Why does no-one know what “adventure games” are any more?

Last night I found myself with a bit of a hankering to play a classic adventure game of some description — be it a point-and-click affair or even something with a text parser. So I did what any self-respecting retro gaming enthusiast would do in 2021: I popped on over to GOG.com. Their original remit was to provide “Good Old Games”, after all, so I figured that trawling through their “Adventure” section might offer up some treats.

Then I remembered: no-one, least of all digital marketplaces, knows what an adventure game is any more. Here’s what GOG recommended to me under its “Adventure” label:

Adventure games on GOG.com

Of those games, only the Myst titles are what I would regard to be classic adventures. Road 96 has some adventure elements, as does Superliminal, but their first-person exploration nature makes them something distinct. The Witness, likewise, has a few characteristics of adventure games — particularly Myst — but is more of a puzzle game at heart.

As for the others, though? Psychonauts 2: platformer. No Man’s Sky: space sim. Medieval Dynasty: open world sandbox RPG. Death’s Door: hack and slash action RPG. Gris: puzzle platformer. A Plague Tale: action adventure with stealth.

“Well, then,” I thought. “Maybe if I look at the oldest games in the list, we might get some classic adventures.” So I sorted by “oldest first”.

Adventure games on GOG.com

This is actually much more like it (I’d recommend all of these games to the adventure enthusiast!), but even here, there’s one notable outlier: Bloodwych, which is a dungeon-crawling RPG.

Thing is, I can sort of understand why this has happened over the years — and why no-one has really put up any sort of resistance to it. It’s because in all those games that are, to my mind, inappropriately classified, you are “going on an adventure” in thematic terms. And, over the years, it seems the broader gaming community — and particularly the commercial side of things — has accepted that as what the “adventure” genre now means.

But that’s not what it means — at least, it didn’t used to be what it meant, anyway. So let’s set some things straight right now!

What are adventure games?

An adventure game is a game in which you usually take on the role of a singular protagonist — though some adventures provide multiple narrative perspectives — and have a goal to accomplish, typically (though not always) through non-violent means.

In the earliest adventures — such as Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure from 1977, the game that birthed the whole genre — the objective was often as simple as “find all the treasures and bring them back somewhere”, but over time adventure game developers became more ambitious and started to tell stories through their games.

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In fact, as much as we take narratives in games for granted today, the use of video games as a means of interactive storytelling originated in the adventure game genre, so we owe it a lot.

Early adventures unfolded entirely as text, in which the computer provided on-screen descriptions of the environments you were in and the actions you were taking, much like a Dungeon Master in a tabletop role-playing game.

You would communicate with the computer by typing; initially, the early games were capable of parsing input in the form of “VERB NOUN” phrases (“TAKE BOOK”, “PULL LEVER”, “KILL DWARF”) but as programming techniques became more sophisticated, they became capable of accepting more complex input such as compound sentences, prepositions and pronouns. (“TAKE THE KNIFE THEN USE IT TO CUT THE ROPE THEN CLIMB THE LADDER”)

Progressing through an adventure game was dependent on solving puzzles, which usually required you to find an item from somewhere, then find an appropriate means of using it somewhere in the game world. Some games allowed you to get away with input as simple as “USE [noun]”, while others required you to say specifically what you wanted to do with the object, such as “UNLOCK DOOR WITH GOLD KEY”.

As time went on, adventure games began to incorporate graphics, initially as a means of supporting the textual descriptions but later as a complete replacement. Some of the more hardcore adventure enthusiasts were rather resistant to this, believing that the text-only nature of classic adventure games was a key part of their appeal, but time marched ever-onwards.

That’s not to say they died out completely, however; their spirit lives on in both the visual novel genre — although user input in that type of game is typically much more limited — as well as the flourishing interactive fiction scene, where digital authors are continually pushing the boundaries of the stories it’s possible to tell with on-screen text and freeform user input.

Meanwhile, the mainstream adventure game evolved piece by piece. First we had illustrated text adventures, then we had Sierra’s hybrid affairs where you controlled an on-screen character directly but told them what to do through text input, and eventually we ended up with the point-and-click interfaces that most modern gamers associate with the genre today.

