Graphic adventures form one of the three subsets of the genre of adventure games, the others being the text adventure (now known as interactive fiction) and the action-adventure. In any adventure game the player moves about a gameworld, talking to people, finding items, and solving puzzles, in the hope of reaching some goal. Graphic adventures distinguish themselves from text adventures by providing a graphical representation of the gameworld and later a GUI for interaction with the world. The genre has been in decline of late, with games focusing more on conflict and action.
The Origins of Graphic Adventures
Graphic adventures originated in 1980 when Roberta Williams realised, after playing the text adventure Adventure on her Apple II, that a graphical representation could accompany the description of a room in an adventure game. She and her husband Ken Williams used this idea to create Mystery House, the first graphic adventure, founding Sierra On-Line to publish it. Although the graphics were simple monochrome line art with no animation, the added immersiveness of graphics, any graphics, led to Mystery House becoming one of the most popular Apple II games ever made. Sierra would go on to become one of the two gaming companies most associated with graphic adventures.
The next major innovation in graphic adventures came in 1984 with the advent of the original King's Quest. Using the then-new EGA graphics card it provided a 16-colour fully-animated game world. Unlike its predecessors, where all actions were performed by typing in commands, KQ allowed you to move your on-screen avatar, Sir Graham around the screen with the arrow keys. This had the welcome effect of adding intuitive positioning to puzzles. If you wanted to draw water from the well, you would need to move adjacent to the well, rather than just needing to be in the same 'room' as the well.
King's Quest was innovative in another way; it was the first graphic adventure to be created with a re-usable engine like Infocom's Z-machine for text adventures. This engine, AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter), was originally developed by IBM to show off the PCjr home computer, but Sierra made it their own with King's Quest and subsequent games. The separation of engine and game both made it easier to make new games and to port existing games to other platforms, such as the Amiga, Atari ST, and Macintosh.
Other games developed with AGI are:
In 1987, the other major player in the history of graphic adventures, LucasArts, entered the market. Their initial game, Maniac Mansion, designed by Ron Gilbert, brought a simplified quasi-GUI interface to the genre, doing away with the text parser altogether. Instead, a set of verbs was provided in a bar in the lower half of the screen, actions like Move, Read, Take, and Talk, and a cursor used to apply these verbs to objects in the gameworld and inventory. This was the initial iteration of the renowned SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine.
In its initial iteration, SCUMM was used to produce two other games: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. These three games introduced an important new development to adventure games, multiple solutions. Previously, there was generally only one solution (that is, series of actions) that led to the completion of the game, giving adventure games limited replay value. Another important change in the LucasArts adventures was the approach to player character death. Sierra adventures include numerous ways for the player to fail at their task, resulting in the (sometimes humourous) death of the main character. LucasArts adventures, on the other hand, are designed so that no mistake will force the player to start over from a saved game or cause the death of the player character.
SCI and the End of the Parser Era
LucasArts' graphically impressive SCUMM engine made Sierra's AGI-engine games look quite primitive. In response, Sierra developed their second-generation game engine, SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter). SCI debuted in King's Quest IV, allowing mouse control of character movements and higher-resolution graphics (though initially still EGA), while still retaining the text parser for character actions. This initial version of SCI was also used for Space Quest III, the first two Quest for Glory games (merging RPG elements into the graphic adventure format), and Leisure Suit Larry III.
Unlike AGI, both SCI and SCUMM were designed to be extensible. New versions of these engines provided updated graphical capabilities and interfaces. One of the most significant such changes is SCI's switch from a hybrid parser system to the so-called 'icon-bar' system. A simplification of SCUMM's system of verbs, later SCI games had a series of different mouse cursors, accessible through a bar at the top of the screen, corresponding to different elementary actions. These cursors generally included 'walk' (a miniature diagram of a person), 'look' (an eye), 'manipulate' (a hand), 'talk' (a speech bubble), and inventory items (a miniature representation of the item). Other icons were sometimes used, often for humourous effect. These basic actions allowed Sierra to do away with the text parser.
