Here’s a neat bit of nostalgia: In the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, which is about a boy who magically wishes himself into becoming a man, the main character plays a text-based computer game that poignantly links his youth to his overnight adulthood. Watching these gaming sequences today is understandably hilarious—quintessential text-based play involved typing in commands in order to accomplish tasks, and was generally accompanied by incredibly crude, static visuals—but there was a time when this type of thing was all the rage.
Twenty-three years and a bazillion leaps in technology later, it looks as though graphic adventures are making a comeback. From iPhone to Xbox, the once-dormant genre is evolving in surprising new ways, and A-list titles are reconnecting players with attentive reading and careful observation rather than just pointing and shooting.
Beginning in the early 1980s, graphic adventure games like King’s Quest allowed players to explore areas by typing commands on a keyboard. With the advent of the Macintosh computer and its mouse (wowzers!), gameplay innovation featured a point-and-click interface, whereby gamers would use their mouse to select objects and explore environments. Anyone who owned a PC during this period may be familiar with popular franchises like Monkey Island and the ironically sleazy Leisure Suit Larry. This style was further enhanced by the release of the CD-ROM, which allowed for cheesy live-action cut-scenes and 3-D elements. But the biggest shift in gameplay was the first-person perspective (e.g., Doom). If any of the previously mentioned titles failed to ring a bell, 1993’s Myst surely will—after all, it was the best-selling PC game of all time for nine years.
Graphic adventures were unlike your typical Nintendo or Atari game in that their story-heavy gameplay was puzzle-oriented rather than packed with action. Most of these titles could be played at your own pace, and life bars were rarely a factor. Though the games inherently required a keyboard, several survived the leap to consoles. One particularly iconic game, 1987’s B-movie parody Maniac Mansion, was even released on the non-keyboard Nintendo. (The title was so popular that it inspired a wonderfully weird Toronto-made sitcom.)
But by the end of the 1990s, graphic adventures were in a steady decline in the U.S. Those games lacked the sense of player autonomy that was being offered by the likes of Nintendo, PlayStation and the soon-to-be-released Xbox (though the click-and-explore navigation would later turn up in DVDs—where clicking on Easter eggs got you alternate takes and behind the scenes material—and some of the more immersive website designs).
Recently, the graphic adventure genre has returned with both familiar and innovative results. Vintage franchises like Monkey Island have been updated into new, high-definition graphic adventures for consoles, tablets and smartphones, and movie-themed titles like Back to the Future: The Game and the upcoming Jurassic Park aim to modernize the classic adventure experience, while retaining its traditional click-and-explore feel.
On the more polished front, two revolutionary takes on the point-and-click formula were released in the past 18 months. PlayStation’s Heavy Rain was a major breakthrough in immersive, story-driven gaming that involves even more player interactivity.
The most sophisticated advancement for graphic adventures so far is L.A. Noire, a game so cinematic that, this year, it became the first ever to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire’s story can progress in different ways, depending on how you solve cases. While the game isn’t lacking in action—there are plenty of lethal gunfights and car chases—it leans heavily on crime-scene investigations and suspect interrogations, which rely on the game’s MotionScan face-capturing technology. Cutting-edge as L.A. Noire frequently is, it also contains an old-school quality that even predates Tom Hanks’ archaic computer-gaming exploits from Big. It’s enough to make an old gamer feel like a kid again.