Two articles got me to thinking about how graphic adventure games are doing these days. One was an article in the New York Times about text adventures (still available if you wish to pay for it). The other was an editorial in Quandary #13 about how there was a recent dearth of graphic adventures.
A quick summary of the articles is in order. In the NYT article, Edward Rothstein talks about text adventures, and how they've been enjoying a renaissance. He hits many of the high points, mentioning XYZZYnews and SPAG, talking about Graham Nelson and Inform. Most of all, he points out that text adventures have experienced a resurgence, gaining in artistry and popularity.
Meanwhile, in the Quandary editorial, Rosemary Young and Gordon Aplin bemoan the current state of graphic adventures. There aren't a lot of them coming out, and the ones that are coming out aren't hyped. Activision didn't put their weight behind Zork Grand Inquisitor like they do Hexen II.
What the hey? A while back I talked about the two branches of adventure games and how they had diverged. I mentioned that, commerically, text adventures were dead, and that hundreds of millions of dollars were being pumped into graphic adventures. So how can text adventures be "flourishing" while graphic adventures are "stagnating"?
To some extent, it's a matter of perception. Text adventures had all but died in the years form 1988 to 1992. There were signs of life, most noticeably from TADS and from the shareware company Adventions. This sluggish pulse of invention served in part to highlight the weakened state of text adventures.
In recent years, the pace has accelerated. Mike Roberts continued to update TADS; Graham Nelson wrote Inform, which allowed people to create Infocom-style adventure games; Kevin Wilson started a text adventure competition. Now there is a large, growing community of authors, critics, and fans of text adventures. When you look at the state of the community ten years ago, it's easy to see that text adventures have had a rebirth.
Graphic adventures, however, have to compete against every kind of computer game. They are measured against action games, strategy games, and racing games. They have to capture an audience and be a commercial success. As more adventures use live-action scenes, budgets inflate--and larger budgets mean that adventures are less likely to make money for their companies.
There's more dragging graphic adventures down than inflated expectiations, though. The constant march of technology hurts graphic adventures. A large portion of development of a graphic adventure is spent improving graphic engines; that development time then can't be spent improving the story or presentation. It's as if a movie or TV director had to spend most of their time re-inventing cameras and film. The technology behind text adventures hasn't changed much in ten years, so authors can spend the bulk of their time on content.
Other types of games have it easy. Design the engine and you're mostly done. Oh, sure, you have to come up with single-player levels or an economic model. Sometimes, though, you don't even have to do that. Instead, you can design some half-hearted single-player levels and let your players design better ones. Hey, it worked for ID.
To make matters worse, adventure games lack much of what die-hard gamers want. Adventure games don't produce the same adrenaline rush as an action game. They don't allow multiple players (except for some rather poor "cooperation modes" in certain games). And they don't push that killer $3,000 computer system with a 3D accelerator card to its limit.
What graphic adventures need is the equivalent of the independent film director. As it stands, graphic adventures are made by companies whose main purpose is to make money, much like major Hollywood studios. But there is no Kevin Smith or John Sayles making graphic adventures. Heck, other than DreamCatcher there's no American International Pictures putting out schlocky B-adventures and the occasional gem. Every graphic adventure game is meant to be a summer blockbuster filled with special effects.
Text adventures, on the other hand, could use some money. There is a lot of talent out there. If only that talent could afford to treat adventure design as more than a hobby. There are grants and funding for independent filmmakers; why shouldn't there be money available for independent adventure authors?
What I'd really like to see is a blending of the two branches of the family. Right now we have a caste system, with an ever-widening gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Imagine instead a system in which each author and designer could choose the medium which best fits his or her message. Want to make a big-budget effects-laden spectacle? Hook up with Westwood, Activision, or LucasArts. Want to make a small off-beat production? Find some funding, choose whether text or graphics would suit you better, and go to it. Granted, this system would have its problems (c.f. Hollywood), but it would be a far sight better than what we have now.