Let’s get down to the definition business. “What is an adventure game?” is a question a lot of people dedicated to the genre try to answer at some point. Specialized websites and the genre’s fans (like yours truly) are the ones the most interested in coming up with a precise answer. Adventure game designers on the other hand… well, they are a bit more wary of not being stuck into a specific game-type box – it’s always better to stay flexible.

But this doesn’t mean the more strict and concrete definition ideas are a pointless exercise. In fact, the most often recurring definitions and requirements can be quite influential in a small niche like the adventure gamers/creators community. They can strongly influence how the genre is perceived by its newcomers, as well as give strong suggestions to developers about what the core audience expects from their adventure games. They can even be an important factor in the creation of trendy opinions like “the adventure genre is dead” or “the adventure genre is extremely conservative”. This article is my own attempt at giving a satisfactory (and hopefully innovation inspiring) definition of “adventure game”. It is meant as a voice in the discussions that keep going on over the Internet, rather than a quick explanation for someone who never played an adventure game before.

I. Discussions

The “definition” topic keeps being brought up in different ways – for example some time ago in the GameBoomers forums a discussion ensued where a lot of requirements for what should and shouldn’t be included in an adventure game got mentioned. Quite a few people are considering action gameplay elements and timed puzzles as going against the idea of what an adventure game is (it should be a game that allows you to fully relax?), others deem the player’s inventory, or interactive dialogs to be obligatory (as these are the game elements adventure game interactions are usually based upon).  Most notably, however, arguments and controversies arise around the question: “Is it the genre’s focus on elaborate storytelling, or the genre’s gameplay mechanics that are the defining feature of an adventure game?”. Or maybe both of these aspects are equally necessary? – hence the very well-known definition from AdventureGamers.com (story+exploration+puzzle-solving).

II. The Genre’s Attractions

It is true that what specific adventure games are most loved for is usually not their puzzles, but rather their stories and the exploration of atmospheric game worlds. Also, for turning away from frantic combat in favor of allowing the player to perform much more subtle interactions. While projecting your favorite aspects of something on its definition is perhaps a bit manipulative, it’s not necessarily wrong. Even in science, definition creators rarely stay completely neutral – the indefinitely perfected definition (and formula) of a polyhedron in mathematics springs to mind. Regardless of the neutrality issue though, a good definition should be first of all as useful and clear as possible. Now, good stories and exploration were never exclusive to the adventure game genre, and neither does every adventure game feature a proper story (unless you consider traveling between locations as being a kind of a story). For instance, the game which started the genre in the 70s – Adventure (aka Collosal Cave, aka ADVENT) – doesn’t really tell a story beyond reporting the player exploring the game’s setting. The famous Zork series that soon followed Colossal Cave also started out as an exploration/treasure hunting game. But with plenty of unexpected descriptions and events. And with puzzles.

III. The Puzzle

So I think the most important question here is: Are puzzles obligatory in an adventure game? Because maybe we could just ignore the 30 years old ADVENT, maybe adventure games have changed and become something else since. Well, it doesn’t seem like a idea with great prospects – the genre hasn’t changed that much. Would we allow adventure games to be just described as story-driven games that, for the most part, don’t feature any combat or action? This seems very feeble, not to mention generic – we are looking for a proper definition of a game genre, aren’t we? It’s the gameplay and game mechanics that are defining for the genre a game represents rather than anything else. And in the case of adventure games it is either solving puzzles… or nothing. And no-gameplay “game” is just that – an interactive story or an interactive movie, not an adventure game (still can be fun though).

So what is an adventure game type of puzzle? Can it be any kind of puzzle? In a way, yes. Pretty much every puzzle can be included in an adventure game and it will fit. However, it seems an adventure game should feature a decent number of puzzles that are unique for them – if not, they could be just as well be called puzzle games. So there must be some difference between the two classifications – for example, we have constant arguments about whether Myst is an adventure or a puzzle game. As I see it, puzzle games are recognized by the fact that their puzzles can be solved just through observation and application of logic, while adventure game puzzle solutions have something in them that causes people to curse them for being irrational and arbitrarily decided by a designer (even if there’s still an element of finding logical connections involved).

IV. The Definition

OK then, I think the time has come to put together my definition:

Adventure games are games that obey:

1. The following necessary condition

the player must have a place in the game – he must be put in some kind of a setting (be it a huge world, or a small room doesn’t matter) – and his in-game actions must relate and affect the elements of this setting somehow.

2. The following sufficient condition

– the dominating gameplay element is solving a special type of puzzles – puzzles which solutions are not based solely on conscious data analysis and step-by-step logic, but which key aspect is the player noticing/finding non-obvious and unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated game world elements.

V. Additional Notes

– the necessary condition of the definition prohibits calling “adventure games” games that are based solely on solving abstract riddles and which do not use any kind of location to connect the player to his in-game goals

– depending on the amount of other genre elements (e.g. action elements), a game which obeys the 2 condition can be either called a hybrid, or an adventure game with elements of other genres

Myst and Riven ARE  most certainly adventure games according to this definition – most of their puzzles involve interpreting the workings of strange alien worlds before getting to the purely logic-based part of solving them.

– in contrast to logic puzzles there’s no formula of creating a perfect (100% convincing) adventure game style puzzle unless you base the solution on common knowledge which means the puzzle stops really being a puzzle

– adventure game puzzles compared to pure logic puzzles are a source of endless obsessions and frustrations – they are often scoffed at for not being pure logical deduction type puzzles, or even called insane and ridiculous (Hello, Old Man Murray!), nevertheless at least 50% of the puzzles in the recent indie marvel called Braid are adventure game type puzzles and no one did complain (too much).