Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Graphic Adventure Games

         Graphic adventure games flourished in the 90’s, but quickly declined around the end of that decade. More recently, Telltale Games has resurrected the dead genre to a good degree of success by smartly basing their games off of popular cult classics (Sam and Max, Strong Bad, Back to the Future, etc), and other small independent devs have tried their hand at making a point-and-click (see The Whispered World from Daedalic Entertainment), but in general, the genre is no longer as prominent as it once was.

          Why is this the case? There’re a couple factors that may have lead to the death of the point-and-click era. For my purposes, I’m going to mostly mention Sierra On-line and early Lucasarts. Yes, I do realize Infocom was an important company for adventure games, as were the many Myst games that Cyan created, but to avoid this blog entry from getting even lengthier than it already is, let’s just focus on Sierra and Lucasarts for the most part.

 The original Adventure.

          In the 80’s, the “early years” of graphic adventure games, almost everything was text-based, thanks to previous efforts by Infocom and On-line Systems (later to become Sierra On-line). Most famously, Zork and Adventure (originally called Colossal Cave Adventure) helped start things off. A desirable element of these early text based games was the player’s own imagination because these games didn’t have any images to speak of and relied on short descriptions to relay to the user what they were seeing and experiencing in that world. Subsequent text-based adventure games would have rudimentary graphics and artwork to better illustrate the game worlds. As time went on, these building blocks of adventure games (imagery, descriptions, exploring, inventory-collecting) were expanded upon, and as the look and feel of the games evolved, so did the interface, until Lucasarts and Sierra started developing point-and-click interfaces for their adventure games to better facilitate interaction.

Lucasart's early SCUMM interface.

         There were a lot of desirable elements to making a point-and-click adventure at the time. Considering this was long before 3D graphics, the painterly style of the more popular point-and-clicks was very visually engaging. Sierra On-line games often had digitized painted backgrounds. It really was a requirement for those games, though; it’s no fun having to click-explore through a boring looking landscape. Many game screens would have intricate details and animated elements to catch the player’s eye. The games were also a lot easier to program, since many of them shared the same engines. In Lucasarts’ case, they used the SCUMM engine for their point-and-clicks, and different games in their library would simply have different stories and art assets on top of the same programming foundation. Point-and-clicks also were usually whimsical or bizarre, and offered a lot more humor and random adventures for a gamer during that time than the more straightforward action games of that era, which were often little more than continuous gameplay. The point-and-clicks were the Thinking Man’s game.

Sierra did know how to make a pretty looking game.

          With the positives, there were an overwhelming amount of negatives. There were a lot of cases when the items you picked up and what you had to accomplish with those items wasn’t clear or obvious at all. A popular example is a pie obtainable in King’s Quest V. Could you eat it? Sure, but that would make your game Unwinnable (more on this below). Could you give it to a hungry vulture found later in the desert? Sure, but that wasn’t the desired intent. The real purpose of the pie was to throw in the face of a yeti much later in the game to cause him to fall off a cliff and let you progress. Sometimes bizarre objects would need to be combined to make a specific object to satisfy a challenge (In Sam and Max Hit the Road, a pompadour wig + a stiltwalker costume + wooly mammoth hair + tar = a Bigfoot costume…. The heck?) .

          There also wasn’t very much real-time action to speak of in point-and-click adventure games, which made for slow-paced experiences that turned some gamers off. A gamer looking for something fast-paced like Mario or Sonic or a high-speed racing game would be turned off by the slow methodical approach many point-and-clicks used for their puzzles and exploration. A few notable departures from this however were games like the Quest for Glory series that was one of the few adventure game series that incorporated a fighting system and real-time encounters… probably something that helped make it one of my favorite point-and-click games of all time. Other games like Maniac Mansion would keep you on your toes with dangerous characters sometimes wandering halls and certain rooms that had to be avoided at times.

          But the worst part about point-and-clicks was the dreaded unwinnable scenario. Unwinnable situations were when items vital to moving forward in the game were accidentally missed and then unobtainable after reaching a point of no return later in the game, or used where they weren’t supposed to be. The above King’s Quest V pie situation is a good example. Sierra games were particularly fraught with unintentional unwinnables, but many of Infocom’s early games like Zork intentionally created unwinnable situations to forcibly extend the playtime of the game (since a player would have to start all over again). Often these situations arose from eating or disposing of something edible that would be needed later on.

Don't eat that garlic! Don't you do it...

          The thing that made unwinnable situations so terrible was that it was never readily apparent that you’d just ruined your shot at finishing the game. Players would be locked into walking dead games; basically you were “dead” because you could never beat the game— you just might not realize it for a long time, or ever; very frustrating for both veteran point-and-click gamers and newcomers alike.

          As game technology thrived and evolved and games grew more complex, the point-and-click fast became an antiquated-feeling 2D genre for many gamers who were enamored with 3D polygons and flashier gameplay. Point-and-click games hadn’t changed enough with the times, and larger companies with titles that lived and died by their profit numbers started hacking away point-and-click adventure series like gangrenous limbs. Much of Lucasarts’ point-and-clicks disappeared over time, and many Sierra On-Line series only lived on in re-released collections. Sierra’s last attempts at making more action-oriented point-and-click games like Quest for Glory V: Dragonfire and King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity (which both utilized polygonal graphics to some degree and more action-based movement and fighting) tried their best, but ultimately were the ends of their respective series.

          But, in the past few years, point-and-click adventure games have had a revival of sorts, thanks in no small part to Telltale Games, a company originally comprised of many ex-Lucasarts employees from the 90’s point-and-click era. Why have their adventure titles done so well? In my opinion it’s a mixture of cult fandom and nostalgia, along with a healthy does of uncomplicated gameplay. They did well for starters by acquiring the rights to Sam and Max from Lucasarts as well as creator Steve Purcell’s approval and consultation. Their puzzles are also significantly easier to figure out compared to the old days of point-and-clicks. In older games, sometimes a game guide or cheat list would be needed to progress past some pretty unintuitive sections of an adventure game (and also how they probably made more money with strategy guides) but with many of the Telltale titles, either hints or obvious clues are present to progress. Are they sometimes too easy? Maybe. Having just finished Episode One of their new Back to the Future game, I found it to be too easy to solve most of the puzzles... but in Telltale’s case, the puzzles often take a backseat to the game’s character and story. Their games and their promise/problems are better to expand on in another article, but their success in renewing interest in point-and-click games can’t be understated.

          Maybe one day Lucasarts will revisit the point-and-click, though with its changing management that’s unlikely to happen for a long time, and Sierra being swallowed whole by Viviendi Games and then again by Activision honestly dooms them to oblivion, seeing as the typical Call of Duty player has no desire to play a new Roberta Williams game.

…So let’s just hope that nothing happens to Telltale I suppose, hm?