They have one of the worst reputations of all games now, but there was a time when the Adventure Game was king. It wasn’t a short time, either. One of the earliest Big Adventure Games was the Zork series which launched in 1980. Even as it was dying, classics of the genre continued to come out as late as 1999. The genre as it was is all but gone, but its reign was long and glorious.
There are a lot of reasons why it was so successful at one time and why it’s become nigh reviled now, but I’m not going to waste a lot of time on that. A lot of pixels have been rendered discussing the merits and failings of the Classic Adventure Game, and I doubt I can add anything to that debate. I’m here to talk about what they meant personally to me, and why no other genre has ever been able to match what the Adventure Game did for me.
Late to the Party
I’m not an Old Skooler when it comes to the genre. I didn’t play many text adventure games, and the ones I did play I got angry with after a few
exchanges. Something about the semantic requirements of those text adventures just infuriated me. So while I know what Zork is, I don’t get the references and I can’t claim to have been a fan of them in the least. Yeah, I know. Heresy.
A lot of this may have had to do with what computers were in my house and when they got there. I had an old Atari PC whose designation I can no longer recall, and that was all I had until my dad picked up our very first 386. By this time, the grand old age of text adventures had largely passed, as had the first round of graphical adventure games that were really just text adventure moving billboards, such as the early King’s Quest games. No, I didn’t get involved until the advent of Point And Click.
I wish I could remember what the first Adventure Game I played was. You’d think that was important, but those early games of my youth blur together. If I had to guess, I’d say it was King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! So yes, I was a latecomer, but once I was hooked, I was totally fished in.
If anyone is responsible for cementing my gaming tastes, it would be the developers of Sierra. There may have been single better games created by LucasArts, but it was Sierra that kept the adventure flowing. They had a series for every taste. King’s Quest was lighthearted, slightly Disney-ish adventure. Space Quest parodied any science fiction it could get its hands on. The more action-oriented Quest for Glory (which started as Hero’s Quest) was like playing through a straightforward sword and sorcery yarn. And let’s not forget the less successful but still sorta-interesting Police Quest, which tried (and occasionally succeeded) to tie the game’s puzzles to investigative police work.
There was something that the Sierra machine pumped out that was always missing in the other games I played. Story. These things were written. Not always well written and not usually deep, but they had a frickin’ plot behind them. One of the criticisms of the genre is that they attempted to be interactive stories, but failed; all you could interact with were the puzzles, which had a single solution. True, but that wasn’t why I loved them. I didn’t need an interactive story. I wanted an immersive story. I wanted to feel like I was there, but I still wanted someone to rip a yarn for me.
Were the puzzles annoying? Yeah. Was the gameplay largely following a pre-laid railroad track from puzzle to puzzle? Uh-huh. But at the end of it all, I had just experienced storytelling in a way nothing else could match. I might remember the way the lights flickered in Doom, but it can’t match the sense memory I have for the lion kingdom in Quest for Glory III.
And it definitely can’t match the emotional swell I still feel when someone mentions Gabriel Knight.
Jane Jensen – Queen Of All Game Writers
I wish I could say that I expected something extra out of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers when I picked it up, but I don’t think that’s true. I think the draw had something to do with the voice cast, which consisted of cult actors like Tim Curry, Michael Dorn and Mark Hamill. Plus it was a Sierra adventure game. I thought I knew what I was in for. It didn’t take long to realize I was in for something completely different. Later, when I got older and smarter and realized that writers were responsible for games just like they are for television, I’d come to realize that the Something Different was a writer named Jane Jensen.
The thing about the Gabriel Knight series was that the gameplay was almost secondary to the experience. You didn’t solve the puzzles because you wanted to solve puzzles, you did it because it was part of the story to take the next step. That next bit of plot wasn’t coming without solving the puzzle, and many of the puzzles were tied into the plot in such a way that solving them and solving a mystery were tied together. Sure, like all Adventure Games, the puzzles were often arbitrary and perplexing. It was a weakness of the genre. Never had I played through a game with a story like this one, though. Never.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was the first chapter in a supernatural detective series. The title character, through the course of the first game (I almost typed novel there, no joke), learns of his ancestor, a former Schattenjäger. That means Shadow Hunter, but in another language, which is what we fantasy writers do to make things sound less hokey. It’s a journey of discovery, as a self centered loser detective learns that he’s meant for greater things, if only he is willing to reach for them. The core mystery of the game weaves through the New Orleans underground, voodoo cults and a tragedy sealed by the failings of those who came before us.
