Saturday, January 26, 2008

You Can't Get Ye Flask

Much like cinema before them, video games have had to struggle to find their artistic voice and their means of communicating ideas. And similar to movies, various technical struggles and limitations have had to be overcome. Video games started very simply, with no more than a handful of pixels representing your on screen avatar. Couple that with limited game play and it becomes apparent that early gaming was a simple affair. But as technology progressed some companies found new ways of utilizing what was available to try and present an actual narrative with their creation. It is precisely because of the work of the early pioneers that gaming has become as engaging and involving as it has.

In the late 70's and early 80's, video gaming was nothing more than twitch based reflex gaming. Games of the time were almost all comprised of a single screen of action involving a limited degree of interaction and control choices. The home console market fared no better, with the dominant machines also having very minimal control schemes.

Enter the computer, the multifaceted tool of education, productivity and ultimately entertainment. In 1976, Will Crowther, a programmer working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman created a text based game originally intended for the entertainment of his daughter when she came to visit him at work. This game was called Colossal Cave Adventure and it signified the birth of a genre.

Whereas most early games utilized violence and combat in order for the player to achieve a higher score, Colossal Cave rewarded its players for taking the time to explore and interact with its world. Interaction was done via a text parser where the user would type in simple sentences to request that actions be performed. As a result the player was encouraged to think creatively and logically in order to solve puzzles. Since it was entirely text based, the perspective shifted from third person to first person making the player's experience much more immersive.

Colossal Cave was based on the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Utilizing a real landscape allowed for a more believable setting. (Will had spent time mapping the caves prior to the game's construction. As such, the layout of the game was directly based on his mapping of the actual cave.) Coupling that with the ability to construct sentences to interact with the game resulted in a game that felt like an actualized universe, at the same time allowing for the player to make decisions and interact with the world in a way that felt natural.

Word of the game spread and before long college campuses were abuzz with young programmers altering the game, adding new elements and improving it all around. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and soon a team of MIT students set about to creating their own text adventure. This game ultimately became Zork and as a result of its creation Infocom was born.

In 1979, Ken Williams, founder of On-Line Systems was frequently bringing his work home with him. This involved him bringing into the house a TRS-80 onto which he had downloaded Colossal Cave Adventure. Ken's wife Roberta, at home with their new baby, came across it and played through the entire game. Having enjoyed it immensely, she sought other games of a similar nature, but they were few and far between. Instead of waiting for someone else to make the games she wanted play, she and Ken set out to make their own games, beginning with an adventure called Mystery House. What set Mystery House apart from the competition was the fact that it featured graphics to go alongside the game play. The graphics may have been primitive but they helped to illustrate the ideas of the quest and to draw the player deeper into the game.

Mystery House was a success and the re-christened Sierra On-Line began to create more games based off a similar concept: First person adventures with primitive graphics and interesting narratives. Ultimately they caught the eye of IBM, who was looking to introduce a new computer to the market, the PC Jr. The Jr. was to be a family friendly computer with a colorful display capable of rendering (for its time) detailed graphics. IBM approached Sierra to design a game to showpiece this hardware. The end result was King's Quest.

King's Quest moved the narrative from the first person to the third person. No longer were all puzzles and obstacles happening directly to the player. Now they had direct control of Sir Graham, potential heir to the kingdom of Daventry. King's Quest combined lush, quasi 3-D graphics with immersive storytelling to create a game that immediately captured the player's imagination.

Moving the game play to the third person revolutionized the industry, and almost immediately adventure games began to make the shift. Sierra themselves managed to parlay the success of King's Quest into their own personal goldmine. King's Quest opened the door for other artists at Sierra and soon there were other series such as Space Quest, Police Quest and Quest for Glory, amongst many others.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Sierra decided to pursue frontiers almost completely untouched by other developers. They created the Leisure Suit Larry series, which moved adventure games from fantasy realms to the modern world, following the sleazy adventures of a down on his luck swinger looking to bed a sexy vixen. Sex in video games, while not entirely unheard of, had rarely been explored outside of a completely vulgar context.

Realizing the importance of future technologies, Sierra continued to be a leading force, pushing development in video (bringing games into VGA), sound (they were the first company to support sound cards) and ultimately one of the first companies to attempt to have an online presence (The ImagiNation Network).

While Sierra continued creating graphical adventures, Infocom maintained their status as the kings of the text adventure. They released a great deal of games; some famous, some infamous. Because their games contained absolutely no graphics, they made sure that their writers were of the highest caliber and that their puzzles maintained a great level of difficulty.

Unbowed by Sierra's dominance of the adventure game industry, LucasArts started their own adventure division beginning with a game called Maniac Mansion. Designed by Ron Gilbert, Maniac Mansion was created with the use of a utility called SCUMM, Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. SCUMM allowed the player to interact with the world without the need for a keyboard. All interaction was done via mouse and a selection of predefined actions (look, take, talk, etc.)

LucasArts soon differentiated themselves from the other players in the field by imbibing their games with a strong sense of humor and self reference. In a move to prevent the player from being punished they removed death penalties. Players could never die nor find themselves in a situation where the game could become unwinnable. This philosophy stuck with LucasArts until they stopped production on adventure games.

With the advent of the CD-ROM and the move to multimedia, adventure games began to move towards full voice acting instead of text. Their narratives became richer and more involving. LucasArts, in particular, flourished with CD-ROM technology, releasing Day of the Tentacle, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Sam and Max Hit the Road, all considered classics nowadays. Some games, such as Myst, sought to move the perspective back to first person and take the focus away from character driven narratives and focus more on the puzzle solving aspects of the game. Some players quickly took to this new style of gaming, while others preferred the older methods of storytelling.

Once 3-D technology became commonplace on computers, the adventure genre found itself stagnating and ultimately unable to keep up with the progress of hardware. No more were flat, 2-D environments sufficient for storytelling. Players now wanted large virtual spaces, and the old standards of "find item X and use it on item Y" began to feel stale. As a result the genre as a whole all but disappeared rather quickly.

Adventure games themselves can still be found today, though they are much fewer in number than they used to be. Many modern adventure games follow the template of Myst and its sequels to present the game through the player's eyes. The third person adventure, while not entirely dead has become quite rare.

True adventure games are a rare breed nowadays, but their influence is still felt in other genres. Adventure games were the trailblazers for helping interactive entertainment find its voice and its audience. It helped determine how to tell stories and push narrative while maintaining the interest of players.

Much like Hollywood needed the early directors to push the boundary of what film could do and how best to utilize the technology afforded them, so too did the pioneers of adventure gaming further their art, helping to bring player and game together, proving that gaming could appeal to players beyond the standard violence and twitch games so ubiquitous at the time.

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Lisa Wines said...

E - This is fabulous and amazing and comprehensive. Thanks so much. It needs to be Dugg and Mixxed.

Next installment - tell me where Atari fit in. My ex-husband was their CFO, this was around 1983. :-)

E said...

I could tell you gobs about where Atari fit in. They were extremely important. Was he CFO during the big crash? Was he responsible for ordering the E.T. cartridges to be buried?

Anonymous said...

Bravo E - I have loved the products for years but never knew the complete history, the sharing of your knowledge is appreciated, especially the vulgar link.

PS - Stinkor moved in with your sunburned sibling today.

E said...

heh heh heh. Not so anonymous, are ya? :P

Anonymous said...

Great post E. You know I like this kind of stuff!