Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive: Where Adventure Games Are Hiding

Double Fine's record-breaking Kickstarter adventure has, over the past few days, rekindled the perennial discussion about the entire genre of adventure games. The classic adventure has had its death announced dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the past decade or so, with at least an equal number of rebuttals.

When adventure game god Tim Schafer courted his fans directly last week, over 50,000 individuals (so far) put their money where their mouths are to the tune of $1.7 million and counting. And yet, video games are an industry in which the biggest titles routinely cost between $20 and $100 million to create, and where the biggest action hits can generate $1 billion in sales from millions of copies in a handful of days. Adventure games might be alive and well, but a billion-dollar genre they certainly are not.

Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive: Where Adventure Games Are Hiding

So in the years since the first PlayStation and XBox arrived, where have the adventure games been hiding? The genre never did exactly die, but it did evolve. And indeed, one could argue, lost its way. Hit up the "Adventure" category on the Steam store, and rather than just finding the old, new, and updated titles you might expect, like Loom, Gemini Rue, and The Secret of Monkey Island (special edition), you find the full gamut of games, including Portal 2, Trine 2, and Grand Theft Auto IV. Anything that might have intimations of a puzzle or even of a story existing at some point in the game is somehow folded in.

A main theme of the history of games seems to be that as visual action got easier to put in, we the audience collectively ran to it. Reading text that says, "You swing your sword and damage the ogre by 50%" does even now appeal to a certain audience, but a 3D sword rendered to mimic the gleam of steel and dripping after contact with the fallen enemy's viscera appeals to a wider one. Our stories and their telling have become ever more kinetic while the graphical tools we can use to tell these stories have gotten more powerful. Our consoles and computers can display incredibly realized worlds, both stylized and plausible, for us to explore and sometimes destroy. Collectively, we seem not to want to "waste" their power on anything less.

Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that where we find games borrowing most heavily from the traditions handed down to us 20 years ago by LucasArts and Sierra is on our less powerful hardware. Monkey Island games old and new have found a home on iPhone and iPad, a platform naturally suited to point-and-click. The Nintendo DS has its Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright, while the Wii has its Zak and Wiki and Telltale titles. We have GOG and Steam bringing us retro favorites on PC, and online gaming sites like Kongregate giving us Flash-based new games that can often be surprisingly good. Indie bundles bring us new classics like Machinarium. The games are everywhere. We're playing at home and on-the-go, but we're playing them without much fanfare, in the grand scheme of things, because a game with a $5000, $50,000 or $500,000 budget is never going to have $5 million worth of marketing.

Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive: Where Adventure Games Are Hiding

But what we also have are some of the hallmark elements of adventure games bleeding out into all our other, more mainstream, genres. Ezio Auditore's story may be primarily told through stealth platforming and combat, but the interstitial "Subject 16 " puzzles in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood have a straight line back to Missing: Since January (a.k.a. In Memoriam). Nathan Drake's adventures in the Uncharted mostly involve shooting and jumping, but his journals of clues always bring us to some kind of environmental logic puzzle to solve. Even God of War's distinctly homicidal Kratos occasionally has to stop killing everything in sight and think of ways to use available tools to solve a complex location.

It's now easier than ever for almost anyone to sit down to play a game, on almost any device. The era of digital distribution has opened up new avenues for developers large and small to get almost anything to this wide new pool of players, and we're still learning the full range these games and their revenue models can take. We have perhaps never been better poised for the up-again, down-again adventure game to find its star on the rise once more.

But as our divisive arguments shift away from pure genre and toward audience type — social, casual, core, and so on — variations on the classic point-and-click adventure may easily find themselves overwhelmed in the melee. Games that don't rely on combat as their central mechanic, or that aren't released on the big consoles, have a way of getting shunted off to the side in the wider conversations, as not for "real" gamers.

And yet the fact remains that twenty years after first sitting down to help Guybrush Threepwood become a Mighty Pirate, we're still arguing over where the increasingly dotted line truly is that clearly separates him from Gordon Freeman, Nathan Drake, and Commander Shepard. Like so many other controversies, it seems for now that we know an adventure game when we see it. I just want to keep seeing more of them.