What Are the Most Treasured Aspects of ’90s Adventure-Game Design?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Anne K. Halsall, Quora designer

Original Worlds & Storylines

Adventure games are primarily story-driven. You as the main character must explore, pick up items, solve puzzles and achieve goals in order to advance the story and thus win the game. As forms of entertainment go, they are not unlike movies and books, and unfortunately they are following a trend that has affected those industries as well.

The fact is that making games, like movies, is an expensive endeavor. Big titles involve whole teams of designers, musicians, voice actors, writers, and programmers, and take years to build. Investors understandably want an established, predictable market, and the trend in story-driven games has been to favor sequels and franchise titles over totally new content. Telltale Games is the consummate example of this, as one of the only “traditional” adventure game studios still making money. To my knowledge, they have never released an original adventure game, favoring instead to piggyback on popular franchises like Jurassic ParkHomestar RunnerSam & Max, and Back to the Future. (Their Puzzle Agentseries is an original franchise, but arguably more of a puzzle game than an adventure game.)

I think this trend is particularly hurtful when it comes to adventure games because it takes so much away from the process of exploration and discovery. Consider The Dig (1995), an original science fiction adventure game from LucasArts. 

You play a stranded astronaut on an uninhabited planet, forced to explore strange alien ruins in order to figure out what happened to an evidently advanced civilization. A large part of the magic of the game is not only exploring a world you know nothing about, but watching the characters evolve and change. You’ll never get that experience from a Back to the Future game. You know who Doc Brown is and who Marty is and what the basic premise of the universe is. There’s no sense of mystery or discovery there. Wouldn’t it be so much more delightful if you started out with no idea what the time machine was for or how to use it?

Hand-Drawn Animation & Diverse Art Direction

The games of the 90’s (largely) existed before the 3D revolution. They relied on hand-drawn graphics and animation, much like cartoons, and indeed enjoyed almost as much visual diversity as cartoons do. Each game could adopt a different style, from cartoony to painterly to sketchy. 

Unfortunately, once 3D technology became more and more available, it presented an irresistibly cheap alternative to hiring hordes of background artists and animators. And while it’s possible to maintain a distinctive visual style in a 3D universe (see WindwakerPsychonauts, or Okami), they still possess a certain homogeneity compared to the spectrum of adventure games in the 90s. 

Higher Difficulty Levels & More Involved Puzzles

This is actually a contentious point in the game industry in general, but everyone will admit that games were simply harder than they are now. When you couple this with the fact that online walkthroughs and hints were still generally unavailable, you had games where you could actually get stuck on a puzzle. Crazy, I know!

Game developers these days have discovered that being stuck is generally not super fun, and in a noble attempt to make video games more available to everyone have started to add built-in hint systems, adjustable difficulty levels, and at times just made puzzles easier. And it’s true, being stuck isn’t fun. But what is fun is spending a week trying every possible thing, exploring and re-exploring every corner of a game, discovering backstory and nuance you might have missed, and just generally enjoying a game more fully and for longer than you otherwise might. And when you do get past the puzzle, you feel like the god of video games. This was a time when you could actually brag about beating a game.

I will never forgot the complex, time-based and honestly hilarious puzzles in Day of the Tentacle (1993). Even at the time it was a brutally hard game, and totally worth it.

Fewer Movies, More Imagination

Games in the 90’s rarely had extensive movie cut scenes or voice acting. The game discs simply didn’t have room for big media files, not to mention the expense involved in producing them. The result is that playing a game from that era is a lot like reading a book; you imagine the characters’ voices, facial expressions, and movements, rather than having them explicitly shown to you.

Adventure games want to immerse you into the world of the story. Using your imagination to flesh out the game world is more work, but also far more immersive. You are no longer passively watching or listening as the story goes by. Instead, you’re shaping the world inside your own head, and it’s personal to you.

First-Class Single-Player Experience

Adventure games, though you may (and we often did) play them side-by-side with friends or family, are wholly single-player experiences. This is growing more and more rare in the world of games in general. Game studios want to exploit the potential of social pressure to drive sales, so almost every major title these days has a “scenario” mode or a “campaign” that gets to ride sidecar to multi-player gameplay.

When a game is designed for a solo player, the story comes first. Like a good book, it wants to keep you coming back throughout your relationship with the game. I still remember the weekend I played Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993) for the first time. I was riveted to my computer, desperate to solve the mystery and see what would happen next.

The relationship between the game designer and me was akin to the relationship between an author and a reader. The gameplay and the story had to work together to keep me coming back, to drive me forward to see what happened after the next turn of a page. When the single-player experience takes a back seat, so does this relationship and the compelling nature of the story.


It seems clear to me that money and marketing are the biggest forces behind why many of these qualities seem to be lacking in modern games. Games have become a big business, and I doubt we’ll ever see these trends reverse. However, independent game developers are doing amazing things and places like Kickstarter allow them to build reasonably large budgets for “risky” projects that established studios wouldn’t touch.

If you want to see adventure games thrive again, go support these developers! Buy licenses, donate money, contribute to Kickstarter campaigns, spread the word to your friends. Show the big businesses that little businesses can be rewarded for beautiful art, thoughtful gameplay and excellent writing. What more need be seen than the massive success of Braid?

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