Philipp Lenssen

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First posted on 04 August 2010. Last updated on 04 August 2010.
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Philipp Lenssen
Philipp Lenssen is the author of Graphic Adventures: Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, from the Pages of Wikipedia.
Philipp Lenssen

Graphic Adventures: Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, from the Pages of Wikipedia, compiled by Philipp Lenssen, chronicles the long and "mostly correct" history of graphical adventure games, from Mystery House (1980) and Labyrinth (1986), to Phantasmagoria (1995) and Grim Fandango (1998), and beyond. The book is based on related articles from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia edited by Lenssen as well as original research and other source references gathered by Lenssen on these games. Fans of adventure games who are interested in the history of the genre will find this book to be a valuable reference and a great collector's item.

Half of the revenues from the sale of the book will be donated by Lenssen to the Wikimedia Foundation.

For more information, visit Graphic Adventures, the Book.

Philipp Lenssen is a blogger, a programmer, an author, and above all, a gamer—an adventure gamer, to be exact. His love of classic adventure games is professed in his book, Graphic Adventures: Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, from the Pages of Wikipedia. Yet, the book is more than just a self confession, as he explains in the book's forward, but also an experiment—this is because the articles in the book are mostly taken from the free, open, collaborative, online encyclopedia Wikiepedia, which are then "edited" and "spiced" by Lenssen into a book. To this extent, Lenssen is better described as an editor rather than an author of this historic compendium. However, Lenssen also includes original research (such as interviews) and other source references in the book, so that the book goes far beyond on the pages of Wikipedia to recount in depth the history of the adventure game genre.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Lenssen about his book. In the interview, Lenssen speaks about the inspiration behind his book project, his memories of classic adventure games, the challenges of editing the Wikipedia articles for his book, the successes and failings of notable adventure games, and what lies ahead in the future for the adventure game genre.

What appeals to you most as a gamer about adventure games? Which are your favorite adventure games? Why?

I love solving puzzles, and following the story. A lot of creativity goes into creating an adventure game, and there's a lot of creativity needed to successfully play it, too. Cracking your head at a tough challenge in an adventure game for hours -- or days -- and then finally a lamp goes up above your head and you go "Yay! I get it now!", and you may even know the solution is correct before trying it out because it just makes so much sense... that's great fun.

I've played all different kinds of games in the past but adventure games hold a special place in my heart. Among adventure games, Lucasfilm are the ones having left the biggest impression on me. I'm not a native speaker of English so when I was a kid and teen, having to type text in adventure games might have been especially challenging. Lucasfilm games mostly required no text input at all (Labyrinth being an exception). I found them generally easier to play than Sierra's games. That being said my first adventure game memory goes back to Leisure Suit Larry... and cracking the "prove you're an adult" questionnaire in the beginning of the game!

Now, among the Lucasfilm games, I really love the Monkey Island series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which I might have spent weeks or months on to solve -- it truly seemed endless), and the Maniac Mansion series. And then there's musical-input adventure Loom, which is probably one of the most original and captivating games (of any genre) ever made.

When was the idea first conceived for your book? What inspired you to source Wikipedia? What original research, if any, did you do? How long did you take you to finish your book?

If I recollect correctly, then it was around the time when I finished reading through the great "Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts". This book was a general overview of the company, but at the same time left me hungry for many more details about the games of Lucasfilm I played in my time. I didn't find another book about the subject to order online, so I ended up browsing a lot of adventure game related articles on Wikipedia. And that's about when the idea was born to turn this into a book.

I've also self-published a book before some years ago, so the thought of compiling Wikipedia articles of one topic I care about into this format came somewhat natural. When I originally set out about it I had indeed planned for it to be a "mere" compilation of existing material. Little did I know how much time I'd spent editing the articles, adding to them, researching for more fun stuff, and conducting interviews with people from Lucasfilm and Sierra, like Al Lowe. Once the book started growing, I really tried hard to offer added value beyond Wikipedia.

Now, as far as time spent goes, a lot of work was invested in formatting and conversion details to get it just right for, with whom I self-publish. I've created the source document in the web editor Google Docs, but all kinds of limitations with it finally made me convert it to an offline HTML document. (Going to edit in Microsoft Word, as I did with my last book, wasn't very easy either, so that's why I had chosen Google Docs to begin with.) That being said, self-publishing in 2010 is still a great thing, and comparatively easy to what this must have been like 5 decades or so ago.

