The Golden Age of Adventure Games

Conventional wisdom has it that adventure gaming started in 1975 with Crowther’s ADVENTURE, reached a literary peak with the Zork series and a golden age around the Lucas Arts point-and-click period. Myst gets a tick for huge sales figures and then all is seen as a steady decline of the kind that hit the Byzantine Empire. If you want that standard account go to Wikipedia and read the consensus. I’ll wait here.

I think that’s bullshit.

In developing a time line for my new game design class at Kunst Kamp I started by following the mainstream opinion. Start in 1975, then place Scott Adams, Zork etc. etc. and sure enough there’s a nasty gap at the point first person shooters became plausible, roughly the time the first PlayStation goes on sale. OK, sure, shooters started to pick up narrative structures with Half Life as the accepted exemplar.

But then I started to place games I thought were notable. They might not have sold, they might be flawed, but they had something that made me pay attenti0n. Myst for sure 1993. Bad Mojo 1996. Sanitarium 1998. Bad Day On The Midway 1995. Zork Nemesis 1996. Gadget 1994, The Dark Eye 1995 – I’ll even include The 7th Guest from 1992 … although it’s not a favourite. If you are a game historian you can keep piling them on – but already it’s pretty clear: if you are looking at the game and not the sales, this was a great period for adventures.

Adventure games in the 90’s were mean. Bad Mojo had you survive as a cockroach, in Sanitarium there’s one point you need to dig up a child’s corpse to win at Hide and Seek, even 7th Guest starts with a bludgeon murder and has a virus killing children via spooky dolls. The best thing that happened to adventure games was that LucasArts got the hell away from it and did nothing but Star Wars for the next decade. OK they did Grim Fandango 1998. I will let them live.

Examine the difference between Return To Zork and Zork Nemesis. One of these has a decapitation followed by an impalement. 1993 to 96 … even at Activision things got gruesome and fast.*

Adventure games started to look pretty sweet. If by sweet you mean evil.


This still from Bad Mojo (you can click on it) uses the kind of 3D that the best game engines can only do in hardware now – depth of field, soft shadows, refraction. Hey, I didn’t care if it moved, I was busy trying to figure out how to survive. And look what 3D was like at the time:


Be still my beating heart.

First Person Shooters were mindless. These days we’re spoiled by games like Bioshock which have a plot. You can complain about the plot – but at least it’s not another frigging space marine trapped behind crates while creatures from hell blah blah. (Actually DOOM 3 was still like that). The whole time you were running around a thousand metal corridors looking for a red pass to get through some lame airlock you could have been shifting souls at a funfair to get into the fat lady’s tent! You can see the point.

Real ‘Hybrid Arts’ – look I don’t care much for Thomas Dolby or William Burroughs but I swear to god they were a lot better choices for music and narration on The Dark Eye than who the hell that was that did that horrible MIDI music that went with the DOOM series. Hang on, let me look that up.

“The id Software development team originally wanted me to do nothing but metal songs for DOOM. I did not think that this type of music would be appropriate throughout the game, but I roughed out several original songs and also created MIDI sequences of some cover material.”

Bobby Prince, I take that back – under the circumstances I guess you did your best. This is your best.

The Point Is – that the indie adventure game scene has grown out of this period and games such as Samorost are not really throwbacks to the late 80’s as implied, but a flow on from a design period that hasn’t been properly recognized by people outside of the ‘brass lantern’ set. The history has been distorted to fit into a simple rise and fall storyline. That’s something that needs to be redressed.

I’ll put that on my list of things to do.

* Thank you thank you I’m here all week.


I’d just like to comment on first person shooters….  i think you’ve missed the point – or devalued the point so much that you haven’t mentioned it.

yes, it’s true, they’re mindless, but that’s not to say they weren’t (aren’t?) extremely powerful.  Doom 1, 2, Quake and Descent were a massive thing for me in a shortish period sometime around 1995, as a young electrical engineering student (very soon to be subscribed to cliffords list and devour sevcom), when the early 16 bit sound cards were available to someone of my means, and were quickly hooked up to powerful, bassy home built hifi speakers for full effect, and Fasttrack2 and granulab started raising my awareness to making strange electronic sounds on my computer…

at around this time, there were a few of us who sought late-access computer labs with PCs capable of running these games on a network.   these games, networked were incredible!  we would play for way too long, until we started having tunnel vision and forgot how to walk properly, and then i would sometimes find myself dreaming these games all night, like an adrenalised automaton.

aside from that, the non-networked games – doom 2 i particularly remember, could keep you on edge as you ascended levels and encountered new monsters….

in short, these games were very powerful (in a new way) as highly-immersive, sensational audiovisual environments, – doing one thing very well – keeping the player on edge, reacting as quickly as possible, and adrenalised.

two other things
– for music, nobody listened to the midi tracks – you would load your own CD and play that instead.
– another part of the immersive aspect was the control options – doom 2 or quake (and very much descent) were one of the first games i played with a mouse – you would use keyboard for fire, run, backwards etc, and the trick with the mouse was to invert the mouse action, use it only for look-direction – and pretend you held the head of the avatar so that mouse-forward would look down, etc…

these games were very powerful.
having not played many games since, i would understand if their legacy is strong.

at the same time, i appreciate the literary aspects of many more interesting games available now, but i don’t have time to play them.  while i was also quite a reader, these first-person shooters provided quite a different role – a physically immersive escape, and a real thrill, unlike anything achieved in games to that point.

thanks for listening!