It was only the first in a series of games that became an obsession of mine. The world of Gabriel Knight was so tangible, so immersive, that I wanted to go back as soon as possible. I did what I almost never do: I played through the thing, from front to back, multiple times. Just to take in the story again. When the sequel, The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery hit, I didn’t even care that the contracting Adventure Game market had forced a silly all-live-actors engine onto the series. I mean, it was a modern detective story about werewolves!
If I hadn’t been so enamored with the storytelling, perhaps I would have seen the writing on the wall. Stupid game engine changes are the first sign of morbidity. It didn’t matter that Jane Jensen was a canny enough writer and producer to shoehorn lots of useless live-action video into a playable adventure game with a moving story. The writing was definitely on the wall.
But the writing – the real writing, not the metaphorical kind – was so good it didn’t matter. The sequel let us split our time between Gabriel and his partner, Grace Nakimura. Grace was the Partner With Sexual Tension, a hoary chestnut of a plot device that still works when someone cares enough about it to make us care. And they did. And so came the second thing I had never seen in a game: a legitimate romance. One that made my heart beat a little bit the same way it did when a read a novel.
By the time Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned hit, the Adventure Game was nearly dead. Unfortunately, despite the best writing of the series (and a far superior version of the story The Da-Vinci Code would later use to huge success) , the gameplay didn’t help the genre any. Many people have torn apart the infamous Cat-Hair-Mustache-Puzzle, and rightly so. The constant changing-engine game Sierra was playing made it even more of a mess from a gameplay perspective. It missed the point. Adventure Games were not keeping up with the advancement of how interactive games had become. It had nothing to do with whether it was 2D or 3D.
Yet my love for the series, and for the genre, was only sealed by Gabriel Knight 3. Never before, and never since, have I been so moved by the story in a video game. When people talk about the stories in most action games, I can only sigh. They’ve got nothing on my girl Jensen. As the mystery of the third Gabriel Knight wrapped up, we watched Gabriel and Grace sleep together for the first time. Then, confused and unsure of whether Gabriel and she could work, Grace slipped away quietly, leaving to study with another man in another country. And all Gabriel, matured by the revelation of the origin of the Schattenjägers, could do was read her goodbye letter helplessly. And that’s how we left him. Alone.
All Things Must Pass
Gabriel Knight 3 is the last Adventure Game of any note. Some of its ideas and concepts have been absorbed into other genres, but the very particular feel that the Adventure Game left me with has never been replicated. I can’t argue with the charges leveled against its outmoded gameplay, but I also can’t get behind the belief that there wasn’t something right about that style of game.
Sure, you can put plot into a first person shooter or an RPG, but both of those require combat, and demand a certain type of strategy that runs counter to the style of writing the Adventure Game was known for. Not all heroes carry guns or fight hoards of goblins, and no combat-based game (which accounts for the vast majority of what comes out) can really stick us into the shoes of some of our favorite character archetypes using that model. The Adventure Game met the needs of a certain kind of gamer, and the intent of that genre was never wrong. They just got stuck on an implementation that got old.
I still fantasize about some resurgence of the genre, some update of the gaming model that makes it all work again. It’s a fantasy that leads directly to Jane Jensen writing another Gabriel Knight game, that lets me follow Gabriel and Grace through their evolving relationship and solve a hinted at mystery about ghosts in Scotland. I believe it can happen. There’s a hole in the gaming market. People like me, who want a game that’s centered around story, atmosphere and discovery, minus the combat and twitch-gaming required in everything else, are not being served.
I still game, but I haven’t enjoyed it in the way I used to in a long, long time. When I think back to the last time I was truly passionate about a game, I think of Gabriel Knight 3, and I realize with the death of the Adventure Game what made me a gamer in the first place died as well.