Let me get one thing straight. For all good intents and purposes, for all the developer’s ambitions, for all the releases we’ve seen, the Adventure genre is dead. Or at least in such a deep coma that it wouldn’t make a difference. Why? Strap in, ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a long ride.
The last two truly excellent releases the genre has seen date back to 1999. Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was the first Point & Click title to convincingly use a full 3D environment. The camera controls and interface were so well-made that they needed virtually no getting-used-to. With a strong narrative and interesting characters, this typical Jane Jensen title was also the last adventure game published by Sierra. The Longest Journey had more traditional production values, but surprised with a deep, atmospheric and highly original storyline, as well as a very likeable lead character.
The last remarkable title saw the light of the world in 2001. And it almost didn’t for most of the world. Runaway: A Road Adventure by Spanish developer Pendulo Studios was already available in Spain when publisher Dinamic Multimedia went belly-up. Only two years later an English version was released. By then it was almost yesterday’s news, but the quirky characters, wacky story and some innovative mechanics made sure the game was a discussion topic among adventure fans for quite some time.
I won’t deny that since then, the genre has seen a lot of ambitious releases, some of them well above average. But there hasn’t been anything truly classy, inspiring or innovative. But what makes an Adventure game stand out from the rest, what makes it remarkable and worth playing?
It seems to be a popular opinion that Adventure games are all about puzzles. Objection, Your Honour. I firmly believe that an Adventure should first and foremost tell a good story. That’s what the classics always excelled at. Ideally, that story should have some depth, memorable characters, and it should make sense. Traditionally, Adventures are heavy on dialogue, mostly with branching conversations. Puzzles and riddles are a part of the package, but that’s where the chaff separates itself from the wheat. Let’s look at three random examples of what went wrong with some games.
Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon had fantastic art direction, good dialogue and a really good story. However, it lacked heavily in other aspects. Firstly, the controls were completely atypical for an Adventure game, more akin to a console platformer and ideally played with a gamepad. Now that has been tried before – Grim Fandango took half a metric ton of flak for that stunt back in its day. And that game is still considered a classic. In terms of story, production values and humour, Broken Sword doesn’t hold a candle against it. Throw in a few jumping puzzles and Sokoban knock-offs, and you have a game that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. If it was an attempt to lure in new players, it failed miserably.
The first Runaway game was outstanding. Its successor however already lacked the class, the freshness and the sense of humour. Runaway 3: A Twist Of Fate completely blew things out of the water, in all the bad ways possible. A story that was meant to be comical but is actually just absurd, characters that were a mere shadow of their former glory – and please don’t get me started on the absolutely mindless, crackbrained puzzles. Absolutely nothing in that game made sense. Starting and ending with the fact that this series even made it that far in the first place.
Benoît Sokal’s Syberia has been widely touted as a game that could have saved the Adventure genre. With all due respect, I didn’t think so. Virtually everything about that game, in my very humble opinion, was run-of-the-mill. From the characters, to the production values, to the story itself, it was just not good enough. At no point did the game have the appeal to stand out, and the only reason it got so much attention was that there was virtually nothing else available in the genre at the time.
Now you may say, and I’ve heard this argument before – isn’t it better to have a genre produce average games that are at least playable, than no output at all? To at least keep the genre alive? For the third time in this article, I respectfully disagree. Personally, I’d rather have no Adventure games at all, rather than the mediocre titles that are being released here and there. If the developers keep on batting below target, the genre can’t sustain itself and is ultimately doomed to fail.
Which leads me back to the title of this article. I just recently finished playing Jane Jensen’s latest title Gray Matter. Since that game was announced a few years ago, I have been feverishly awaiting it. And it did not disappoint. From the story, to the atmosphere, the characters, the voice acting and music, the detailed graphics – everything just fits. What I specifically loved was the way the puzzles integrated into the game and drove the story. That’s a mistake a lot of developers have made and will keep making – to build puzzles for the sake of having puzzles in the game. The result borders on the illogical and absurd more often than not. Jane Jensen has got it right. Every single puzzle, from the simple ones in the beginning, to the serious nutcrackers towards the end, can be solved with hints found in the game, and just a little bit of noggin power. Not once did it feel like I had to wrap my mind around some developer’s twisted way of thinking. Gray Matter was enticing from the very beginning, I just couldn’t stop playing it.
After I finished Gray Matter, I realized just how dire the state of the Adventure genre is. Over the last few years I have played a multitude of titles, and not a single one was as engrossing and enjoyable as this one. I loaded Black Mirror 2, hoping for a similar experience, but it was not to be. Instead, I got lame characters, lousy voice acting and a game just brimming with mediocrity. After two hours I could not bear playing any further. And that’s all the genre seems to be capable of producing, with very few exceptions along the lines of Gray Matter. If that’s the best I can get – then I’d rather have no Adventures at all.