This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee dives into the adventure game genre following the announcement of Return to Monkey Island and how the genre has seen better days.
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.
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?
Extra Punctuation: Yahtzee describes the failings of the adventure game genre following the announcement of Return to Monkey Island.