There's a little slice of gaming pie that I will always remember with fondness, that slice that kept me enthralled and produced so many good games that it was hard to keep track of them all. Of course there were some titles that didn't quite do the genre justice and then there were the true undisputed kings. With the advent of text adventures I was drawn into the heady worlds of imagination that were built upon a complex series of puzzles that usually meant that you were one word away from complete frustration.
Adventure gaming in general is a dying light in the electronic game industry, with bigger and better PC's containing the latest in cutting-edge hardware becoming cheaper by the month developers are using their technological know-how to create 3d spectacles that blind the eyes with tonnes of bloom lightning and visual whiz-bang whilst the old gits like myself remember with some kind of growing fondness the first few text based games that must have been the foundation for such ideas as World of Warcraft. I'll come back to that point later on.
I mean, the Zork series and the Hobbit along with the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy were some of my first tastes of text-based adventure gaming. From then on in I was hooked, these things were often fiendish experiments in frustration that ended with a simple answer or in the case of the Hobbit, Thorin, singing about gold for a few hours as you tried to work out how the hell to get past a particular type of puzzle. Many of them made good use of puns in their design and most had no graphics to speak of in the early days.
As time wore on it became apparent that people weren't going to be satisfied with just the basic text-adventure and they wanted a little more. So along with the text descriptions there were options for a crude black and white image either in ASCII or as we progressed up the graphical ladder, pixel art. Eventually we got crude colour and then simple animations, these were usually switched 1,0 affairs like a two-colour graphical lamp that cycled on and off to give the impression of a flickering flame.
The text adventures became more complex and developed a vast community of gamers who weren't satisfied with just a simple key to open a door, they sprawled into massive epic stories and began to morph towards such curious tales as Mike Singleton's: Lords of Midnight that kept me up till all hours of the morning with its fiendishly addictive gameplay at the time. On the ZX-Spectrum, this had rudimentary animation and scene-setting graphics along with a strong narrative and Tolkien-esque characters.
Now we move forwards to the Commodore 64 and a little game called Manic Mansion, in 1987. Aric Wilmunder and Ron Gibert coded a system that would revolutionise the adventure game genre and open the door to extremely complex systems. I'm talking of course of the SCUMM engine; I'm not going to go into what SCUMM means unless you really want me to. Ok, you twisted my arm! SCUMM stands for: Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion
Armed with this knowledge you can now go forth and wow all of your friends, be a hit at parties and get the girl, kill the baddy and save the entire planet. This cunningly brings me around to the next point about SCUMM, it has numerous versions and I think at the last count it went up to 10 with Lucasfilm Games (Now LucasArts) and Ron's own company Humungous Entertainment took it to around version 11. It powered some incredibly great games, such as LOOM and my all time favourite Lucas game: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. This was one of the first games to feature Lucas' iMUSE technology that synchronised the game music with the on screen action.
Regardless of the game technology behind the actual scenes, these games were now much more than just a screen of text. They featured animated sprite based characters and hand drawn backgrounds. Full Throttle slipped in some rudimentary mini-game sequences in amongst the adventure gaming and games such as the Dig and Day of the Tentacle pushed the storytelling (and humour) envelopes forcing many other developers to re-think many of their strategies. The true Golden Age of Point and Click Adventure gaming had arrived and back then, it was a good time to be an adventure game fanatic.
The true leader for me was of course Monkey Island; this quirky adventure starring fan-favourite Guybrush Threepwood combined a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour with extremely likeable characters and some seriously funny moments. These moments are icons of gaming and have been parodied in many other titles. Who could forget the infamous fighting system that required the use of insults to succeed?
You fight like a dairy farmer, how appropriate, you fight like a cow.
Simon the Sorcerer tried to get in on the act and whilst being a decent game, didn't quite have the same appeal for me as Monkey Island. In fact, the only game I had time for after that was Beneath a Steel Sky since it combined a dark sense of humour with some incredibly fiendish puzzle design and the story was expertly crafted as a dystopian cyberpunk tale. The Broken Sword series moved from the traditional point and click 2d sprites towards a fully 3d realised world and didn't quite click with many of the fans.
It was however pretty much the death-knell for the Golden Age of point and click adventuring, just like the text-based games were relegated to a few stalwart fans who swore that they would never set aside their keyboards for the new-fangled eye-candy driven drivel (yes someone I know said that about Monkey Island), the rest of the industry moved behind the 3d graphics engine and eye-candy generation that we've come to know and love (or despise). Point and Clicking has become the slightly ugly sister to the true beauty of the action game in this day and age, the sister that you only ask out if the Jock next door has already got his grubby mitts on her gorgeous twin.
In other words even now we see the industry flirting with it. Runaway: Dream of the Turtle and so forth. Vampyre Story seems to be an attempt to revive the genre or at least appease the many slavering fans (me included) that still clamour for another point and click adventure, whilst we shamble around game stores muttering like zombies looking for a fresh source of brains. In the meantime the adventure genre has been subsumed into other titles, flirting again with the likes of key-door mechanics, hidden levers and of course Valve's Half Life 2 physics based puzzles. All of these shiny eye-candy games owe a debt of gratitude to the forefathers of the gaming genre, these text-based titans that slumber at the centre of the gaming-earth waiting to be awoken.
One could even say that World of Warcraft owes its mechanics to the text-based crowd. How you might ask, well, in closing let me give you my take on this. WoW as you know comes from Blizzard's guilty secret that they are roleplayers at heart, or at least back in the days of Diablo, were roleplayers. I'm not sure how many of the old guard still remember the days they threw polyhedral dice and pretended to be their favourite heroes from the stories of yore. At some point you see the text-based crowd decided that these adventures would be more fun, if they played them alongside other people.
Thus they spawned the idea of MUD's, Multi User Dungeons, and these things allowed people to essentially do what World of Warcraft portrays in shiny 3d graphics. You can connect with thousands of other users in a text based environment set against the background of whatever the game is based on, be it a popular franchise like Star Wars or someone's own world design. Kill, loot, raid, pillage, level up and even learn skills. You can trade, you can communicate and you can usually PvP too. At one point the MUD crowd split into the roleplaying side of things and thus MUX, MUSHES and MUCKS were born. These were the playgrounds of the coder and unlike MUD's they focussed on the pure play aspect, these are often the labour of love of someone who has poured their heart and soul into a world design and wants to share it with a small or large player base.
They might have incredibly complex systems of code that drive the roleplaying or be entirely freeform, with very little in the way of commands. Yet these virtual worlds are every bit as epic and far-reaching in scope as Blizzard's masterpiece and it would be nice to think that just as MU* developers and designers remember that their roots began with the likes of Zork and the Hobbit, World of Warcraft and many MMOs owe the same kind of fealty to the Kings of the Old Text.
Until next time, Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.