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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.

To understand why, I contacted some of the leading voices in adventure gaming and those who know where the genre is going to understand what's driving adventure gaming today. Everyone had different opinions, but one thing all agreed on was that adventure games can tell powerful, affecting stories with strong characters,  and it's that strength which draws in new fans from sources not familiar with other genres. Cesar Bittar, CEO of Phoenix Online, brings up how the design of the adventure genre allows for flexibility in storytelling.

"Adventure games can be more akin to a TV show or a movie, where the resolution involves the growth of a character, or the end of a long journey, or finding the secret that no one else can know. It allows us to easily divert into the many sub-genres like comedy, or crime-thriller, or drama. And therefore, it's a genre where the story is not defined by its own mechanics."

The puzzling appeal of adventure games

One of the main critiques of the adventure genre, however, lies behind one of its oldest mechanics, the "lock and key" puzzle. These puzzles can halt the flow of a game if the player gets stuck on a problem, but as Jane Jensen (the brilliant mind behind classics such as Gabriel Knight series and the new Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller) points out, many other genres of games use similar puzzles since the challenge fits so easily within the narrative design of a computer game. 

"[The puzzle] is an inherent natural mechanism, the sort of thing you would find as a plot device in any novel; get the password/name of the informant/location of the drug cartel out of the weaselly guy so you can move the main character closer to the truth."

Dave Gilbert, the founder of Wadjet Eye Games, makes the strongest argument for keeping the tradition going: it's what the player wants.

"One of my biggest surprises with Resonance was how many people solved the really difficult 'lock and key' puzzles - all of which were totally optional. Over 60 percent! So there definitely is an audience for them."

The Walking Dead leads the charge

Though the old ways still stand, all of the developers I corresponded with agreed that modern games are experiencing some real innovation, and they all pointed to one primary example: The Walking Dead. Dan Connors, cofounder and CEO of Telltale Games, says one of the biggest advances in The Walking Dead was how the developers used natural dialogue to make the game seem believable.

"Traditional dialogue trees don't present a believable rhythm to a conversation and make it a task to exhaust dialogs. Moving away to a more natural dialogue system was huge for us."

 

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