Cut across the dotted line

Posted by Kamal Bhatt.
First posted on 05 March 2000. Last updated on 30 June 2009.
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Recently, while musing over life and its mysteries (and adventure games, of course) I begin to question as to what constitutes an adventure game. For example, this site has a broad meaning of the word "adventure". It considers games such as Tomb Raider, Thief: The Dark Project, and Nocturne to be adventures. While I have little experiences with these games, they are to me fairly action oriented. Then, there is Outcast. It is a title that truly lives up to its name, in the sense that no one seems to know where it belongs.

In an attempt to find the truth, I decide to put on my journalistic hat and undertake a little email journalism. I email those best qualified to answer the question, members of the Adventure Games Coalition. After the first couple of responses I begin to get the feeling that the adventure gaming community holds a diverse view on what is the definition of an adventure game.

I like to point out that even though the opinions expressed here are of members of the staff from the coalition, they do not necessarily represent the opinions of the websites for which they write or manage. Having that said, there are 3 main categories into which people's view generally fall.

The old guard

The name says it all. These are people who are pure and true traditionalists. Those amongst are brethren who consider action games with scorn and despise all those which require the use of reflex over thought, as Mr. Bill of Mr. Bill's Adventure Game Website points out,

"We consider Broken Sword, Myst, Atlantis 2 (1 had more action than I care for), Faust, and Curse of Monkey Island as examples of what we call true adventure games. We don't like action in our games so we would not include the new Indiana Jones and we even question Wild Wild West as an adventure game."

Why not? Whenever I argue with someone about what game to buy, I say that you should not look for well written prose in a X-Men comic, no, you should go straight to Shakespeare. This view is best echoed by Linda Shaw of Linda's Home Page,

"Adventure games are games that draw you into the game. They are games filled with puzzles, mind games, and intriguing storylines. They are not games of much or complete action, rather games that utilize the intelligence you've acquired from life's trials and tribulations, gaming experience and plain and simple deductive reasoning. That's what I consider Adventure games to be..."

After all, Zoltan Ormandi of The Adventure Games Hall of Fame points out,

"For me, adventure games are as close as anyone can get to having the feeling of reading a book or watching a good movie on a computer. No other genre is capable of giving a more intense and lasting experience than adventures."

These are the qualities I love most in adventure games—thought, storylines, and reasoning. Does this mean, though, that games such as Outcast or Thief: The Dark Project are any less of an experience to play? For example, Outcast has deductive reasoning, utilizes intelligence, and tells an intriguing story.

The open minded

On the other end of the spectrum there are people who refuse to draw the line, as Stephen Granade of Interactive Fiction at points out,

"I'm not overly concerned with whether or not something is a "pure" adventure game. "Drawing the line," as you put it, is hard to do unless you demand that an adventure game fall into a certain narrow category, with stories and puzzles and no action. (And by doing so you can miss out on a lot of good adventures, like the old Sierra adventure "Manhunter: New York".) I tend to ask myself, what's the main focus of a game? Does the game focus on a storyline? Do my actions advance that storyline, or are they more to make my character better, like in a computer role-playing game? Based on those questions, I classify Outcast as an adventure because of its emphasis on story, puzzles, and interactions with non-player characters. Thief, though it has a strong story, is more about the experience of sneaking around, which makes it a first-person shooter (or "sneaker," in this case) than an adventure. Lara Croft definitely had puzzles and other adventure aspects, but its main focus (other than Lara's butt) was running around, jumping, and fighting."

With a lot of genre blending going on nowadays, is there going to be a day when "pure" adventure games are considered simply ridiculous? Is there any hope for the old guard? When asking whether or not it is good to be "drawing lines", Randy Sluganski of Just Adventure + makes the point,

"I don't draw the line anywhere. If we were to draw lines as to what an adventure game should be, then I imagine I would have quit playing after Infocom folded."

The third wave

Then again, there are those people who consider hybrids and genre blenders to be the next evolution, a genre in itself. Hybrids blend best of both worlds. Is this something to scorn? Perhaps it is the revitalization that the adventure game industry so desperately needs. Then again, it may just be the final nail in the coffin of the adventure game genre.

The final word

What have I learned from this exercise? For starters, many gamers may agree, for example, that Kingpin: Life of Crime is more of an adventure game than Half-Life. Why is this significant? The former has character interactions, collection of artifacts, and a storyline of sorts. The latter does not, at least to the extent of the former. Such a comparison is still viable even if no consensus can ever be reached on what an adventure is. Another point which no one has previously considered is the line between adventure games and puzzle games. Is Pandora's Box an adventure game? I know of others who look at The 7th Guest as a puzzle game.

For me, the jury is still out. We cannot look back into the past (I, admittedly, loathe the parser interface), but neither can we forget about the future (no one is going to distribute a game without some 3D support nowadays). Whatever or however the diverse opinions are, adventure gamers are united on this one point—a good story makes for a good game.

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