Even point and click went through some evolutions, though; in the early days, you’d have to click on things to see if anything happened, and it wasn’t until later that we started to see what became known as an “intelligent cursor” that would change its shape or provide on-screen feedback to let you know what you could interact with and what was background detail.

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The core was still there, though: adventures were games intended to make you think, in which the focus was not on frantic blasting, running around chaotically or pursuing high scores — they were, instead, about exploration, solving puzzles and reaching some sort of conclusion to the experience.

Why does this matter?

In the early ’80s, adventure games were held up as a significant development in interactive entertainment in that they eschewed the arcade-style gameplay that was found on platforms such as the Atari 2600 and offered an experience that was only possible on home computers: the ability to interact with things via means other than shooting or dodging them.

Writing in issue 10 of UK Atari magazine Page 6 from July of 1984 — an issue that had specifically been dedicated to the genre as an “Adventure Special” — editor Les Ellingham noted in his editorial column that “[Adventures] are one of the most satisfying types of game to play on a micro. They provide lasting value, both money-wise and by exercising your mind, and they illustrate one of the most valuable uses of a home computer, which is to make you think!”

Even from these earliest days of gaming, adventure games were a type of experience that broadened the audience of computer and video games beyond arcade enthusiasts. The deliberate, cerebral nature of adventures attracted people who probably wouldn’t have had any interest in games like Space Invaders and Asteroids — they provided something to enjoy for those whose reactions weren’t up to the pace of the day’s arcade games.

Don’t believe me? Well, my mother, who is not someone I’d particularly describe as a “gamer”, has absolutely devoured numerous adventures over the years, despite not being someone who typically gets on all that well with arcade-style games. (Except Millipede. She’s good at Millipede.) From the early days of Scott Adams text adventures on the Atari 8-bit up to later Sierra and LucasArts titles on MS-DOS and Windows PC, she always had the right kind of mind to take on their challenges — as well as an appreciation for a good story, which these games tended to provide.

And yet with the apparent insistence of modern game developers to blend the storytelling and puzzle-solving aspects of classic adventures with more action-based gameplay, people like my mother are cut off from experiences that I suspect they would otherwise enjoy.

I bet she’d appreciate the clever puzzles of something like Superliminal, but I know from past experience that she does not get on at all well with first-person controls, be they mouse and keyboard or twin-stick. That game, therefore, is inaccessible to her — and moreover, its presence in a category that should, in theory, be full of stuff she’d like and be able to play, makes it harder for her to find something she can enjoy.

In other words, the misclassification of games in the “adventure” category on the majority of today’s digital storefronts — it’s absolutely not just GOG who does this — makes it much more difficult for people who are looking for a specific type of experience to find what they are actually looking for. “Adventure” used to mean something very specific that appealed to a very specific type of player; these days, however, it tends to be applied in a more thematic sense, rather than as a distinct mechanical genre.

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This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the grand scheme of things — but when the rest of these digital storefronts accurately classify other games under specific mechanics-related headings like “racing”, “sports” and “strategy”, you can hopefully see where the problem lies. If I want to find a new racing game to play, I will have no problem doing so. If I want to find a new adventure game, however… well, I have a fair bit of trawling through completely unrelated titles before I’ll find something actually relevant.

What do we do?

There’s seemingly not a lot we can do at this point, unfortunately, since the “adventure” category on most digital storefronts has, as we’ve seen, pretty much lost all meaning. Therefore we can’t rely on it to provide a good indication of what games are available that are genuine adventure games by the traditional definition.

What we can do, however, is make a point of talking about the games that we do like — whether they’re new or old. In these days of a bajillion games being released on a seemingly daily basis, word of mouth is absolutely the best means to get specific titles noticed — and thus the best means of keeping the classic adventure genre alive is to celebrate it as loudly as possible whenever a genuine example of it does happen to show up.

I guess that takes care of at least a couple of 10 of the Best Tuesdays articles in the near future, huh? In the meantime, be sure to try some of the games seen in the screenshots for this article if you haven’t already experienced them — and be sure to share some of your own favourites down in the comments!

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