A Clarification of Genre: Adventure

Please read the Introduction entry as this post will be building off of the foundation stones and concepts put forth there. That post also contains some clarifications for how I will be writing this series. You can read the previous entry on Action here.


Adventure games are a little more difficult to talk about than Action games. There is a mentality that sticks with them because Adventure games were always understood as this very narrow brand of games. Descriptively called point-and-click Adventure games equaled Adventure games as a whole in the popular mindset. Also, unlike Action games, Adventure games have a number of nuances to how they function and work with regards to their focus that Action games, to me at least, is a lot more obvious.

The definition please:

Adventure – a focus on the exploration of the game’s milieu to achieve a mastery of understanding

First a game’s milieu is the game’s world, but unlike world that has a connotation of the landmass only, it refers to everything. It concerns the geographic, logical, societal, moral, and physical laws that govern the place the game is set in. An Adventure game is all about looking around this world, learning about it and understanding it. This can be a world wholly unlike our own such as The Longest Journey that takes both a Sci-fi and Fantasy approach in a single game or just off like Monkey Island or grounded in a facsimile of our world like L.A. Noire.

Achieving a master of this world usually comes in the form of puzzles. Puzzles can be many things is different types of games, but in Adventure games puzzles are expressions of the game’s milieu by which it teaches and tests the player on the nature of the game world. This can be anything from the geographic laws like the white house is S to a forest path in Zork to Sunset Blvd. is X long in L.A. Noire. These are the special realities of the game’s world. It also refers to things more esoteric and non-tangible like the logical rules that govern a place. Monkey Island is not a fantastical location because of the setting or the people, but because the rules of logic and how people think are very different from our own. To give an example, in the first third of the game you have to bypass a troll guarding a bridge by answering a riddle. It asks for Guybrush Threepwood for something that distracts an audience. The answer is a red herring, so you give him a fish. In what other world does this work? Only in Monkey Island because the world is based of language in puns in-jokes and double meanings. You can see examples of this all over the game. The third game has a puzzle that is solved by finding a word that doesn’t have a rhyme so the game can progress.

Understanding a world is key to the Adventure Super-genre’s focus. It can be from the simple of special realities to the complex of having to play working with laws of physics that might be different to different social structures or logical rules.

This Super-genre is a descriptor for an interactive medium, so concentrating on the world building alone is not enough to be an Adventure game. Plenty of games from various different Super-genres work on their world building and detailing it to the player. But there is a difference between given the information in a expository dump and exploring the digital environment to learn about the rules. The interactive portion of the game has to be concerning the player driven learning of the milieu and acting upon that information.

Additionally, the general understanding of a milieu or a world is of a vaste place with a large cast and so much detail and intricacies to learn that are so vastly different than our own humble lives. One thinks of Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth, Monkey Island or such. This is not the case. A milieu can be small as a train of passengers such as in The Last Express or maybe just a dinner room full of guest that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Thanksgiving. The setting and the people can be familiar, so can the situation. None of that matters when it concerns milieu. Every work of fiction has a milieu, a world, the size and depth may differ and it may not be the focus, merely a backdrop, but it does exist in everything. With Adventure games, what matters is that focus is squarely on it, big or small, fantastical or mundane.

The Super-genre is not defined by the point and click puzzle structure of find object that is really a key and apply it to gate that could look like anything. Nor do Adventure games have to be about going on adventures in the standard thematic genre meaning of the word. From this we can extrapolate what other types of games fall under this umbrella.

What Fall Under Adventure Games?

Other than the standard point and click affairs of the Sierra and LucasArts stable we find a few other possibilities. Text adventure games being the predecessor to the graphic adventure games also fall under Adventure super-type. They consist of worlds like the point and click games, only expressed through words alone. The other descendant – Interactive Fiction – and the similar visual novel genre also fall under the scope of Adventure games. But past these genres we find that the Adventure games beyond this similarly structured genres.

Exploration is a key component to the focus of the Super-genre. It is the key interactive component in the genre. Poking around to find where the boundaries are, finding out what works and what doesn’t is the bread and butter of Adventure games, but you can lean about a place by soaking up the ambiance and understand the feel of a place as much as the technical specification of how the place works. Think of it as the digital equivalent of sitting outside a Parisian Café to soak up the atmosphere of the city.

Dear Esther, the experimental mod turned full Steam release, would fall under this type of Adventure game. The experimental Dinner Date and the indie darling Passage also fall under this kind of Adventure game. In Dinner Date you don’t have much control over the proceedings and are really only in charge of small movements and the main events of the evening always proceed the same way. The game is imparting all the details about the milieu via what amounts to expository dialogue, but small ticks can detail and inform a character as you explore what is and isn’t possible. Passage is also about exploration, thought the world you are given in a metaphor you are still exploring a digital space. In this space all action are allegorical and not literal as we are accustomed to when we think of exploration. We think of finding some landmark or in my early examples, solving some puzzle that reveals how some small corner of the world thinks. But it does not have to be literal. The most surprising thing I found in my think tests with these definitions was how Flower fell under the concept of an Adventure game.

