Friday, December 28, 2007

The Fractured Genre

Been thinking a lot over here about adventure games. Once the King (or Queen) of computer games, it has fallen into steady decline since the mid 90's. Surely it isn't 'dead' by any means like the mainstream press might like to constantly proclaim, but it sure has been shoved into the closet for the most part.

When you look at RPGs, FPS, and RTS games, it's pretty clear what makes them what they are. While you might have fans of those genres who disagree on the quality of those games, you don't really have any major influxes of people who have radically differing opinions on whether or not it's their type of game or not. It's pretty obvious that those games all share a common template that everyone agrees on.

Now take adventure games. There really isn't a set formula here which can adequately define the genre. Ask 10 people what makes an adventure game and you might just get 10 different answers. I might even go so far as to say that adventure gamers don't even know what an adventure game is. By no means am I indicating that I know either.

If you ask me, I might tell you that it's a game with an intriguing story, engaging game play and mental challenges. Well, by that definition Jedi Knight II might qualify as well as a host of other FPS games. Heck, even RPG's have that.

Somewhere along the way Adventure Games seem to have lost their way. It was a genre that was defined by its rich stories, graphics, and intellectual stimulation. There was nothing in the interface that determined the genre. After all, that was something that was constantly changing. From purely text-based to text based with graphics, from 3rd person to 1st person, from cartoon graphics, to rendered 3D to full motion video, etc. The list goes on and on...

...and maybe that's its curse. Maybe adventure games were really nothing more than an experiment in various technologies, techniques and player interfaces. Some ideas proved to be hits and they went further into those directions and created their own genres like survival horror games, action adventures, etc. At some point adventure games got stuck with certain interfaces and certain game play elements. Radically change the interface or style of mental challenges at this point and you'll have people questioning whether or not its even an adventure game.

Adventure Games surely aren't dead, but they risk being nothing more than a retro genre. The only thing that has changed seems to be that the quality of the graphics have improved. Beyond that what has changed? We're still seeing some of the same puzzles in current games as we've seen in games from 10+ years ago.

While some might say that the art of story-telling is what defined the genre and that no one seems to be carrying that torch, I have to ask if that is even relevant in today's fast paced world. Right now it seems like the market prefers fluff with very little substance. Try to go a bit deeper with a story and it might go over a lot of people's heads. Being subtle doesn't pay - spelling it all out so there is no confusion does.

So how is the genre fractured?

The mental challenges in adventure games come in 2 flavors - inventory based and logic based. You have players who enjoy both and have no real preference for either, but then you have other who are either in strong favor of one over the other. Likewise, the same can be said of 3rd person vs. 1st person perspectives. Cartoon graphics vs. realistic pre-rendered 3d. Comedy vs. horror. The list goes on and on. Taking an already minor genre and having it battling itself can't be a good thing.

Is it wrong?

Of course not. Everyone has their own opinions for what they like. This article isn't about players, it's about challenges that the genre faces that keeps it in the closet. At one point it was all encompassing which worked in it's favor, but now that same mentality has forced it to have limited mass appeal.

I can't help but compare this to the movie or music industry with all of the different styles and flavors out there. The thing is, those industries have clearly defined and categorized themselves. Likewise, many of the other gaming genres have clearly defined themselves. Adventure games really haven't - in trying to be master of all, they've become master of none. You see this clearly in many of the games trying to incorporate many different styles of challenges.

Instead of sticking with what one group likes, they try to do a little of each to make the masses of adventure gamers happy. The trouble is that when they do that, they are guaranteeing that their game will make everyone disappointed at one point or another. I'm sure it is possible to do it in such a way that it fits logically with the story, but most of the time the puzzles seem out of place and stuck in there for the sake of having a puzzle.

I think this is just a symptom of not being clearly defined and trying to be an 'Adventure Game' - which means a whole lot of different things to different people.

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