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ISSUE 120 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/27/2007

Adventure games suffer decline

By Whitney Hills
Copy Editor
and Tom Lubanovic
Graphic Editor

Friday, April 27, 2007

We miss adventure games. The genre got its major start in 1984, when Sierra On-Line published the first King’s Quest for the IBM PCjr. The decade that followed was a revolutionary time for games, because storyline and character development became central design elements, shifting gameplay’s emphasis away from pure strategy or reflexes.

Unfortunately, the freedom in narrative design translated to limitations in other areas of gameplay, and adventure games remain something of a niche genre because of many players’ aversion to the point-and-click interface and heavy emphasis on navigating dialogue options.

Throughout the ‘90s, however, adventure games were in their heyday and LucasArts (along with Sierra) furthered the genre in leaps and bounds. Before "Star Wars Galaxies," "Star Wars: Battlefront" and "Lego Star Wars: The Video Game," the company released some of the best non-"Star Wars" games ever created.

They released a slew of great games, such as the Monkey Island series. "The Secret of Monkey Island" features Guybrush Threepwood, a wannabe pirate, in 256 dazzling colors. It was one of the first games to have extensive, witty dialogue, and it also gave the player a lot of control in what they could say to other characters. Monkey Island is also famous for its bizarre sense of humor and references to actual people, like L. Ron Hubbard. Some of the puzzles in the series involved “insult swordfighting,” where pirates would demoralize each other into submission.

LucasArts’ other big hits were equally strange and well-written. "Sam & Max Hit the Road" is about two freelance detectives, a talking dog and a talking rabbit, trying to return an escaped Bigfoot to his owners at a carnival sideshow. Legendary game designer Tim Schafer started at LucasArts as a writer and was put in charge of two projects, "Day of the Tentacle," a story about maniacal, homicidal tentacles, and "Full Throttle," an action mystery about a motorcycle gang leader wrongly accused of murder.

Nearly 10 years ago, Schafer developed LucasArts' most critically acclaimed title ever, a film noir-inspired game called "Grim Fandango." The story followed a man named Manny Calavera on his journey through the Land of the Dead, an afterlife filled with crime and corruption. It featured great voice acting and art direction, with references to films like “Casablanca.” The visual style borrowed heavily from art deco architecture and the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. While this game is remembered as a cult masterpiece, it didn't make enough money for LucasArts, and they have not done much outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones since.

After the last Monkey Island release in 2000, there has been a debate over whether adventure games have died completely or if they're still limping along. Only a handful of excellent games in this genre have been made since then, and usually at independent studios. Hardcore adventure game fans have formed communities to keep these classics alive. One group has put together a program named ScummVM, which allows players to get these outdated games to work on their computer. With the lack of many new releases, these fans have also created their own games, some of which are high quality, and some of which most definitely are not.

There are still enough adventure games released within the past few years (such as "Hotel Dusk" for the Nintendo DS or "Dreamfall: The Longest Journey" for the Xbox) to plant seeds of hope in those who have prayed that the genre was not entirely dead. But even if adventure games never do make a big comeback, we can thank developers like Sierra and LucasArts for being the original innovators and creating games with great writing and storytelling.

Current game developers, regardless of what genre they work in, would do well to take a page from Sierra’s book of narrative design and resist making bland, formulaic games with the quality of writing one would normally see in the panels of a Family Circus comic.

Doing so would do wonders for games as not only a means of entertainment, but as an artistic medium as well. As legions of diehard adventure fans will attest, players stop and take notice when the story and the characters are not formed from a mold.

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