Videogame Art: Phantasmagoria (1995)

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 3, 2015

Videogame Art: Volume I

Old Man Murray was one of the earlier — let's call them "alternative" for lack of a better term — videogame sites that, via means of its influence on several other later sites including The Gaming Intelligence Agency and finally Insert Credit, eventually inspired and led to the creation of Insomnia. These sites placed their emphasis more on in-depth analysis over traditional fact regurgitation, conveyed through a variety of liberal writing styles with little to no censoring, and though it is clear today, given the groundbreaking, incomparable results that we have attained here on Insomnia over the last ten years by following this model, that that was indeed the way to go in the field of videogame criticism and theory, the early attempts were very rough, uneven and, ultimately, forgettable. Right from the beginning, exemplified by Old Man Murray itself, all the way to Insert Credit, which was the very last step on this path before Insomnia was born, the writers of these sites focused their efforts more on getting a laugh or a rise out of the reader than actually analyzing anything, and when the analysis eventually arrived it would often be contrived and pseudo-intellectual, with only sporadic flashes of insight that seemed to proceed more from sheer randomness than passion for the medium, experience or wisdom.
   And such was the case with the infamous, at the time, OMM article titled "Death of Adventure Games" [ > ], which has today however been effectively forgotten (like pretty much everything ever published on these sites). "Who killed adventure games?" asks the article's author, Erik Wolpaw (who works at Valve today, as a chief writer in the Portal series, among other games), and the answer he gives, after an admittedly amusing elaboration of his position, is that no one killed them, that they "committed suicide", because their puzzles had become too convoluted and illogical. Simpler, more straightforward and logical puzzles is what the genre needed, and then it wouldn't have died, and lots of adventure games would still be getting made today as if it were the early-'90s. — THIS IS WHAT ERIK WOLPAW REALLY BELIEVES.
   Needless to say, as any observer of the industry with a quarter of a brain can figure out, this position has no relation to reality whatsoever, but the exact reasons why adventure games nevertheless did indeed die will take a lot of experience and insight to discover, which is where I and this essay come in. And yes Phantasmagoria, at the appropriate time.
   So why did adventure games die? It is a fascinating reason that leads all the way up to my theory of immersion as the defining factor in art, and therefore videogames: art's ultimate manifestation. The rabbit hole here goes very deep indeed, and the depth of experience, intelligence, wisdom and aesthetic sensibility required to follow it all the way to its conclusion is so mind-bogglingly enormous that I cannot imagine the gamer who would find the way to it on his own without my explanation. If I had died before finishing this essay, I am convinced that mankind would never have found the answer.
   The short answer, for the impatient among you, is that adventure games died because FPSes today are better at offering the adventuring experience than adventure games had ever been or could be. The long answer is considerably longer and more involved so I'll take my time in laying it out for you.
   Before we can answer the question of why adventure games died, we first need to understand why they were born in the first place. This is the really tough part of the question, because 1) Most players today don't like/play adventure games, so there's no way in hell they will understand the genre's attraction on their own, if ever; and 2) The few people left today who still play these games are aesthetically dense doofuses, like those who prefer 2D over 3D games or generally older games to newer ones (Doom hipsters and so on), with whom it is impossible to communicate at all, much less explain anything to them; or hipsters who've dubbed adventure games "interactive fiction" to feel more intellectual and who keep making them today (only of course in a much simpler, uglier and shittier form) because they are so easy to make. Basically everyone who still actively plays these games today is some kind of subhuman loser, and it's therefore completely out of the question for them to understand anything about the genre, or about any other thing in life ever, even.
   So let me try to explain the attraction of the genre to everyone who doesn't fall into one of the above groups. And to do that I have to show you the genre in its proper historical context, at a time when THERE WERE NO 3D GAMES AT ALL, and your only choice of genres was between absurdly simplistic side-scrolling action affairs where you have a little sprite that jumps around the screen and punches or shoots other sprites, and abstract disembodied tactical/strategy games where you never even see your avatar in the game world at all. Maybe you'd also have some kind of basic flight simulator, if you were into computer games, and that's it. That's all the types of experience that the medium afforded its devotees back in the '80s and early-'90s, and those types of games fully satisfied the majority of the players (since most of them, even back then, were not into adventure games). And that's where adventure games came in.
