Kurt Kalata

Hardcore Gaming 101

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 20 August 2011. Last updated on 20 August 2011.
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Kurt Kalata
Kurt Kalata is the founder of Hardcore Gaming 101 and the author of Hardcoregaming101.net Presents: The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures.
Kurt Kalata
Kurt Kalata

About the book

Hardcoregaming101.net Presents: The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, edited and complied by Kurt Kalata, is a comprehensive compendium chronicling the history of graphic adventure games. At 772 pages in length, the book covers over 300 games from the golden age of the adventure game genre, extending from 1984 to roughly 2000. It includes re-edited reviews from Hardcore Gaming 101 as well as new articles and exclusive interviews with notable game designers such as Al Lowe, Corey Cole, Bob Bates, and Josh Mandel. Full of interesting historical factoids and trivia, fans of classic graphic adventure games will find this book to be both a valuable reference and a great resource to read and study.

For more information, visit Hardcore Gaming 101.

Fans of classic gaming are undoubtedly familiar with Hardcore Gaming 101. Created by Kurt Kalata in 2004, this website has grown to become a rich underground resource for gamers who are interested in learning more about their favorite games of yore. The website is notable for its in-depth coverage of many classic games—with a particular focus on their histories, many of which make for stories that are as fascinating as the games themselves.

Soon after launching the website, Kalata began another ambitious game project—to create a compendium that would chronicle in detail the early history of graphic adventure games. This compendium, aptly titled Hardcoregaming101.net Presents: The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, would serve as a comprehensive guide and bible for any fans of the genre as well as newcomers who might be interested in learning more about the genre's turbulent history.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Kurt Kalata of Hardcore Gaming 101. In the interview, Kalata speaks about his passion for adventure games, the history of Hardcore Gaming 101, his inspiration to compile The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, his opinion of the current state of the adventure game genre, and what the future holds for him and his website.

What were your first memories of playing adventure games?

My dad had bought an Atari 400 around the time I was born, so I spent a lot of time playing games with him growing up. The one that burns brightest in my memory was one of the Scott Adams text adventures, one based on the Incredible Hulk. If I remember correctly, you started off as Bruce Banner and you were tied to a chair. Obviously you needed to turn into the Hulk to escape, but typing in "turn into Hulk" just didn't work. You needed to type in "bite lip", which apparently enraged you so much that you transformed and burst free. If there was any kind of precedent to that in the comics or TV show, the five year old me certainly didn't know it.

Not coincidentally, one of my first memories of going into a book store was heading into the back to the "games" section to check out the hint books to figure out what I was supposed to do in whatever game I was trying to play.

What appeals to you most about adventure games, both as a gamer playing them and as a journalist writing about them?

You often hear people complain that stories in video games are terrible, and they just shouldn't even bother, that if you wanted a story you should just read a book or watch a movie. I absolutely disagree with that, because there's a lot of fascinating ways you can involve the player that you can't in any other medium. For a lot of the most popular games nowadays that just involves watching cutscenes, which aren't all that involving, but a lot of older adventure games really made you an active participant in the game world. Part of the fun was exploring, looking at all of the different stuff to see if the game commented on them, trying out different stuff (which was more fun with the text parser) to see if it would understand them, and find goofy ways to get yourself killed.

The most interesting part is seeing how these games of old were able to communicate an experience like this with such limited technology. What sort of devices exclusive to gaming could it use to tell a story and to elicit emotion?

Like, for example, the second Leisure Suit Larry game. It's just maniacal. There are dozens of ways to get stuck or get killed in the most innocuous and absurd ways. Like if you would try to hit on a girl you'd almost all die in incredibly gruesome death. It creates this just insane, madcap atmosphere where you're on your toes at all times, but it's all so ridiculous that it's still funny even though it's incredibly frustrating. Now, try to transfer those emotions into a book or a movie telling the same story. You can't. It just wouldn't work.

Why are you fascinated particularly by video game history? To what extent is the study of video game history underappreciated by current game developers?

Not to sound like an old fogey (I'm not that old, really!), but they don't make games like they used to. This is any genre, not just adventure games. In many ways games were simpler back in the 80s and 90s, but there's a certain straightforwardness to them and a larger emphasis on skill. Today, games are meant to be rollercoaster experiences. There's nothing really wrong with that, but surely that doesn't mean the old style of games has to disappear? Or better yet, if people were better integrating the old school with the new school? That's what developers would be best to learn.

You founded Hardcore Gaming 101 in 2004. What inspired to you create this website? What was the first adventure game you covered on the website? How large had the website's readership grown since then?

I had just graduated college and was working at Borders bookstore. As is especially common nowadays, I was bitter and pissed off that I had spent four years studying to get a bachelors degree and was working for minimum wage at retail. And I don't know if you've really looked around a big retail store, but there's all kinds of books detailing the minutiae of just the most inane crap imaginable. Meanwhile, the "Games" section is 95% strategy guides and, very occasionally, a history book. Do people really care nothing about video games beyond how to beat Kingdom Hearts? So I came up with the idea for a site that would act as a sort of introductory course to various bits of gaming history.

