Speculation over the future of the adventure game has possibly become the most tiresome dialogue within the videogaming press. In fact, even introductions pointing this out are cliché-ridden territory, and deserving of a sunken heart. So I'm sorry. Does it help if I point out that for once, I might have a positive suggestion, rather than forcing out half-laughs at another vapid attempt to resurrect decade old rabbit and dog jokes?
The problem is, the genre is suffering from the same wasting disease as the Conservative Party. It so desperately wants to appear up-to-date, relevant to a new generation, but cannot escape its own dated core. Every corporate redesign, younger-faced spokesperson or ill-advised PR event on a bouncy castle only serves to highlight quite how out of place it looks. So, unless the FPS suddenly invades Iraq and starts introducing ID cards, there doesn't appear much hope for the traditional adventure game ever regaining a hold in a modern market. Solution: be something new.
Penumbra Overture is looking to be a very smart game. Whether it's a great one, especially if the awful combat stays in its current state, is to be seen. The four man team that makes up Frictional Games have remarkably hand-built a 3D engine that looks contemporary, effectively integrated Newton Game Dynamics physics, and then stripped out anything that might imply the term "first-person shooter". It's a first-person adventure. And no, dear God no, we don't mean like Myst.
The game's first incarnation was as a free tech demo by the indie developers, called Penumbra (available elsewhere on the Internet), showing off the engine they'd created to the Internet. The popularity was such that the company is now developing it into a three-part episodic commercial venture, under the name Penumbra: Overture. The story remains the same - a young man, Philip, has recently lost his mother, and soon after receives a letter from his estranged, and now dead, father. The confusing notes intrigue him, and lead him to Greenland and a mysterious underground mine, filled with peculiar artefacts, and mysteries to solve. From the scraps of paper and worker logs found in the caverns, some sort of experimentation was going on, creating new substances, and exploring the power of the artefacts. Trouble was brewing, and now everyone's gone.
It's a story that's perhaps not too far from the ghastly pre-rendered drivel that constantly streams out from developers like The Adventure Company, and were it limited to the aged pointing and clicking, we'd probably not even mention it here. However, it rather significantly isn't. While exploring the mines, there was a ventilation tunnel high up on the wall, between two shelves. Wanting to see where it might lead, I attempted to find a route up there, but there was none. In a traditional adventure, my task would have been to find and impossibly store a twelve foot ladder in my pockets, and bring it back here. But in Penumbra's world, I was instead led to recall the wooden pallet that had been leaning against the wall in the previous room. Going back I picked it up with the occasional hand icon that appears in place of crosshairs in the centre of the screen, and dragged it through the doorways. It was heavy and cumbersome, and indeed taller than the door, so I rolled it over onto its side and tugged it through. Then putting it back up on its taller end, I pushed it between the two shelves, and wedged it diagonally, creating an impromptu bridge.
Of course, this is hardly the most sophisticated of physics puzzles, and we were building such devices in Half-Life 2 years ago. But it serves to demonstrate the rather key difference between this, and the genre's previous, "Use Ladder on Shelf".
More interesting in the levels we've seen are puzzles involving large machinery, levers, cogs, cranes etc. Again, such a challenge in a Myst-clone would have me grabbing for the rusty spanner to wedge through the front of my face. But here it feels more than an artificial obstacle, rather a logical necessity of your predicament. Stuck in an abandoned mine, surrounded by rabid wolves, you're going to want some lighting. So getting the generator working is a priority. Find the notes, read the instructions, seek out the required components, and then build them as required. It's incredibly simplistic, but there's something rather special about the hands-on feel of fitting the required cell into the slot yourself, or dragging the long power cord across the room and inserting it into the socket.
As mentioned above, the combat is a little worrying at the moment, although this is of course a preview build of the game. And further in its defence, combat really is intended to be the very last resort, preferably never happening at all. The wolves that were making my life miserable can be placated with bits of meat found in various rooms. Or they can be hacked to death with a pickaxe. The second option is the one that doesn't seem to be working yet.
So we're intrigued. Of course, put in context these might all be novel gimmicks, or more optimistically, examples of what other games need to be doing. Or they might well form the basis for exactly where the adventure game needs to be heading. (Box quote thieves, I said "might"). Whichever way Penumbra heads by the time it's finished, it's certainly going to be an example of what some imagination and inspiration can do for a genre that deserves to be dead. Hands on, more honest, more realistic puzzle solving. This one serves the horror component. Now we want to see someone using this sort of thing for the comedy adventures.
Penumbra is due to come out in three chapters, the first set to appear in this quarter. As soon as it's finished, we'll be here to see if our interest was well placed.