Press X to punch the zombie; choose a dialogue option; flick the thumbstick to jump over the fallen log. Such simplistic controls are the foundation of the adventure genre in gaming, one of the industry’s most niche forms of interactive entertainment. Immensely popular in the late-1980s to mid-1990s, games such as Zork, King’s Quest,and Myst provided some of the most technically complex experiences gamers had ever seen. Adventure games were king; until they weren’t.
As the 90’s came to a close, the industry underwent a dramatic shift in tone, as the rise of the console led to an increased focus on new high-octane action titles, such as Half-Life and Doom. Indeed, the taste of the average gamer was changing rapidly, and a desire for more intense experiences left the adventure genre in a near-collapsed state. Although it maintained a relatively strong foothold in the PC gaming scene, it appeared that the adventure game was losing steam on consoles.
With its emphasis on rudimentary controls and limited interactivity, it appeared that the genre would never again capture the hearts and minds of players, destined to become a footnote in the annals of the console gaming scene. And yet, the dawn of the 21st century has seen an astounding revitalization of the genre, with adventure games such as The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us, consistently topping gamers’ “best of the year” lists, both on PC and consoles. How did this happen? How did such an archaic form of interactive experience suddenly regain its relevance on consoles in an era dominated by massive, AAA blockbuster titles? The answer is threefold: gamers’ desire for something unique, a successful business model, and extraordinarily talented developers.
It is quite apparent from the excitement and buzz currently surrounding the genre that console gamers have been longing for a return to its simplicity, without even realizing it. Modern AAA titles, with their emphasis on complex controls, intricately designed systems, and increasingly cinematic experiences are still king; however, the minimalism associated with the adventure genre has provided grizzled gamers with a nostalgic look back upon the fond memories of their childhood, and rookie gamers with a completely new experience to engage with.
The reality is simple: Adventure games offer a unique experience in stark contrast to the bloated nature of today’s AAA titles, and console gamers are reaping the benefits. When the simple act of pointing and clicking can engage the player’s mind with thoughtful conversation or the thrill of an intense action sequence, the appeal of the genre shines through. In an industry increasingly focused on complexity and realism, the simple exceptionality of the genre allows gamers to enjoy their favorite pastime without the distractions of modern game development.
On the more practical side, the adventure game has returned to prominence due to its reliance on a new business model that ensures a fair exchange for interested console gamers. Many modern adventure games are released in an episodic format, with gamers either paying for individual episodes or for the season as a whole. Whichever path is chosen, the gamer tends to receive a good return on their meager investment.
Indeed, when individual episodes cost $4.99 a piece, the risk factor is minimal, as the gamer can easily opt out of future episodes, having only contributed a small amount. Even the season passes, generally priced at $24.99, remain an exponentially less costly investment than AAA titles, at $59.99.
Faced with the extraordinarily high costs of modern videogames and the increasingly frequent prevalence of buggy, unfinished games at launch, it is no surprise then that many console gamers have turned to the adventure game for their entertainment. As the economy continues to recover, the adventure genre has carved out a place for itself as an affordable alternative to the mainstream hype machine of the AAA game.
The final piece of this puzzle lies with the rise of talented developers dedicated to crafting unique and engaging titles within the genre. No other company epitomizes this commitment to quality and raw talent than the current adventure game kings, Telltale Games. Having developed both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us to rousing commercial and critical success, the studio did not rest on its laurels. Already, entries into its Tales of the Borderlands and Game of Thrones series are garnering positive praise, and the studio is already preparing a new series based on the popular franchise, Minecraft.
Each series is guided by the same fundamental principles: a strong narrative, engaging characters, difficult decisions, and tense action sequences. This formula has proven widely successful with gamers, who have longed for better storytelling in the titles that they consume. And the concept of in-game decisions tailoring the experience to each individual’s unique playthrough provides gamers with an extraordinary sense of autonomy. Such components, competent storytelling and personal investment, tend to be lacking in modern AAA titles that are more focused on simply crafting “fun” experiences.
Telltale Games’ ability to effectively combine these elements into a “fun” experience, while still maintaining the core appeal of the adventure game, is evidence of its skill and dedication to the genre. The passion of the developers is evident, and is the primary reason why the genre has returned to the forefront of the console gaming consciousness.
Regarding the future of the adventure game, there are many ways the genre could be improved to further capture the hearts and minds of modern gamers. Currently, most play spaces in these games tend to be rather small and restrictive; players can walk around and explore, but only in a confined area. It would be nice to see these areas expand in future releases, providing players with more room to experience their adventure.
Quick-time events, while essential to the adventure formula, could become less frequent, with more directly controlled sequences taking their place. I enjoyed a brawl my character had in the most recent episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones, but I felt that the experience could have been more intense if I had more direct control in the situation. Finally, it would be fascinating if the genre adopted a more realistic approach to content; currently, most titles either deal with fantastical themes or exist in a decidedly animated fashion. Playing through a more realistic experience, such as that found in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, would provide gamers with a different perspective in the genre.
Ultimately, the return of the adventure game genre on consoles is the result of gamers’ desires for a unique, cost-effective form of entertainment, and the dedication with which developers such as Telltale Games have approached the genre ensures that it will be around for years to come. Indeed, the recent re-release of Tim Schafer’s cult classic Grim Fandango is yet another sign that the genre has truly made a rebound in the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. As I finished playing the latest episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones, my excitement for the next installment grew to a fever pitch. Perhaps, that is the idea; to whisk gamers away on an entertaining journey all their own, as they await the latest chapter in their favorite point-and-click adventure.