Toying around with the Wintermute adventure game engine. I created this solely with the mouse, while i was traveling in a car yesterday.
Adventure games. The days of the crown jewels of King's Quest VI, LOOM, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle, The first three Monkey Islands, Sam and Max Hit The Road, Gabriel Knight...
Before the decline of the genre, the benchmark of the genre was story--- serious or whacky, the prevailing spirit was "Come, look at the world I've built for you!", and the exploration of that world and its many characters. And maybe, somewhere along the line, you might change the world.
Then, slowly but surely, the physic of the thing began to be taken for the spirit of it--- suddenly it was a *requisite* for an adventure game to have illogical puzzles, thin stories bedamned. Then the focus of action bled the last of old school adventure's soul, and never to a good end (King's Quest 8, anyone? Or The Longest Journey: Dreamfall?)
Close-up to a growing number of people pumping new blood into the beloved genre, (such as the lovely homage game called Adventure: All in the game at http://akril15.com/games/aaitg/aaitg.html
) at a constant pace thanks to the Wintermute Engine and the Adventure Game Studio. Aside from these freewares, Wadjet Eye Games has also released perfectly excellent and successful commercial games: The Shivah, The Blackwell Trilogy, Emerald City Confidential, and others. And they are not by far the only ones!
The Adventure Genre may not have the attention of the multi-million gaming industry at this point (though it was the sweetheart and champion of the industry during the 80s and early 90s), but that may have worked to its advantage: the current trend in gaming is heavily into the exploration of technology and physics, with only very few titles actually *exploring* what creating such a world might mean story-wise. Notable and exceptional examples being the Portal series and L.A. Noir- Bright beacons of ingenious design amidst world after world of off-grey and brown color palettes where the protagonist is constantly staring down the end of a gun.
Adventure games, at the heart, have always been a more individualistic trend. The design house at Sierra gave laissez-faire reign to its designers (Al Lowe, Brian Moriarty, the Coles, Jane Jensen, etc), and Lucasarts (back then LucasFILM games) had still a somewhat looser approach than what it would become after turning into a Star-Wars Cow milking machine. When Sierra was sold, King's Quest VIII was basically designed by a committee --- and thus the adventure element was scrapped in favor of a 3D hack-and-slash design that made fans wonder when Lara Croft got a sex change operation and moved to Daventry. The result, of course, was a game nobody liked.
You can't design a great adventure game with a committee--- you might design a passable one, and maybe even an okay one, but greatness demands authorship. There is no place for auteurs in committee-land. Whereas an individual creator might want a particular take on a subject, committee reverts to what Marketing indicates is most profitable. Which is fine if you are intent on following trends and not be the one making them. Designing an adventure game is always a risk, because the demands of narrative efficiency must be observed, or else you have a game nobody really wants to play because ---- what's the point? Without characters that are enthralling and a plot that gives them life, your pretty backgrounds might as well be returned to the theater's backstage storage room.
It really isn't very surprising that the industry currently favors action games over adventure--- with adventure, you need to write something good to shine- I'm talking character development (whether serious or comical), a consistent world... and here the written word *has* to be the backbone, dialogue has to be witty or captivating, and you want to feel there is a story woven in the very fabric of the place you're visiting (Terry Pratchett would call this "Narrativium"), and you should feel as if it is laying at your feet, begging you to embark upon it. With action, you can create reliable physics, some good eye-candy in the shape of explosions, some interactivity in the world, and then some dialogue that isn't bottom-of-the-barrel retarded (though in some cases....), and people will rave. Of course, creating a game engine and physics, modeling, etcetera, is a back-breaking endeavor that should in no way be minimized or discarded. It is an amazing achievement. The blame doesn't lie with the talented programmers and artists, but usually with the committees.
There *are* games out there that blend the action and adventure elements and create a truly cinematic experience... but they're few and far between (The Half Life series at times manages this extremely well.)
Still, I guess that if I could try to define the spirit of Adventure Games and Action Games with examples, I could say that the difference is basically this (and for this, I'm going to be using four Disney attractions):
Action/Action-Adventure games are like a trip on Space Mountain/The Matterhorn... where there is a setting that gives the thrill-seeking experience some flavor, but it is the physical experience that is more important than anything else--- the setting could be conceivably interchangeable, what matters is the experience of the thrills itself. Most of the time -though not always- the protagonist is a direct player proxy.
Adventure Games (and to a great extent, Trueblood RPGs, though with different mechanics) are like a trip to the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean: someone has crafted a living and detailed world that they wish you to experience. You want to embark on the paths of that world's stories, embodying an inhabitant or an observer. Thrill isn't as important- but there *is* a different kind of thrill that is attached to narrative tension and resolution. The player's avatar usually has a very distinctive personality and, when well written, often endears itself to the player (it is hard not to feel sympathetic to Bobbin Threadbare, or Guybrush in the first three games), since the player is often privy to the character's thoughts and inner dialogue (often witty, othertimes touching such as April Ryan in The Longest Journey.)
Adventure Games won't die. The genre isn't dead -as it has been trumpeted over and over again- anymore than the genre of Interactive Fiction went away when graphics evolved ... there are annual competitions for Interactive Fiction games, and brilliant engines such as Inform7 that have heightened the whole genre to an art-form. And someone, somewhere, right now, is reading these lines for the first time across their screen (and their speakers, with the new edition's voice acting): "My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I wanna be a pirate!"