The End of the Adventure Game

The Walking Dead might be the end of the adventure game as we know it, and if so, I feel fine.

So, yeah, we have spent the last decade or so eulogizing the adventure genre. It's a genre of game that really belongs to the era that saw the first waves of personal computers and that still maintained some relevance thanks to LucasArts during the 1990s. Nevertheless, its relative absence as home consoles took hold and the integration of its elements into faster, more exciting genres like platformers and shooters have left the recent landscape of the gaming medium largely bereft of “pure” adventures.

Sure, The Longest Journey is an incredible experience and Telltale has at least made the niche audience that still feels some hunger for this style of gameplay more interesting with games of this sort coming at us through a more modern innovation, episodic, downloadable content.

But still, while the occasional dip into the adventures of Sam & Max are kind of neat, these kinds of games feel creaky, feel old, feel barely living. They are fun when they have a good sense of humor, interesting characters, or a good overall plot, but the gameplay can be more than a little ponderous.

Ironically, it is a game called The Walking Dead that has made me feel like the genre might be still living and may even come back to life once more by broadening the audience for these games once more by killing a few conventional rules of what the genre is “supposed” to do.

I think, in part, what makes the adventure genre a less compelling one for modern gamers is these games' lack of immediacy. Sure, solving puzzles and whatnot is a part of gaming, but these days we tend to like our puzzles interspersed within a world that lives and breathes.

Adventure games generally have a static quality. Adventure game developers build worlds in stasis. For me, every object that one will eventually interact with often feels like it is just sitting there, waiting for me to bring it to life. Unlike, say, a shooter, in which I know that I need to be interacting with the world constantly, consciously, and consistently or else I won't last long, the adventure game sits and waits for me -- a stage full of inert props waiting on an actor to bring them to life, not a world that might go on without me if I fail to get things moving in it.

Indeed, games like Grand Theft Auto or The Sims or Red Dead Redemption are all pretty fully functioning ecologies of their own, that really require a pause button if I don't want to miss something, and even then, I can't see everything that is going on. These worlds move too fast and too independently, creating the illusion that they aren't just there to serve me. The adventure game is almost a world in perpetual pause, hanging around until I see fit to bring portions of it to life.

And that is what feels different about The Walking Dead. It feels constantly living.

Adventure games are all about observation, pixel hunting, as it were. Playing in these worlds is just spending time observing and thinking things through at one's own leisure. The Walking Dead is very much an adventure game in this sense (barring the latter bit about leisure that is) in that it is a world full of puzzles that I have to carefully observe in order to figure out how to use things in it in order to progress the plot.

Most adventure games, though, allow a full view of the screen, so that the player can take his time in examining what might be useful and how it might be used with something else. The Walking Dead allows the player to move around, viewing only part of the observable world at any given time, separating the camera from motion. Thus, I may need to “move my head” to catch a glimpse of what is over to my right. I may need to find something that isn't immediately observable.

Thus, observation becomes a tension in the game and solving puzzles with immediacy becomes paramount because solving puzzles is necessary to survival and the ability to observe and assess is frequently limited. “Seeing” everything becomes a commodity, not an entitlement. Locating a shotgun shell in the environment and a shotgun and then loading the shell into the gun in order to shoot a zombie could almost be a traditional adventure game puzzle, were it not for the fact that the zombie is gonna chew through my skull in fifteen or twenty seconds, making looking around a less than leisurely and casual affair. I need to find that damn shell now, and it won't just be laid out in full view so that I can easily snatch it up and figure out how to manipulate it.

Certainly, this isn't the first time that potential death or “timers” on puzzles have added some tension to the adventure genre. But in this adventure game, this is the norm, not the exception. Immediacy adds life to the game, makes it feel like it matters right now and right now and right now.

Additionally, The Walking Dead incorporates considerably more modern conversation chains to this mix, which are also often timed events. You have only a short time to choose responses to NPCs for most questions that they throw at you. Responses are consequential as well, since people will remember if you lied to them, were rude to them, or were empathetic and consoling. This “memory” causes them to treat you differently as the story progresses, and again, the fact that the story seems to progress around you rather than waiting on you to get it going makes the game world feel that much more alive.

You also can't get everything done as you be able to do would in a standard adventure game (in fact, the successful completion of most conventional adventure games very much require that you are successful at resolving every issue, that you use every item at your disposal eventually in the game). When zombies are tearing apart the fence line that your fellow survivors have erected and a young man is pinned under part of that fencing while a little boy has been snatched by a living corpse a few feet away, you have to decide who to try to save first. When you do, you aren't going to have time to save the other, and the game will move on regardless, erasing one character from the plotline and moving forward despite your partial success.

Adding time, death, and consequence to the adventure adds life to the genre as you lurch forward, not as a master puzzle solver, but as a character trying to deal with circumstances as best that he can. At the close of episode one, you are informed of some the consequential choices you have made (who you lied to, who you chose to save in this scene or that) and how other players responded to these choices as well, emphasizing the significance of certain decisions to how the remaining episodes will proceed . Indeed, the “Next Time on The Walking Dead” teasers that follow the episodes reveal future events that are clearly only possible because of choices that you made or failed to make in the preceding chapter.

All of these more consequential events coupled with the immediacy of solution to “traditional” adventure puzzles result in something that feels like an adventure game, but also like something brand new, much more modern, and, simply put, exciting (not a word that I would normally associate wiith the genre). I'll be tuning in to more episodes of The Walking Dead as they become available, partly because I want to see where my story goes, but partly because I am honestly excited to see where Telltale is taking the genre through their reanimation of the parts of it that have seemed dead for far too long.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.