Adventure game is a genre of games based around passively experiencing content, investigation, and discovery instead of testing the player's skill. This can take the form of asking the player to uncover hidden information, understand the complex plot, discover solutions to puzzles with unclear rules, or explore a vast and beautiful world.
While there are some early predecessors to the adventure game genre like Hunt the Wumpus, which asks the player to explore a cave system using text commands while carefully reading text descriptions, it is largely understood that the first adventure game was Colossal Cave Adventure released in 1976. The game featured most of the elements that we come to expect from modern adventure games, like exploring an interconnected world, focus on writing, finding and collecting items, and using said items to solve puzzles with intentionally obscure rules - which is in contrast to puzzle games like Braid or Tetris, where the rules themselves are clear, and the trick is in thinking several moves ahead.
Colossal Cave Adventure, also known as ADVENT, was wildly popular and resulted in a boom of other text adventure games like Zork. These text adventures are now called 'interactive fiction' - and despite modern advances in graphics, many people still write them as indie games to this day. One of the most notable companies making interactive fiction at the time was Infocom, which often cooperated with published book writers like Douglas Adams (who wrote the IF adaptation of his famous novel "Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy").
These early adventure games appear to be partially inspired by role-playing games, as they're usually set in a fantasy setting, and are based around the idea of an omniscient narrator describing the world to you, the player, and then asking you what do you do - in a manner similar to a Game Master in a tabletop RPG session.
Over time, as computer hardware improved, it became possible to display real colored graphics on a computer screen. Adventure game creators jumped at the opportunity and started adding graphics to their games. One of such creators was Roberta Williams, co-founder of On-Line Systems (later known as Sierra On-Line) - one of the first graphical adventures was Mystery House. While the graphics were sparse and consisted simply of vector illustrations of different rooms replacing typical text descriptions, her later games would go on to incorporate graphics to a larger degree, like in the classic game King's Quest. King's Quest is more similar to the adventure games we understand today, as the player moves a discrete character on-screen using keyboard. However, interacting with the objects in the world still occurs by typing in the commands.
This would soon change with increasing popularity of computer mice. This resulted in popularization of point'n'click interface in adventure games. One company that rose to prominence in that period was LucasArts, with games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sam and Max Hit The Road, Full Throttle and Secret of Monkey Island. Notably, LucasArts games had an interesting design philosophy based on two principles - you can't die, and you can't get stuck in an unwinnable situation (this is in contrast to Sierra games, where both of these happened often, encouraging players to keep many saved games). This design philosophy took the world of adventure games by storm, introducing the genre to many more casual players.
Seeming decline and evolution
Over time, popularity of the adventure games declined. This can be attributed to many factors - some claim it's because of the extremely hard and illogical puzzles; some claim it's because of rise of action-adventure games like Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider that provided many of the same thrills while being much more exciting to play; but one of the clearest explanations is that simply game market has expanded towards more casual audience. Both Sierra and LucasArts stopped creating adventure games, and in fact changed some of their old adventure game series into action games (LucasArts made two action-adventure Indiana Jones title, while Sierra turned Police Quest series into SWAT series of tactical first-person shooters.) In game development, the big money was in 3D action games, and big publishers simply didn't care about adventure games.
However, this is where the indie developers enter. Adventure games are relatively easy to make, as all you need are some sprites, some backgrounds, design some puzzles and write a story. As such, many indie developers have decided to make their own indie adventure games in the absence of big budget titles. In addition, some tools like Adventure Game Studio were released that sped up the process.
Eventually, from these smaller efforts, eventually emerged larger new trends in adventure game design that made the genre popular again.
We can't talk adventure games without mentioning a parallel evolution of adventure games occuring in Japan. In the 1980s, titles like Portopia Serial Case Murder tried to bring adventure games to a console, with simplified controls. As a result, the emergent genre of "visual novel" or "VN" focuses much more on story and dialogue, while puzzles and interactivity are secondary. Some visual novels - so called "kinetic novels" - do not have ANY interactivity in them at all, making some people wonder if they are better referred to as to video games - or as to digital comics. Notably, another subgenre of visual novels are 'dating sims' that attempt to simulate a relationship with a virtual person. These games are often erotic in nature, or contain sex scenes.
While the name was designed to be mocking and inelegant, it is now most commonly recognized descriptor of a subgenre of adventure games that feature little or no puzzles, and mostly involve player exploring a 3D world (usually in first person) and focus on story instead. One of the progenitors of the genre was a game called The Path - modern and dramatic reimagining of story of Red Riding Hood - and notable modern examples are The Journey, Stanley Parable, Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Tacoma and Beginner's Guide. Notably, this genre is 100% dominated by indie releases, and there appears to be no mainstream 'walking simulators' released by a major studio yet, as of time of writing this article.
Narrative driven adventure games
These games are focused entirely on a cinematic story that branches depending on player decisions. The subgenre was pioneered by Telltale Games "The Walking Dead", and since then many other developers have used a similar approach, for example creators of Life is Strange and Until Dawn. Other similar games like Oxenfree and Night in the Woods can also be considered at least somewhat inspired by this trend.
Detective adventure game
Inspired by early efforts from the 90s like Discworld Noir and Blade Runner, these games attempt to simulate actions of a detective through their mechanics. These should be distinguished from adventure games that are simply ABOUT detectives but play like any other point'n'click (like Post Mortem and Sherlock Holmes games) - we're talking about the mechanical approach to puzzle solving.
While the genre seems to be only slowly emerging today, by looking at many examples like Shivah, Blackwell series, Her Story, Fables: Wolf Among Us, Phoenix Wright (and it's indie doppleganger Fedora Spade) and Contradiction, we can see some characteristic shared elements that appear to be slowly emerging:
- .In-game search engine that allows you to look up suspicious words
- A witness interrogation (cross-examination) sequence that requires to you point out their lies
- An in-game notepad where character writes down various clues; they can often be combined to form deductions
- A scripted sequence at key points of the investigation that requires player to answer questions about clues they have just found, to ensure the player is on the same page as their detective avatar
Editors and creation tools
- Adventure Game Studio - a great tool to create classic point'n'click games
- Inform7 - tool to make traditional, parser-based interactive fiction using natural language (i.e. "There is a room called Smithy" is a valid piece of code in Inform7)
- Twine - tool to make modern-style interactive fiction games that are instead based on discrete choices and hyperlinks
- Unity - If you plan on making your own 'walking simulator' Unity is perfect for this - after all, all you really need are graphical assets for a 3D world (that you can buy, create or commission), some basic scripts for moving around (that you can buy or easily write using tutorials) and a story in your head.