Adventure Games: Are They Really Adventures?

Adventure Games: Are They Really Adventures?

Can you tell me what Day of the Tentacle, Heavy Rain, Minecraft,  and The Cave  all have in common? Neither can I, but they apparently all share a genre. Join me as I speculate on what, exactly, an adventure game entails.

Where am I Going, and How Do I Get There?

The dictionary definition of adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” Unfortunately, this definition includes every video game that has ever been made. So, when a game labels itself as an adventure, what is it actually saying? Or, is it really saying nothing at all?

If every game can be called an adventure, then what business does any game have in acting like it’s a separate type of game?

When a person thinks of adventures, they think of strange, foreign locales, backpacking through unknown wilds, and experiencing different cultures. An adventure is the act of experiencing what life is like outside your comfort zone. If you live in North America and you go visit Africa, you’re on an adventure. If you live in Africa and you take a trip around Africa, you probably aren’t on as much of an adventure as you could be if visiting North America.

When every game already involves going to new places and seeing new things, then what does a game have to do to be considered an adventure above and beyond the norm? Is it simply a matter of scope, or are there specific things a game needs to qualify as part of the genre?

Going Somewhere?

Granted, any game can have an adventure in it, or even several adventures if they’re feeling… adventurous. The beauty of games, and indeed all art, is that they don’t have to be any one thing. A puzzle/platformer can also be an adventure game. But, since all games could be called an adventure by definition, wouldn’t they have to actually focus on the adventure part before they could say they’re in that genre?

If you’re in a strange world, and going through that world involves platforming and puzzle-solving, but no goal is given beyond experiencing the world itself, then perhaps that could be called a puzzle/platform/adventure game. But if you’re there to find, to use a random example, the Orb of Omnipotence, and once you find it the story’s over and you’re going back home, I don’t think the game could say you’re actually there for the adventure. You’re there for the Orb, and if it wasn’t in another world you wouldn’t be having an adventure at all.

It’s all about goals, really, and what the game is trying to convey. Is the game trying to tell a story? What is the story about? If we’re talking about kings, queens, and political subterfuge here, then it doesn’t really matter where the story is happening. If the story is about a long forgotten kingdom that we experience by digging through what few ruins it left behind, then by golly we’re on an adventure. The purpose of an adventure game ought, of course, to be the adventure itself.

It’s a Long Way Down

Let’s take a look at the quintessential acid trip adventure story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  A young girl, enjoying a perfectly normal day, makes an impulsive decision to follow an impossible rabbit and finds herself lost in a nonsensical world. There’s no real plot to the story beyond Alice being in a weird place where weird things happen, and it ends when she wakes up from what turns out to have all been a dream. At its core, the story is only about the adventure itself; she isn’t saving the world, she isn’t solving any puzzles or unearthing ancient riddles, and there’s no tangible goal beyond Alice being in Wonderland.

If a game’s only listed genre is adventure, then by all rights it should only be about the adventure, shouldn’t it? An adventure story is about where you are, not what you’re doing. Defeating the evil tyrant, saving the princess, all that might happen during an adventure, but those themselves are called quests. A knight goes on an adventure to undertake a quest: he visits a distant land (adventure) to accomplish a task (quest).

If the adventure ends after finishing the quest, then the goal of the game was only ever about the quest, now wasn’t it? That knight sure as heck wasn’t there to document new species in the nearby forest.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

It seems to me that a lot of games calling themselves adventures these days are, in actual fact, suffering more from a lack of focus that keeps them from fitting under any one genre. And, since all games can technically be called adventures by the dictionary definition, they label themselves as such because they themselves lack any real identity. Just as a game with stealth in it isn’t necessarily a stealth game, or how a game with RPG elements won’t always be a role-playing game, and a game that may be scary can’t always call itself horror, so too does a game that have adventure not always qualify as an adventure game.

If all games are calling themselves adventures, then what does the genre really mean? What kind of gameplay can I expect when I buy an adventure game? What separates Heavy Rain from Minecraft?

Ultimately, the question to ask is why. Why am I in this strange place? If the answer is to be in a strange place, then I’d call it an adventure game. If the answer is anything other than that, then the adventure is secondary to the game’s true narrative, and it’s not really an adventure game.


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9 comments on “Adventure Games: Are They Really Adventures?”

