On the Road to Delos Crossing: The Evolution of Adventure Games
It wasn’t that long ago that adventure games meant solving obscure puzzles and impossible save states. The genre has changed immeasurably over the last 30 years, but that doesn’t mean the key ingredients aren’t still there. With the release of Tell Me Why, we’re looking back at the biggest titles, and at why we still love adventure all these years later.
Tell Me Why takes the genre to new heights, building a realistic world with fascinating characters. The adventure today is in discovering what is around us within the game. It’s about meeting characters and hearing about their take on the world.
It’s a far cry from the adventure games that used to make us suffer in the pre-internet days, but frankly it’s a change that has made the genre infinitely more popular.
There and back again
East, East, North, Wait, Wait, Wait, South, Get Key, North, Unlock Door, Open Door, North, Get Rope and Sword.
Not a minor stroke caused by racing through Tell Me Why in just a couple of days, but the first five per cent or so of The Hobbit. It was released on Commodore-64 nearly forty years ago and was the best example of the genre at the time. Tolkien’s incredible work, boiled down to a series of directions.
Inglish, the game’s parsing language, took nearly as long to make as the game itself. It allowed the player to use complete English sentences, with words like ‘and'(!), to fully explore their environment.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an 80s adventure game without completely screwing over the player. Other characters could move independently of Bilbo, and could disappear entirely before they had fulfilled their role in your adventure. Can’t find the Bard at Long Lake? Screw you – start all over.
I picked The Hobbit to start our journey through the world of adventure games not because it was the earliest of its kind, but because it was a game I loved when I was younger. It came out some eight years before I was born, but there was still something special about it.
That’s the beauty of adventure titles – they mean something. I don’t think linear shooters and third-person action games have quite the same feeling of discovery. There’s always some force taking you back to the beaten track. You see the same giraffes every time you play The Last of Us, and yet it’s presented as the same moment of awe every time you play. Imagine that same scene in the style of the Hobbit – “no giraffes here, game is broken, start over.” Now that’s an adventure.
WELCOME TO ADVENTURE!! WOULD YOU LIKE INSTRUCTIONS??
Colossal Cave Adventure came out five years before The Hobbit, but what a difference those five years would make. Adventure was playable on university mainframes. Its creator, Will Crowther pushed the PDP-10 system to its limits, showed his friends and then went off on holiday for a month.
Not quite the crunch we’re used to in the industry today.
When he returned home, he found that the game had become a hit among – let’s face it – nerds everywhere. It was edited and shared and a genre was born. Standard.
Then came Zork. Zork is the text adventure game of the early days. It’s storytelling defined a genre, and still holds up today. Just don’t get eaten by a grue.
Text adventures were on top. Douglas Adams worked on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1984 and games like Planetfall and The Pawn were other big hitters. These were system sellers at a time when video games were more than hit and miss.
The text adventure was never designed to last. Games were becoming more interactive, more interesting and increasingly deep. Enter Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate.
Ask Me About Loom
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There were four years between the first point and click adventure and Monkey Island. Enchanted Scepters is more of a text adventure than a point and click game really, but it used a mouse input and that’s enough.
And that’s completely ignoring King’s Quest, which brought so much to the genre. It took everything that text adventures were doing and added the element of third person movement. You controlled a character on screen. It was still effectively “Verb/Noun” based, but you could see what you were doing.
It was ahead of its time by miles, but it hasn’t aged well. Frequent deaths, poor controls and bad text parsing gave Sierra its early reputation for frequent unfair deaths – something they’d live up to again and again. Space Quest and Police Quest, as well as sequels, followed. These had more in common with text adventures than point and click games in many ways, but the genre was definitely coming together. Leisure Suit Larry had its audience, and that too offered a new take on adventure. You could get an STD from a prostitute and die, so certainly not as Dungeons and Dragons as some of the other titles.
LucasFilm Games was different. Maniac Mansion defined what adventure games would mean to many of us in its first shot. It had the controls along the bottom but better than that it had bundles of humour. Indiana Jones and Loom (a game from Lucasfilm’s Brian Moriarty, you may recall) came out in the run up to perhaps the best adventure game ever: The Secret of Monkey Island.
How appropriate, you fight like a cow
A lot of what was in the game had already been done elsewhere, but the polish, the puzzles and the pirates made it stand out. The jokes were actually funny and the wordplay meant you had to think laterally about what you were doing. The Secret of Monkey Island was a success, spawning sequels and remakes a mile long.
The work of Ron Gilbert and co valued accessibility. They allowed the player to be curious and explore without necessarily killing them off. This proved a big hit – the challenge came from working out puzzles, not dying repeatedly. That was an important move that would plant the seeds for the games of Telltale and Dontnod more than two decades later.
LucasFilm Games, now LucasArts, would spend the next five or six years creating almost every major adventure game that still gets talked about today. The Dig, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango stuck pretty closely to the well-established template set out in Monkey Island. But the changes – be they a grittier storyline, a sci-fi location or even 3D visuals – made each game feel new and fresh.