   Adventure games, from the very beginning, had been all about IMMERSION. Instead of taking control of a pathetic little squiggly sprite that lives in a single-plane two-dimensional world that consists of a straight line of buildings or whatever, and which spends the entire length of the game running frantically from left to right, in adventure games (and especially the later, fully graphical variety) you take control of a far larger, more well-drawn and animated character who inhabits a more intricate, meticulously crafted and detailed three-dimensional world (even if depicted via 2D graphics) that actually bears some resemblance to human reality. For it is extremely difficult to immerse yourself in a world, like say Shinobi's or Contra's, where the backgrounds are zipping by faster than you can make them out. If you play these games properly you don't even have time to look at the backgrounds at all. And why can't you stop for a second, catch your breath, and go inside a building? Even pure action movies have scenes where the protagonist chills out and rests, or talks to other characters, or does other stuff than engage in 100% non-stop breakneck-speed frenetic combat. If action movies were made like 2D action games, they'd be unwatchable. And that's why 3D action games are NOT made like 2D action games, and why there tends to be a whole lot more to them than pure combat.
   But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What I am trying to explain to you is that in the '80s and '90s there arose a need for a genre of games that featured SLOWER, more INTRICATE and DELIBERATE interaction with the game world than what was offered by 2D action games and tactical/strategy affairs — the former of which were highly enjoyable for short half-hour or hour-long bursts, but which became tiresome if played consecutively for much longer, and the latter of which were indeed perfectly suited for longer sessions — far, far longer ones (which is why this was the supreme genre all through the mid-'80s and '90s up until the arrival of GTA3, as I'll be explaining in my upcoming Defender of the Crown and Civilization reviews) — but which, by failing to have a recognizable protagonist/avatar on the screen, could not hope to offer the "playable movie" experience that videogames have REALLY been chasing after since the very beginning. There were some efforts to make the 2D action game slower and more deliberate, more involved and more immersive, by adding exploration to them a la Ys and Metroid and so on, and these were indeed good, successful games, but the interaction with the game world was still incredibly simplistic in those games too, and a lot more could be done in that direction. Adventure games really were the first games where the designer made an effort to make the player BE the character, in that he could actually move him around a relatively realistic environment and order him to pick up and examine things, move about in all directions pretty much at will (as opposed to along a single-plane lane, in a single direction, even, as in the action games), and talk to characters and participate in a story (as opposed to simply hitting or shooting some stuff and then having a story told to him via cutscenes). And the players loved them for it.
   Not all of them of course, not even most. These are the guys who have no idea what I am talking about right now, and who are perfectly content with the essentially mindless running-around-a-screen mechanics of 2D action games. That's all the interaction that these people crave from videogames; from their computers even. They don't need any more, and if you try to give them more their brains will probably auto-detonate. But for me this pathetically basic level of interaction wasn't enough, not by a long stretch, and I became heavily invested in the genre starting with classic text adventures from Infocom and moving on to text/graphic hybrids like Deja Vu and finally to the well-known graphical masterpieces of Sierra and LucasArts, all the while checking out also lesser known, or less accomplished, efforts by largely now-forgotten companies like Brøderbund, Dynamix, et al.
   Now what must be emphasized and drilled into your brain at this point is that, especially once the graphical games came on the market, the adventure genre was at the CUTTING EDGE of aesthetics. This was literally THE genre for graphics whores at the time (i.e. for art lovers: because that's what a "graphics whore" is: an art lover, like Raphael and Michelangelo: all art lovers have always been and will always be "graphics whores" in the language of internet aspies who never leave their rooms). I know all this sounds absurd to you young casuals today, whose only experience of these games is tiny little squashed screenshots you might have come across in videogame message board threads (posted most likely by hipsters who hate TODAY'S games that feature cutting edge aesthetics...), but back in the early '90s the adventure genre ushered in the VGA revolution — touting titles with 256 colors on screen compared to EGA's previous 16 — with graphics that, by the standards of the time, looked to us "photorealistic", and sound and music that for the first time in personal computer history required the purchase of specialized sound cards that cost nearly as much as a console system costs today. That was the era when the PC finally blew past the, mainly British-led, home computer scene dominated by the Amigas and the Atari STs (never mind the console scenes, which looked downright prehistoric by that time, and with a selection of games that — from first to last — seemed unpardonably shallow, childish and simplistic), and I was right in the middle of it, buying a new PC, and, from a certain point onwards, even building them myself, almost every year in order to keep up with developments.
