Jane Jensen has been making adventure games for more than twenty years. The form has changed - from the pixel-hunting precision of King's Quest VI, to the casual-friendly object hunts of Women's Murder Club, to the cinematic decision-making of Moebius: Empire Rising - but the core has remained:
Interactive stories with compelling characters who won't suffer gruesome fates just because you missed a timed button press.
Moebius, her latest project, was Kickstarted to the tune of $435,000 in May 2012. It will hit PC and Mac on April 15. Jensen said she owes her return to classic adventure gaming (and the return of many of her peers) to the new wave of crowdfunded indies.
She owes her name and success in the business to her hard work, but also to the unusual atmosphere of Sierra On-Line. It's sad to call a studio unusual for employing women as many of its leaders, but it's true, and Jensen feels her growth there would be hard to replicate in the current gaming climate.
We spoke to Jensen about why adventure games are coming back and for whom they never really went away.
CVG: People talk about adventure games dying, but it was more like they went underground for a while. Why do you think they've re-emerged in the last few years?
JJ: There's just been a sameness to what's been on the shelves, so I think people are looking for something different. The casual game market has also really grown, and it's become more merged with the mainstream market. The casual gaming industry has really been developing its stories, especially with hidden object games - or as they're calling them now, hidden object/light adventure games.
It's coming from a few different directions. Up until last year, I wouldn't even say it involved much on the publishing end; mainstream publishers were not interested in it. I think it's because of the success of Kickstarter, some games like The Walking Dead, and the casual market that there's more interest from publishers in that genre.
So the resurgence spans from high-stress games like The Walking Dead to more casual light adventures.
They're just two different prongs. A lot of the casual gamers are non-traditional gamers; there are a lot of women playing. Especially with hidden object games, which are something like 80 percent women. That's one prong: mainstream publishers are looking at that market and wanting to get into that market.
The Walking Dead is something else, where it's just a very successful mainstream adventure game. Adventure games are becoming more of an interest to publishers from that angle too.
You've worked on light adventure games?
Yeah, I did that for about seven or eight years. I was a co-founder of [casual games company] Oberon Media and we did three or four Agatha Christie titles and Women's Murder Club, and we worked with Charlaine Harris, who did True Blood. So we did a number of big, licensed hidden object/light adventure games.
"When hidden objects started to boom in casual games, it was a surprise to everyone how popular they were"
What is it about that kind of game that makes it appealing to many women?
We looked at a lot of studies when we first started that company about what women gamers liked. They don't like time pressure - we looked at having to finish a scene in two minutes, for instance, but players don't like that. They want to be able to take their time and not worry about failing.
A casual game is supposed to be fun. There's no time pressure, there's no arcade element where you can die. It's supposed to be something that makes you feel good about yourself, and you can sit down at it for ten minutes and feel like you accomplished something.
Women also seem to particularly dislike moving in 3D, which causes some nausea in a lot of people, and to dislike games that require quick reflexes to avoid failure. They're typically more interested in beautiful graphics and story or exploring a world; those are all things that hidden objects do well.
When hidden objects started to boom in casual games, it was a surprise to everyone how popular they were. That mechanic, "I have a list of things, and I need to find them in this beautiful scene," it's very addictive and relaxing to women for some reason.
I guess it's the same kind of thing with Bejeweled or Space Invaders; it's just gameplay that's addictive or relaxing.
Early adventure games fell on the hardcore side: plenty of pixel hunting and strict sequences. But some of their elements have resurfaced in this friendlier form?
I remember the very first adventure game I played was King's Quest IV, with Rosella. It was definitely a pixel-hunting kind of thing - at one point there was a ring that was just one gold pixel, and you couldn't get through the game without finding it!
But just that idea of wandering around a world and trying to find things, and get clues, works. There's no time pressure, no worry that "if I don't shoot this guy I'm going to lose the game." It's more exploratory, and that's relaxing for a lot of people.
Mentors are important for new people in the gaming industry, and women developers have had to look harder to find them than their male peers. How did working with Kings Quest creator Roberta Williams affect you?
Sierra [On-Line] was unusual in that, when I first started working there, a lot of their designers were female. They had Roberta, Laurie Cole, Christy Marx. It was just an unusual working environment in that at least half of their big designers were female and they were obviously much more open to that.
I think part of that was the genre. Adventure games, and casual games too, tend to be more friendly to female audiences. So it makes sense that more of the designers are women.
I'm sure it would have been much more difficult if I'd been trying to get into designing action games or something like that. The opportunity that I had there, to get hired, to work on major games, and to do my own series, was definitely very unique and would be hard to replicate now, I think.
How would you compare your growth in adventure games and casual games to a woman trying to enter a more traditional industry space?
I don't have the experience to know what it would be like trying to work for a more traditional house, but for women who want to get into game design, I would suggest looking at the casual gaming industry or places like Telltale which are doing adventure games.
That's not to say that there can't be a fabulous female designer of simulations or action games or board games or any of that. If you have a passion for it, go for it, I just never had a passion to play those kinds of games, so I wasn't really interested in designing them.
But it would be awesome if there were female designers who were passionate about it and could add something to those genres.
"I'm really interested in getting ... more real sensuality and romance in games"
Would you ever consider doing another full-motion video game, like Gabriel Knight 2?
I would really like to do another FMV game, in fact one of the games we've been considering doing with the studio next is an FMV game - though we probably won't get to it very soon.
I'm really interested in getting more romance - I don't want to use the word "erotica" because I don't want to imply pornography - but just more real sensuality and romance in games. I think that's really hard to do without live actors. For that reason alone I'm interested in trying to do something more with FMV in the future. It's a totally different beast, but I loved working on Gabriel Knight 2, and I think the actors bring a lot to it.
A lot of the adventure games that have been popular recently are more choice based and less puzzle based, so that sort of thing would work fine with FMV - other than the budgetary constraints of having to film so many options. I think it's interesting, and I hope that we do see it come back a little bit more. Although some casual games, like the Mystery Case File hidden object series, have used FMV characters.
So one of the advantages of FMV is avoiding the uncanny valley of intimate human interaction?
JJ: Yeah, it's really hard to pull off convincing sexual tension and sex with 3D characters. With some of the really hardcore technology they've been using, like using Ellen Page [in Beyond: Two Souls], you probably could do it. But that sort of technology is so expensive it's not available to most developers.
Where do you see your studio, and adventure games as a whole, going in the next decade?
It really depends on what this current crop of games does and how these Kickstarter games sell. It has to be a viable market. It's been tough doing the game that we did on the Kickstarter budget that we raised, and there's only so long you can be in starvation mode.
It remains to be seen whether or not it's really a viable business for us. Hopefully it is and we can continue to make games that have better and better productions, and experiment with choice-based gameplay and great storytelling; that would be the ideal.
But it depends on not only how we do but on this past crop of Kickstarter adventures - if it's really going to be a revival, or if we're going to find ourselves saying, "Well, that didn't quite pan out."