Games using this style of post-parser interfaces are:
CD-ROMs and the Interactive Movie
Another development in this era is the introduction of the CD-ROM and its corresponding large storage capacity. This was used to provide speech and narration for adventure games, and, later, CD-quality soundtracks. Once they became ubiquitous, CD-ROM storage began to influence graphic adventure design. The first game to take advantage of this was Myst. Riding the wave of CD-ROM adoption, Myst brought its stunning (for the time) visuals and absorbing atmosphere to an unprecedented number of gamers.
Out of this came an offshoot of the graphic adventure genre often called the interactive movie. These games featured partial- or full-motion video, sometimes 3D-rendered but more often live-action, and a simplified interface. The first such game was probably The 7th Guest, which spilled over onto two CDs. (It may be the first game to exceed the capacity of a single CD-ROM) Soon expensively-produced interactive movies were coming out and filling five or more CD-ROMs. Roberta Williams's horror adventure Phantasmagoria spanned a whopping 7 CD-ROMs. Few of these games were worth playing, as most of them were too caught up in being a movie to be a proper adventure game. One 'interactive movie' that was also a worthwhile game was Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within
Simplification and Stagnation
The last iterations of the SCI and SCUMM engines bore considerably simplified interfaces compared to the earlier iterations. The first adventure game to simplify its interface was Sam and Max Hit the Road in 1993, replacing the menu of verbs with a menu accessed by clicking the right mouse button. This menu had three commands: look, talk, and handle. This system was similar in content to the SCI icon-bar system, only more streamlined. This system was used in the remaining SCUMM games: Full Throttle, The Dig, and The Curse of Monkey Island.
This simplification eventually took hold of most of the industry. King's Quest VII, in 1994, did away with icons completely, having instead a limp 'hot-spot' interface that reduced much of the game to a pixel-hunt. KQ7 was symptomatic of a trend that was beginning to affect all adventure games, namely, that the nascent genres of first-person shooter and real-time strategy were attracting many gamers due to their simpler and less demanding gameplay, and the adventure game developers were simplifying things in response. Unfortunately, a certain level of difficulty if not frustration is a necessary part of the adventure genre, and these moves, rather than attracting gamers, drove them away.
The graphic adventure genre then slowly entered a state of commercial stagnation. 1997's The Curse of Monkey Island, Blade Runner, and The Last Express, all good games in their own right, failed to make an impression. LucasArts' 1998 game Grim Fandango was held as the last great hope for the adventure genre, but although it recieved critical acclaim it, too, failed commercially. Grim Fandango did bring adventure gaming into the world of 3D graphics, and not unsuccesfully. Not all games used it well, however, as King's Quest VIII abandoned many of the principles of adventure gaming in favour of action elements.
The Future of Graphic Adventures
Sierra would exit the adventure game market with 1999's Gabriel Knight III, and LucasArts appears to have done the same with 2000's Escape from Monkey Island. Sequels to Full Throttle and Sam and Max were in the works, but they were both cancelled. Revolution Software is continuing their Broken Sword series with a new installment in 2003. Funcom's The Longest Journey was perhaps the last gasp for epic adventure gaming, although a sequel is in the works for 2005. At this point, commercial graphic adventures are essentially dead. The adventure-derived survival horror genre, started with Alone in the Dark in 1992 and Resident Evil in 1996, is the most identifiable remnant of the genre still heavily active.
Of late, there has been a reasonable amount of work put into amateur graphic adventures, in a similar way as the growth of amateur text adventures. The AGI engine has been reverse-engineered by hobbyists, allowing new AGI games to be made, as well as allowing the creation of Sarien, an open source reimplementation of AGI for modern operating systems. (A similar and more mature project along the same lines is ScummVM) The free Adventure Game Studio has been used to host a number of amateur graphic adventures, including remakes of King's Quest I and Maniac Mansion. Though commercial adventure development may have ceased, the fan base has not disappeared.
Sources include Wikipedia, MobyGames, and my own memory. Please /msg me with any additions or corrections.