What is Your Quest?

From Adventure Games to Interactive Books by Anastasia Salter

Review - What's Your Quest

Michael Hancock is Book Reviews Editor for First Person Scholar and a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Waterloo. His interests include text in games, horror games, and some day completing his Fighting Fantasy gamebook set (54 and counting).

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“It is too tempting when considering the intervention of new technical platforms into literary spaces to see the platform’s affordances as the heart of a transformation; however, it is precisely in the human networks enabled by the machine that literature is being reformed. Throughout this chronicle of the evolution of digital narrative genres, the role of fans and reader-players turned creators is impossible to overstate.” –What Is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books 175.

“You fight like a dairy farmer.” —Monkey Island series.

What are your overall thoughts?

My experience with adventure games, as a videogame genre, is rather spotty. In my preteen years, I was baffled by Cyan’s Riven; I spent a summer of my early undergraduate working harder at the Monkey Island series than my studies; and now my Steam account is loaded with more Telltale games than I will likely ever find time to play.  Yet I never played through a King’s Quest game, or dipped my toe into the rest of the LucasArts portfolio.  As the pervading game culture narrative had it, adventure games were over by the end of the 90s, and going through the classics was akin to forensic work. Perhaps I remained distant to one dead genre because I was emotionally committed to another; ever since the early ‘90s when I leafed through a friend’s copy of City of Thieves, I’ve maintained a mild obsession with gamebooks, amassing shelves of titles like Flight From the Dark, Creature of Havoc, and The Legion of Shadow. It took Anastasia Salter’s What Is Your Quest? to make me see the connections: neither genre is or ever was as dead as its critics would have it, both are invested in what it means to play through a story, and both are experiencing, if not a Frankenstein-like revival, a rejuvenation through new digital forms.

I thought it only appropriate to begin a discussion of Salter’s book by foregrounding my own fan-oriented predilections, as the role of the player-creator-fan lies at the heart of her work on the adventure genre and other digital forms. What Is Your Quest? can be read as a book documenting the history of the adventure genre, and indeed, such an interpretation fits its general progression. It begins with the genre’s predecessors, from Dungeons & Dragons to gamebooks and Choose Your Own Adventure books (CYOA) to the fledgling interactive fiction of Colossal Cave Adventure and Infocom. From there, Salter delves into adventure games proper with Sierra and LucasArts, with particular focus on the King’s Quest series. In the mid-90s, however, the commercial adventure genre faltered in the transition to 3D and more mainstream success, and the fans of the genre took on a leading role in preserving and continuing adventure games. Through communities such as the Adventure Game Studios forums, fans remade old classics and created their own games, which Salter calls “personal games,” referring to “both the scale of the projects and tendency toward personal storytelling that an accessible medium with a shallow learning curve for creation and a free distribution platform enables” (116). More recently, the genre rose back to commercial prominence, and it was fan participation that drove it, through the increased fan-creator relations of Kickstarter, and the accessible creation tools for mobile gaming, bringing us up to the current day.

However, What Is Your Quest? is not just an historical account. Without being overtly confrontational, What Is Your Quest? pushes game studies outside of the boundaries its practitioners sometimes take for granted, and that, for me, is where the book’s value lies, even beyond its work documenting the adventure genre. Rather than rehash old debates about narratology and ludology, Salter considers adventure games not just from the perspective of videogames, but also from the perspective of multiple media types and users. I think the best example may be Salter’s frequent and persistent use of “fans” to refer to adventure game enthusiasts. In popular culture discussion and academia alike, games are often segregated away as unique and separate from other media forms. What is Your Quest? Is not a fan studies book, and doesn’t go much further in this direction than some references to Henry Jenkins. But by means of the single word “fan,” rather than just gamers or players, Salter keeps her discussion rooted in a larger discussion of new media economy, intertextuality, and transmedia.

What chapter did you enjoy reading the most?

There are many contenders for MVP among the chapters of this book. As a gamebook fan, I’m tempted to nominate the first chapter, “Early Digital Narratives,” simply on the grounds that it pays attention to forms that don’t frequently receive academic attention (and really, what other venue would I have to wax philosophical about the merits of the CYOA Mario book, Flown the Koopa?).

The book’s subplot is “Luigi eats a bag of cookies.”

I also enjoyed Salter’s third chapter, “King’s Quests,” as it provides something of a close reading (playing?) of the King’s Quest series. It also considers it in the context of the series’ novelizations, which is another form of production that has long existed alongside videogames that rarely receives attention beyond being dismissed as inferior or a cynical cash-grab tie-in (Richardson).

