You strike out alone in an unfamiliar world. Your goal is to rescue a prisoner, solve a mystery, find love, become a pirate, or maybe just survive. You have few possessions, so must survive on just what you find, what little help you can get from other people, your wits, and luck.
If you're craving a bit of mental exercise, adventure games are the way to go. They put in their first appearance well before the home computer, when gaming was the preserve of people in labs who should probably have been doing something important. Their interfaces have changed, their popularity has wavered, their complexity has mushroomed, but they still work on much the same basis: explore your surroundings, talk to people, solve puzzles and pick up whatever you can carry - you never know when it will come in handy.
Be warned! If your idea of a good challenge is how to get the last bit of peanut butter out of the jar without getting your knuckles dirty, then these are probably not for you. Be prepared to think, swear (but some games do not take kindly to this at all) and kick yourself repeatedly. Also be prepared to enjoy a sense of deep satisfaction with each obstacle overcome. But most of all, have fun!
In the olden days, before joysticks and little cameras you could wave at, a lot of computer games were controlled by typing in instructions. In those days, text adventures1 were very common and very popular.
The first true adventure game is generally acknowledged to be 1976's Colossal Cave Adventure2 by Will Crowther and Don Woods, which had a decently narrated and well-plotted story, whereas previous games often had random arrangements of locations and items, and no plot beyond 'go find the Wumpus and kill it'.
In a text adventure your situation is described to you and, usually in some roundabout way, your goal is presented. The way to achieve the goal is not always clear, but careful examination of your surroundings, and a keen eye for very subtle hints can be strong aids in your quest. Some of the games, such as the Zork series by Infocom, who also produced a text adventure based on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, were novel-like in their writing, and challenging enough to give even the upper echelons of Mensa pause.
The main commands in text adventures tend to be LOOK3, those for movement (N, E, S, W, NE, NW, SE, SW, UP, DOWN) and those for handling objects (GET, DROP, INVENTORY4), but you'll certainly need others to get anywhere. Most games have a vocabulary of dozens of words and can cope with sentences like 'HANG RED COAT ON HOOK'5.
If this type of computer gaming catches your fancy, you can check out the Interactive Fiction Archive, which catalogues hundreds and hundreds of games, written for almost any machine imaginable, using as many development systems. If you shudder at the thought of downloading without having some idea of what you'll get, then check out Baf's Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive, which reviews many of the games to be found.
To start with, pictures were used to add atmosphere to games. Often there would be one for each location, so accompanying the message, 'You are in a dank cave,' would be a picture of a dank cave, rendered in four colours. The first graphical adventure, 1980's Mystery House, couldn't even manage that, just simple line drawings.
Of course, computers can do moving pictures, so soon a little sprite was able to walk around the screen at the touch of a button. Not long after a child starts walking, he or she starts walking into danger, and so it was with sprites. Sierra's Space Quest series was particularly notorious for putting precarious precipices or poisonous plants on almost every screen, and without any of those little gate thingies that stop your toddler from tumbling down the stairs. Add in the various aliens that want to kill you and it's no wonder shell-shocked gamers were seen wandering around muttering, 'Save early, save often,' under their breath.
At least PC gamers could save; pity the ZX Spectrum owner who accidentally dropped Dizzy's snorkel underwater in Treasure Island Dizzy - easily done6 and an instant death. Fortunately all other Dizzy adventure games gave you three lives.
Apart from movement and the odd shortcut key (to view your inventory or draw your gun, for example), on most PC adventures instructions still had to be typed out. A brand new method of control was around the corner though.
Point and Click
The computer mouse provided a new way to control things: Never mind walking your character across the screen, just click and he goes there himself.
To actually do stuff, most of the early point-and-clicks still used written instructions, giving you a 'verb bank' containing a dozen or so actions. If you wanted to hammer a nail in, you would click on the word 'Use', then on the hammer in your inventory (assuming you have a hammer) and then on the nail in the main picture. Other verbs might include: 'Walk to', 'Look at', 'Pick up', 'Talk to', 'Wear', 'Remove', 'Open', 'Close', 'Eat', 'Give', 'Push' and 'Pull'.
Many of the verbs were used only rarely, and so the number of them dwindled to typically allow you to walk, look, talk and do, where the latter was used for any other action7. So if you used it on a door, you would open the door and walk through it and if you used it on a lever you would pull it.
A lot of point-and-click games had very safe environments. LucasArts led the field in producing games where it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to die8. Some gamers prefer games of this ilk, reasoning that it makes the game more interesting when you aren't afraid to try things out. On the other hand, it's difficult for a game to be menacing or tense if the player knows there's no real danger to the character.
(The Return of) Direct Control
Newer games are now often eschewing mice and returning to using the keyboard. One cause is real-time 3-D rendering9, which allows the 'camera' to move around after the protagonist, possibly obscuring important items until the character walks to the correct spot. Some real-time-rendered games use mice (notably first-person10 'node-based' games11, such as Myst and its sequels, where a mouse click generally moves you forward to the next 'node', from which you can pan the view through 360°), but many opt for the more exact control the keyboard gives.
Some players dislike direct control, finding it fiddly. It can be tricky to find the right spot to stand in to interact with an object or character, and sudden changes in camera angles12 can be distracting or even deadly. These problems affect some games more than others, and as programmers get used to making direct control games, it is possible that they will iron out all the wrinkles.
