Ah, the Adventure game. Once the mainstay genre of the gaming industry, point-and-click titles lost popularity around the turn of the century, and for a while were considered a dead format by many developers.
Hope is not lost, though: a recent resurgence in the popularity of adventure games, led primarily by small and independent game studios trying new ideas and formats for the genre, has seen returning interest in these masterpieces of storytelling. Even more exciting are the opportunities that virtual reality technology will create, as games driven by character development and narrative progression take on a new direction as immersive, first-person experiences.
VR might well be about to breathe new life into this genre that was once almost entirely written off by critics and gamers alike – which ought to give fans of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and King’s Quest plenty to be excited about!
The Untimely Death of the Adventure Genre
Adventure games, in which players solve narrative puzzles to progress through the game, are a loose collection of gameplay elements that will differ between titles. Players can be expected to collect items, search for clues, and explore a world littered with diverting puzzles and scenarios, interacting with other characters and items however they see fit. These games enjoyed the height of their popularity during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and were more or less universally loved by gamers – the adventure game Myst held the record for the best-selling game of all time for seven years (between 1993 and 2000), until it was eventually beaten out by The Sims.
The popularity of adventure games didn’t last forever, though – the new millennium saw gamers growing bored of the genre, preferring more action-oriented titles that tested their reflexes rather than their puzzle-solving abilities. After Grim Fandango massively underperformed, Lucasarts, until then one of the biggest studios in adventure gaming, chose to pull the plug on their operations, and the genre was declared dead by most critics.
The Perfect Time for a Return
It’s an oversimplification to say that adventure games died off entirely during the first decade of the 21st century. While it’s certainly true that the games didn’t have the same impact during an era when first-person shooters and sandbox titles were exploding in popularity, some smaller studios were still producing adventure titles for a niche audience.
One such studio, Telltale, was founded by several of the developers who had worked at Lucasarts before the developer behind Monkey Island and Sam and Max had closed shop to focus on Star Wars titles. Telltale’s focus on nuanced, clever storytelling at the heart of their games led to a boom in popularity for the studio and their specialty genre a few years ago, with the notable release of The Walking Dead, which many argue does a perfect job of capturing the feel of the comic book that it’s based upon.
With a renewed interest in adventure titles, new studios have been eager to throw their hats into the ring and develop narrative experiences that are unlike anything the genre has seen before. In particular, first-person adventure titles such as Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Firewatch have attempted a more personal approach to storytelling, putting the player directly behind the eyes of their character rather than watching their antics from a distance. While in the time of the Lucasarts heyday games were often tongue-in-cheek, comical and lighthearted, the new generation of adventure titles tells deeper, darker stories which create emotionally and psychologically tense experiences.
With the arrival of VR, developers are looking at ways to take the adventure game experience to its next logical step: players will be immersed inside the story of the game in ways that could never before be achieved. Titles currently in development build upon the tropes and tricks of older adventure titles, while updating the gameplay to accommodate the unique opportunities presented by VR hardware.
The Power of a New Perspective
So what makes VR such a powerful platform for adventure games, and how can the genre find an audience with VR gamers?
It all comes down to the unique first person viewpoint of virtual reality – when the player turns their head, the game ‘camera’ responds. When characters in the game talk, the speak directly to the player, creating a more immersive, believable world.
This has a lot of storytelling potential. If we think of adventure games as being the interactive equivalent of a storybook, VR adventure titles allow players to essentially enter the story they’re being told. The game lets players see and hear the story through the eyes of the protagonist, experiencing the emotional turmoil that the player goes through as they understand the character’s perspective.
This naturally leads to a different kind of storytelling. While older games see players cheering on the hero, VR adventure titles allow the player to replace that hero, seeing the world as real and therefore feeling genuine empathy for the characters they meet. This viewpoint lends itself to the more grounded, emotionally deep storytelling that adventure titles of recent years have seen, and while there’s plenty of scope for humorous approaches to narratives in VR, the developers who are really pushing the boat out are the ones who are giving players something that they can genuinely invest in.
This isn’t to say that old-school adventuring should be tossed aside: developers of these titles are using familiar puzzle mechanics and adventure logic to provide players with an experience that is as rich with gameplay as it is with storytelling. In Loading Human, players have to gather clues, making use of passkeys, safe locks, and other important items to progress through the game. Often, though, the main requirement for progression isn’t picking up root beer ingredients or finding ways to distract goats (as have been featured in previous adventure titles) – instead, the trick to solving puzzles is knowledge that the player gains from exploring their surroundings, learning the backstory of their character, and delving into the lore of the game.
Considering their rise in popularity on non-VR platforms in recent years, it’ll be exciting to see how adventure games in virtual reality will take off. With multiple games in the genre currently in development, players will have plenty of choices for story-based games to sink their teeth into. For fans of the adventure titles of days gone by, the future is pretty exciting.
Loading Human draws on old-school adventure games, but with an immersive VR twist. Preorder your copy today!