For a long time I had focused on console and arcade games, mostly Japanese in nature, but every once in awhile I'd pick up a PC game to play. The first I covered for the site was, I think, Westwood's The Legend of Kyrandia, which I had enjoyed growing up. But I didn't start ramping up coverage on them until much later.

As for readership, I only had Google tracking on within the past few years, so I really don't know how it's grown since the very beginning. I figured that once I'd found people on NeoGAF calling me an idiot for ragging on some crappy game they liked then I'd really made it!

To what extent is The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures a scholarly compendium to document the history of the adventure game genre? How does your book differ in coverage from Philipp Lenssen's book (Graphic Adventures: Being a Mostly Correct History Of the Adventure Game Classics By Lucasfilm, Sierra and Others, from the Pages of Wikipedia) on the genre?

Phillip Lenssen's book kept in lines with Wikipedia's standards of mostly standard facts with some occasional references. But what separates HG101 from Wikipedia is the presence of not only a voice but criticism as well. When I read about a game, I want to know if it's any good! Like, reading that Monkey Island 2 was a game by Ron Gilbert published by LucasArts in 1991 is useful and all, but why is it one of the most well regarded adventure games of all time? By the very nature of maintaining neutrality, Wikipedia is also dry reading, whereas I hope to make our articles more interesting while still trying to maintain a professional tone. And even though you might disagree with our assessment, you should at least see how we arrived to the conclusion that we did.

I don't think of it is a history book, really. I mean, it documents some fairly underground games and has some interviews, but it doesn't really trace the rise and fall of it or anything. I think of it more of a collection of essays and criticisms more than anything...it would be a buyer's guide, even though you can't buy most of the games any more.

When did you first start working on the book? How did you decide which games to cover in the book? What lessons did you learn about the business of video game book publishing?

I started covering more adventure games when I got a computer that was actually capable of running DOSBox at a reasonable speed. At that point I dug out one of those cheapo boxed Space Quest collections I'd picked up, gave it a go, and realized how much I missed games like that. So I wanted to catch up on all of the stuff I'd missed out on. I'd loved Quest for Glory but had gotten out of PC gaming by the time the fifth one had come out. I'd played the third and fourth Monkey Island games but never beaten them. I'd barely touched any Leisure Suit Larry games because I was just too young to play them!

A few months later when I decided I wanted to do a book on them, I knew I had to cover LucasArts and Sierra comprehensively, because they're the companies that are most associated with the golden age of the genre. I also wanted to cover Legend's titles, because while I had read about them growing up, I'd never actually played them (except Star Control 3, which wasn't really an adventure game) and thought that the coverage on the internet was severely lacking for how excellent they generally were. I had also wanted to cover the other notable series from other developers – Broken Sword, Simon the Sorcerer, The Longest Journey, The Last Express, stuff that like.

Well, figuring out what was "notable" proved to be a task in and of itself, because I'd comb through forums and people would reference all kinds of random games I'd never heard of. So I'd track them down and play them. Some were awful, some were decent. But in the process I'd expanded my scope from "the best games of the genre" to "practically everything I could get my hands on". I'd originally wanted to stick with Western-developed games, but tons of people (myself included) loved Konami's Snatcher and Policenauts, so I stuck them in, along with a few early titles that were available in English. I initially didn't want to cover too many Myst-clones, since there were so many of them, but we did stick in what we felt were some of the best ones. And the stuff we had to cover just ballooned. I look back at my initial plans and figured it would be about 500 pages...it's easy to see how that shot up to nearly 775!

As for publishing...well, the subject is so niche that I figured no publisher would really care. But self-publishing has become fairly cheap the past few years, and the upfront investment is relatively minimal, making it feasible for a regular guy like me to do on his own.

What were the major watershed moments, for better or worse, in the history of the adventure game genre? Why?

Mostly technological ones. The sound card and better graphics hardware led to the Sierra SCI0 games. CD-ROMs led to voice acting and minimalist first person adventures like Myst and FMV stuff like Phantasmagoria. That's when it really exploded, when you started to see them get mainstream coverage, because they were demanding more respect.

I think one of the things that killed it was the industry shift to 3D. Not only were action games overshadowing adventure titles, but there was the common sentiment that 2D games wouldn't sell. So developers were caught in a bind, that most people who primarily played Quake wouldn't play something as slow paced as an adventure game, but classic adventure game fans have been known to be staunch traditionalists and wouldn't accept a game that was either dumbed down or had awkward early 3D. So developers tried to please everyone and pleased precisely no one.

How fair or unfair is the criticism that contemporary adventure games have been dumbed down in difficulty to attract a more casual gaming audience?