The Separation of Action and Adventure

I hinted at this in my last post, but it makes more sense to explore it in depth here once I’ve covered Action’s most common partner Adventure. Action games are about the timing of verb usage. Adventure about exploring a world. The former about mastery of actions and the latter about mastery of one’s own understanding of the world they are apart of. Adventure games obviously have verbs; they have to if you are to interact with the world. You can even master the verbs you are given as a means to solving the puzzles an Adventure games gives you, but none of the focus is on the timing use of the verbs.

In King’s Quest 6 there is a puzzle on the Isle of Wonder where you have to get passed five gnome guards by tricking their sense, one for each. After each verse of a poem a gnome steps up to you to find out if you are a man or something else. You are given a short window of time to go into your inventory and trick the gnome with an item. Should you wait to long you are detected and killed. I said before that an Action game is determined by the use of timing regardless of how small or how large the window of opportunity is. The fundamental difference that sets this situation as an Adventure game and not an Action game is how the problem is overcome. Not in the individual solutions but the philosophy by how you process the problem. Adding a clock to unaffiliated focus mechanics does not make them Action oriented mechanics. Were it an Action game the solution would not only give you a window of timing to execute your solution, but the execution would require more than adding a clock. This hypothetical action sequence would let you fight the gnomes or run away from them or any other verb I can’t think of right now as a moment-to-moment challenge with every changing windows and danger levels. In the situation as is looking at your inventory and deciding figuring out a solution based on known facts overcome the problem. The solution is derived from understanding a part of the world and using it to solve a problem.

Which brings me back around to Flower. The game has action like elements of flying around and collecting the petal by hitting the flowers to restore the level to its natural beauty before moving on. None of these are inherent to an action game. There is a certain amount of timing to flying just right to collect the flower petals, but there is no penalty for messing up. You cannot die in Flower; you can’t even be kicked out of the level, even the 5th one with all the electrical towers. Collecting the flower petals to access the next area is the equivalent of collecting a strangely shaped key for a strangely shaped door in a point and click Adventure game. You can say that having to go around again is a sort of minimal failure that the timing window would allow for and yes I would agree to that. Challenge is not a signifier of genre. But the severely reduced challenge to near non-existent firmly places emphasis on other matters. Focus is taken off the timing and place on the ambiance. The collecting of flower petals is something that you do in Flower, but it is not what the game is about. Anyone who has played the game, whether they like the game or not, will agree that the game is about the Zen experience of being in the peaceful naturalistic environments. It is about the atmosphere the game generates. You learn about the world through a few key moments in each level, the opening cutscene before the level and tone the game sets by existing in the milieu. That is how that game imparts its experience.

Talking About Character and Story

Two particular elements that tend to get confused with RPGs are character and story. They are both significant factors in the development of the respective game types, but each uses them to different ends and in different ways. Functionally there are similarities in casts and methods of interactions, but ultimately the focus underneath dictates that they serve a different purpose. I will talk about Adventure’s use of them here and save RPG’s use for next time.

When I say character I’m talking about the one you control. Your personal avatar in an Adventure games is a creation not of the player’s devising. They are their own person, with their own motivations, desires and personalities down to the fine details. You are a puppet master when playing the game to immerse yourself in the milieu of the game. The Graham family of the King’s Quest series are established people in their own world and you are merely a play actor, no a stage manager in charge of one person. Your character is a part of the world and you have to learn about him/her/it just as much as any other factor.

Some games get really meta with this like The Longest Journey. If you “look at” April Ryan she responses with a number of quips some that are clearly addressed to you, the player, and not to herself like her other observations. “What – I got something on my face? IS my hair ok? What are you looking at?” “Big surprise, I’m still here.” In fact, in no Adventure game do you make a choice defining a character, but only ones that reveal it. As the story moves forward you find yourself learning about who your character is and what lengths they will go to, by virtue of all the time you spend with them. Like everything else you are exploring your avatar just as much as you are exploring any other factor of the world.

This is not to say that in some Adventure games you are not granted options. One particular choice in the second chapter of The Longest Journey sticks out in my mind, as do the trials in Heavy Rain. In The Longest Journey you are given a choice that is mostly meaningless to the plot and story of the game and are instead both legitimate options for April Ryan to take. In Heavy Rain they are a bit more self-defining for Ethan Mars in answering the question of how far he is willing to go to save his son, but do not fundamentally change him as a character. He can go through with or is given the option to leave in every case. In the religious nut’s house Norman Jayden is constantly given the option to shoot him or talk him down. Both choices are acting on competing desires, desire for safety and survival vs. the desire of not shooting someone if he has a choice. For many it could be a reflex decision.

