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Adventure games: an endangered genre?

The adventure game genre is in danger. Marginalised, underfunded and forgotten, it is now a niche that only the faithful or desperate will touch. Yet adventure games were once a core member of the videogames family, a place where you could relax with a good puzzle and forget about shooting yet another Nazi henchman. They offered sharp dialogue, humour and involving stories which would keep you hooked until the very end. So why has such a staple in our gaming diet been sidelined and what does the future hold for it?

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The double edged sword of the console revolution

To get a true sense of why the genre is stumbling and what can be done to fix it, I interviewed Guillaume de Fondaumière and Byron Gaum, two veterans of the industry. When asked why adventure games had declined so much in recent years, both cited the emergence of the console as the platform of choice as a primary reason.

A brief history

It all began with Colossal Cave Adventure, a 1976 text based caving game which introduced the world to the interactive story. It may be laughable by today’s standards, but it was the primordial soup that an entire genre later emerged from. The advent of computer graphics soon accelerated this evolution and LucasArts was one of the major companies to take advantage and redefine what an adventure could be. The likes of Monkey Island, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango heralded a golden age for the genre, but one that didn’t extend into the new millennium. As sales started to slump, publishers began to shy away from investing in new titles and during the last decade, there have been very few titles that have really captured the spirit of those that went before them.

“I think that a large part of the reason is the decrease in PC gaming purchases in general due to the tremendous sales of all three console systems. Years ago, the console systems couldn’t compete with the processing power of the PC, but today it’s a much more level playing field,” commented Gaum.

Of all the genres, adventure games are perhaps the least reliant on cutting-edge technology, but modern videogames are expected to present us with a cinematical experience on par with what Hollywood can produce. De Fondaumière found that “graphical standards are very high nowadays and you need a top notch execution to make your settings and characters believable.”

When adventure games were originally conceived, they were on a much smaller scale, and more importantly, budget. In an era where videogames cost tens of millions to create, adventure titles aren’t the most obvious candidates with which to make a quick buck. According to Gaum, this is because “quite simply, the market isn’t large enough for them. There is much more money to be made elsewhere.”

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The interviewees

Guillaume de Fondaumière
Co-CEO of Quantic Dream and President of the French National Video Game Association

After founding Arxel Tribe, a company which specialised in high-end 3D graphics and later videogames, Guillaume joined Quantic Dream where he was the executive producer of Fahrenheit. He also oversees the studio’s administrative, financial and legal business.

Byron Gaum
Product Manager at DreamCatcher Games and The Adventure Company

Since 2000, Byron has managed the marketing for more than 80 bestselling and award-winning console, handheld and computer games.

When one click isn’t enough

We hold many of the adventure games of the last two decades in such high regard, but maybe their reliance on such restrictive mechanics was bound to backfire one day. “Not only is repeating the same actions boring after a short while, but it is almost impossible to tell a decent story with so little means”, de Fondaumière explained.

“As a consequence, the story in these type of games is inevitably driven through non interactive cut-scenes, like in… porn movies: action (sex), a little bit of story, action (sex), etc… Since narration is at the core of what an adventure is (and should be), such a treatment is killing the immersion and therefore the experience.”

When the likes of Beneath a Steel Sky were created, the sophistication of the input methods available at the time were limited, but the mechanics never moved on when better technology became available. The irony is that in a genre so often associated with nostalgia, a reluctance to adapt has cost it so dearly.

One solution at a time

However, there is hope for a genre stuck deep in a mess of its own creation. Two solutions have emerged which are slowly but surely rejuvenating adventure games.

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“There is much more money to be made elsewhere”Sam & Max have returned with episodic content, with the first and current seasons being well received by fans and critics alike. As a delivery method, it’s been a success for the few games that that have used it, but is it the real answer to the genre’s problems?

“If videogame episodes are delivered in short and regular intervals and the prices remain competitive, then this model has a chance at working. But if consumers are forced to wait too long between episodes and the price is too high, consumers will quickly lose interest. I think that most publishers will continue to stick with the full-game release model for a while yet”, Gaum concluded.

Adventure games could potentially survive as episodic content, but you get the feeling that it would only make them even more of a niche product. To be taken seriously again, the genre needs several big budget successes and in 2005, we got exactly that.

