The turn of the new millennium was a rough
time for adventure games. Sales were collapsing, and so were the developers. Sierra’s adventure games division had gone
through rounds of layoffs in 1999, and would never recover. LucasArts released Escape from Monkey Island
in 2000, but it wouldn’t take, and their other planned point-and-click adventure sequels
were cancelled outright. The fall of the two major pillars of the American
adventure game ecosystem had marked the end of an era, but not the end of the story. Another chapter was brewing, overseas… But before we take a trip, a quick word from
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something new! In Europe, the public hadn’t soured on traditional
point-and-click adventure games as much as the American market had. Norwegian developer Funcom made The Longest
Journey with a small development team lead by Ragnar Tørnquist, released it locally
in 1999 and globally the following year. It was similar to the later LucasArts games,
with a contemporary point-and-click interface design, but with a more atmospheric feel. Full voice acting, 3D character models, pre-rendered
backgrounds, but they didn’t break the bank making it, like their American competition. It was received as an instant classic and
sold half a million copies, which was enough to greenlight its sequel. “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey”, released
in 2006. France had a couple of stand out adventure
game developers, too. Syberia, from Microids, was another atmospheric,
traditional point-and-click adventure game set in a mysterious town. Quantic Dream, led by David Cage, put out
Omikron: The Nomad’s Soul in 1999 – an especially bold take on the genre. In addition to exploration and inventory-based
puzzle-solving, the player could possess over 40 different NPCs and reincarnate as any of
them if they die in one of the game’s… AWFUL… combat sequences. Very ambitious, but very messy. And David Bowie composed the music! Omikron was not great, but it did well enough. And it would be a sign of things to come. We’ll check back in on Quantic Dream in
a bit. Japan, too, had a thriving adventure game
market at the turn of the century, and the path that Japanese-style adventure game developers
had taken looked a little different. Wind the clock back. Japan’s unique adventure game style is rooted
in a game from another time: 1983’s ‘The Portopia Serial Murder Case’. Yuji Horii, father of Dragon Quest, created
a more streamlined adventure game about investigating crime scenes. It feels more like a branch off of Sierra’s
first game, Mystery House, sharing a first-person perspective, the mystery focus, and yes, that
text parser. The Famicom port of Portopia would streamline
this into a simplified menu interface. Good work, uh… huh. Chunsoft. Hmm… we’ll catch up with you in a minute,
too. Over the next decade, just as lots of American
adventure game developers were iterating on King’s Quest, other Japanese developers
were iterating on Portopia like Square with Suisho no Dragon. Many games stuck to the mystery and crime-solving
genre, like Hideo Kojima’s ‘Snatcher’ in 1988, and ‘Policenauts’ in 1994. You do see some cross-pollination of the Western
point-and-click style into Japan, like in 1995’s Clock Tower for the Super Famicom,
but the Japanese style still felt distinct. Instead of the American style visual puzzles,
Japanese style adventure games started to emphasize long stretches of dialogue and more
in-depth characterization. It tended to be a much more linear design,
and interactivity generally took a backseat. In Japan, the genre was starting to split
into two distinctive flavors – adventure games with more interactivity and puzzles,
labeled ADVs, and the adventure games with almost no interaction, called NVLs. Both styles were lumped together under another
new name: ‘Visual Novels’. And while the American market was collapsing
in the late 90’s under the strain of scope creep, exploding budgets, and mechanics that
were quickly becoming old-fashioned, the Japanese style’s focus on characterization was aging
much better. In the year 2000, Capcom gave Shu Takumi free
rein to take half a year to make any kind of game he wanted. Takumi had a passion for mystery novels, so
he took the opportunity to make his dream mystery game. He centered the game around a lawyer, which
immediately got pushback from his bosses, who feared the concept would be tough to sell. But since he had a mandate to make whatever
game he wanted, he pressed on. With a team of 7 relatively inexperienced
developers, including himself, they finished the first Ace Attorney game for the Gameboy
Advance in 2001. The game is split into two phases: investigation
and trial. It’s largely an ADV-style visual novel with
some light interaction during the investigation phase. You go around static environments in a first-person
perspective, talking to characters and investigating crime scenes to uncover evidence to reveal
the true nature of the crime. The interactive elements do suffer from the
typical adventure game problems of pixel hunting and bits of moon logic, especially in the
earlier games in the series, but the plot’s linear design and streamlined structure helps
mitigate the problem a little. The trial segments are where the game shines. During trials, you have to not only prove
your client’s innocence but also reveal the true culprit who 95% of the time ends
up being one of the witnesses because apparently you’re the luckiest lawyer in the world. You perform cross-examinations of witnesses
and uncover contradictions using the evidence you either found in the investigation segment
