The Rise and Fall of Adventure Games

This exhibit was presented at the Penny Arcade Expo 2011, and an abbreviated version was displayed at Nerd New Year 2011.

Infocom (1979-1986)

Colossal Cave Adventure swept through colleges across country via the ARPAnet (the precursor to the Internet). By May, 1977, the game had been solved at MIT by a group called the Dynamic Modeling Group who believed that they could improve upon Colossal Cave. Working on a PDP-10 in MUDDLE (MDL), Dave Lebling wrote a command parser; Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Tim Anderson worked on the design; and Blank and Anderson did the bulk of the coding. More sections of the map and puzzles were added over 1977-1979.

Infocom was incorporated in 1979 to be a commercial venture but with no fixed idea about what products would be developed. Selling Zork seemed like a good way to finance their future products. Joel Berez and Marc Blanc developed a virtual machine called the Z-machine Interpreter (ZIP) and the Zork Implementation Language (ZIL) that allowed Zork to run on a personal computer. The scaled down Zork was released for the TRS-80 Model I in 1980.

Infocom dominated the adventure genre for many years. Noted for rich language, imaginative plots and engaging characters, Infocom boasted that it relied on the world’s best graphics processor – your brain. The graphics of the time were poor contenders. The demographics of computer owners (well educated and well-to-do) eliminated barriers to games that demanded a lot of reading. After an unsuccessful start with marketing by Personal Software, Inc., Infocom took over themselves, and they packaged the games with amusing extras that were sometimes essential to solving the game. Swamped by requests for help, they invented InvisiClues, booklets with invisible hints that were made visible by a special marker.

In 1982, work began on a relational database later named Cornerstone. A Business Division was formed, and the number of Infocom employees went from 32 to 100 to staff it. Game sales had slowed and the high-tech sector suffered a slowdown in 1985. Tensions developed between the game and business divisions, partly because the financial demands of Cornerstone left the game developers wihtout resources to innovate. Instead of the growth increase that had been expected to fund Cornerstone, revenues were stagnant. Competition from graphical games also impacted Infocom sales. In September, 1985, layoffs began; by the end of 1985, there were 40 employees left.

Cornerstone faced stiff competition in dBase, and although the product got excellent reviews, it did not capture a significant market share. In l986, Infocom merged with Activision. In 1989, Activision laid off more than half of Infocom’s remaining employees and closed the Cambridge office. Only five of the remaining employees re-located. It was the end of Infocom and the Golden Age of the text adventure.

The Rise of Graphical Adventures

After playing Colossal Cave Adventure, Roberta Williams looked for similar games and, when none were to be found, she decided to write her own with husband Ken Williams doing the coding. She added simple static line drawings, creating the first graphical adventure, Mystery House, with a plot based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Her next game, The Wizard and the Princess: Adventure in Serenia, added fill color to the graphics.

With King’s Quest I, Sierra brought animated graphics to the genre. The characters could be moved behind and in front of the objects in the scenery, which was drawn with perspective, giving the illusion of 3-D space. While Sierra would soon become the best-known developer of adventure games, the first release of King’s Quest was a commercial failure. It became successful only after a long series of re-releases and improvements. Once King’s Quest took off, Sierra branched into several franchises, including Space Quest, Police Quest, and Quest for Glory.

Paralleling Sierra’s rise in adventure games was Lucasfilm Games, a competing company making similar games. Lucasfilm Games was able to tap into the franchises of its parent company, Lucasfilm, and produced a line of adventure games based around Indiana Jones. While it is likely best known for The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm produced many other popular and important adventure games, including Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle, and Loom. Maniac Mansion was the first game to remove typing text entirely from the adventure, and their Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) was built to allow a point-and-click interface.

By 1990, Lucasfilm and Sierra had distinctly different adventure game philosophies. Sierra games contained many instant-death hazards, ranging from the obvious to the unexpected. Worse, avoiding those hazards was by no means a guarantee of success, as several Sierra games were notorious for situations where the player could simply miss a critical item, rendering the game unwinnable.

