure, sometimes the puzzles were far too abstract or required an insane amount of pixel-hunting, but the sheer rush whenever you’d figure one out kept you going until the next one.

Back before the internet, playing an adventure game meant you had very little in the way of walkthroughs or help, which could lead to some immense frustration.  I’ll admit that.  I was there, several times: staying up late, banging my head on the desk, trying to figure out how to get past this one room.  But even so, it would bring you closer with friends who were also playing it or had played it, as you shared information and sometimes even raced to see who could progress the furthest.

There are scores of video games that I’ve forgotten over the years, but the fact that so many of my memories of adventure games are crystal-clear are a testament to their power.  I remember my weekend struggle to beat the entirety of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis as if it was yesterday.  I recall the rollercoaster of emotions that The Longest Journey led me through.  8th grade was consumed by discussion amongst my friends as to how to beat Space Quest.  My brothers and I spent countless hours trying to master all of the intricacies of Kings Quest I.  I even know that my first memory of a computer game was of an older teen playing what was probably Adventure while we hovered over his shoulders and told him what to try.

It was sad how the adventure genre fell out of glory in the latter ’90s and early 2000s, but it’s exciting to see their resurrection in recent times.  Plenty of iPhone originals and ports feature adventure games, Steam sells plenty of original adventure titles that smaller companies are still producing, and GOG.com has tons of the old classics available for first- or second-time playthroughs.  Right now I’m going through Gabriel Knight for the very first time in my life (I wasn’t aware of it back in 1994), and having a blast.

While they’ll never regain their former glory, it’s good to see adventure games fighting the good fight and telling awesome stories that are just waiting for you or me to step into the starring role and complete.

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13 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: The appeal of adventure games

  1. I played all 3 GK games back in the day. Wonderful stories, wonderful acting (especially in 1 & 3), wonderful music. I envy you that you get to experience these games fresh right now. I think I made it through all three games without resorting to “help” to figure anything out. Except for 1 puzzle in Sins of the Father. That puzzle left an head-shaped indent on my keyboard…

  2. I always felt that adventure games were the closest to “falling into a book”; maybe that’s why to me, they were always the most immersive. I’m not sure about the “they’ll never regain their former glory”; the past decade has certainly been an era for different genres, but I also detect the curve plunging and players getting more satiated from the same. I’m hopeful that titles like ‘Journey’ herald a comeback for visually stunning adventure gaming, maybe less puzzly and of a more online kind.

    I also still want to get this book: http://www.hg101.kontek.net/book.html
    maybe something for you, too?

  3. I hated the well in King’s Quest 1. There were also some bits in those older games that you needed to time just right, and the clock was bound to the CPU… so when I played on a faster computer, no reflexes were fast enough. Bleh.

    …that said, I do love adventure games. Sierra’s Robin Hood: Adventures of the Longbow is one of my all time favorites. I’m still playing through Syberia with my wife, and I keep meaning to go back and play Indy’s ‘Atlantis. I have the rework of Monkey Island around here somewhere, too, and I’m playing through The Dig again…

    Yeah, good times. :)

  4. Gabriel Knight is one of the classics. I remember being young, sitting at my parents computer, playing it late at night and having the bejesus scared out of me by one of the cutscenes.

    This is definitely one of the games I plan to revisit, and GOG makes that awesomely possible. :)

  5. I played “Broken Sword” on my iPod Touch for half an hour of my lunch break today, as it happens. Superb adventure, probably my favorite of any I’ve played. I played it on the PC back when it came out and it works brilliantly on the iPod Touch.

    I played a lot of adventures back in the 1980s – I even reviewed them for MicroAdventurer magazine for a while. I hardly ever finished one, though. Most of the language parsing was unforgiving in the extreme and there always came a point where I simply couldn’t find anything that a game would accept, at which point I’d give up and buy another one. I’d still like to know how “The Golden Apple” ends.

  6. oh, this is making me so nostalgic….. Fate of Atlantis was what made me fall in love with video games. my, then boyfriend (now husband) won me over by sharing his video game collection with me, one of them being Prisoner of Ice (you should totaly play it if you can find it).. and then there was Myst… I’m also glad that adventure games are still around :D

  7. Remember the decoder wheel for The Secret of Monkey Island …. DIAL A PIRATE!!!

    Has anyone else contributed to the Jane Jensen kickstarter project yet?

  8. You are caught in a maze of twisty little passages…
    A hollow voice says “plugh”

    Good times.

  9. Never since I have come across so vile a villain as the zombie pirate LeChuck! Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate kept me entertained through the nineties.

  10. This sure brings back old memories…besides those mentioned above back in my University days I also was heaviliy into Ultima Underworld (1 and especially 2) and a few of the Wizardry (by defunct Sir-tech?) series. But I think these were more RPG type games as compared to pure adventure types.

    Mind you I am surprise I dont see much mention of Leisure Suit Larry!

  11. Pingback: [DAW] Developers Appreciation Week: Jane Jensen « Welcome to Spinksville!

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