In ’86, this ad ran for Polarware’s games featuring them as “Interactive Novels” and boasted of they having been created with “The Graphics Magician” which was probably their version of an engine. The ad also features Polarware’s new logo. It was known as Penguin Software until a legal tussle with book publisher, Penguin Books, made them change it in the same year to Polarware.
The games they specialized in were technically what we’d call adventure games today, but back then, Polarware and other companies fervently embraced the idea that they were much more. Many still do today when speaking about them with terms that attempt to break their works free from the commonly held notion of “games” promoting them instead as works of interactive fiction or as visual novels. But the core ideas were still the same.
These were stories in which the player had as much of an impact on their progress as the narrative did. Instead of flipping to the next page, they waited on the player to make the right move or discover a new clue to push the story forward. Dog eared pages were replaced with active participation on the player’s end.
It’s an idea that more than one developer found appealing and something that would continue well on into today within a variety of approaches whether it’s Mass Effect’s allowances for player choice or old-school click ‘n point adventures that still find their way onto shelves and into digital stores. The art of storytelling through the pixelized lens of an adventure game would continue on well after Polarware was folded into another company by the time ’87 rolled around.
Players could explore places straight out of a writer’s imagination without being confined to the text on the page. If they wanted to know what was in the next room without having to wait for the story to take them there, they could enter the room themselves. If there was trouble, it was up to the player to figure things out on their own with what they had. Adventure games were tons of fun and I enjoyed them as one might enjoy a good book.
Though efforts like Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest and Infocom’s text-only adventures had predated these by a few years, Polarware and others were more than happy to give the young genre a few tries of their own. Even Activision got in on this by publishing Portal in the same year, a sci-fi novel presented as a “game” in which the player had to piece together the story by accessing different parts of a shattered database. It had even come with a small pamphlet that provided the needed introductions before the player booted up that floppy.
Adventure games aren’t as popular today as they were in the 80s through the 90s as other genres took on more prominent (i.e. moneymaking) roles for publishers and developers. The FPS genre, the rise of console gaming via cheap hardware, and a number of other factors contributed to its slow decline leaving adventurers only a niche in which to find the latest games. But thanks to the efforts of indies and other developers unafraid to tell their stories as “interactive novels”, the genre still lives on for those willing to take the plunge by turning that first virtual page.