or obtained during the trial. It’s a much more integrated puzzle design
than the usual point-and-click adventure game puzzles. Using inventory items to contradict testimony
feels way more intertwined into the story than, say, Gabriel Knight’s cat hair mustache
disguise. Or the part in King’s Quest V where you
murder a yeti with a pie in the face, even if the basic mechanics of the puzzles aren’t
all that different from each other. The first Phoenix Wright game wasn’t a rousing
success, but it did well enough for Capcom to task Takumi to write two more sequels and
make the series a trilogy. The sequels would be brought over on the Nintendo
DS starting in 2005. The tension building courtroom segments and
cross examinations made the game stand out in the genre, and Phoenix Wright became one
of the first visual novel adventure games to really catch on in the West. While still niche, the series sold over 7
million copies worldwide with 6 mainline entries, 5 spinoffs, an anime adaptation, a live action
movie, and even a few crossover cameos. And it wouldn’t be the last visual novel
to find an audience outside of Japan. Level-5 would also create a very successful
visual novel. Professor Layton and the Curious Village was
released in 2007 for the Nintendo DS and was another ADV style game where you investigated
a large scale mystery with an emphasis on isolated puzzles between story segments. The game had a charming cast, and a wonderfully
quirky art style, and caught on in the West as well. They made a buuuunch of them, too. They even made a spinoff game in the Ace Attorney
series! Chunsoft, the little company that developed
the Famicom port of Portopia, was chugging along as well. They found success with the first five Dragon
Quest games, they created the Mystery Dungeon series, but also here and there they developed
and published more visual novels. Most of them were geared for the Japanese
marketplace, but in 2009 Chunsoft made ‘9 Hours, 9 Persons, and 9 Doors’ (everyone
just calls it 999). 999 stars Junpei, a young man trapped with
8 other people on a cruise ship, fighting against an enigmatic mastermind named Zero. The game is filled with elaborate puzzle sequences
placed in between lengthy story segments. It’s part of the ‘escape the room’ adventure
game subgenre, with a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving and investigating isolated
rooms for items and clues to help you escape. 999’s story featured a branching path structure
that lead you to multiple endings, including some dead ends. It was designed for you to go back in time
and explore these narrative branches to get a more complete picture of the story. The game was a commercial failure in Japan,
but in the US it was a shocking hit. The game sold well enough for Chunsoft to
make two more, making 999 the first part of the Zero Escape trilogy. Besides Chunsoft, Level 5 and Capcom, there
was another new studio finding success in the west: Spike. Spike was largely made up of developers laid
off in the year 2000 from Human Entertainment, the makers of Clock Tower. A year after 999, Spike released their twisted
and stylish take on the visual novel: Danganronpa. In it, you play as Makoto, a high school student
trapped along with a group of other very talented students in your new school for the gifted. The cast is pitted against each other in a
vicious battle royale set up by Monokuma, an evil robotic bear. To escape the school, one of the classmates
must get away with murder, and not get caught by the others. The majority of the game isn’t too far off
from Ace Attorney. You investigate a series of crime scenes to
find clues and use logic to find holes in heated group debates as you work to determine
who the killers are, all while the cast slowly whittles down. Trials are a little different from Ace Attorney,
with a light rail shooter twist where you literally shoot through the arguments of your
fellow classmates. There are also dating sim elements in between
the investigations and trials where you can learn more about the cast. Just don’t get too attached, ‘cause they
drop like flies. Both Spike and Chunsoft were bought by Dwango,
and the two companies merged to form… Spike Chunsoft. The combined company went on to release a
bunch of sequels for both Zero Escape and Danganronpa. Around the same time that Ace Attorney was making waves in the States, Europe was experimenting
with the genre, too. Back in France, Quantic Dream’s next major
game was 2005’s Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy in the US. It was an adventure game with a much more
cinematic angle, closer to an interactive film with a ‘choose your own adventure’
structure built-in. It featured multiple branching narrative paths
and an abundance of quick-time events, elaborate setpieces, and motion-captured animation. It paved the way not only for Quantic Dream’s
future titles like Heavy Rain and Detroit, but other cinematic games. So in the mid-2000s, Europe had a stable adventure
game pipeline and some studios were experimenting with a more cinematic angle. Japanese publishers had found success with
visual novels, focusing on deeper characterization and more integrated puzzle design. Time to check back in on the US. The American adventure game scene was trying
to restart itself. Right after the fall of Sierra and LucasArts,
there were still other small American studios creating point-and-click style adventure games. Her Interactive had been putting out a couple
of Nancy Drew games each year. Each was much smaller in scale than the late
Sierra and LucasArts games, but they were for a fanbase that wasn’t often catered
to in the US. The lower costs of production and dedication
