Why bother playing old adventure games?
First posted on 23 August 1999. Last updated on 25 February 2006.
I begin playing computer games in the early 1980s, when the industry is just getting started, and I have never really stopped. My game playing has ebbed and flowed, but has never ceased. To this day, I still enjoy computer games as among my most cherished hobbies. However, as anyone familiar with my online presence may be aware, the computer games I have played first in the early 1980s are still vital parts of my modern-day gaming library.
Eye of the beholder
I have read a lot of arguments from people who do not understand why someone like myself may still want to play games that are a decade old or older, when there are so many more games released today I have note played yet. While I have respect for any computer gamer, I find this question to be nearly the same thing as asking, "Why bother watching old movies? The ones we have today are better." As with any issue about art, the answer is truly in the eye of the beholder. I play, and shall continue to play, the computer games the industry grows up on because they represent to me an era and attitude which is an extremely important part of my life in gaming that shall never come again.
To be sure, the graphics and sound the adventure games of the early 1980s are primitive in comparison to the feasts for the eyes and ears that are available today. But, to be sure, they are no less effective. The graphics of the early 1980s push the limits of their time every bit as much as the games of today push the limits of today's technology. Sure, the jagged lines and squarish feel of the graphics in games, such as Mummy's Curse, Mystery House, and Time Zone, do not look like much today. At the time, they seem as extraordinary as modern game graphics resplendent in full screen high resolution and millions of colors.
I maintain, though, that the earliest of computer games, released on the machines such as Apple II and others which truly kick off the gaming industry, contain something that is only rarely found in the games of today—magic. Games back then are designed with a different philosophy than the ones of today, and they are certainly designed under different conditions. Most companies of the past are small groups of programmers or college students who are learning the latest technology and want to see if they can be the ones to create the building blocks of the future. The games from the earliest periods exude this kind of youthful abandon, and it comes across as strongly in playing the game as one can imagine it must have in creating it. Even the lesser games, from companies that come and go as quickly then as websites do today, seem to be endeavors of the heart and soul. Good games and bad games alike feel different and are special. They are creating an industry and defining the way future generations look at computer entertainment. They are at the threshold of something unique and special, and they know it. Their final output cannot help but reflect this.
In today's era of multimillion dollar budgets, huge corporations, and mass market releases of games, the original intent of the industry has been lost. Today, it feels like it is all about money, and most of the games (including what few adventure games remain) exude this feeling instead. Graphic and sound engines in these modern titles are forcing gamers to spend large sums of money upgrading to the latest technology instead of using to the fullest extent what is already available. Games of today are marketed specifically toward those who have never used computers before. Games of today do not bother their players to type. Games of today span countless number of compact discs, yet do not always seem to be as expansive or interesting to play as ones from the past that span just a few floppy disks. Can the industry possibly sustain itself under these conditions? The many critics that have already sounded the death knell of adventure games surely tell you that it has not. Personally, I am not ready to give up just yet. Genres are continuing to merge and change, and exactly what is and what is not an adventure game is no longer as clear cut as the days that the game Suspended shares the shelves with the game MULE.
Where has all the magic gone?
Magical games seem harder and harder to come by these days, but they are still around. When a certain designer eschews the corporate power struggles and strives to make the kind of game they themselves want to play, the magic returns. The games in Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight series, while far from a perfect example, recall the days of the early 1980s. Their technological advances are few, but their dedication to their audience, and to the art and spirit of creation that have originally helped the industry grow, are what set these games apart.
Is it then just a coincidence that these games are generally more highly regarded than most others from recent years? The answer is no. The game buying public can still recognize magic in computer games, and when it appears, it is every bit as special now as it has been back then. With all the turbulence the adventure gaming industry has gone through lately, it is vital to remember the roots of the industry, and that, if we want the industry to grow and thrive, we need to support the magic of creation and inspiration that put us all here in the first place. As long as customers and game designers, however few and far between they may be, are still willing to imbue games with that special spark of life and energy which have enervated those games of so many years ago, we shall all be playing adventure games, new and old alike, for many years to come.