   So what I am trying to convey to you is that adventure games were cutting-edge eye-bleeding mouth-frothing SYSTEM SELLERS at that time. I bought a brand new PC for Space Quest IV (and Wing Commander). I bought another new PC, that I built myself, part by part, in 1991, for Monkey Island 2 (and Wing Commander II and Strike Commander). These games were so unbelievably detailed and gorgeous that booting them up for the first time was a near-religious experience. Think Crysis in 2007 if you are old enough to have at least played that game when it came out, and you should be able to understand what I am saying.
   And then there were the puzzles. It is ridiculous to suppose that anyone of us who played these games back then ACTUALLY ENJOYED TRYING TO SOLVE THE PUZZLES. I mean, I can see why a young person who never lived through those days might assume that — after all, why would you play a game if you don't particularly enjoy its mechanics? — but it is inexcusable for someone like Mr. Wolpaw who lived through those years AND is at the same time trying to put himself forward as some kind of authority on the subject. Adventure game puzzles have been mostly inane from day 1 for the simple reason that, if they had NOT been inane, players would be waltzing through these games in 20 minutes and asking for their money back. When you have a game that is composed of 30 or 40 screens — or whatever very low number of screens the typical adventure game is comprised of — which screens do not demand any feats of physical dexterity in the form of action game mechanics to traverse simply because these are not action games but THINKING games, you NEED illogical bullshit puzzles to keep the player engaged inside these 30 or 40 screens for the 20 or 30 hours that it will take him to feel he has got enough "value for his freaking money" out of the game. Of course everyone, players and developers alike, would have rather preferred to play a game with 2,000 or 3,000 screens covering entire cities or countries across international locations with complex, multi-layered plotlines that rival novels and movies and dialogue trees and decision-making that affect every aspect of the plot and the game's conclusion, but there was simply not enough money, nor to mention experience, to make these games back then, any more than there is now. And of course, if such a game were made, it wouldn't need bullshit illogical puzzles to keep you occupied for 20 or 30 hours, since merely to traipse through the 2,000 screens and complete the gigantic dialogue trees I am talking about would take whole days if not weeks. But the game would have had to be sold to you for 5,000 dollars a pop in order to cover its costs and keep its developers afloat, so you still wouldn't have felt that you got "your money's value" out of it, and that's why these games were not made back then, and why they are STILL not being made.
   So the bullshit puzzles were a practical necessity, not the goal of the exercise. We didn't fucking build 1,500-dollar computers to spend all day pixel hunting static screens and trying to combine every single item in our inventory with every single other item in the entire game world to get a fucking door to open and move to the next fucking room. The goal was to spend some time in these detailed, intricate environments, and feel for a few hours like a policeman (Police Quest), a sleazy adventurer and PUA (Leisure Suit Larry), a pretender to a throne (King's Quest), a Caribbean pirate (The Secret of Monkey Island), a university student solving an Agatha Christie-like mystery (The Colonel's Bequest), or Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis). And while the Indiana Jones depicted in the 2D action games of the time had almost nothing in common with the cinematic Indiana Jones, the adventure game variant, due to the genre's superior capacity for immersion and varied interactivity, came far closer to that ideal, and so did all fiction archetypes that these games chose to tackle. And like I said, the players loved them for it. Not all of them of course, but certainly the ones with sufficient capacity for patience and imagination.
   What I am getting at is that adventure games sold themselves almost exclusively on the strengths of their aesthetics. The puzzles were merely there to detain you in the individual rooms for a little while so you could take the atmosphere in. And of course if you are detained in a room you are IMMERSED in it, whether you like it or not. And given how pretty everything generally looked in those games, we FUCKING LOVED IT AND ASKED FOR MORE. No one was actually proud of themselves for managing to find their policeman's gun in their policeman's home after searching for it for two hours. In a movie or in a logically-designed game the policeman would ALREADY KNOW WHERE HIS FUCKING GUN IS IN HIS FUCKING HOME without having to spend all day searching for it before going out into the street to arrest a criminal. But there was no other way to make the genre work financially than this, and that's why it was made the way it was.
   Not that there wasn't ANY PLEASURE AT ALL to be had from solving the puzzles, of course. Softcore Gaming 101 contributors who play everything with a FAQ would never suspect this, but figuring shit out on your own and moving on in these games was lots of fun — but mostly because of the "moving on" part. We were so excited to see the next screen, and what would happen to our character and the story, that we would have done anything to do so, even spend half a day solving bullshit puzzles if that's what it took. And that's exactly what it took, all throughout the '80s and the '90s... until Phantasmagoria arrived.

To be continued in Part II...