Conversely, Lucasfilm games were nearly impossible to lose. You were almost, if not entirely, guaranteed to be able to save the game at any point and know that you could still reach the ending. Several Lucasfilm games parodied the Sierra approach, with jokes poking fun at the ability to “lose”, sometimes including fake Sierra-style death screens.

The Decline

By the late 1990s, the adventure game genre was in decline. Some credit this to Sierra’s increasingly difficult games, which, by this point, nearly required a walkthrough to play. Lucasfilm games were still impossible to lose, but Lucasfilm had followed in Sierra’s footsteps with puzzle difficulty, making them much harder to win. In 1990, Lucasfilm became part of LucasArts Entertainment Company, and in 1993 LucasArts became the name of the game division.

Grim Fandango was released in 1998 and received many awards including GameSpot’s Game of the Year as well as extremely positive reviews. Despite this, sales were quite low and it was a commercial failure, the first LucasArts game that did not make a profit. In the aftermath, both LucasArts and Sierra canceled games in development, citing a change in the market.

The classic adventure game genre stagnated after Grim Fandango. The previously-rapid release of new games became a slow trickle, with only a small handful of notable games released between 1999 and 2006. Despite the industry-wide slump, niche franchises survived. Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew series, which began with the 1988 release of Secrets Can Kill, continued into its second decade of steady releases.

The enduring popularity of the earlier classic adventure games received an oblique compliment when Homestar Runner, an animated Internet cartoon, released a text adventure parody, Thy Dungeonman, in 2004, followed by Peasant’s Quest, a parody of Sierra’s Quest titles. Peasant’s Quest used a system closely modeled on Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter, which was used to write the Quest games.

As the genre faded in the United States, it was on the rise in East Asia. Some of Japan’s earliest games from the 1980s were bishoujo games (pretty girl games – a form of dating simulation) with eroge (erotic) content. In 1983 Portopia Serial Murder Case, a mystery, was released and set the stage for further development of the genre; Murder Club (also called J.B. Harold Murder Club) was one of the first released in the West (1986) and was received positively. In 2006, nearly 70% of PC games released in Japan were visual novel games. In an interesting reversal of the American tendency to convert movies into game franchises, these games are often adapted to become anime TV shows.


In 2001, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was released in Japan for the Game Boy Advance and achieved significant popularity. In 2005, it was re-released worldwide on the Nintendo DS, becoming an instant hit and spawning a pair of spinoff games. While not a classic Sierra or LucasArts style adventure game, the series borrows heavily from the basic ideas behind the genre.

Quantic Dream had their own concept of a modern adventure game. In 2005, they released Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in North America), an action thriller game with adventure foundations. In 2010 they followed up with Heavy Rain, an atmospheric noir thriller that received significant critical acclaim.

Telltale Games secured the rights to Lucasfilm’s classic Sam and Max adventure game series in 2006. They released a new episodic series, starting in late 2006 and continuing through 2007. Responses were generally, though not universally, positive, and the game was a commercial success.

Telltale began work on a second Sam and Max adventure game series. After its release, they followed up with an adventure series based on the Homestar Runner franchise, then another based on Aardman Animation’s Wallace and Gromit. Telltale also secured the classic Monkey Island franchise for yet another episodic series. The resurgence of interest encouraged LucasArts to re-release its classic adventure games on modern distribution networks.

Adventure games have also regained popularity in the indie scene, although few have received significant press. Gemini Rue is a recent award-winning noir adventure game by Wadjet Eye Games, a studio responsible for several other excellent adventure games. The Chzo Mythos is a horror series released by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, and created with Adventure Game Studio (AGS), a free development tool for making interactive fiction. Another tool popular with hobbyists is the Text Adventure Development System (TADS). Although the industry as a whole seems hesitant to embrace the adventure game, good games are still being produced.