Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Adventure Gaming is Dead

with 3 comments

Ron Gilbert, known mostly through the retro circles as the creator of Maniac Mansion and various other games that ran on the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, said it best way back in 1989 when he wrote his rant entitled “Why Adventure Games Suck.”  In it Gilbert attacks the myriad of tropes and issues he foresaw with the very genre that made him famous.  It’s quite an impressive read and I suggest you all check it out because there are things he mentions within that piece that are still true today.

mm1All snark aside the point-and-click adventure genre, which saw its largest degree of popularity in the mid-late 80s and early 90s, was always doomed to fail.  Not quite a game, not quite a movie (Gilbert is the apparent father of the term “cutscene” because of script he wrote in Maniac Mansion referring to scenes you were forced to watch as “cut-scene”), and despite its general solid writing definitely not a book.  It spins a yarn and in many cases tosses in some comedy as one of the only gaming genres that can still control timing without forcefully restricting the player.  In concept the genre seems perfectly suited for being a form of interactive fiction and one who hasn’t played these titles may wonder why it performed so poorly and had such a short shelf life in the industry.  This is because you haven’t played an adventure game.  As enticing as the chuckle-filled story may seem, point-and-click adventure titles were still video games and thus had to adhere to certain rules.  No one has quite found the balance and I do believe nostalgia is to blame for the reason anyone still likes these games, because the balance between telling a story and making a game has never found its happy medium.  Before you kill me, let me explain.

Maniac Mansion

If you’re going to get started in the point-and-click adventure genre it’s probably best to begin with Gilbert’s first, and probably best, title Maniac Mansion.  In it you will select from a series of teenagers sneaking into a house to find the jock’s girlfriend who was abducted shortly before the game begins.  As you progress you will encounter various items within the house from the over-sexual Nurse Edna to a tentacle randomly sticking out of the floor (and it talks).  Each scenario is more absurd than the last and upon completion of the game, regardless of which ending you get, the impression it leaves is unforgettable.  That is, unless you’ve never played it.

If you haven’t then you may have nothing more than a series of turmoil and annoyance at the limited tropes of gameplay that if you don’t give up the game will block progression for you.  Maniac Mansion is one of the first titles in a slew of games that had fail states, missed items or scenarios that prevent you from moving forward in the game, hidden clues, impossible puzzles, and plenty more to complain about.  Did I mention that when you hit most of these problems you’re never alerted to that fact?  Yeah, you can screw up and get stuck in the dungeon for the rest of time but no matter how many hours you spend there the game will never tell you that your attempts are futile.  Nope, it’ll let you roam the dungeon, stuck, forever.  Perhaps you want to pick up a walkthrough – those are quite popular with the gaming crowd returning to the past.  Nope, that won’t help you much either because in trying to figure out where you went wrong you’ll have to read through a step-by-step scenario of how to complete the game, including many actions you may have never encountered or had no idea about, and have all the good parts spoiled for you.  Oh yeah, and you still may not be able to pinpoint the mistake that proves you’re stuck for good.  This is just Maniac Mansion, I’m not even getting into forgetting to pick up that one item in King’s Quest II that will prevent you from beating the game many hours later or Gabriel Knight 3 that for some reason wants you to copy a driver’s license picture by adding a mustache to the guy on the DL and yourself without so much as a hint.  Bulls**t, right?

So why do some people still play these games?  As I said before: nostalgia.  Either you’ve played the game a million times and you know when to grab that glass or find the key in the envelope, giving those that have never seen the solution and question your logic nothing more than a slight shrug as you do so, or you’ve played so many of these games you’re acutely aware of the tropes.  That latter is often still not a sufficient enough asset to justify taking on some of these titles.

Flip Side

phantasmagoria1Okay so you’ve figured out that your audience needs a little support have you.  Perhaps a hint system to get them through or the removal of death states so as not to waste tens of hours as your player fails time and time again.  Then you find yourself with the complete opposite problem: it’s boring.  Nothing really happens and you never get the satisfaction of solving any puzzles because that stupid hint button is so large and in your face that after a few minutes of frustration you push it.  Let’s face it, even as hardcore gamers we only stop ourselves from cheating because there’s no easy way to do so.  Near the end of this genre in the 90s, the first game that comes to mind being Phantasmagoria, a horror-esque title from King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams.  If you feel the need, and many will, you can literally let the hint system walk you through 90 percent of that game without so much as a single intelligent thought.  You might very well need to because adventure fans tend to think themselves above a game like this and those looking for an interesting new computer game weren’t ready for the confines of the genre.

