The great divide

Posted by Rich Carlson.
First posted on 07 January 2008. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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The great divide
The Shivah
The great divide
The Blackwell Legacy
The great divide
The Witch's Yarn

About the author

Rich Carlson is a musician, composer, and arranger originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota who has a lifelong obsession with video games. In 1997, he decided to change career to become a game developer. He had worked as a level designer at Ion Storm, Looking Glass Studios, Rogue Entertainment, and Amaze Entertainment. Currently, he is co-founder of Digital Eel, an award winning independent game development studio in Seattle, Washington.

For more information, visit Digital Eel.

I was messaging with some game industry people recently in an online forum, when I happened to mention that I thought that the best text adventure games, and many other games in general from the early years of computer gaming, were just as engrossing and satisfying as modern games from nowadays.

I believe this to be true. I've been playing computer games since 1978; I play, and create, games today.

I ought to be qualified to make such an assertion, so I did—just to see what these people might say.

Responses appeared pretty quickly, as I expected, but what surprised me was that responders' comments tended to be negative, narrow-minded, dismissive, elitist, and unsettlingly unanimous.

Ouch! Let me explain.

First, many expressed the opinion that such old games cannot possibly have delivered a visceral experience that is comparable to the experience conveyed by technically superior modern games. These days, games look better and sound better; therefore, they are more immersive.

Of course, nobody dares to mention (or knows) that no game smells better than Leather Goddesses of Phobos (a game from Infocom which includes a scratch-n-sniff card). I digress.

Second, many stated that previous generations of gamers cannot have experienced the same level of immersive intensity that modern gamers do because early computer games are crude and simplistic, and the gamers who have played them have lower expectations and, naturally, lower standards.

Third, many said that since adventure games in particular are passé, any discussion of them at all is either irrelevant or simply nostalgic. Pinin' for the fjords, I guess.

Remember, these were responses from professionals who create the games that we purchase and play today. Are you now wondering why we don't see adventure games on the shelves anymore?

True, such attitudes must not reflect everyone's opinion in the game industry. Equally true, there are always a few people around who are old enough to have played games during the 1980s and early 1990s and who attempt to reality check such assumptions with thoughtful and factual information. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer such individuals in the industry anymore. They are all but drowned out by a powerful majority.

Publishers clearly think in these ways now, and I think that's where from which these views trickle down to the studio. Publishers call the shots as to what gets made and what doesn't. Studios must be subordinate to compete and not loose their funding. Anyone who won't conform, or who wants to make something different, either leaves the industry in frustration or gets the boot anyway. Soon, studios become homogenized this way and turn into little more than executors of the lowest common denominator corporate product—not all of them, but enough of them to dominate the industry.

Yuck! Well, I guess Mark Twain was right when he said, "The minority is always in the right. The majority is always in the wrong." These people are messed up! Messed up on making money first and making games second! The sad irony is that most of their games will tank anyway, and the sad fact is that modern gamers are not even allowed to know what they are missing.

Revealing the divide

So, the great divide is revealed for what it is. It's a massive disconnect that isn't warranted, of course. You can only declare, by fiat, that it exists, and that's what has happened.

Are there more reasons why?

Perhaps it is simply age: young turks versus old farts.

Perhaps it is sales: the most popular adventure games in the mid 1990s sale sold in the neighborhood of 500,000 copies each. This sounds like a lot, and it is, representing millions of dollars of revenues per game title. These days, however, a studio cannot survive very long with less than 1,000,000 copies sold per game title. In other words, the industry has become fully commercialized, hit driven, and completely risk averse.

Perhaps game creators are so infatuated, if not outright obsessed, with shiny new technologies that they cannot see anything created in the past in terms other than strictly technical. How can the intricacies of the text parsing Z-code be compared with the complexities of, say, the 3D Source engine?

Apples and oranges, I say.

Perhaps game creators are simply being stubborn or snobby. Maybe they feel hurt and become defensive when so many longtime gamers dare to compare and claim that modern games have nothing but technology on older games.

Maybe they feel that if it's not "now" then it can't be a happening thing. If it's not "NextGen", it's not cool; if it's not a hit, it is worthless.

Perhaps they don't realize how holistically good adventure games can be, and how detailed, well written and fine-tuned so many of them have been.