Heavy Rain is one of those difficult to piece apart games because many of the choices the four characters get look like self-defining choices. They don’t actively reveal who the character is, but put us in charge to decide for them and see who they are when push comes to shove. However, it isn’t presented like that. These choices are presented to ordinary people put into dangerous circumstances in milieu not too far from our own (Jayden’s ARG specs not withstanding). The game is so staged and the game has to hit certain moments on its schedule that you are in a virtual play defining a character in the same way you did in Dinner Date, inconsequentially, regardless of their ultimate fate.

To help illustrate my point I’d like to use another example, namely Deirdra Kiai’s interactive fiction The Play. You play as a director to the titular play during the dress rehearsal the night before it opens. You are dealing with your three actors and your stagehand. After each segment you are given choices for how to direct the action and move forward with the rehearsal. The thing is you cannot play it only once and get the full story. In most cases you will be confused by the character’s history and their full motivations in certain story paths. The choices are about defining the actions, but not who the character is. The actions reveal or keep hidden who these people are. There are quite a few endings dependant on how the various people feel with regards to your direction and can even walk out ending the story prematurely. The point is two fold. You are not defining the character as a person, but revealing who they are in the moment. It can look similar and even function similarly to the defining aspects of an RPG, but if the focus of those actions is different then they are different Super-genres. In both Heavy Rain and The Play the focus is on you looking in and discovering a world and learning about it through the nuance interactions of the elements with in, whether they represent people or things.

Speaking on The Play leads nicely onto the detail of story. Back in Adventure game’s heyday they were the go to place for getting detailed stories out of their world’s and situations. These were generally linear affairs with numerous puzzles acting as gates that had to be opened to progress to the end. However, since Maniac Mansion and possibly even earlier, that does not mean there was only one strict path to completion. Multiple endings or paths were always apart of the genre. With The Play it is easier to highlight. The story progresses along any number of paths as your choices dictate. The game becomes a possibility space to explore canonical fan fiction of the scenario if you will. This possibility space of the world becomes a part of the Adventure game milieu. Each playthrough becomes an exploration of part of that world or rather one possibility of the world. The focus is on what happens should you do this or that with your puppet character. With smaller, quicker and simpler games it is easier to see than it would with the likes of Maniac Mansion or The Longest Journey, though it exists there as well.
The Adventure game’s story is also part of the exploration of the world. If the focus stays on the milieu and how the story works with it rather than just in it, the game is an Adventure game.

Adventure Analogs

Analog variants to Adventure games were harder to come up with outside of one very obvious example because of the nature of trying to interactively explore a milieu as a game. It can be done as a passive medium rather easily in both film and books. The latter of which does have a subset that does fit into thee interactive nature of a game.

Choose your own Adventure books are Adventure games very much like Deirdra Kiai’s The Play. You have a situation, predefined characters and options to progress the story. It is literally interactive fiction only on paper instead of on a computer. One interesting example I would like to bring up is that the Desert Bus Choose your own Adventure books. Yes this is a thing. They were prizes at last year’s Desert Bus for Hope charity drive that converted that very dull Action game Desert Bus into a Choose your own Adventure trilogy. And yes it was accurate to the experience. They are also mighty thick. Though it was originally an Action game with the focus on the continued pressing of a button to keep from going off the road and the experience delineates from the long drudgery of driving in real time, the books have to convey the experience as a book with several options at the bottom of the page to determine your actions. They are the same options on every single page It uses descriptive writing to describe the world of Desert Bus and how innocuous it is. The meaning and emotion of the experience is the same, but the method how it is conveyed through the interactive elements different. It also has nothing to do with the change to analog format. It may be just a boring, but a digital Adventure game would be the exact same.

While thinking on it, I think co-operative storytelling would also fall under Adventure games. The exercise of creating a story one word, one sentence, one paragraph or one minute at a time playing off of the information previously given allows the focus to be on the story and hw it works within the concept of the other people around you, but not on defining one character and there is no minute interaction dictated by timing. You can argue whether you would call co-operative storytelling a quote, unquote game, but the focus is clearly the same as quote, unquote real Adventure games. I’m not here to argue the definition of game, but merely the difference in focuses within a medium of interactivity.

Adventure Conclusion

Explaining Adventure games is about explaining subtle differences and nuance in mostly intangible, unobservable concept space. It feels like I’m trying to explain color to person who has been blind all their life. Of course if you have played an Adventure game you are not blind to the experience, but trying to explain it especially when much of it seems to graze other Super-genre’s sphere of influence that I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not explaining myself well enough. Adventure games share many core mechanical, conceptual tropes and elements with other Super-genres that it cannot be pinned down so easily. Other Super-genres have their focus on clear definable attributes and interactions, while Adventure games seems to delve into the more abstract attributes and more passive qualities in between interactions. Verbs are only a concern with how it allows the player to interact with the world via an avatar to learn and understand it. This is not something you can see happen in others only in yourself. And sometimes, especially in the older Adventure games, understanding does not come, mere guesswork until the gate comes down. A failure of game design can undermine the understanding of a game and subsequently its entire genre. I hope I didn’t fall into that trap.

Onto the big one: RPG.

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