of its fans meant the company wasn’t going to go bankrupt with a niche style of game. Elsewhere, after LucasArts cancelled a planned
Sam and Max sequel and stopped developing adventure games, three former employees ventured
out to keep the genre alive. In 2004, Kevin Bruner, Troy Molander and Dan
Connors started Telltale, an indie studio dedicated to making classic style, shorter
adventure games. They chose smaller licensed properties to
focus on, and created adventure games for Bone, Wallace and Gromit, and my personal
favorite: Strong Bad’s Cool Game 4 Attractive People. They even picked up the rights to make another
‘Sam and Max’ game themselves. They were building their games on an in-house
engine, and it let them crank out small-scale releases fairly rapidly. They were one of the pioneers to the episodic
game release schedule, which made it less financially risky to develop a big game on
a long timeline. Early Telltale games were firmly in the old
point-and-click style, with maybe a smidge more puzzle-focus in games like Puzzle Agent,
but nothing revolutionary. None of the early Telltale games were huge
hits, but their writing, the dedication of the fanbases of their licensed properties
and, really, the lack of other options for point-and-click adventure fans at the time
led them to rack up lots of modest successes. In the late 2000s, Telltale started signing
bigger licenses left and right, like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. They were also beginning to play around with
the traditional point-and-click adventure formula. Jurassic Park was poorly received, but it
did hint towards how their design was changing. It was starting to mix in things that the
international developers were doing, implementing branching narratives and quicktime events
to add some tension to their dialogue trees, and focusing on characterization more than
puzzle solving. But the design would click into place in their
next big licensed game: The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead focused on quick, narrative-driven
decision making, with lots of branching dialogue paths that affected story events immediately
and through later episodes. Whatever you did, characters would remember
that. Branching dialogue trees and deeper characterization
had been successful in Japanese-style adventure games and visual novels, and in Quantic Dream’s
later games like Heavy Rain. It made the games feel much more cinematic,
but still interactive, and by tying it to a pop culture juggernaut like The Walking
Dead circa 2012, it was explosive for sales. The Walking Dead took home lots of Game of
the Year awards, sold millions of copies, and led to a major expansion of Telltale’s
ambitions. The American adventure game landscape had
regained some momentum, and there were a lot of veteran developers that were taking notice. After the crash of the adventure game market
in the 90s, publishers were very reluctant to give a second thought to a pitch for a
new adventure game. In 2005, Ron Gilbert wrote “From first-hand
experience, I can tell you that if you even utter the words “adventure game” in a meeting
with a publisher you can just pack up your spiffy concept art and leave. You’d get a better reaction by announcing
that you have the plague.“ The audience was too small, the budgets needed
were too large. But by early 2012, it had been more than a
decade since the collapse. Was that all still true? This was a couple months before The Walking
Dead would be released, so it was still an open question. Maybe there would be an audience again, but
how could you get a new adventure game off the ground? Hmm, maybe there was a way to… kickstart…
development. In 2012, Kickstarter was a niche, but promising
platform for directly funding projects. Tim Schafer thought to use Kickstarter to
get around the publisher reluctance to fund the classic style adventure game. He made a compelling pitch. For just $400k, Tim Schafer and the developers
at Double Fine, a company created by people caught in a wave of LucasArts layoffs, would
make another classic point-and-click adventure game and create a documentary of the entire
development process. For Tim Schafer, it was a really low-risk
way to fund development – get the money and prove interest up front. For the gamers funding the project, it seemed
low-risk, too. Double Fine had the track record, it felt
a lot like pre-ordering the game, and it seemed like the best way to get another point-and-click
adventure made. The Kickstarter was a MASSIVE success. It met the funding goal in nine hours, and
wound up raising $3.3 million. With that increase in funds came an opportunity
for Tim Schafer to broaden the scope of the game, whose development time increased substantially. The game, now named Broken Age, had originally
been estimated at less than a year of development. After the Kickstarter ended, it expanded to
one that would take 3 years to complete. Their documentary, which is fantastic by the
way, explained in great detail how that scope creep happened. However, the scope had increased to something
that would cost more than what the Kickstarter campaign brought in. To help finish the game, it was then split
into two acts, with the first releasing in early 2014, and the sales for the first act
funding the development of the second. The entire game was finished and released
by mid-2015 to decent, but not spectacular reviews. They had successfully made an old-style point-and-click adventure, but Broken Age was striking in how much its design, development and release
mirrored the 90’s adventure games it was emulating. Much of the design problems that plagued the
