1993 was a great year for adventure/puzzle games. In one corner we had Return to Zork, the latest entry in a long and well-respected franchise. Then there was Myst, whose graphics were insanely impressive for the time (and still gorgeous by any metric). In the last corner was The 7th Guest, a pioneer in the use of full-motion video.

I should clarify that I didn't really play these games when they first came out. I was seven at the time, and used the games as an opportunity to hang out with Dad. We enjoyed the scenery together (except for 7th Guest cutscenes, for which I was shooed out of the room until Dad had vetted them). I will defend myself with this one point: Dad got stuck on Boos puzzle for quite some time, and I was the one who figured out how to beat it. This even without recognizing the joke the wizard makes when you first encounter him--the vocabulary went right over my head.

We also spent some time discussing what made these games distinctive. Though they're all in the same genre, and even share the distinction of pushing 1993's technical envelope, their styles are very different.

Return to Zork's distinction was that it tried very, very hard to translate the articulate flexibility of a text adventure into graphics. The graphics themselves were somewhat blockier than Myst's or 7th Guest's, because they spent their efforts on two big things:

  1. A vast variety of objects to be picked up, used, and destroyed in as many ways as they could think of. They preserved the traditional Zork challenge of letting the player get the game into an unwinnable state, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to destroy a critical object by using it in the wrong way. This meant that, as with text games, they not only had to think up the true purpose of several dozen items, plus standard "you can't do that with this object" messages, but also a wide variety of wrong ways to use, combine, or destroy those objects.
  2. An extensive cast of characters, including a lot of famous TV actors, and an interesting variant on the "dialogue tree" concept that has become such a staple. While talking with a character, you can click on various faces showing different emotions to indicate your reactions, which influences what they say next. Once the conversation is over (and you can generally start it over again to use different moods and get different information) you can "ask them about" anything in your inventory or map, or anything you've taken a picture or sound recording of. Though many, many object+character pairings produce no response, it's still another layer of complexity--and each character has their own response even when an object is irrelevant to them.

All in all, they did a very good job of it, but this style of game was on the way out; the unforgiving difficulty did well with the by-nerds-for-nerds crowd, but not with the masses.

Myst was one of the first games to be largely carried by its graphics. Exploring the world, for the sake of seeing it, constitutes most of its appeal. The puzzles are all worked into the environment: each one gives this impression that this is just a normal machine to whoever lives (or lived) here, and the only reason it's "puzzling" to the player is because no one bothered to leave the instruction manual behind. There is no death in Myst until the very end, and no unwinnable state at all: if the player makes a fatal mistake, Game Over is triggered immediately. Dad took great notice of this back then, because it was so different from how Zork operated. (Later Zork games would use this "no unwinnable states" principle even when they preserved the ability to die at almost every step. Zork Grand Inquisitor was especially good at this.)

As far as gameplay goes, The 7th Guest's style earned it some criticism. Its puzzles and story are essentially divorced. The puzzles are generally worked into their environment in an aesthetic sense (like the cake puzzle in the dining room--where else would you put a cake?) but aside from that there's no reason why solving any particular sort of puzzle should advance the plot. It represents the genre of classic puzzles made digital, where the computer can automate things like taking threatened queens back off the chessboard and cycling through sliding-block puzzle configurations. Add horror-story icing, done.

Adventure games in later years seem to have become a mixture of the Myst and Zork paradigms: a few objects to take and characters to talk to, but no unwinnable states, and often less opportunity for sudden death unless the story calls for it (The Walking Dead) or they can play it for self-parodying laughs (Zork Grand Inquisitor). In hindsight, Return to Zork's dialogue system has a surprising aspect in common with the one in The Walking Dead--not because Zork's dialogue options present any great opportunity to influence the story, but because they must be selected in real-time. Time-sensitive action was almost unheard-of in text-based adventure games (aside from Border Zone) and this was an early step in a direction that would revive the genre later on.

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