Perhaps they don't realize that teams of people were involved in the creation of many of the adventure games of yore, and that they took as long to design, develop and test as most computer games do today!

Perhaps they don't understand that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, words create a thousand images which are uniquely your own, and this is powerful.

The graphics card required for interactive fiction is wetware—your brain, full of experiences, images to draw from, and boundless imagination which can, if tickled by words properly, produce infinitely better, and more cherished, visuals than any graphical game can ever hope to offer.

Perhaps they've lost touch with what is simply fun?

I think it is a combination of all of these misconceptions. Commercially speaking, this does not bode well for adventure gamers, but at least it is not their fault. Publishers are the people to blame because of their shortsightedness and sheer greed.

Indie scene

But wait! What's that? A crystal bridge? Yes!

Good adventure games are still around. You just have to know where to look. Indies!

The Shivah

Take, for example, The Shivah, developed by Wadjet Eye Games. Here's a description from the creator:

"In this graphical adventure game, Russell Stone works as a Jewish Rabbi at a poor synagogue in New York City. He is a devout man with a problem. Membership is way down and he lacks the funds to keep his synagogue open. Things are looking very bleak, and he has grown progressively more cynical and bitter with the passage of time.

Just as he is on the verge of packing it all in, he receives some interesting news. A former member of his congregation has died and left the Rabbi a significant amount of money.

A blessing? Or the start of something far more sinister? Can Rabbi Stone just accept the money and move on? His conscience says no. Step into his shoes as he travels all over Manhattan in his attempt to uncover the truth."

The Blackwell Legacy

Or, The Blackwell Legacy, also developed by Wadjet Eye Games. Again, here's a description from the creator:

"The Blackwell Legacy is the first case in a miniseries of games that stars a medium named Rosangela Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey Mallone. Their mission, it seems, is to assist tormented spirits and investigate supernatural goings on. They don't understand why they are thrown together, but they do the best they can.

The duo's first case will involve a series of suicides at a local university. Something unnatural has forced these students to kill themselves, and nobody knows why. Rosangela, who is just coming to terms with her new status as a medium, finds herself cast as the unwilling detective in this gruesome mystery."

Both games hearken back to LucasArts and Sierra styled presentations. They feature excellent writing, decent voice acting, interesting characters, and compelling stories. Just what the doctor ordered.

The Witch's Yarn

Also noteworthy is The Witch's Yarn, developed by Mousechief. This game plays more in the style of an interactive fiction than a graphic adventure. Here's a description from the distributor Manifesto Games:

"A finalist at this year's Independent Game Festival, The Witch's Yarn was nominated for Innovation in Game Design. Its elegant control method is a milestone for interactive fiction. In the first minute, players are ably immersed in the story, regardless of their ability with computers.

Players become the director of a lighthearted stage-play. They select the actors who create scenes to advance the plot. Different actors create different scenes. So each choice is very important. With the rewind feature, the player can experiment with various actors to solve dramatic conflicts. By doing so, they'll explore many perspectives on this hilarious world of witches, retail, and family disfunction.

Presented as a theater script brought to life, beautiful illustrations and a terrific jazz soundtrack provide the richest of reading experiences. The fun grows as complications arise, which are handled by choosing the character best suited to resolve gradually more difficult challenges. By the end of the tale, an entangled web of conflicted characters must be carefully navigated to bring the drama to a satisfying, whimsical, conclusion."

At the risk of sounding glib or lazy, say no more!

Don't forget to check out the prices for these games! They range from $5 to $16 USD only. Think about this fact when you look at a wall of games at your local store that cost $40 to $60 USD and wrinkle your nose.

Crossing the bridge

There's more out there. Keep up with the open source and free game movement, such as the Independent Game Festival (1). Also, the IF Competition (2) and XYZZY Awards (3) highlight wonderful and innovative new user created interactive fiction games each year (in fact, gamers elect the winners themselves, and anyone can participate). There is, essentially, a constant supply of freeware adventure games. If your friends don't know about it, spread the word!

Bridges across the great divide do exist. Thus, adventure gamers can ignore the game industry, just as the game industry is ignoring them, and still cross. It may be a swinging rope bridge, or it may a delicate bridge made of crystal. The bridges are there, and new bridges are being built all the time.

Ultimately, nobody can kill off a classic timeless genre.



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