The Quantic Dream

The other solution, of course, is to change the way we think about adventure games by creating new, more immersive experiences that take full advantage of the latest technology. Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North America) eschewed traditional control methods and presented the player with a story in which their actions had a real lasting effect.

Its graphics were on par with the finest games of the day and its art direction gave it a dark and deeply cinematic feel. The characters and the relationships between them were central to Fahrenheit in a way that’s rarely seen these days. When asked about what Quantic Dream had learnt from developing it, de Fondaumière answered:

“When you try something new, you never know what the response from the market will be. We try to do things differently, to put for instance story at the core of the experience or to create characters with a soul rather than only features and attributes. I guess the most important lesson we’ve learned through Fahrenheit is that there actually is an adult female and male audience today that is desperately longing for meaningful content in games.”

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“There actually is an adult female and male audience today that is desperately longing for meaningful content in games”Quantic Dream proved to the industry that adventure games could be modernised and more importantly, profitable. Fahrenheit took the responsibility of lifting the genre and did a fine job, but there’s still work to be done. Until other publishers are willing to embrace similar projects, then Quantic Dream will remain as the sole innovator in the field.

The studio’s next title is Heavy Rain, which de Fondaumière was not willing to reveal much about, except that their ambition is “to push the gaming experience to realise a new level of interactivity and, in particular, to engage players at an emotional level never experienced before.” With the game a long way from completion, the only material we have to currently go on is a tech demo, which showed huge potential.

The Nintendo way

When you think about traditional adventure games, Nintendo might not immediately come to mind, but their novel control methods on the DS and Wii hold promise for the genre. By using pointing devices, they’ve made both of their platforms ideal for adventure games, which have traditionally relied on such interfaces. Gaum, whose company has already been taking advantage of this development voiced his excitement at the prospect of “new, interesting and innovative adventure games” being released for both platforms, stating that “we are definitely starting to see a buck in this trend”.

The advent of Emotion Engines

For a long time, we’ve been told that modern gaming hardware will give us richer, more cinematic experiences. As videogames lean further towards Hollywood sensibilities, stories are playing an increasingly important role. Aren’t adventure games ideal for the modern era?

“They definitely are, but it is essential that they evolve past the point in which they are today. Indigo Prophecy is an excellent example of progress. We’re beginning to see that stories are becoming much more important in most genres, so it’s great to see adventure games’ influence on the entire industry,” Gaum responded.

“It is essential that they evolve past the point in which they are today”While I’m not convinced that it’s adventure games’ influence that has brought about this increase in story-based games, a desire to take advantage of improving technology certainly has. When Sony unveiled the PlayStation 2, it named the processor the Emotion Engine, such was the promised power to render human feelings.

“Emotion is at the core of the experiences we are creating, and the better the graphics, the sound, the physics, the AI, the higher the level of immersion and the emotional response from gamers we can attempt to provoke”, de Fondaumière added.

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The future

So with the double edged sword of the console revolution making adventure games more difficult to make, but potentially much better, what future is there for the genre? Will they remain a niche or is there hope for a full revival yet?

“Emotion is at the core of the experiences we are creating”Gaum was cautiously optimistic, “I think that adventure games will remain a niche, but a very strong niche. I believe that there is a lot of room to grow and expand the market, but the offerings need to evolve too. One way in which we’re trying to expand the market is to appeal to a different demographic altogether – young boys ages 8-12 with The Hardy Boys mystery games. Traditionally, all that has been offered for younger boys has involved some level of violence and we’re hoping to change that this year. Another way that we’re attempting to expand the market is by taking our adventure games to new platforms.”

Diversification, then, is the name of the game in some parts. Over at Quantic Dream, de Fondaumière predicted a healthy time ahead for the genre.

“I think there is a great future for games that, in general, engage in the process of becoming more accessible to a wider audience and offer more meaningful content. As such, adventure games, because they are narrative and character driven like movies or literary works do have an advantage in this area over other genres to become popular amongst all audiences, regardless of age, sex and origin.”

Adventure games may have gone from a major genre to a forgotten niche, but Fahrenheit showed us that they can still be relevant in an industry dominated by consoles. While the advent of new technology can hinder development, it also offers a huge opportunity for adventure games to realise their true potential. Let’s hope that publishers feel the same way.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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