Adventure games are not as popular as they once were, with developers keen to show off their graphics and physics engine with first-person shooters, and wow us with their artificially-intelligent enemy units in real-time strategy games. Understandably, this means fewer adventures are produced now, which has led some afficionados to create their own. Others have gone so far as to produce adventure-game-designing software (Adventure Game Studio, or AGS, is a popular one) to allow even more people to create their own games. These games are usually available to download for free, though some designers have gone on to form companies and produce games you have to pay for.
Amateur games can often be, well, amateurish. Typically they are short with only a few puzzles, and some suffer from poor writing. Even those that are well written tend to have poor graphics and basic, or totally absent, sound effects. There are some notable exceptions where much time has been spent on providing smooth animations and realistic noises, but for many developers these are low priority. Still, what do you expect for free?
Adventure Game Staples
There is a great variety of plots, locations, characters and puzzles in adventures. Nevertheless there are some things that seem to crop up again and again; some have reached the level of cliché. If you go adventuring, it won't be long before you encounter several of the following.
If you think Grand Theft Auto introduced criminality to games, think again. To complete an adventure, it is usually necessary to lie, cheat and steal. Mostly steal - if it's not nailed down, grab it. Many games also include breaking and entering13, drugging people14, arson15, killing16 and jailbreaking17.
Guess the Verb
This is one you'll only find in games with a text-based input, but it's darned annoying then. The text parser has a specific word in mind and until you use it you won't be able to open that door.
OPEN DOOR The door is locked. CROWBAR DOOR What do you want to do with the crowbar? USE CROWBAR ON DOOR You hit the door with the crowbar. It bounces off. OPEN DOOR WITH CROWBAR You hit the door with the crowbar. It bounces off. LEVER DOOR OPEN WITH CROWBAR I don't understand the word 'lever'. STUPID MACHINE I don't understand the word 'stupid'.
Well you get the idea. It wasn't only verbs that could be difficult to guess: In one game, the command required to drink water from a chalice was 'DRINK CHALICE'. Asking to 'DRINK WATER' would not work.
In text adventure days, anyone with any experience would have a pencil and paper ready to map out the locations. As the graphics became more and more important, many points of interaction would be put in the same location, cutting down on the amount of wandering you needed to do, but maze sections are still sometimes thrown in.
Finding your way was tricky enough when you could roam across open countryside, but with forests, caves and towns your character could get lost on the twisty paths - going north and then back south wouldn't necessarily get you back where you started. Some developers even started including mazes that didn't connect up logically, leading to the player drawing lots of arrows from one side of his map to the other. Then you have mazes with locations that look identical to each other and mazes that change randomly.
With the advent of graphics, developers could test your talents of observation by hiding important objects so that only parts of them could be seen. In some games, players would be searching all over the screen for the three clickable pixels that made up what could be seen of the object. This gained such puzzles the nickname of 'pixel hunting' and a bad reputation.
Quests and Subquests
To get anywhere you're going to need help from the various people you see around you. These people won't help you for free of course, nor are they likely to take whatever valuables you offer them. Oh no, what they want is for you to go off and solve their problems for them, and to solve one person's problem you're going to need help from someone else, who also has a problem that needs solving, for which you'll need help from someone else, who also has a problem that needs solving, and so on, and so on.
The Sardonic Narator
Whether he or she is the main character or an omnipotent third party, whatever happens the narrator is so unimpressed. A spaceship just landed: Gee, well you'd think advanced intelligences would have advanced beyond a two-tone paint job. This is especially true in comic games, or at least in those that think themselves comic.
Any settlement of a reasonable size is likely to have a hostelry of some description, whether it's a salty dive full of rough-looking sailor types or an extra-terrestrial multi-species bar full of suspiciously familiar, almost-copyright-infringing aliens.
Important characters18 often hang out at the tavern. It is also a good source of stuff to steal, and, who knows, you might even want to buy a drink.
Over the course of the game you will find many useful objects, which you naturally cram in your trouser pocket. By the end of the game you may find yourself with several suitcases-worth of stuff, making you wonder how you manage to walk around. Apart from the sheer physical impossibility, this can distract you as you have to scroll through several pages to find the object you need.
Some games try to avoid this by taking away things, either as you use them or en masse at some point that gives them a good excuse (maybe you're fired from a cannon and drop things). Nevertheless, you are likely to be carrying more than a reasonable load.
Is It a Real Adventure Game?
When browsing your favourite shopping or auction site for games, you will probably see a genre called 'Action/Adventure' or 'Action & Adventure'. This galls some adventure gamers, who see an adventure as very different from (and, probably, superior to) the sort of game where you grab a big gun and run around blasting bad guys.
So why group these games together? Many games involve both runnning and fighting, and stopping and thinking. While some seek to set rigidly-defined bounds and ban games featuring shooting, arcade sequences and timed sections from the genre, others (including this researcher) say it's all about the story. In an adventure game you play through the story; you don't merely witness it in those cut scenes you have to sit through before you can shoot something else.
Adventures may also stray into the territory of puzzle or role-playing games. Again the story test applies: Is the game a series of puzzles or fights, or is it a story which just happens to contain puzzles or fights?
And of course, it's not a real adventure if you don't get to steal something.