Well, it's not incorrect, but I can totally understand their rationale. I know some of the adventure game community hates on the new Back to the Future games for forsaking puzzle solving in favor of narrative, but I have friends that would never otherwise touch adventure games that have played and really enjoyed them. And that's a really good way to get new fans.

There's the modern (overblown) sentiment that old adventure games were just these impenetrable messes and people only played them back in the day because we didn't know any better. That's absolutely wrong but that mindset is still prevalent, sadly. So it's understandable that modern developers would want to steer clear of that, but I think they need a way to better integrate the actual gameplay into the game. Like, I loved Dreamfall and all, but it was little more than running between various points, and anytime you had to do anything traditionally gamey, like sneaking around or punching dudes, it was just terrible. And Heavy Rain is all ridiculous stuff like "Hold down X to shave". I've only seen bits and pieces of LA Noire and it seems to do it better than most, but I still hear complaints about the way the interrogations are handled. It's all a learning process for both the developers and the players.

Who do you consider to be the most influential adventure game designers of all time? Why?

Ron Gilbert, mostly because everyone I interviewed pointed to him! Him and Aric Wilmunder were behind the SCUMM system that was the basis for adventure gaming from Maniac Mansion to the next ten years or so and is still used often today. Plus the implementation of cutscenes. And nearly everyone points to one of the original Monkey Island games as one of their favorite games.

I wish I could say there were more, but modern video games are more about killing things as opposed to puzzle solving, narrative or characterization.

Which game do you consider to be the most underrated adventure game of all time? Which game do you consider to be the most overrated adventure game of all time? Why?

Underrated? Definitely something by Legend. I absolutely loved Eric the Unready; it's just an immensely funny game. It gets ignored because it's more of a traditional interactive fiction game, but if it had been done on the style of a LucasArts or Sierra game it would easily be remembered as one of the best in the genre.

Also, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. It's not as blatantly silly, but it's got incredible depth, some fantastic writing (both humorous and dramatic) and lots of great places to explore and characters to talk to. It's not nearly as widely discussed as it should be.

As for overrated...well, there are already a sizeable contingent of Myst haters, so that sort of disqualifies that! So I'll suggest Syberia instead. I remember it getting fantastic reviews when it came out, and I played it, and I thought it was really boring. I went back to it years later with a different mindset, and realized that, thematically, it's a beautiful game, all about wistfulness of a bygone era. It's got heart. But the characterizations are just incredibly banal and the writing is boring and the artists were just so in love with their artwork that they forgot to fill it with anything interesting beyond the visuals. The localization was crap. Maybe Kate Walker was an amazing character in French but in English she was practically a non-entity. It was just so barren. Not only that but the narrative totally lost its steam by the time the first game ended and went onto the second.

What is the current state of the adventure game genre? To what extent must the genre evolve in the future to survive?

There are a few distinct schools, I think. Telltale puts out games that still hew closely to the traditional mold, for the most part. I think they're trying to grow out of that a bit, but I think as long as they adhere to the tropes of older games, they'll always have loyal fans, probably enough to keep them afloat, but not enough to really break it big. There's also the European developers like Daedalus and Pendulo, but they'll never break into the USA. They have gorgeous art, but the localizations of all of them are dire, at best, and they just don't have the presence to command a larger audience.

Then you have the larger developers putting out stuff like Heavy Rain and LA Noire, stuff that's fairly big budget compared to the older titles, aimed at the console market, delivering a cinematic experience. These seem to be doing fairly well, at least, though they have a long way to go, especially in the storytelling department. Not to pick on Heavy Rain any more or anything, but that game is atrocious – if it had been translated into a movie it would be laughed out of the theatre.

Still, there's lots of room for expansion, but also lots of missed opportunities. Nintendo's strategy for the Wii was to bring in non-gamers, who you'd think would like games that are more than just about shooting people. When you go to the movies, there are more things to see than just action flicks, right? But not many seemed to exploit that. There was Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk, and the second entries in each series never even made it to the US. There were a few ports like Broken Sword and Secret Files Tunguska, but I don't think much happened with them. The Phoenix Wright games on the DS were popular for awhile, I think they're the ones that capitalized on them on the most, but Capcom's passing on the localization for the most recent one, so I guess that's fallen out of favor as well.

There are games like Professor Layton though. Are those really any different from the likes of The 7th Guest just in a different context? Not really. They really speak to a lot of people that aren't traditionally gamers. That's the big thing developers need to figure out, while simultaneously not alienating their longtime fans.

What can we look forward from you and Hardcore Gaming 101 over the next 5 years?

More books, definitely. Next up I'm working on one for Konami, a large Japanese company that developed some of my favorite games. The site's going to continue as it is, hopefully with more of a focus on classic PC gaming too, especially since Western-developed games have become more popular this generation and there's a lot of history behind stuff like that.

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