While the title might imply a focus on The 7th Guest, this article is actually more of an arial perspective on the history of the adventure game genre, and how it evolved upon and alongside technology – leading to The 7th Guest pioneering the FMV adventure genre, a genre that not only would try and keep adventure games on top and alive but also ended up creating a rift that divided adventure game fans
The adventure game genre has been constantly evolving over the last 40 years – From the very earliest text-only games, that would fit in 4Kb of memory to the multimillion-dollar budget titles of the mid-to-late ’90s.
Usually the evolvement would result in positive additions to the genre, with games taken advantage of the advance in computer technologies, utilizing new and better hardware – the games got bigger and they looked and sounded better than ever, but for a short period of time in the ’90s something happened, something that was initially very successful but would end up dividing lovers of the genre.
While action games were on everybody’s lips in the mid-to-late ’70s with arcade games and video home consoles being accessible and widely popular, there was no such thing as computer adventure games for people without access to the huge mainframe systems of the time.
We regard the origin of the computer adventure game (and the RPG) back to 1976 with Will Crowther’s PDP-10 mainframe game Colossal Cave Adventure, a game that ended up spreading like a wildfire throughout mainframes. Colossal Cave was improved upon and ported to other systems in the coming years but it stayed in the realm of the mainframes.
The earliest microcomputers didn’t have the capabilities to encompass the fairly large amount of data adventure games required. This would change with the second generation of personal computers, computers like the Apple II and TRS-80 would finally make it possible for the average home computer user to enjoy adventure games.
The very first microcomputer adventure game was developed by Scott Adams in 1978, with his title Adventureland, a somewhat scaled-down version of Colossal Cave. Adventureland’s success led Adams, in 1979, to establish Adventure International, with his wife Alexis.
Adventure International was the first game company primarily focusing on adventure games (the also published a few action titles later on).
While many had tried to make the whole of Colossal Cave available as a single microcomputer game, all had proven unsuccessful. Microsoft would be the first to accomplish this, by utilizing the very expensive add-on floppy drive for the TRS-80. Microsoft Adventure, released in 1979, would also be Microsoft’s first game and the first product from their newly established Microsoft Consumer Division.
Microsoft Adventure, the first full version of Colossal Cave Adventure to be released for any home computer. published by Microsoft’s new Consumer Division in 1979
All Adventure games up on till 1980 were solely text games, but this would change with On-Line Systems’ (later Sierra On-Line) Mystery House, created by husband and wife, Ken and Roberta Williams. Mystery House would become the very first adventure game to feature graphics, while crude by today’s standard, it was a huge leap forward for the genre. Action games and RPG’s had been using graphics for a couple of years, but the many locations and relatively complex settings throughout adventure games quickly filled the limited storage and memory of the early computers. Ken’s approach was not to store the images digitally but rather as a set of instructions instead and from them let the computer draw the images as needed. With this technique, he made it possible for Mystery House to have numerous drawn screens and still be able to put all of the data on a single 5.25″ floppy.
Mystery House, released in 1980 by On-Line Systems.
The first adventure game to feature graphics
Mystery House was greatly inspired by Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians, but still showcased Roberta’s imaginative mind and great storytelling skills, skills that later would rise to new heights with her King’s Quest series. Mystery House became an instant hit and not only spawned Sierra’s Hi-Res Adventure series, but also laid the groundwork for what would become the largest game company in the world.
Castles of Darkness from 1981, by The Logical Choice, would improve on the formula by adding animation to the protagonist, making it the first animated graphic adventure. Castles of Darkness was the brainchild of Robert J. Cashen and was The Logical Choice’s only published title, only a few thousand copies are believed to have been sold, making it’s mostly unknown today.
Castles of Darkness, from 1981, published by The Logical Choice. The first adventure game to feature animations.
Given its relatively low numbers of sales, the title is mostly unknown today and considered very rare
The next and probably single most important step in advancement in the genre was in 1984 when Silicon Beach’s Enchanted Scepters was released for the new Macintosh computer, utilizing its mouse as a control input instead of the text-based input the earlier parser driven games had been using. With Enchanted Scepters, the point and click adventure were born, and by losing the text-parser, adventure games became more enjoyable, the player no longer had to do tedious syntax-guessing (guessing what the creator wanted you to write to get things done).