  1. Avatar EldritchImagination says:

    You are just on a roll aren’t you. As for my definition of an adventure game. Any game that has a primary focus on putting the player on a journey, not so much in the sense of traveling, but in the form of a story involving a series of events. To go on a quest, or take a trip, or engage in an investigation. To me, an adventure is anything between going on a kid’s game quest from one side of the backyard to another, to a space smugglers journey across the cosmos, transporting an exiled prince and a very illegally exotic beast in the cargo hold. The point of an adventure game is to wrap you into a story, not just passively view/read it, but actively engage in it, be a part of it as the events occur. Admittedly, this , as you say, encompasses a LOT of games, but that’s probably why the action-adventure genre title is so common. So many games nowadays offer a story now, where back when games were young, only a few titles had plot heavy narratives with player driven events, rather than simple action games whose whole point was to get a high score, and had no real story as a driving force to your actions in the game.

    Going back to your definition of Adventure, “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”, I find that definition quite reductive, even by real life standards. I could go into my kitchen right now and cut my hand off with a knife while watching it bleed all over the place, and that would perfectly meet the standards of that definition of an "adventure", but I doubt anyone would consider it as such, even though it’d certainly be exciting, unusual, hazardous, and quite the experience. Rather, I believe for something to be an adventure, it has to be a journey of life, again, a series of events you live through and would tell stories about, no matter how mundane or extraordinary.

    Also, to answer your question, what’s the difference between Heavy Rain and Minecraft, I’d say that Heavy Rain is an Adventure game, while Minecraft is an Exploration game. Heavy Rain is the story of a man and his journey to get his children back, a dramatic adventure if you will, while Minecraft has little in terms of story beyond what you do in the world, and has a far greater focus on as you put it exploring a new and exotic locations, hence why I’d consider it more an exploration game then a adventure game.

  2. Avatar qeter says:

    Going in to your article I would define an adventure game as being an rpg. You make a good point on the difference between an adventure and a quest. As it stands you’re proposed adventure genre doesn’t really exist though i would be interested to see such a genre grow.

    would you consider dark souls one an adventure game or an rpg, dks2, 3?

  3. Avatar TSMP says:

    Going by the definition I proposed, very few games would actually be considered adventures. For the most part, it’d be what we otherwise know as survival games, with a few odds and ends from the other genres that emphasize the world over the plot (I guess a few "walking simulators" would count, too). The Elder Scrolls, I think, would be a great example of a series that combines full adventure with full RPG, having both story and world without sacrificing either.

    As much as Dark Souls is a joy to explore, I wouldn’t call them adventure games. Sure, the actual plot is practically nonexistent, but as deep as the lore goes it’s still secondary to the point of the game. At the end of it all, you’re still trying to beat the bosses and reach the first flame, at which point the game resets and you do it again.

  4. Avatar TSMP says:

    An adventure… in the sense of broadening your horizons. Makes sense.

    I can see that. If we’re distinguishing adventure from exploration, I’d have to agree with you. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be conflating adventure and exploration in the first place.

    Edit: I suppose I’m looking at it more from a gameplay perspective. What kind of gameplay do all shooters have in common? What kind of gameplay do all platformers have in common? If this doesn’t apply to the adventure genre, then the argument is that adventure isn’t itself a genre. Especially not if the term can be used to describe every modern game.

    That’s a good point about it not applying to a lot of older games, though.

  5. Avatar EldritchImagination says:

    I actually see the adventure game not as a gameplay genre, but a genre that defines what the point of the gameplay is. Think about point and click adventure games, what’s the gameplay for them. Puzzles, logic puzzles (though often illogical puzzles for old adventure games) which basically involve clicking to one place, clicking on items, and putting items on things. Not much to it from a mechanical perspective, but think about the point of it all. Again going back to classic gaming (back when genres were first being defined), the point of these games, separate from arcade and most console games, was to progress through a story.

    Everything you did was for the purpose of continuing the story, each action not just for the sake of gameplay, but a significant plot point marking your progress in the narrative as the character of the game. The story is the journey of the character, not a matter of location or actual travel, but through the events that bring the game to life and give the game purpose and context, and the player a reason to play beyond the just the gameplay. It puts the player into the game world, and makes the experience not just about the player playing the game, but also about the character and their purpose in the game, why they do what they do, and how the player engages with the story and game world through the character.

    On the other side, you had arcade games whose sole purpose for your actions in the game was just to play the game, to score points, or if there was an end to it, complete the game. The story, if there was any, served merely as a mild, barely existent background for things going on, and once the gameplay started, fell out of existence entirely until the end. Here the experience is little beyond player playing game, with the character just an avatar, and the point of it all…..to play the game.