Alongside it, we got Myst (and its John Goodman-led parody, Pyst). Myst released in 1993 and was the best-selling PC game until The Sims came out nearly a decade later. It was huge. For all the excitement people still have about Monkey Island and even the likes of Sonic and Mario, Myst has been forgotten. People talk about it in articles like this, as though it wasn’t a giant success. It’s probably because it was successful but poor, and widely cloned. It too influences where the adventure genre would go.
The changing face of adventure games
Gaming was becoming mainstream. Point and click, and plain adventure, was not.
Myst had been a runaway success, but it had created a monster. Clones galore were made, not to mention Mysts on spin-offs and sequels. Worse, the hardcore gamer was looking towards Lara Croft, Crash Bandicoot and Cloud Strife for their adventure itch. Increases in power on gaming devices meant increases in potential.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t great non-LucasArts or Sierra point and click games or adventure games coming out. Discworld, Blade Runner, Snatcher, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream… These all have their place in any discussion of the genre.
Broken Sword and its sequels were highly respected. Sanitarium is still a great adventure game. Douglas Adams returned to the digital realm with Starship Titanic, a little talked about adventure that allowed you to converse with robots upon the ship. It was great fun, and featured the voices of Monty Python’s Terry Jones and John Cleese (but not Eric Idle, who was busy voicing the Discworld game). It got mixed reviews and didn’t sell overly well.
The classics were starting to fade away as well. King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity didn’t do as well as expected and sales of Grim Fandango led LucasArts to cancel a series of adventure game sequels.
Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Discworld Noir and Syberia were about all that traditional adventure gamers could look forward to in the early noughties. Adventure gaming was, by almost any metric, dead. It was a shadow of its former self.
Telltale and the call of adventure
By 2005, nostalgia dictated that someone somewhere would try to bring back long-dead franchises. It had been 15 years since the original Monkey Island and five years since the fairly mixed Escape from Monkey Island had been released.
Before the inevitable Monkey Island Kart or Discworld Ball could be made, three LucasArts developers decided to start their own company. Telltale would champion the adventure genre again, focussing on story and character instead of mind-boggling puzzles. Their first game was Sam and Max, followed by CSI, Homestar Runner and Wallace and Gromit. Tales of Monkey Island came out in 2009 to mainly positive reviews.
Adventure games were back, albeit in slightly different packaging. The franchises kept getting bigger – Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones. Puzzles were out completely, replaced by a choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling. Characters reacted to your choices, although more than one playthrough instantly revealed you were basically on tracks.
They became a victim of their own success, taking on bigger and bigger projects that they were either unable to complete, or unable to get to a high enough standard. Telltale folded in 2018. A restructured version of the company still exists, but is yet to release any new games.
The Indie Revival
Over the last 15 years, independent developers have become a force to be reckoned with. That isn’t going to change going into the next generation.
But they are also responsible for the increase in traditional adventure games. The likes of Unwritten Tales, Technobabylon, Paradigm followed in the footsteps of previous titles, perfecting them with modern hardware. Elsewhere, games like Stick It To The Man blended the adventure genre with others to create hybrids.
For the first time in a decade, adventure fans were getting a new wave of classics. They were getting their old favourites back as well, with re-releases of many of the best 90s adventures.
Episodic adventures, Telltale and indie efforts meant a new wave of genre fans were enjoying stories old and new. Most replaced the ridiculous puzzles of old with newer stories, better graphics and accessibility. Ron Gilbert returned with a series of adventure titles, including The Cave and Thimbleweed Park.
The Golden Age had begun – and we’re still in the middle of it.
Dontnod and the road to Delos Crossing
There was quite a lot of excitement around Remember Me, Dontnod’s first action-adventure. Previews were positive and reviews garnered a handful of 7s and 8s, but the title bombed. It nearly brought the company to its feet.
It was the success of their first true adventure game that turned around the company. Life Is Strange followed the story of Max, a young photography student who could turn back time. Blending the Telltale-style episodic adventure with a more traditional exploration and occasional puzzle element proved a success at a time when gamers were becoming tired of Telltale’s own output.
A prequel and sequel both received decent reviews, building on that style of gameplay.
Tell Me Why is Dontnods newest game. The first episode, exclusive to Xbox and PC, is available to play today, with follow-up episodes coming next week and the week after.
With Tell Me Why, Dontnod has delivered the best example of this type of adventure game, offering up great characters, a brilliant location and plenty to discover.
It’s a long shot from The Hobbit and Monkey Island, but the goals are exactly the same. The adventure is the things we see and do along the way. The goal isn’t to rush to a certain location or fight X amount of enemies, but to feel our way through a world and to discover.
There was a time when adventure games felt like they were never coming back. Today, with the release of the first episode of Tell Me Why, it’s clear they’re going stronger than ever. The genre offers something for everybody, and is as accessible as ever. It’s dealing with adult storylines we’d never had dreamt of in the early 90s. That’s progress – and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us in the future.