Even nowadays with the resurrection of the point-and-click adventure with pioneer Telltale Games it’s nearly impossible to fail and almost every solution is all but explained to you.  This explains why I can’t seem to complete any of the developer’s games (sans the most recent, The Walking Dead) without getting incredibly bored.  I feel like I’m just going through the motions, which isn’t satisfactory even when the game is a beloved franchise like Back to the Future.  It’s too detailed and long to just walk through it but the “game” part just isn’t all that fun.

Contemporary Adventure and Things to Come

Full disclosure, The Cave, Gilbert’s newest title that promises to re-invent the point-and-click adventure and “get it right” came out today and I have yet to play it.  With that in mind, I’m going to proceed with my next comments about the current state of this genre with the caveat that it doesn’t include The Cave.

Nowadays the point-and-click genre is picking up steam again and bold promises come from all around.  Telltale is improving, impressing me greatly with last year’s The Walking Dead, and both Tim Schafer (creator of Maniac Mansion‘s sequel Day of the Tentacle) and Ron Gilbert have games on the way.  All things considered it’s looking good for fans of the genre but I have yet to see anything that speaks to many of the problems demonstrated here or in Gilbert’s aforementioned essay.  The Walking Dead earned game of the year from Spike’s VGAs and yet I still argue it’s not really a video game.  Sure, it’s a great title that easily has 2012’s best story, but it’s a lackluster gaming experience at best.  It still suffers the tropes of getting you stuck with no idea what to do but also removes any setback of dying and thus can make for some aggravating moments when stuck.  Not only that, it’s completely linear, forcing players in a smoke-and-mirrors world where choice seems like an option but the outcome always remains the same.  It’s not bad by any means, but it still proves to be tied down to the limits of the genre.  These gaming greats of adventure’s past are promising to overcome those obstacles – and my prayers are with them because I personally believe these limitations cannot be overcome due to the nature of the genre – but as it stands this has yet to be accomplished.  In the end it’s a lot of promise and a ton of faith with the hope that someone can best a concept that has been around more than 20 years and still can’t find a decent balance.


Perhaps adventure games are not dead.  Perhaps they don’t suck.  Perhaps there’s some kid out there that can pick up Maniac Mansion tonight on SCUMM VM and after a few hours be changed forever.  Somehow, though, I doubt that’s a common case.  It just seems like an alternative to the hybrid nerd that loves both literature and gaming – they get a chunk of what they’ve always wanted out of either.  Until you see literature buffs pick up a controller or gaming buffs pick up a book as the result of these titles, I’m still not convinced.  Oh well, either way, adventure gaming is a thing and there’s a strong loud fan base that will take offense to this blog post ever being written.  As for me, I still can’t manage to stomach any title in the genre that I haven’t already beaten back when I was a kid and remember every step required like the muscle memory of riding a bike.

I know it seems like a cop out, but I would like to state for the record that despite my criticism that these titles have not succeeded in the goals they wish to fulfill, that these are in no way poor games.  In fact, when compared to many of the time period they were released, they stand out in the group.  This also says nothing for the innovation that has been integrated into every genre moving forward from the shooter to even the fighter.  Unfortunately this integration has seemed to only limit further the need for the genre overall.  There’s a place for adventure games, but it’s a tight niche.

Written by Fred Rojas

January 22, 2013 at 10:36 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Some really great writing here. Considering I’ve been buried knee-deep in the genre since childhood, I think it speaks to your piece that I read it through to the end without feeling the urge to jump down here into the comments and ALLCAPS until I felt better.

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree with some of your points, of course, but it got me questioning the genre in ways that I haven’t in a long while, so much so that I used it as the catalyst for my own counter-argument, which, if you’re interested, you can find here:

    Keep up the great work, for what it’s worth, you’ve found a new fan 🙂

    Superfly CJ

    February 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    • Everyone reading this needs to head over to your site now and read your response and other articles. It’s great to dissecting gaming with someone else, even if our views collide. Glad you stopped by!


      February 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

  2. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. The genre has refused to truly evolve with the technology available in a game-play sense. The same goes for interactive fiction. Though some recent IF is clever most of it could have been done in the 80’s as the technology has little progressed and was available back then(text database/parser. Adventure gaming lacked a Richard Garriot to push the genre forward in a gameplay sense. In fact I think adventure games can borrow from the great role-playing games such as Fallout and Baldur’s gate. Oh well CRPG’s have been stagnant game play wise since the last golden age.


    February 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm

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