However, my overall favorite is Chapter 6, “Personal Adventures,” as it best demonstrates the strengths of the adventure community. Going into the book, I was looking for what Salter was adding to a discussion of adventure games that wasn’t already part of the accepted narrative. The previous chapter, “Fan Games,” points towards that answer by establishing Adventure Game Studios (AGS) and its associated forums. But it’s this chapter that really captures why AGS matters, by looking beyond how the forum’s fans preserved old works to the results of their own “personal games.” Salter juxtaposes the variety of these games with more commercial collaborative efforts to illustrate the freedom of expression in these fan efforts.While the comparison is important, what I enjoyed the most was just witnessing the diversity of a form I hadn’t even known existed. Akril’s Adventure: The Inside Job is an editorial on the nature of adventure games, featuring a player-character wandering behind the scenes of a cancelled adventure game series, calling on fans’ familiarity with the genre and its tropes. Here, Salter is quick to make the connection between this remixing and works of fan fiction (116-120). Other games draw on close-knit, intertextual ties to other media, from Peter Pan (Marion’s James in Neverland) to Icelandic television (Ultra Magnus’ The New Kids). Perhaps the most interesting work in terms of collaboration is the community-made shared universe Reality-on-the-Norm, to which fans can collaborate and add to stories created by other fans, in a mix of games that vary greatly in tone and scope.

Salter ends the chapter by contrasting the creative freedom and personal ownership of community creations within Adventure Game Studio with endeavors that have a visible commercial or corporate central figure: the fan-made levels of LittleBigPlanet, the magazine Variety’s switch from full-time film reviewers to freelance works, the BBC’s Creative Archive project that calls on users to remix its content under certain guidelines, and the fan project Silver Lining’s attempt to create a full King’s Quest sequel in the midst of its frequently changing IP owners. In part, this shift is meant to ease the book into its next chapter, “Kickstarting a Genre,” a consideration of the economics and results of commercial adventure games’ resurgence.  But it is also a useful consideration and critique of existing commercial models that draw on fan and/or crowd contributions in contrast to the entirely fan-populated Adventure Game Studio community. Further, the variety of examples—specifically, Variety and the BBC—demonstrate Salter’s commitment to examining models that extend beyond the borders of traditional game studies.

What chapter would you use while teaching?

Before addressing the question at hand, I think it’s important to point out that any chapter of this book could be used for teaching purposes. Salter’s tone is such that she succeeds admirably in walking the narrow line between engaging with existing academia and presenting concepts in a manner that would not go over the heads of a more introductory audience. While I wouldn’t go so far as to declare the book ideal for a lay-audience—even in the most generous sense, a book dedicated to videogames and some rather niche categories of videogames is not going to appeal to all—anyone in a game-related course or anyone possessing a degree of familiarity with adventure games will find this book intellectual and accessible.

That said, the chapter I would use in a class would depend on the nature of the course. If I was presenting a history of games, or an overview of major game genres, I would go with chapter 2, “Adventure Games,” which provides a discussion of both the major commercial producers and games of the ‘80s and ‘90s—LucasArts, Sierra, and Myst—but also takes time to identify the major traits of the genre in the context of videogames at large. Adventure games’ origination on the PC (or even earlier, on mainframe, university-owned computers) meant that they were more contemplative than reflex-based arcade or console games of the era, and elements that are common now that we take for granted, such as the option of saving, allowed for a more long-form narrative that other gaming platforms took much longer  to reach (40-1). Likewise, these early games introduce the concept of  avatars and an engagement with transmedia in ways that would be useful for generating discussion in a classroom setting.

On the other hand, if my interest was more towards getting students to play through the games (and other hybrid forms) discussed, I would shift my attention to chapter 8, “The iPad and the eBook.” Here, Salter explores what affordances the move to mobile devices offers in terms of creating hybrids of games and traditional literature. The focus on more contemporary technology would, I think, make it easier for students to engage more directly with the texts Salter raises, from the “updated” literary engagements with Winnie the Pooh and Alice for the iPad offer—to the revitalized gamebooks represented by the Choice of the Dragon app (though I might also cheat a bit and draw on the two works discussed extensively in the conclusion, Dave Morris’ Frankenstein and Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain).

This chapter offers a consideration of what platform studies means to design in a way that would be accessible to an undergraduate audience, and recognizes that the iPad did not spring Athena-like out of Steve Jobs’ forehead, but is part of a long line of digital products, from e-readers to PDFs. Further, and related to Salter’s earlier emphasis on fan-made games, it’s the people, not the technology, who are most important. She is careful to feature tools such as the iBooks Author and Frotz that offer reasonably simple opportunities for player-readers to transition more fully into creators: “The limited knowledge of programming or mastery required to produce interactive books with iBooks Author is akin to the accessibility of production that Adventure Game Studio and other editors offered to fans of the adventure game genre: now an author does not require a production team to include a measure  of interaction in his or her releases” (167). While it would perhaps be necessary to have access to a number of iPads in a classroom setting to make the most out this chapter, the opportunities for creation and discussion are easily transferable to other mobile devices or digital presences.

If you only had time to read one chapter,

which one would you read?

