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.