last wave of American adventure games were still there in Broken Age. Nonsense, obtuse, trial-and-error puzzles. Repetitive VO. Dull, very slow gameplay. The split into two acts dragged out the experience
for the original backers, and there was a lot of repetition from the first act. But the writing was solid if nothing spectacular. The game was totally serviceable but other
than the novel way it was funded, it just wasn’t groundbreaking anymore. The success of the Double Fine Kickstarter
led the creators of Gabriel Knight, Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, Broken Sword, and
Tex Murphy to each make their own successful Kickstarter pitches. Some wanted to reboot their franchises directly,
and some chose to make spiritual successors, like Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park. The games that made it to release were all
perfectly fine as games, but that wave did not lead to a sustained revival of the style. It just confirmed that the design issues of
the 90’s games were still issues, and even though the games could do alright as comfy
nostalgic throwbacks, that design wasn’t a recipe for a new breakout hit. Though, Telltale wasn’t faring much better. After The Walking Dead, the studio released
The Wolf Among Us, which also came out to very solid reviews. The studio expanded dramatically, quadrupling
their employee count over the next few years. They acquired even more major licenses, like
Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Minecraft, Batman, and Guardians of the Galaxy. But quickly, developmental and creative problems
appeared. The company had signed up to make a ton of
games, and was struggling to develop them on tight deadlines. The Telltale Tool, their in-house engine,
was not helping either. They used it to make almost every one of their
games since the very beginning and by the mid-2010s it was positively ancient. Game after game, episode after episode, the
same bugs were popping up again and again. Their games could look really rough at times. It couldn’t do dynamic lighting. It didn’t have a physics engine yet. Any scene with physics had to be animated
manually. Telltale simply did not have enough time or
resources to spare to modernize the engine. But the biggest problem was with Telltale’s
hallmark – the branching dialogue trees. The system was lauded at first because it
felt like the branching paths impacted the story. But as all of their series continued on, it
became more clear that the choices didn’t matter as much as they advertised. Lots of dialogue options would resolve with
minute differences and quickly rejoin the same point. At best your choices would change the tone
of the narrative, but too often the way the paths were handled felt like they were hand-waved
away, or written out of the story. Making dialogue trees matter is inherently
a very tough problem, but by the end, it was becoming clear that the major selling point
of the Telltale style of games was mostly smoke and mirrors. Developers were under extreme pressure to
crank out game after game, with perpetual crunch killing studio morale. But the games were coming out buggy, underwhelming,
and similar to a fault to Telltale’s previous work. Sales suffered. Nothing was living up to the first Walking
Dead game, and the company was hurting financially. They signed a deal to adapt their Minecraft
game for Netflix, and make a Stranger Things one too, and chose to build it on Unity instead
of the Telltale Tool. But by this point it was too late. The Minecraft game came out, but the stream
of mediocre to bad sales had taken their toll. After having announced a second season of
Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us, and before Stranger Things could be released,
Telltale suddenly laid off 90% of their employees and soon after filed for bankruptcy. Telltale’s story is strikingly similar to
the fall of Sierra and LucasArts two decades earlier. They caught fire with a new spin on an old
genre, found massive success, started making bigger and more expensive games, became trapped
by their toolset, saw their sales decline dramatically after a few too many underwhelming
and same-y releases, and closed up shop. But this time, the adventure game market isn’t
collapsing alongside Telltale. This time, there’s a much healthier indie
scene pumping out new and interesting spins on the adventure game. Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, Oxenfree,
The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Tacoma, Edith Finch, basically the entire Walking
Sim genre are takes on the adventure game as a vehicle for story-driven exploration,
just without the contrived gameplay that bogged down the point-and-click style adventures. Steins Gate, Hatoful Boyfriend, all of these
ones, and Doki Doki Literature Club tilt the balance even further to the narrative side,
which is all of what some wanted from their adventure games. Botanicula, Deponia, Gemini Rue, and Resonance
put modern design sensibilities onto the old-style point-and-click formula. And other games like Detective Grimroir, Ghost
Trick, The Witness, Her Story, and The Room are all takes on the adventure game as a vehicle
for comprehensive puzzles, with a little more narrative to keep it all more coherent than
the basic puzzle game. The genre has split and splintered, but it’s
as popular as it has ever been, and much more stable, without the chance of disappearing
by the failure of a few companies. Adventure games may not be exactly what they
used to be, but that’s a change for the better. Adventure games are alive and well. *chill vibes outro from Professor Layton and
the Unwound Future*