Jane Jensen's love letter to Sierra
This article by Jane Jensen was published on October 4, 1999, by The Adrenaline Vault.
A Love Letter
From: The last dinosaur on the block
Let us be frank. Times are changing. Ever since that meteor, a.k.a. Doom, hit, we have all been a little the worse for wear. You, dear Sirs, have managed to procure a meteor of your own, a.k.a. Half-Life, and are thus guaranteed continuance and good health on into the twenty-first century. For this, I salute you, even though "you" are not the "you" to whom I really owe this letter. For that matter, "I" am not myself either, but let's not quibble the fine points.
"Sierra" and "Infocom", the "Rome" and "Athens" of adventure games, ah, how little we knew thee! Waiting for those slim boxes with floppy disks, manuals full of clever repartee, we thought we'd have you forever. We could not know that millions of mall-happy arcade players and Nintendo-addicted five-year-olds were hurdling through space and time to invade the PC industry as soon as Intel (oh, sure) made a chip fast enough to make scrolling platform games possible. Oh, but we were naïve! Eagerly awaiting the day when a PC would be in every home and PC games would be "mass market," never guessing that "mass market" meant 15-25 year old males with twitchy fingers and about as much interest in adventure games as they have in reading Shakespeare and Jane Austen on the beach when there's a perfectly good volleyball set standing right there.
Well, now we know. I totter alone these days, gasping my last few breaths of corporate air before Gabriel Knight 3 (the last adventure game from Sierra in the immediate future--italics added by the determinedly optimistic author) whooshes from the birth canal. It's like a scene from a bad sci-fi movie where everyone on the planet has died and the last guy is responsible for sending off some final "We were here" message in a bottle before the planet is sucked into the sun. Okay, so I'm mixing my metaphors. But who can blame me? Me and my poor befuddled brain, trying to fathom a Sierra where Ken Williams, Roberta Williams and Al Lowe are gone? Where Scott Murphy is living off somewhere in Oregon and the most recent King's Quest involves killing things? What ever happened to saving the cute little bee queen? HAS THE WORLD GONE MAD?
You'd like to think so, wouldn't you? But unfortunately, one can't blame insanity for this. Listen, whether you think of the old Sierra with regret and fondness or would prefer to pick up your Uzi and shoot King Graham in the head until his brain explodes onto the castle walls, neither whining about, nor chortling in glee over, the "demise of the adventure game" will do you any good. And here's why: because it's not actually over. Look at Infocom.
Okay, so these days you can buy every single product they ever made on a CD for $9.95. The point is, the way that those stories were told is dead, but story-telling is not. What replaced Infocom? Games like King's Quest I, for starters, which one-upped text-based gaming with graphics. Far more than film or any other medium, obsolescence is the name of the game in this business, and, boy howdy, is it merciless. Adventure games of the kind that defined "old Sierra" (may she rest in peace) may be in trouble, but stories are not. And here's why:
"God is dead," Nietzche, 1883
"Nietzche is dead," God, 1900
Nietzche, that bad boy philosopher, could tell you a thing or two about adventure games. He once tried to convince everyone that the Almighty was deceased, thanks to the fog-lifting work of fellows like Darwin and Newton. Nice try, Nietzche, but no salami. Here we are, in 1999, when Promise Keeper rallies fill football stadiums and New Age books outsell biographies. What gives? Hasn't everyone heard about science and evolution
'n' all that?
What gives is human nature. Atheism works when you're 21, fit and healthy, and haven't a mortal care in the world. But let's face it, most of the homo sapiens on this planet gots troubles and need to feel there's someone (or Someone) up there who gives a crap. Don't think so? Try flying in a lightning storm sometime.
What's this got to do with adventure games? I'm getting there. At least as early as we were bowing down to the sun as a species, we were telling stories. Look, I'm not making this up. You can ask any anthropologist you happen to know. Human beings love stories. They thrive on them. Don't ask me why. You don't see deer and lions settling down with a good book. Stories are not necessary for life. But neither is football, ice cream, or short skirts, and you won't see anybody taking their pulse any time soon. Even the most blatantly bad movie or hack-'n'-slash game is a story, even if it's only, "Okay, now I'm a macho Marine blasting aliens." That's fantasy. That's role-playing. That's a story. It's a really stupid story, but it's a story. It's hardly a new thing that there might be a bigger audience for, say, the basic-'n'-bloody story given above versus an in-depth, brain-crunching kind of story. I mean, has Hollywood taught us nothing? Did Die Hard never happen? We already know this, people, so why should we feign surprise and outrage? Boys will be boys. They like shooting things and watching things get shot. Banging other people on the head, like story-telling, is, um, really, really old.
Does that mean there's no room for good, in-depth story-telling in this business? No. Though I do think the gaming industry faces a serious, serious challenge: to reach out to the kinds of players who would prefer exploration and story over twitch and violence. Let's face it--we (and now I presume to speak for adventure devotees everywhere) are not going to get some joystick jockey's heart and soul. Let him go. Send him positive thoughts. But our very own audience does exist. A publisher for Random House recently told me that the fiction market is completely supported by women, ages 25-50. Those women buy some books, honey. They suck up some serious tree loads of printed word. We need that audience, and I have no doubt that eventually, given the mediazation of just about everything, they will be ours. Until then (and it will take a while), we will have to find
ways of making good story products more cheaply and accepting the niche that we're in. That, and pray for a few game companies that have the taste and the chutzpah to make intelligent products. (Coen brothers, where are you?)
In summation, here's a tip: If you have to bet on the side of, say, a three-year-long trend of teenagers proclaiming that "Story is, like, totally obsolete--it's totally boring," and a few millennia of human culture, well, I shouldn't have to spell it out for you. "Are adventure games dead?" Wrong question. "Are interactive stories dead?" Hmmm. Well, let's see. "Interactive?"--not going away any time soon. "Stories?"--not in a million years.
Story-Teller & Game Designer
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