Above: screenshot from 'Her Majesty's Spiffing' courtesy of Billy Goat Entertainment
You might think that adventure games have had their golden age, your memory hazily recalling Monkey Island and the work of LucasArts, Beneath a Steel Sky, Simon the Sorcerer, and Sierra's King's Quest series. But a new wave of point-and-click titles are challenging the idea that adventure and narrative games are strictly retro genres, exclusively destined to appeal to old-timers who still get misty eyed remembering their yellowed Amigas.
Today's adventure game-makers are crafting emotional, accessible narratives that are underpinned by elegant mechanics. There's little in the way of "get a rubber balloon and leave a trail of breadcrumbs by clicking on the chimney pot… thing", and all of that comparably unintuitive silliness that punctuated so many earlier adventures. (Love you really, Grim Fandango.)
Nowhere is this energy and innovation more tangible than at AdventureX, a free-to-attend two-day con that took place in London, in November 2016. The event's speakers, including Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett and Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil, were paid courtesy of a successful Kickstarter, and there were queues out the door on the Saturday. It was truly heartening to see such an appetite for this not-entirely-fashionable breed of video game.
The games on display were a feast for those wanting to revel in nostalgia, admittedly, by the very nature of their genre; but importantly, lots of them exhibited clear signs of forward-looking innovation. I trawled through it all, giddily combining my own "investigate" and "notebook" icons with various devs and speakers, to solve the puzzle of where narrative games are hoping to take us in the near future.
"Many previously genre-defining elements are being dropped or reworked for audiences who haven't grown up on the genre, like many of the designers may have," Jay Tholen tells me. He's the creator of 2015's Devolver Digital-published point-and-clicker Dropsy, something of a clown-hugging (or is that hugging-clown?) sim that released to positive reviews. And his comments are indicative of a wider theme across the new games I see at AdventureX: There's a place for the most hideously esoteric puzzles, and that place is the past.
Marcus Baümer—the designer and writer of Unforeseen Incidents, one of the most eye-catching new games on display at AdventureX—expands on Tholen's observation. "[Nowadays], it's more about experiencing the stories, than overcoming obstacles." In the case of his game, you are small-town handyman Harper Pendrell, who's drawn into a conspiracy involving a cryptic radio signal, a deadly disease and a fanatical cult. For a game so focused on its narrative, it makes no sense for Unforeseen Incidents to gate its beautiful environments behind overly testing brainteasers.
"I think that the original tabletop Dungeons & Dragons constricted the brilliant work of computer role-playing games for the next 40 years." — Alexis Kennedy
"I think that the original tabletop Dungeons & Dragons constricted the brilliant work of computer role-playing games for the next 40 years," Alexis Kennedy, the founder of Failbetter Games (Sunless Sea) and now working on Cultist Simulator, tells me. "I think it was an absolute humdinger of an idea," he continues, "but it was wrapped in horribly restrictive design, which distorted all our expectations."
In short: Now is the time for adventure games to finally, comprehensively unshackle themselves from the late Gary Gygax's cold, iron grip.
Do we drop puzzles completely though? Of course not, but the emphasis should be on something more universally relatable. Adventure games should be firstly about the characters—everything else is secondary design, according to Tholen. "My little crusade involves inherent human value," he says. "I try to imbue the characters in my games with histories, motivations, desires, and other little nuances so they're more than just flimsy caricatures."
That's a sentiment that Greg Buchanan, the maker of political satire game Paper Drumpf and currently working on Supremacy, echoes. "The increasing complexity of emotional relationships and player involvement in developing those relationships" is what the future holds, in his opinion. That, and a lot of fan fiction.
Today's resurgence, understated though it is in the bigger gaming picture, of adventure titles owes a lot to Telltale's hits with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. But Jon Ingold of Inkle Studios—the team behind 80 Days and Steve Jackson's Sorcery!—is of the opinion that Telltale's titles are "often talked about for their choice and consequences" when, really, "they [just] have very good writers". In other words: The quality storytelling in these instances often obscures the fact that there's little in the matter of mechanics under the surface.
Ingold's comment is meant as no slight, but it needs to be said nonetheless. He adds that, instead of true branching narratives that, if you aren't aware, represent a crap-load of work to build, we need "narratives which are more ad-hoc, flexible and player-influenced", and "games that provide cues for players to tell themselves stories".
Dare I bring the term "procedural narrative" into play? Leaving the story entirely up to the player, however, risks losing that authorship that's so intrinsic to adventure games. "Procedural [narratives] can be used to further increase a sense of humanity and unpredictability," is Buchanan's line on that degree of plotline flexibility; but I think what adventure games will strive for is more of a hybrid, invoking the "boundless narrative possibility" I'm told about, but without losing that special touch of a human being involved in the creation of what unfolds.
So there's that to look forward to. And such thinking is testament to the experimentation that occurs in a genre thriving in independent circles. "I think Failbetter and Inkle are to blame for this [spike of interest]," Georg Hobmeier of Gold Extra and Causa Creations tells me. "Them, and the rise of Twine, Ren'Py, and other accessible text game engines for hobbyists."
"We're seeing a renaissance of sorts that's answering the question of what would've happened if first-person shooters hadn't become the dominant genre back in the 1990s." — Joseph Humfrey
And Inkle really is to blame—to some extent, and in the nicest way possible. Their own games are were awesome enough, but then they released ink, a full-featured interactive fiction/dialogue tool they use to make said games, to the public. For free. And then built inky, an open-source editor for it.
"With game technology being democratized, smaller companies have the chance to take the big risks, significantly evolving the medium for the entire industry," Inkle's Joseph Humfrey tells me. "What excites me right now is that the indie space finally has the chance to realize that potential."
Folk in the know also lay some resurgence-blame at the feet of Double Fine's Tim Schafer, who "invented Kickstarter back in 2012" (with that whole Broken Age thing) according to Will Barr, creator and writer of Her Majesty's Spiffing. This is hands down the funniest game I wrap my hands and brain around at AdventureX, and with highly polished 3D visuals and an Xbox One launch, it could make a dent in the mainstream. But can the adventure genre in general improve its visibility, and make inroads into audiences who usually only play shooters, or sports sims?
"I reckon we'll see more adventure games with budgets in the region of half a million pounds," Barr predicts. Which sounds pretty optimistic, and Humfrey adds that "games like Firewatch are pushing forward the definition [of what an adventure game is]". Hobmeier and Buchanan are both trailblazers for a new sub-genre of altogether less pastoral, but topical, viscerally political games, such as the former's From Darkness which, in his words, "addresses the struggle of migrant communities in Eastern Africa via a hybrid mix of video footage and game elements".
"We're seeing a renaissance of sorts that's answering the question of what would've happened if first-person shooters hadn't become the dominant genre back in the 1990s," Humfrey claims. Which is exciting, so long as we don't forget the roots that got us all so obsessed with pointing, clicking, and walking around with endlessly deep pockets in the first place. "It all has to be there, for that one time somebody will try to talk to the toaster," Barr says to me, both referencing the lunacy that solved some of yesteryear's more head-scratching puzzles and the fact that not having those obtuse elements, to at least a small degree would be a disservice to future adventures.