Last spring, when LucasArts pulled the plug on its first planned graphic adventure computer game in four years, Sam and Max 2, the company wasn’t just canceling an anticipated title. It was burying a genre.
Graphic adventures are video games in which players encounter virtual situations and characters and solve puzzles as part of an over-arching narrative. These games reward wit and creative thinking above reflex and speed, skills required by most of today’s top video game buyers.
LucasArts’ last high-profile graphic adventure game, “Escape from Monkey Island,” which was released in 2000, barely sold 20,000 copies in its first year, according to JustAdventure.com, a Web site dedicated to the genre. A poll commissioned by the Entertainment Software Association found that action, sports and racing games — in that order — dominated the market in 2003. Graphic adventures didn’t even register on the poll.
Originally comic book characters, Sam and Max starred in a 1993 game, which only increased their cult following. Sam and Max are a dog and a rabbit who operate under the name “Freelance Police,” which “gives them some kind of sketchy license to fight crime,” says Steve Purcell, creator of the characters. The duo cruise around in a 1960 Desoto. Their adventures range from pounding cheap purse-snatchers to battling giant roaches on the back side of the moon.
When the cancellation was announced, fans erupted with outrage, as they typically do on the Internet. They sent e-mails of protest to LucasArts, signed online petitions, published unedited rants and started Web sites such as savesamandmax.com. Despite the industry’s waning interest for the genre, local gamer Philip Merriman remains an avid fan of graphic adventures.
“The original PC gamers have grown up and are being replaced by console gamers, as evident in sales,” Merriman says.
Merriman says graphic adventure game fans are turning to modern role-playing games, such as the Final Fantasy series, that emphasize action over creative problem-solving. To Merriman, modern role-playing games don’t come close to the satisfaction of solving a difficult puzzle in a graphic adventure.
Eric Feagans, the video game expert at Slackers entertainment store on Broadway, says the decline of graphic adventures also has to do with people having less time to invest in video games.
“People can only play for a few minutes,” Feagans says. “There’s no time to sit through a 100-hour game.”
Feagans says that aside from blockbuster games such as the new installments of “Grand Theft Auto” or “Halo,” Slackers’ biggest sellers are war games.
“Every company on the planet is doing war games,” Feagans says. “They’ve hit a nerve and ran with it.”
Chuck Osborn, a senior editor at PC Gamer Magazine, says gamers have more options today. Genres are blending together, creating a new hybrid kind of game, such as a shooter with puzzle-solving. Also, changes in technology and the rise of consoles may have led to the decline of graphic adventures, Osborn says.
To Feagans, the decline of graphic adventures might represent a decline in creative problem-solving.
“I’d imagine the decline of graphic adventures has to do with gamers wanting quicker-paced games, like war or racing games,” Feagans says. “People don’t want to sit for hours trying to solve a puzzle.”
Osborn defends the industry’s shift from graphic adventures, saying that a waning genre doesn’t bring about less intelligent players.
“Hardcore adventure gamers would probably like you to believe that the declining adventure market is a sign that American culture has been dumbed down, but I don’t really think that’s the case,” Osborn says. “Video games have only been around for about 30 years now, and the medium is still evolving. Culturally, I believe we’re growing more mature in what we expect out of entertainment, wanting to be active participants in the story rather than passive voyeurs.”