“The resistance of a ludic architecture”

Some notes on Jonathan Lessard’s ‘Formal History of Adventure Games’

In an attempt to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to games writing, I’m trying to read more in foreign languages. I’ve started by very quickly and roughly working through the PhD thesis of adventure game developer Jonathan Lessard, who completed his study into the history of adventure games at the University of Montreal last summer. What follows are some notes based on that quick read.

What historical factors contribute to the appearance, institution and transformation of a genre? This is the main question that Lessard investigates through a study of games press writing from North America in the years 1976-1999. This is the kind of study I’m 100% down with — looking at games culture by analysing primary source materials with a historical eye. It’s a really nice exploration of the relationship between culture and technology.

“The generic identity of the adventure game is based on a videoludic experience” explains Lessard, “that is relatively constant despite important variations in forms”. It is this interest in changing ‘forms’ that leads to the title ‘A formal history’. For Lessard, ‘form’ is how a system materialises to suit the platform of the day. This history of formal modifications is the focus of the thesis, broken down into four movements:

  1. The narrative turn (early 1980s)
  2. The graphical turn (also early 1980s, parallel to the narrative turn)
  3. The ergonomic turn (late 1980s, refers to point and click interface)
  4. The multimedia turn (1990s, CD-ROM and introduction of cinematic sequences)

How does the adventure game maintain a generic identity despite these remarkable modifications in how the game looks and feels? In his conclusion, Lessard offers an explanation grounded in broader historical changes in how people related to information technology in the home:

  1. Players expected these modifications to happen, because they were in line (solidaire) with modifications in personal computing. Graphical interface and the introduction of the mouse are particularly important here. Game software was not changing in a way that was out of line with software in general.
  2. As domestic information technologies exploded, the public enlarged existing categories in order to accommodate new objects. New adventure games were recognised as something familiar in a new form.

Players and developers know an adventure game when they experience it, “because of the familiarity of its systems, regardless of the modalities of representation and interaction”. Through his study, Lessard identifies some parameters that seem common to most contemporary writers’ understanding of what makes an adventure game:

  1. Exploration of a fictional world through a player-character
  2. ‘ Découpage ’ of a space into discrete places
  3. Progression toward an ideal narrative conclusion by solving predetermined problems
  4. Player-dictated pacing

As the adventure game was reformulated in line with changes in domestic information technologies, what came under scrutiny by detractors was not whether the new forms belonged to the genre of adventure games, but rather, what the new innovations were really adding to the experience. Contemporary writers asked: why were graphics a necessary addition? What was the value of cinematic sequences?

“In contrast”, argues Lessard, “the generic status of game became uncertain, as these same [innovations] significantly upset this experience. So ‘adventures’ based in numerical models […] became ‘role playing games’. Those concentrating on real-time interactions and requiring good reflexes, ‘action/adventure’.”

What makes an adventure game a stable category, regardless of whether it’s made up entirely of text or full 3D environments? The same thing that makes a telephone call the same regardless of whether it’s on an old Bakelite rotary phone or an iPhone 5S, says Lessard. They serve the same functions, and are facilitated by an assortment of similar elements: in the case of the phone call, the microphone, speaker etc. The phone call and the adventure game do not require a presupposed essence in order to be generically stable: only the repetition of a set formula.

How can we explain the historical forms taken by the adventure game as it changed over time? “Formal evolution is a product of a negotiation” says Lessard “between the developers’ drive to innovate and adapt, and the resistance of the ludic architecture of the adventure game as an established functional recipe.”

This drive to innovate and adapt was in part a product of the evolution of domestic information technology. Specifically, it was games’ means of distribution “superposing itself” into the “commercial chain of computing” — the rapid obsolescemce of machines was transferred onto a rapid obsolescence of games themselves. Developers wanted to create the showcase game for the new platform. In this respect, it was commercial pressures that drove the reproduction of old formulas into new forms. “The technology explains very little,” says Lessard.

Another significant factor was the perceived demographics of players. At first, there was a perception that adventure game players were an “intellectual elite” that “aspires to a more literary entertainment”. As information technology spread, more and more of the public was assimilated into gaming, bringing with them a different set of ‘informatic experiences’. With the graphical turn, adventure games’ referent shifted from literature to film, and developers shifted “from aspiring authors to aspiring producers”.

Despite the attempt during the “multimedia turn” to get over adventure games’ “cinema envy”, with some developers becoming more interested in making virtual worlds, it seems in Lessard’s story that the stagnation for adventure games at the end of the 1990s was caused by the limitations created when using literature or cinema as a referent when dealing with real-time 3D worlds and networked gaming. This is a moment in gaming history that deserves more attention: how far is this about technology, and how far is it about commercial pressures? Lessard points out that the audience for adventure games didn’t shrink, it’s just that development budgets soared as games went 3D. But additionally, he concedes that as games went 3D and online, something had to give from the adventure game formula: be it the end of the spatial découpage into ‘rooms’, or the end of player-dictated pacing to accommodate realtime interactions.

By identifying in contemporary games writing a set of parameters common to most peoples’ understanding of what makes an adventure game, Lessard gives us a very valuable tool. With it, we might see that perhaps the adventure game didn’t stagnate at all — it just became unstable, and dissolved into role-playing and action games. The resistance of the ludic architecture gave way, the components coming together into new structures — albeit temporarily, until a change in commercial conditions allowed adventure games to continue evolving.