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Graphic Adventures: The Dead Genre That Never Really Died

The graphic adventure is a genre of video game that enjoyed immense popularity in the 1980s and 1990s among American gamers then pretty much faded into obscurity. For many years, the genre was considered dead and buried until a Norwegian import entitled The Longest Journey put the genre back into the American consciousness. Although many US gamers talk about the period when the genre died or refer to the genre as dead, I do not think it ever really died. Graphic adventures have found life and enjoyed success and popularity in other parts of the world, namely Europe and Japan. And now as we approach the end of the decade, independent US developers are coming out of the woodwork to add to the genre. The purpose of this editorial is to show that the graphic genre never died as many gamers assert and to discuss how this American video genre manifests itself elsewhere in the world.

The roots of the graphic adventure genre lie in America. Many would agree that the text adventure Zork was the start of it all back in 1981. The adventurous and often humorous plot was presented as text on the computer screen and the gamer had to type in commands to go places, use items, and get out of sticky situations all the while being presented with an engaging story. Some have referred to Zork as an "interactive novel." From the mid 1980s until the late 1990s, the two biggest names in the genre were Sierra and LucasArts. Sierra is most well known for its King's Quest series which spawned 7 games from 1984 to 1994. Other notable Sierra games are the Police Quest games, the Gabriel Knight games, Phantasmagoria, and more, including the notorious Leisure Suit Larry series. Leisure Suit Larry was released in 1987 and gained notoriety for its salacious content and proof-of-age test. LucasArts' first graphic adventure was 1986's Labyrinth, based on the movie. 1987 brought about Maniac Mansion, whose engine put LucasArts on the adventure map and spawned a sequel in 1993. 1990 was the year of The Secret of Monkey Island, which went on to spawn three sequels, the most recent being 2000's Escape from Monkey Island. And in summarizing the history of graphic adventures in America, one cannot overlook 1993's Myst, which is one of the best-selling PC games of all time. 1993-1998 were not good years for the genre since those were the years that first-person shooter (FPS) games started becoming the genre of choice for PC gamers. Graphic adventure fans consider 1998 the year the genre died, because despite all its critical acclaim, Grim Fandango did not sell well and is considered by many to be the last great LucasArts adventure.

But the adventure never died. Although American developers had moved on from the genre, it found life in other parts of the world, namely Japan and Europe. The more popular Japanese graphic adventures take on the "interactive novel" format with a Choose Your Own Adventure interface and have been present since the early 1990s. As far as Europe's most notable contribution, a Norwegian company developed a game in the classic graphic adventure style entitled The Longest Journey, and it brought hope back to genre fans in the US. I shall now discuss Japanese and European graphic adventures in some more detail.

Japanese graphic adventures, such as Snatcher, Policenauts, Ever17: The Out of Infinity, and Phantom of Inferno to list a few examples, are often referred to as visual novels. These graphic adventures feed you a story with often beautiful character art and at certain points of the story, ask you to make choices that determine the direction the story will take. These games take influence from the Choose Your Own Adventure game books from the 1980s, and also seem to show a different evolution that "interactive novels" such as the original Zork could take. These visual novel graphic adventures are different animals from North American and European graphic adventures and are often risky given how much they ride on plot and characters. A very popular take on the visual novel is the love adventure, where you are put in the shoes of a protagonist (usually a teenage boy) and the choices you make in the narrative determine which of a bevy of beautiful females that you'll get an ending with. KID and Princess Soft are prominent Japanese names when it comes to love adventures. KID's Memories Off series and Princess Soft's Hourglass of Summer (Natsuiro no Sunadokei) are ones I like. A healthy portion of Japanese visual novels are actually hentai (read: animated porn) titles, many of which go hard core, even degenerate. So it is safe to say that the "adult" content of graphic adventure storytelling has certainly come a long way since the days of Leisure Suit Larry.

Of course, a love adventure should not be mistaken for a dating simulation ("dating sim" for short). 1992's Dokyusei started and Konami's Tokimeki Memorial popularized the dating sim, which is more statistics driven than narrative driven. In a dating sim, if you, for example, want to woo the girl on the track team, you had better engage in in-game activities that boost your athletics statistics (since she probably goes for athletic guys.) If you think that girl with the sketchbook is cute, you probably will not get anywhere if you do not join the art club and boost your art statistics.

Our European brethren have been, and continue to be, supportive of the proverbial American styled graphic adventure. Graphic adventures have enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in Europe, and developers such as FunCom and Microids have been making classically styled graphic adventures for years now. Games such as The Longest Journey and Syberia series offer the intuitive point-and-click interface along with inventory and logic puzzles that genre fans love, but amidst more mature and serious minded storytelling. The Longest Journey was an M rated game that did not have any sexual or violent content that would raise eyebrows (or any that I could even recall), but it told a mature story for mature gamers. Gamers who grew up with graphic adventures are in their late 20s and early 30s now, and it is great to see that European developers who create graphic adventures realize this and style their games' storylines accordingly. For example, Syberia's protagonist is a thirty-something female attorney. US publisher The Adventure Company localizes many European developed graphic adventure games that often feature very dark, serious, and more adult storylines.

Some independent North American developers are choosing to have their graphic adventures published by European companies given the greater popularity of the genre over there than over here in the US. One example is US-based Autumn Moon Entertainment (headed by ex-LucasArts mastermind Bill Tiller), who has chosen German company Crimson Cow games to publish their long-awaited A Vampyre Story. Another independent US developer, who also plans to self-publish, is Digital Media Workshop who is working on a science fiction adventure entitled Prominence. It is wonderful to see independent US developers take an interest in the genre again.

Graphic adventures have also witnessed a mini-renaissance on an unlikely platform: the Nintendo DS. Typically, graphic adventures did not translate well to consoles because the lower resolution television pictures (we're talking pre-HD here) and the slower movement of gamepad-controlled mouse pointers do not allow pinpoint pixel hunting or quick pointer movement. But the stylus and touch screen interface of the DS is made for the genre, and the US has seen a notable amount of Japanese adventure games on the platform, such as the Phoenix Wright series, the Touch Detective series, Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and hopefully more. Perhaps North American and European developers can develop graphic adventures for the DS as well.

So my conclusion is that not only is the graphic adventure far from dead, it never really died and has only found new life and new manifestations outside of its homeland. It continues to find new life in Europe and Japan, and is slowly finding life anew in the homeland that almost forgot about it. With kid-friendly titles such as Freddy the Fish and more mature titles such as Next Life, I think the genre will continue to live, offering brain-crunching puzzles and engaging storylines to gamers willing to partake in them.

- Neal Chandran



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