I grew up on adventure games before I even knew they were called "adventure games." One of my earliest memories of a friend's computer was playing Adventure. Following that, I was hooked. Maniac Mansion. King's Quest. Zork. Planetfall. Leisure Suit Larry. Space Quest. The Secret of Monkey Island. Sam and Max Hit the Road. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Myst. Gabriel Knight. Syberia. The Longest Journey. Back to the Future. The Walking Dead. I've never stopped loving the fun of exploring these worlds, "earning" the next page of the story, and finding out all of the bizarre ways I could die.
However, at some point in the '90s, games journalists apparently decided that "adventure games were dead." It's something we started hearing a lot of, especially in comparison to all of the fancy new graphics, gameplay features, and fast-paced shooters. Adventure games were seen as a relic of a time when computers couldn't process heavy graphic loads and players were a lot more patient.
I never bought into the "adventure games are dead" mindset. I see them coming back like crazy these days, especially on tablets and mobile devices. And lo and behold, Funcom did something that I would have never thought possible: The studio made an MMO out of an adventure game. That's The Secret World, if you weren't following along.
At their core, adventure games are interactive stories that place a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving to move the story forward. There were text-only adventure games for several years in the '70s and early '80s, illustrated (and sometimes animated) adventure games after that, and then even experimentation with full-motion video (FMV) adventure games when CD-ROMs hit the market.
Prior to dawn of the internet and easily accessible guides, adventure games were notoriously difficult. If you got stuck on an obtuse puzzle, then your best hope was that you had a friend who'd beaten it. Otherwise, you were in a countdown to see which happened first: the loss of your sanity or the triumph of a puzzle solved. I'll admit it, there were days I just plain hated whatever adventure game I was playing. Some of them I never beat. But the dangling carrot of more story and locations kept me going more often than not.
While being frustrating and sometimes downright unforgiving (some titles would kill you off for a single misstep or challenge you to beat the game within a time limit), they were worth the effort. The stories were often excellent and genuinely made you feel involved. The puzzles challenged your mind, not your reflexes. They would often trigger powerful emotions. And the characters would stick with you long after you closed down the game.
But as MMOs, adventure games made no sense. Not only were they not nearly as popular as they used to be, but these games had inherent problems being translated into a massively multiplayer experience. With the internet, players could and would most certainly use guides to cheat through the quests. The linear story approach meant that there would be an ending, and that's generally not good for MMOs. And one of the cornerstones of MMO gameplay -- repetitive gameplay systems -- didn't really apply. In fact, outside of the small odd titles like Myst Online, it's just not something that we've seen attempted.
Here's the thing about The Secret World: It's not an MMO first. It's an adventure game first and an MMO second. Or more precisely, it's an adventure game with a combat system and multiplayer components grafted on.
When I first started playing TSW at launch, I knew it was something special but couldn't quite understand why. I was approaching it as an MMO player looking for the same things I saw in contemporary titles. I wasn't expecting World of Warcraft with C'thulu, but... yeah, I kind of was. It didn't help that on a superficial level, TSW has the features that I associate with typical MMOs: zoning, achievements, loot, grouping, corpse runs, and so on. Yet I thought the questing system was limited and constricting (how many missions can I take at a time? Why doesn't everyone dismiss me to kill ten rats?) and the world obviously wasn't made to speed through.
So after some time, a switch flicked in my brain and I was finally able to accept the game at its adventure roots instead of trying to make it fit the mold of my preconceptions. I think it took so long because I never saw Funcom promoting the title as a multiplayer adventure title. But once I made the mental shift, everything fell into place. I realized that I was playing more for the story than for the gear. I saw that the investigation quests, sabotage quests, and even some action quests were much in the same vein as what I had been playing in adventure games for years. The combat was (in my opinion) incidental, a speed-bump to keep us from finishing too quickly.
What was the most brilliant stroke in designing an MMO adventure game came when Funcom didn't try to fight the fact that there would be player guides for every mission. Instead, the studio owned the concept. It included an in-game browser as if to say, "It's your choice. You want to challenge yourself, do it without the help. But we won't keep you from it." It also incorporated fake websites, Twitter accounts, blogs, YouTube video, and the like into the quests themselves. The contemporary setting of TSW made this non-lore breaking while keeping the spirit of adventure gaming alive.
I love seeing how much players have taken a shine to the investigation missions. It's like seeing people encounter adventure games for the very first time and having a new generation learn and appreciate the great aspects that made me fall in love with these titles back in the day.
That said, it's made developing for TSW harder than in other titles, and I'm not just talking about spoilers. TSW doesn't have a lot of content that lends itself well to replaying. Sure, we can redo quests, but that's a stopgap measure that doesn't advance our stories or provide us with any new experience. Obviously developing new missions is time-consuming, and while Funcom's rolled out terrific issues so far, they really aren't coming nearly fast enough to keep up with demand. And sometimes the combat feels disjointed and antagonistic instead of something to be enjoyed.
What's even worse is that Funcom has taken cues from two of the single-player adventure games' biggest weaknesses and incorporated them into TSW: low replayability and linear storytelling. Not only is there little reason to reroll and go through the journey a second time (even though I am), but there hasn't been a lot of effort to give players choices in these quests. Newer adventure games have embraced player choice and branching storylines, even if it's just for cosmetic purposes, but TSW has the tendency to make you feel as though you're on rails. There are only two choices for any given situation: to do it or not. And of course you do because otherwise you don't progress.
Even if TSW isn't perfect as a massively multiplayer online adventure game, it's more than worth playing. I think that some of these flaws are fixable given time and effort. I hope that scenarios prove to be compelling repeatable content, and I am beyond excited for Tokyo and more great TSW story. I'm encouraged by how many players I see and hear actively avoiding quest guides in order to do missions on their own, and sometimes playing this game feels like being in part of a cult community that has broken out of the same-old, same-old of MMOs.
So from the white house of Zork to the black house of The Secret World, adventure games haven't died. They've just evolved into something that you can share with friends and enjoy for an even greater period of time than ever before.
Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ and Justin every Monday as they infiltrate The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and they'll jump on the case!