Adventure Games  

The term "adventure game" is applied to games where the user participates in an unfolding story, as opposed to action games (where the narrative content is minimal, like in a "shoot´em up"), simulation games (like a flight simulator) or even roleplaying games (like Diablo). Roleplaying games share a narrative interest with adventure games, but they concentrate more on the creation of a personalized character and the accumulation of points much in the way that the first Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game was played. Curiously, the last generation of tabletop roleplaying games, in the Whitewolf style, insist more on storytelling and less on dice rolling, so that in a way adventure games could be said to correspond to this interest.

The first adventure games (Adventure, Zork...) were textual, and the players typed orders that would then have consequences narrated by the program. They established the basis of puzzle solving and mysterious plot that characterizes the genre, and are still regarded by many fans as superior to their graphic followers.

Espen Aarseth complains of the utopian exaggerations of some critics when talking about textual adventure games, and of the neglect of others who have examined these games from a literary point of view, implicitly considering them inferior objects, (for example "forgetting" to mention Adventure, the first textual adventure game, and spreading the idea that the first was Zork). (Aarseth 106-107) Another common mistake is to apply reader response criticism directly to these games, concluding that the "user´s participation is a filling in of the gaps in the narrative provided by the text." But the difference is huge: "In the adventure game or determinate cybertext, far from moving toward a story by means of a plot with significant gaps, it is the plot that is narrowed down, by a designifying of the gaps." (Aarseth 110-112) If the player doesn´t understand what is going on, the plot won´t advance, because she won´t be able to figure out what to do next. Unlike in a novel, the player here is inside the plot (although Aarseth wants to avoid the word "plot" for adventure games and proposes "intrigue" instead).

I have used "plot" in the title of this paper to make a connection with Peter Brooks well-known book, where he stresses the human need for plots as a logical instrument to understand our lives and to explain them through narrative. Literary speaking, "plot" is usually discarded as synonym of low entertainment; nevertheless people appreciate narrative in novels, cinema, television and other media. Plots are not only static organizing structures, "they are also intentional structures, goal-oriented and forward-moving" (Brooks 3-12).

The meaning of a plot constitutes itself through temporal succession. Brooks, following Todorov, thinks that this is specially evident in the detective novel, where the detective´s investigation reveals the story of a previous crime:

The detective story, as a kind of dime-store modern version of "wisdom literature", is useful in displaying the double logic most overtly, using the plot of the inquest to find, or construct, a story of the crime which will offer just those features necessary to the thematic coherence we call a solution, while claiming, of course, that the solution has been made necessary by the crime. (Brooks 29)

Of course, it is not the same to read about a detective´s work than to play the detective´s role, in a way to be the detective. Most adventure games cast the player in a detective´s role under various guises: the detective of Deadline, the mistery-writer "Shattenjäger" of the Gabriel Knight series, the curious traveller of Myst, the journalist of The 11th Hour... Something has happened (usually a crime, assault, disappearance or any mysterious deed the programmers can think of), and the player must investigate it in order to learn what. She must look for a plot behind the apparently meaningless terrible acts in order to reconstruct the story from clues that she finds at the crime scenes and the interviewing of the non-playing characters. The main character/player usually has a motivation: to find a lost girlfriend, to free somebody, to write a book, etc.

Games don´t give an ellaborated finished plot that we can read about, instead they force the player to get involved in the process of making meaning out of the elements the designers have laid out. We want to know who used voodoo rituals to kill people in Gabriel Knight I and why, or we want to find the hidden books and know why the brothers are imprisoned in Myst. Unlike in novels, where we want to know "what happened", in games we have to make things happen, to do something so that the plot advances. Of course we don´t only "play for the plot", and there are other elements that can interest us, like the exploration of engaging 3D worlds or the solving of the puzzles, but the narrative component is the strongest force of motivation in adventure games, I suggest. This is what makes them different from other games: they are a sort of hybrid between games and stories. Thinking of Costikyan´s definition above, adventure games would be games whose goal is storytelling (and not winning or losing), even though some of these adventure games are quite linear: there is only one possible outcome of the story unless you die along the way. Blade Runner claims to be different in this respect, as we´ll see in the next section.

There is theoretically no fixed order as to interviewing characters, finding clues or solving puzzles, but only to a certain extent, because these games are usually divided into "chapters" (also called "acts" or "days"), so that the revelations can be carefully orchestrated to provide a certain dose of suspense even while allowing for some free movement within a "chapter". For example, the player doesn´t know that she should interview a certain suspect until she finds his name and address on the dead man´s notes; this way, the finding of the clue will always go before the interview, and so on.

Finally, another main feature of adventure games is probably their close relationship to the fantasy, mystery and science-fiction genres. The themes and ethos of this kind of stories are so well known that it is very easy for the players to inmediately understand the game-world and to feel at home in an environment they´ve just started exploring. For example, every player knows that she has to enter the haunted house where the evil doctor lives, interview every person in sight in a town where a crime has been committed or use the magic sword to attack the bloodthirsty orcs. Adventure games are not only intertextually related to literature, they also rely on the players´ knowledge of game mechanics, so that hardly any player needs to be told anymore that she has to pick up every visible object or click on the non-playing characters until they start to repeat their sentences. This means that adventure games are quite an established genre, and that they are theoretically appealing to the wide genre fiction audience. Nevertheless they seem to remain the less economically profitable of computer games.

If textual adventure games were quite popular in the early eighties, visual and action games seemed to have pushed them out of the market until the enormous success of Myst. Myst allowed players to get immersed in an incredibly compelling world where they didn´t have to kill anybody or search for objects to complete an inventory. Exploration was the important thing in a game with amazing graphics and a thin but attractive plot about a magician´s family and their fantastic creations. (About Myst and digital space in relationship to computer games, please see Karin Wenz's "Narrativität in Computerspielen"). The imprisoned magicians ask the player to look for the books (=keys) that will take them out of the magic dungeons they have been confined to. To find the books, the player must explore different depopulated worlds and solve intriguing puzzles. After Myst, no other adventure game has sold very much, and that has made producers wary of investing too much resources in this genre.

The problems of the genre were discussed in the RE:PLAY forum, where the experts couldn´t agree on the reasons why "adventure games (are) doing so poorly". Bernie Yee suggested that people don´t want to spend a lot of money (typically $30-80) "on a game they can only play once." Others like Christophe Berg, Greg Costikyan and Tomas Clark think that the problem with adventure games are the useless puzzles that don´t have anything to do with the story and whose solutions are always complicated and idiotic. (1) People get tired of having to look up on the Internet or to buy cheat books looking for solutions to the puzzles, and they lose all interest in the unfolding story. It is also clear that puzzles have become the distinctive feature of adventure games, so how to replace them? As Costikyan said:

Puzzles are where interaction in adventure games occurs. Everything else is just going down characters´ conversation trees and navigating a 3D space. If you take the puzzles out of Grim Fandango, for instance, you´re left with good dialog and cute visuals, but you´ve also got a product that will take you a mere couple of hours to play, and won´t provide a sense that you´ve actually contributed anything to Manny Calavera´s ultimate triumph. (See note 1)

Puzzle solving makes players feel they are contributing to the story, but nobody is certainly going to play a game twice in order to solve the same puzzles again. What would happen if we got rid of the puzzles in adventure games? Blade Runner does.