All in all the book process spanned over a year, but I was not working on it for all the time. For instance, you need to order a review copy and so on, or wait for interview questions to come back, and all of this means more weeks pass.

Why do you call your book "an experiment"? In hindsight, which part of this experiment has been a success? Which part has not been a success?

I'm happy with the results and won't regret anything -- if nothing else, I'm always happy for the learning experience. But I think whether it's a true success needs to be determined by the readers. If people like the book, and it gives something to them, then it's a success. This will not be determined in sales volume (not that I'd mind a lot of people buying the book! Half of the revenues, I'm giving to the Wikimedia foundation, by the way).

How much fact checking of the Wikipedia articles did you do for your book? How accurate did you find of the Wikipedia articles that you cited? Which adventure game topics did you find to be most deficient on Wikipedia?

I think this book might have taken a decade or more, not a year, if I'd have fact checked every bit. And we need to keep in mind that memory fades, so even interviewing original sources, as I did for the book, will not always bring back every detail. But that's why I decided to call the book "Graphic Adventures: A Mostly Correct History of the Adventure Game Classics by Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, from the Pages of Wikipedia". Note the word "mostly": I think that Wikipedia is a great "90%" source, that is, it's mostly correct -- because people editing on it are by and large not evil -- but if you'd want to go for 100% accuracy, I think you cannot use a wiki at all. And yet, Wikipedia is such a great source. They say the perfect is the enemy of the good -- Wikipedia is a very good encyclopedia on the subject of adventure games.

It is common knowledge that the quality of writing on Wikipedia varies widely. How much copyediting is needed to spice together the source articles on Wikipedia for your book? How do you decide what can be edited out?

Good question, and that was one of the more surprising parts of this book: the amount of editing that had to be done.

After compiling the articles and sending myself a review copy to read through to make correction notes, I quickly realized that the correction notes were becoming so numerous that a whole different process was needed. So I went back to the source material and gave every article a more thorough editing. Parts that I didn't found very interesting I removed. Reversely, parts which were missing but which I thought would be interesting, I tried to find from other sources. Sometimes, Wikipedia articles also have a "flow" that's not quite right due to the numerous authors, so getting the flow right (like by shifting around sections) was part of the process.

The resulting text is now a mixture of what was on Wikipedia, what was found from other sources, and some original writing that was necessary as part of the editing. I've also added a screenshots section for every adventure in the book.

The early history of graphic adventure games was dominated by LucasArts (previously called Lucasfilm Games) and Sierra (previously called On-Line Systems). In hindsight, which company was a better exemplar for the adventure game genre? Why?

I truly think every fan of the genre has to decide this for themselves. Most of us will have a nostalgic look on the games we played, as they were a part of our biography, of our special history, of our child, teen or adulthood of the time. Our memories are subjective by nature. If you played and loved Sierra games, then Sierra might be the best for you. If it was Lucasfilm you were mostly exposed to at the time, then warmer memories will be found for their games. And I think both views are equally valid. Both companies produce superb games, both slightly differently.

For instance, personally, I really enjoyed Lucasfilm's "player cannot die" policy. At the same time, I could imagine another player who thinks that adventure puzzles by their nature should be in a more "risky" environment so that you can feel the danger, and get more thrills out of the game due to real threats!

What were the major milestones, for better or worse, in the evolution of graphic adventure games? Why?

One milestone certainly is the "SierraVenture" Mystery House from 1980. It was likely the first adventure game ever that had graphics, so it marked the birth of a genre.

The game Labyrinth, released in 1986, was also very special due to its menu-driven approach.

Loom was a special game because it required you to input sounds, to weave magic spells. It departed from the typical verb menu of the time. The approach didn't catch on though so it can be looked upon as a singular game in retrospect.

Other milestones include the Maniac Mansion series, Zak McKracken, the Leisure Suit Larry series, Space Quest and King's Quest. Grim Fandango, too. I've probably left out more than I did mention!

Games like Myst, Zork Nemesis, and The Last Express have played their important roles in graphic adventures, too.

As far as "worse" goes, well, the rise of CD-ROM based "interactive movie" style games, in a way, often may have had more realistic graphics, but less interesting puzzles. Adding the third dimension can clash with offering the artist's perspective; quite literally, because the view on the environment is now interactive, and the makers will not be able to settle on a single "best" view to offer to the player. Complexity added in navigating the environment risks to tilt the game towards more simulation... a great genre in its own right, but a different one.

In Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, Rob Smith (the book's author) recounted many behind-the-scene development heartaches of classic adventure games from designers who had once worked at the company. From your own research for your book, what was your impression of LucasArts' successes and failings as an adventure game developer?

The Dig was probably one of Lucasart's failures; it took too long to be made, and the result wasn't fully worth the wait in terms of what we were used to from Lucasart game play quality. In the words of one of the project leaders, Brian Moriarty, in an interview with Aventura y CÍA from 2006:

"That game was made during a period of constant political upheaval within LucasArts. During the course of its production, the entire upper management of the company changed four or five times! It's a miracle the final product came out as well as it did, which is a credit to Sean Clark and his team of heroes."

Brian talks about a meeting of the games division which was set up by manager Steve Arnold, in response to Steven Spielberg wanting to make an adventure game with Lucasfilm. The entire creative team met at 5pm on Tuesday, October 17, 1989, at the Skywalker Ranch:

"A few moments after the meeting began, the room began to tremble, and then to shake violently. Steve Arnold raced out of the building; the rest of us ducked under the conference table as a $30,000 Tiffany lamp swayed over our heads. George Lucas's secretary could be heard screaming upstairs. We had just experienced the San Francisco Earthquake of 1989.

Alas! If only we had heeded the warning of the gods!"

Sometimes though, it may be the market which makes or break a game, not the inherent game quality. I consider Grim Fandango a fantastic game, but from what I've heard, it was never a commercial success. By ignoring great games, the market makes a decision to effectively cancel these types of games, because producers don't want to cater to non-commercial niches.

In the history of commercial adventure game development, what were some examples of major failures? Why did these games fail?

The Last Express is often cited as the biggest commercial failure of the genre, or of computer games in general. There were a reported six million dollars in development costs, but the game didn't catch on despite receiving great reviews. It's hard for me to tell exactly why the game failed, as I haven't played it. Perhaps it was just a sign of the times -- a market where players started to focus on a different breed of games, immersive, 3D ego-shooters, for instance.

The adventure game genre fell in popularity over time. What contributed to this decline? What was the turning point (or breaking point) for the genre?

It might not so much be the genre of graphic adventures itself that players were turned off by... it might simply have been that a whole other genre was even more fascinating to them at the time, namely 3D games. These games, in turn, were made possible by the specific hardware that started to appear. Computer games almost always pushed computer graphics to their limits.

Adventure games, too, kind of pushed away text adventure games by making use of the better hardware around. In their heydays, graphic adventures were a prime example of what computers were capable of. In the mid to late 1990s, that crown went over to another genre.

What lies in the future for the adventure game genre? To what extent, if any, must the genre evolve to grow?

I think if there's a future in this genre it will most likely be making parts of one or more of the three components web-based, multiplayer, and user-created. Imagine an easy online editor for graphic adventures, which you can then share with others to play, perhaps earning micro-revenues through in-game ads for both you and the editor-hosting company. I've made some brainstorm sketches in this direction and think it would be a cool endeavor for a startup to try their hands on.

One key of making an online adventure game creator program successful could be having a shared graphics repository, because creating graphics on your own is too tough for many of us (even if you're a skilled artist, it's incredibly time consuming). Creating puzzles and storylines though may be more feasible on amateur level.

Now, the multiplayer part is another potential field for exploration. One important question: How does one go about creating an adventure game -- web-based, I suppose -- where many players roam?

I should probably add that the rise of mobile devices, or in general any smaller, graphic-intensive device, can also give a push to reviving adventure games. And perhaps the casual nature of an iPad lends itself to some forms of puzzle adventure games (imagine sitting in a train with your friend, the iPad on the table in front of you... wouldn't it be fun to crack an adventure game together?).

What other projects (gaming or otherwise) do you have in plan for the near future?

As a work-from-home-or-cafe web developer, I've always got a couple of sites loosely planned or in the works. The last bigger project was Vintage Ad Browser (, which collects over 100,000 vintage ads. I'm also occasionally adding games to my games website, Games for the Brain ( With my neighbor here in China, I've just released a bunch of photo comics presenting gadgets ( We'll see what the future brings, it may even bring a project related to adventure games... I find the genre fascinating and think doing something related within the browser might have potential!

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