Enchanted Scepters, released in 1984 by Silicon Beach Software, is considered to be the very first point and click adventure game
While the point and click adventure wouldn’t become mainstream and widely used (by any means) until years later, the mean-time both the text-only and the graphic adventures still were sparkling people’s imagination. Text-only’s from Infocom were incredibly popular by not only “gamers” but also by “non-gamers” who were fans of the fiction genre.
The latter part of the ’80 was prominently dominated by mighty Sierra On-Line with their graphical text-parser driven King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, and Police Quest series of games.
On the left:
The original 1984 King’s Quest for the IBM PCjr, to showcase its capabilities, while the PCjr wasn’t successful the same couldn’t be said about King’s Quest, which ended up being Sierra’s best-selling franchise, spawning 7 sequels and millions of copies sold.
On the right:
The very first chapter in the Space Quest saga.
The space comedy adventure, with its very much unenthusiastic janitor protagonist, Roger Wilco, quickly became a fan favorite.
The series ran for almost a decade, from 1986 to 1995, with Space Quest VI being the last in the series:(
In 1986 the small games division from Lucasfilm, Lucasfilm Games, made an entrance with its adventure game Labyrinth, based on Jim Henson’s fantasy movie of the same name. Labyrinth became critically acclaimed and commercially successful in the genre. The game’s technology and mechanics influenced Lucasfilm Games’ next title, Maniac Mansion, for which Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine was developed and used, an engine that would see continually use in most of the company’s coming titles. While Labyrinth didn’t use a text-parser, it wasn’t point and click, instead, it used a word wheel, from which you could choose your actions.
Gilbert’s SCUMM engine would show incredible versatile both in production and in the interface in which the player interacted with the game, Lucasfilm Games would also eliminate for the player to die, unlike adventures from Sierra that were notorious for literally killing you on every screen, couple that with dead-ends and the experience could quickly become cumbersome.
A string of nearly perfect adventure games would the coming years be developed by Lucasfilm – with games like Loom, Indiana Jones and Monkey Island the Golden Era of Adventure Games was about to begin.
A string of near-perfect adventures, from Lucasfilm Games. Titles that would kick off the Golden Era in Adventure Games.
With humor, top-notch storytelling, beautiful graphics, and enjoyable gameplay these titles paved the way for how almost all future adventure games would be.
Both Indiana Jones, Maniac Mansion, and Monkey Island saw sequels in the first half of the ’90s, titles that are widely regarded as the best adventure games ever made.
Sierra would continue on its proven formula, releasing some of its very best adventure titles in the first part of the ’90s. All the Quest series saw new sequels and new titles like Freddy Pharkas and Gabriel Knight were added to the portfolio.
Sierra titles from my sealed Sierra collection. The very early ’90s started out absolutely fantastic for the adventure game fan. Sierra stuck to its formula and produced some extremely fine titles and best of all, they all left the text-parser behind, finally the big franchises like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry where point and click.
True to both parties were that no new huge leap was being created in the genre and on the horizon, dark clouds were gathering.
The technology wasn’t at stale and with that came new genres and new games, games like Wolfenstein and Doom, that would end up taking the gaming world by storm. Adventure games had to invent the next big thing or risking, slowly becoming a niche genre.
A new technology adventure games would start utilizing in the early ’90s was the CD-ROM media, with its larger than life capacity, it proved perfect for spoken dialogues. Many titles of the early ’90s saw re-releases on CD-ROM, often referred to as ‘Talkies“.
The concept of putting games on CD-ROM was relatively new. The Manhole, Cyan Productions‘ first game, was published by Activision on floppies in 1988, but with a few forward-looking people at Activision, the game was re-released a year later, as the worlds first home computer game released on CD-ROM.
The Manhole, developed by Cyan and published by Activision, was the very first home computer game to be released on CD-ROM, Here’s the original 1988 floppy disk release
Another company that early on would see the potential in the CD-ROM media was Trilobyte, a company founded in 1990 by game designer Graeme Devine and artist Rob Landeros, Together, they would design the original concept of a new puzzle game they would call The 7th Guest.
The 7th Guest, a full-motion video pioneer
The 7th Guest would feature beautiful rendered 3D backgrounds, but unlike other games of the time, would use live-action sequences of actors, superimposed on top of the 3D backdrops. The Full Motion Video (FMV) approach was not new per se, it had been used earlier in arcade games, most known is probably Dragon’s Lair, from 1984, which used a LaserDisc to store the data. While the LaserDisc proved to be relatively expensive (both the media and the player) and prone to damage, given its big size and heavyweight, the technologies and concepts behind it were the foundation for later optical disc formats including the CD and CD-ROM.
