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How adventure games came back from the dead

Rob Manuel | Feb. 6, 2013
From Colossal Cave Adventure to the Walking Dead, how PC adventure games almost perished and why they're coming back with a vengeance.

Adventure games have been dead for a long time. First-person shooters killed them in the PC gaming market, then took their place as the dominant touchstone of PC gaming culture.

That's why no one expected an adventure game like The Walking Dead, a point-and-click adventure from Telltale Games that requires only a handful of hours to finish and requires players to shoot nothing beyond a handful of zombies, to win critical praise from nearly every media outlet in the business. It even won Game of the Year during the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards, beating out big-budget titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. 

Clearly, adventure games are far from dead; instead, this classic genre that defined early PC gaming is finding a second wind and a new audience hungry for a story-driven experience. It's a good time to look back and remember why adventure games failed in the first place, then talk to some experienced PC game designers about what's next for the genre in the wake of The Walking Dead's surprising success.

Pressing start

To find out where you're going, sometimes you need to look back and remember where you came from. Adventure gaming traces its humble text-based beginnings back to Adventure (also known as Colossal Cave Adventure), a game based on the exploration of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Rough computer-generated graphics were later added to Adventure and other games, but it wouldn't be until the release of Enchanted Scepters on the Apple II that we got our first true point-and-click graphical adventure.

From there, the PC gaming market exploded with adventure games; most of us can probably remember playing King's Quest and Gabriel Knight from Sierra or the Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island games from LucasArts. These games afforded storytellers a means of overcoming the graphical shortcomings of early computers, since a great story can flesh out an imaginary world far better than an IBM 8514 video card. 

It was a golden age of adventure gaming that began in the mid-1980s and lasted almost a decade, until game like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and other first-person shooters started to overtake the PC gaming market. They promised gorgeous graphics and quick, satisfying gameplay while most adventure games kept tantalizing players with puzzles that got more elaborate and ridiculous with each new game. As you might expect, PC gamers started embracing first-person shooters in droves while adventure game sales declined. Game developers followed the money; by 2001 there were no noteworthy adventure games in development, and it seemed like the genre was six feet under.

The resurrection

But in the last few years a new breed of adventure game evolved across PCs, home consoles and tablets, bringing a fresh take on the genre that's attracting a fresh audience. Companies like Wadjet Eye Games, Phoenix Online Studios, and Telltale Games, creators of the aforementioned The Walking Dead, look to bring back adventure gaming to its former glory by using new technological tricks and telling some heartfelt stories most games can't touch.


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