    However, as time has gone on, as game development has become more refined and technological limitations have expanded, many games today can have equal parts gameplay AND story, with the story being a driving force behind your actions rather than a barely there setup to the game, hence why sooooo many game can be classified as adventure games to some extent.

    This is at least how I see the Adventure game genre. It’s a genre defined not by gameplay or setting, but by what the game is about, what’s the point, why am I playing.

    Also, As Qeter said, this all sounds a lot like an RPG, and I agree. I think one of the core aspects of an RPG is adventure. an RPG needs purpose in the game beyond just playing the gameplay, a story, a point of your character’s existence in the game world separate from the player’s reason to play the game.

  6. Avatar TSMP says:

    This brings us back to the original question, though: if adventure as a genre can’t be used to classify a distinct type of game anymore (which is the whole point of a genre), then does it really have any business being a genre? What do Day of the Tentacle, Heavy Rain, Minecraft, and The Cave have in common, and what separates them from other games that aren’t part of the adventure genre? What even defines the adventure genre anymore?

    RPGs and adventure do go hand-in-hand, all the way back to ye olde tabletop games. But if RPG and adventure are supposed to be separate genres, then where do we draw the line between them? If we already know what defines an RPG, and we separate that from an adventure, then in order to be a distinct genre, a pure, non-RPG adventure game would have to have none of the traits that makes an RPG. If an RPG is defined by the player playing a role in a story, then in order to not be another word for RPG, a purely adventure game would have to have nothing to do with that.

    This problem only exists if we treat adventure as an actual genre instead of as a meaningless term, of course.

  7. Avatar EldritchImagination says:

    Well, i guess it’s the same problem people have with the Action genre, and the RPG genre (though I don’t really want to open up that can o’ worms lest it attract pirates). I guess, like action games, given its broad definition, I’d say the best course would be to invent subgenres of adventure, defining the differences in the way the adventures play out, how they operate, how they involve the characters and players, and how it all relates to gameplay and how the gameplay affects the adventure.

    I’d say Telltales recent games are a good start. Adventure games which focus on player choices that determine what paths the adventure takes. Choose you’re own adventure genre (a play on the choose your own story genre for books). Of course you have point and clicks, basically synonymous with, "like old Lucus arts games", which focus on story and narrative based adventures with point and click gameplay to guide it and progress, typically with some form of puzzles and navigation.

    Can’t forget games like Uncharted and the Order 1886. Extremely linear game design complete with a large amount of event set pieces, limited player choice, with the player serving only as the controller of gameplay. I would consider them….what else, cinima games, cause they’re basically movies with game mixed in, not to say that’s a bad thing. This is of course not to be confused with "cinimatic games, which is defined more by graphics and visual design, at least to my understanding of it.

    Games like Journey already have a genre title, Walking simulators, games where gameplay is about simple navigation to drive the story and adventure forward.

    I’m kind of just throwing ideas out. Really, it’s up to the masses to define genres. But yeah, more detailed definitions of genres would be helpful and give more significance to genre titles. As games become more diverse and complex, and as new kinds of games are made, so too should our means of categorizing. While the Adventure genre, like Action, is extremely common, it is not universal among games, either old or new, so it still has value, if just as a very general category of genres. I think there should be arch-genres, genres that define a simple core nature that links many, more specific genres. Genres like Action, adventure, and puzzle/strategy would serve as general arch-genres, which then lead to more specific genres like shooter, platformer, and point-and-click, which then lead to even more specific like side scrolling platformer, top down or first person shooter, and whatever the hell Battleborn was.

  8. Avatar TSMP says:

    Or, if the story is such an integral part of games now, maybe have two separate genre classifications for gameplay and story? For example, the gameplay could be platformer and the setting/story is fantasy. Games that don’t have a story wouldn’t need a genre for that, of course.

    If adventure has nothing to do with gameplay and everything to do with story, then…

  9. Avatar EldritchImagination says:

    Yeah, I thought about that. Probably a better idea, though I think when it comes to games like Telltales series and Journey, where the story and gameplay are intertwined, that’s were the adventure kind of fits both story and gameplay genre, cause in those cases, the gameplay kind of IS the story.

    But yeah, when listing what genre qualities a game possess, having separate categories for gameplay style/mechanics/elements and the story/setting/themes would probably make games easier to identify and organize. It gets kind of messy when looking for games of a certain nature as it is.


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