My two sealed but different releases of The 7th Guest, the game was also ported to the Macintosh computer and the Philips CD-I
With the use of full-motion video, a whole new set of challenges arose, not only was the video technology on home computers still in its infancy, making the computer requirements for players to be able to enjoy the full experience pretty extensive but also a complete change in the production pipeline, hiring directors, actors, setting up sets with lighting, etc.. would prove to be a challenge. The 7th Guest’s live-action was shot on a blue screen and chromakeyed out in postproduction, this early technology left a clearly blue fringe around the actors, with the material shot in relatively low resolution it was almost impossible to completely eliminate – and was therefore left as a “feature” in the game.
Trilobyte would end up spending well over half a million dollars on the development, a substantial number back in those days. Luckily, Virgin Interactive Entertainment, who was going to publish it, had from the very beginning seen the potential and had aided with financial support.
When released in 1993, it was the first adventure game to be in “high” resolution graphics (640×320 in 256 colors) and it would span across two CDs.
Sales figures skyrocketed, selling around 450.000 copies in the first year alone. The next couple of years sales didn’t decrease and by 1995 The 7th Guest had sold over 1.5 million copies, outselling even Myst.
The 7th guest is considered one of the first, if not the first, real FMV adventure game for the home computer. While there had been earlier games featuring footage of real actors, these were all digitized and used purely as 2D sprites, the FMV, as the name implies used the live-action video material directly in the game.
The 7th Guest was a pioneering title in the adventure game genre, utilizing and pushing the multimedia technology forward, accelerating the sales of CD-ROM drives, and leaving players hungering for more of the same.
Trilobyte would release The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest in 1995. The game got mixed reviews, stating it was nothing more than a more complex version of its predecessor, nonetheless, the game became commercially successful.
Sierra On-Line, the king of the genre, would take note and publish their own first FMV game, Phantasmagoria in 1995. Ken Williams the co-founder of Sierra had from very early on always seen adventure games as interactive movies, and with Phantasmagoria nothing could be more true. Sierra hired a real film director to work with writer Roberta Williams, together, they would collaborate, getting the best from both a film making and game design perspective. Production ended up being extremely complex and elaborate, and when the game finally hit the shelves it had cost a staggering $4.5 million to produce.
Phantasmagoria quickly became the best-selling game in the United States and was Sierra’s best-selling computer game to date. It grossed $12.000.000 and sold 300.000 units during its first weekend of release. It turned a red 1994 to a black 1995, with Sierra posting a profit of $3.26 million.
Due to its development delays, Phantasmagoria was released after other new FMV titles like Wing Commander III and Under a Killing Moon, so it didn’t receive as much credit for heralding the genre as other titles did.
Sierra would keep producing FMV adventures throughout the nineties, some more successful than others.
With the initial success of the first FMV adventure games, one might think that the adventure genre was saved from being left behind by technology and other genres but in reality, it was slowly moving towards a niche market – FMV’s or not – the majority of players simply wanted other genres, genres like the FPS and the MMORPG.
The late ’90s would see the release of numerous FMV adventure games, but most often these failed miserably with lackluster performances from actors and budgets too low to facilitate the requirements of putting Hollywood in a game, adding that with the fact that many titles wanted to utilize new technologies and in the process completely forgot all about gameplay.
FMV ended up really dividing lovers of the adventure game genre, still to this day it can cause heated debates.
I widely regard most FMV adventures as really bad interactive b-movies, but I still love the games that pioneered the genre, The 7th Guest, Phantasmagoria, The Beast Within – A Gabriel Knight Mystery, all are fantastic games and can still be very much enjoyed today.
On the left:
Phantasmagoria, released in 1995, Sierra’s first FMV adventure title.
On the right:
The Beast Within, the 2nd title in Jane Jensens Gabriel Knight saga, released later in 1995 – The Beast Within is considered by many as the all times best FMV adventure game
While the adventure genre didn’t completely die out, it became very much a niche genre and was for many years very much overshadowed by other genres. Luckily it did see a “second” rising during the 2010s with the episodic adventures from Telltale Game and with many new titles being “Kickstarted”, catering not only to the old school lovers of the genre but also to a new generation of players.