Not too long ago, a popular claim among gamers was that the adventure game genre – in the point-and-click sense – was either dead or, at best, on its deathbed. It was a tough pill for fans to swallow, but things weren’t looking very good for the genre that was once quite popular, mostly among PC gamers.
But then something happened. Before we knew it, adventure games were on the rise again, growing in popularity when suddenly, one of them, The Walking Dead, goes and wins multiple game-of-the-year awards. So what happened?
Indie Games to the Rescue!
Take, for example, the work of Amanita Design, the studio responsible for developing the excellent point-and-click adventure Machinarium and, most recently, Botanicula. Though Amanita had a couple other adventure game releases prior to Machinarium, including both Samorost titles, it really broke through in 2009 with the story of the adorable robot named Josef and his adventures through the game’s eponymous city.
It went on to receive almost universal critical acclaim, currently posting a solid Metacritic score of 85, and even took home a couple of awards, including runner up for Kotaku’s PC Game of the Year. Botanicula has also done well; while it has not received as much attention as Machinarium, it received just as favorable reviews.
As the genre has gained steam, more indie adventure games are popping up with longer stories and higher production value (the budget for Machinarium was a measly $1,000). Daedalic Entertainment has been putting in quite a bit of work, with titles like A New Beginning and its adventure game trilogy, Deponia, the first two episodes of which have done well despite a smattering of flaws. But while the continued contributions from the indie community are certainly welcome, they’ve already made their biggest contribution by helping resurrect the adventure game.
Engaging the Players
While indie adventure games had critical success, they weren’t exactly commercial hits. That’s where a more established studio known as Telltale Games stepped in, capitalizing on the apparent interest in the genre. Telltale focused more on the charm and story aspects of adventure games and more or less pioneered the episodic game format, which was perfect for the narrative-driven games they were developing. In doing so, the studio helped kick off adventure game resurgence with bigger-name titles and licenses, ultimately proving that they could be profitable.
That’s not to say that things got off to a smooth start for Telltale. From the get-go – when Telltale was founded in 2004 – the developer had some quality licenses with which to work, but its earlier games mostly flew under the radar and weren’t particularly successful commercially, like Strongbad’s Cool Game For Attractive People or the studio’s adaptation of the Bone comics. In fact, more episodes of the Bone games were originally planned, but ultimately Telltale pulled the plug on them.
But then Telltale secured the rights to some big licenses that were originally used by the king of the classic point-and-click adventure: Lucas Arts. If you’re going to make quality adventure games, what better role model to have? It didn’t hurt that Telltale was originally founded by Lucas Arts employees, too.
So first came Telltale’s Sam and Max games, which garnered a little more attention thanks to the fact that they were part of an already-established adventure game franchise (the source material is, of course, Steve Purcell’s comics, but Sam and Max Hit the Road is a classic adventure game from Lucas Arts). The games’ success took Telltale’s series through three seasons of five episodes apiece, all of which were ported to other platforms in addition to PC.
And then Telltale really broke through when it teamed up with Lucas Arts (as a publisher) to release Tales of Monkey Island, the fifth installment in the famed adventure game series. Also consisting of five episodes, Tales of Monkey Island was a hit among critics, pulling industry awards and ultimately becoming the studio’s greatest commercial success to date.
Telltale continued to ride the wave, seeing even greater commercial success with its next big license, Back to the Future. Of course, it wasn’t all smash hits for Telltale; creating a game based on a movie as beloved as Jurassic Park seemed like a surefire hit in concept, but unfortunately the execution flopped mightily.
But one slip-up didn’t change the fact that Telltale’s efforts had breathed life back into the genre, and the developer went on to secure its rightful position as modern-day adventure game king with the release of last year’s The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead was a bit of a departure for Telltale, which had chosen to go for humorous, lighthearted stories for almost all of its previous games, except maybe Jurassic Park (but even that had some unintentionally hilarious cut scenes of characters getting mauled by dinosaurs). The Walking Dead, on the other hand, was indisputably bleak and very much a mature game. And not just mature in terms of its violence, gore, and subject matter, but also mature in terms of how focused it was on creating unforgettable characters and weaving a truly moving original story.
While there have been plenty of good stories in adventure game history, they usually came second to gameplay; namely, the game’s puzzles. The Walking Dead played out more like a choose your own adventure book, with generally softball “puzzles” that served more as a means to let the user interact with the story than to be challenging.
In other words, Telltale took a bit of a risk by deviating not only from its own approach, but from the tried-and-true formula of the genre, and it paid off big time. The Walking Dead won gamers over with its powerful, engaging narrative, which was helped by Telltale’s (semi-monthly) episodic format; using the format to set up cliffhangers and leave players salivating for more worked wonders for a game that was so plot-driven. The heavy focus on story ultimately proved to be the key to the success of The Walking Dead, and will perhaps prove to be a boon to the genre down the road, as well.
After all, The Walking Dead went on to win multiple Game of the Year awards from the likes of OXM, GamesRadar, Wired, and Spike TV. Sales were far and away the best Telltale had ever seen, with the company announcing that it had sold over 8.5 million episodes over all platforms as of January 2013, equating to roughly $40 million in revenue. That’s one hell of a success story, and it’s all thanks to an adventure game.
Looking Down the Road
Given how well Telltale has done with the adventure game, both the company and the genre have a bright future. Thanks to the great sales of The Walking Dead, Telltale has grown into a more formidable studio (it has doubled in size over the past two years and it will be moving to a larger office space soon to accommodate its 160 employees), while other companies will undoubtedly take interest in the genre – and the story-focused approach – after seeing how much success Telltale has had.
There are plenty of other factors in play that can spell out good fortunes for adventure games, too, like the advent of Kickstarter as a means to fund games based on public demand. There are plenty of gamers out there that are dying for the revitalization of some of their favorite adventure game franchises, and Kickstarter is a great way for them to have their voices heard; Replay Games is looking to resurrect the Leisure Suit Larry series, and met its funding goal for Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards last year.
The rise of mobile gaming on smartphones and tablets are a huge help to adventure games as well, with the simple point-and-click format a perfect fit for platforms that are otherwise ill-equipped for games with more complex control schemes. Telltale CEO Dan Connors said that approximately 25% of The Walking Dead sales were for the iPad version of the game, which is more than a significant portion.
Indeed, things look good for adventure games, at least for now. It’s good to see the genre get taken off life support for the time being thanks to those who kicked off the renaissance, not to mention Telltale’s mainstream success. But the good days will only last so long if Telltale is the only big name churning out adventure games, so here’s hoping other studios get in on the action and give me something else to look forward to besides the next season of The Walking Dead.