Again, I am tempted to cheat and offer multiple options, as chapter 6 is in many ways the culmination of chapter 5’s focus. As much as I liked 6 personally, I think chapter 5, ”Fan Games” offers the most to scholars coming to this book looking for information about adventure games that is not often discussed elsewhere, as it centers on the fan-driven community that exists around Adventure Game Studios (AGS). Moreover, Salter herself foregrounds what makes the AGS worthy of study: its longstanding existence “in parallel to and in conversation with the mainstream gaming industry,” its devotion to a particular narrative style over clearly identifiable media artifacts, and a focus on narrative intention, one that is often out of style with a game industry focused on enabling emergent gameplay and enabling player agency (101-2). The discussion of fan remakes and fan sequels provide good examples of how this community functions, but it’s really the frame Salter provides for examining AGS that opened my eyes to broader fan production in the context of videogames.

How is this text relevant to FPS readers?

While much of this review is (and should be) a paean of What Is Your Quest?, the text is not perfect.   I would, for example, have spent more time on the significance of Myst as a series, or mentioned that part of what makes Dave Morris’ Frankenstein such a valuable contribution to the blend of literature and play is that Morris himself has decades of familiarity with such blends, dating back to his work in the ‘80s and ‘90s with tabletop gaming and gamebooks (as I type this, I am inches away from a copy of his 1993 gamebook Necklace of Skulls, co-written with Mark Smith). A more substantial omission, or at least minimization, is that Salter never addresses Twine, except in passing. Given her focus on blending literature and play, on providing accessible platforms for personal expression, and on hearing voices outside of the mainstream, it seems like a natural, even necessary, topic for discussion. Presumably, it never happens because Salter’s consideration of more recent accessible platforms focuses on what’s available for the iPad, but even a direct acknowledgment that Twine is outside her scope of interest would have been welcome. Speaking of the final chapter, both it and the brief conclusion shift the discussion quite a bit away from adventure games. While the sections keep with the book’s larger themes of fan-centered creation, literary blends with play, and platform-enabled creativity, it is a shift that could have been telegraphed a little more neatly.

That said, there is so, so much to praise here, and so many pages that I wish game studies in general would take from Salter’s book, literally and figuratively. After recent unfortunate and toxic shifts in game-related culture, there is a growing argument that the term “gamer” is at once too general and too insular to properly describe (and celebrate!) the variety and diversity of people playing videogames, and too narrow to properly express or represent their interests. Likewise, for reasons that arose out of academic culture and history, game studies has long been rooted in identifying the traits that unify all games and make them unique from other media forms. Salter’s book is a valuable contribution that illustrates how we can fruitfully move to other considerations, whether that means looking at game genres without having to account for all games of all kinds, considering where certain games blend with electronic literature, or seeing where they fit in terms of narrative in a new media landscape. What Is Your Quest? is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and value of adventure games; it’s useful reading for anyone who, like me, is interested in how we can meaningfully play with words, as a scholar, a player, and a fan.

What Should I Read Next?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, adventure games are not my forte, and, consequently, I can’t offer a lot in terms of texts that directly follow Salter’s focus on them. But, I can offer some useful directions. For those interested in the pre-history of adventure games and the parallel development in the form of interactive fiction, there are two older, but foundational, texts: Espen Aarseth’s 1997 Cybertext, and Nick Montfort’s 2005 Twisty Little Passages, both of which Salter draws on. For a consideration of Myst’s legacy in terms of fan production, I’d recommend Celia Pearce’s  2009 Communities of Play, which looks extensively at the fan community that arose around Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (though properly speaking, it’s a shift from adventure games towards Massive Multiplayer Online socializing). For another take that considers how videogames lend themselves to larger spheres of digital media use, there is Kiri Miller’s 2012 Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance. More generally, there is a growing body of study that focuses on game genres; texts I’ve found particularly useful in that regard are Bernard Perron’s edited 2009 collection, Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play, and Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens, a 2012 collection on RPGs edited by Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock, and our faculty advisor, Gerald A. Voorhees.

Finally, for a Kindle-available, quality gamebook, I’d recommend Dave Morris’ Heart of Ice. Sci-fi dystopia, meaningful choices, and gruesome deaths—what more could a gamebook fan want?

Works Cited

Aarseth, Epsen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. John Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.

McCay, William. Flown the Koopa. Mammoth, 1992. Print.

Miller, Kiri. Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance. Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. MIT Press, 2005. Print.

Morris, Dave, John Hodson, and Russ Nicholson. Heart of Ice. Fabled Lands, 2013.

Pearce, Celia. Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds. MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Perron, Bernard, ed. Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. McFarland, 2009. Print.

Richardson, Ben. “Pixels to paper – 10 videogame novels reviewed.” Gamesradar. 28 Mar 2008.  Web. 13 Apr 2015.

Salter, Anastasia. What Is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books. U of Iowa P, 2014. Print.

Voorhees, Gerald A., Joshua Call, and Katie Whitlock. Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-Playing Game. Bloomsbury Academic, 2012. Print.