What Graphic Adventures Are
Given this mélange of games, just what is a graphic adventure game? That's hard to say, as every small side-branch of the genre has its followers who declare loudly to everyone who can't get away fast enough that theirs is the one true type of adventure game. Purists want traditional adventure games; others enjoy the blending of genres.
Even so, most graphic adventure games share a few common characteristics.
- They involve a story. While early adventure games didn't have much in the way of a story ("Go explore this dungeon and gather treasures."), later ones have become almost epic in scope. It is the lure of being part of such a narrative that hooks many people.
- They often have puzzles to slow you down and engage you. Without puzzles, a graphic adventure game becomes a not-very-interactive film. Puzzles serve to slow down your progress through the story. They also put the "game" in "graphic adventure game".
- They tend to involve exploration. The tagline for Myst was "The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World." That feeling drives a lot of adventure game players: the chance to wander through a new and exciting world, the opportunity to explore a story and piece together what has happened.
- They employ graphics to tell their story. This sounds self-evident -- otherwise, why call them graphic adventure games? -- but this choice has ramifications for how a story can be presented. In addition, text adventures are still alive and well, so it's useful to make this distinction, the same as we make between films and novels.
Note that adventure games put different emphasis on these characteristics. Some, like Myst, involve more puzzles than story, while others, such as The Legend of Lotus Spring, focus on the story almost to the exclusion of puzzles.
Graphic adventure games are but one of many computer game genres. Sometimes the line between adventures and a different type of game is a little blurry. I don't think it's tremendously useful to spend a lot of time deciding what genre a given game falls into -- you might as well ask people to define once and for all the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Nevertheless, I have some general rules for differentiating among the various genres.
Computer role-playing games, or CRPGs, are the closest genre to adventure games. They have a story and they involve exploration. However, they usually focus on a character or team of characters whose abilities and skills you raise through combat and encounters with others. Puzzles are few and tend to be simple "find-the-key-and-unlock-the-door" ones. It's the focus on combat that really differentiates CRPGs from adventure games. If you'd like to see a CRPG which approaches an adventure game in terms of storyline, take a look at Planescape: Torment.
Graphic adventure games have often had elements of simulations, but the true sim game is very different from an adventure. True simulations are toys which you can tweak and play with. Adventure games eschew the toy approach for a story which has a definite end. An adventure may simulate certain physical processes such as how water expands when frozen, but such simulation isn't the focus of a game.
As you might guess from the name, action games, also known as first-person shooters (FPSes), emphasize action. Run! Shoot! Strafe! Die! Some graphic adventure games have incorporated arcade events, but they're hardly the point of the game.
These genres aren't as cut and dried as the above might lead you to believe. The growing emergence of hybrid games has led to interesting new experiments in computer games.
The most common blend of genres is CRPG with graphic adventure game. Even Infocom, the great text adventure company, did it back in 1987 with Beyond Zork. The result is usually a CRPG with a stronger-than-usual storyline -- as mentioned earlier, Planescape: Torment is a good example of this.
The other common blend is action/adventure. Some games take a minimalist approach to this, resulting in adventure games that have a brief arcade segment or action games that involve you finding hidden keys to open doors. There have been a few games which have created action games with a strong adventure component. Half-Life, though mainly an action game, had a good storyline and interesting interactions with non-player characters. Outcast is reckoned by many to be a great hybrid game, one which even the most action-phobic adventure game player would enjoy.