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LucasArts and the rationalist tendency in videogames

It was October 2, 2000, and somewhere in the sub-basement of CNET’s popular website Gamecenter, two editors simultaneously inserted their keys into the doomsday machine. They looked at each other, a mix of pain and grim determination on their faces. One nodded. They turned their keys and pressed the glowing red button. It was done. They had just published an article declaring that adventure games were “dead and buried.”

By all accounts they seemed to be right. At the turn of the millenium, sales for so-called “graphic” or “point-and-click” adventure games, popularized by publishers like Sierra, Westwood, and perhaps above all LucasArts, had begun to wane. The budgets for these games, meanwhile, had continued to rise in an effort to keep apace with the expanding triple-A PC and console gaming market. New adventure titles from prominent designers and sequels to beloved franchises were being postponed, cancelled, or retooled as action games. The “golden age” of adventure games—bookended by Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island in 1990 and Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango in 1998, both LucasArts releases—was over.

The year 2000 also marked an era when perusing a site like Gamecenter (which, incidentally, is now itself dead and buried) necessarily involved navigating to sub-pages featuring your game-type of interest: Role-Playing, Real-Time Strategy, Racing, Adventure, and so on. The hybridization of genres we know today had not yet reached a critical mass, and games were still being assigned to discrete categories based on pre-existing criteria, rather than being viewed as the products of various intersecting continua. Gamecenter imagined its article was putting the final nail in the coffin of a specific kind of game that had been popular throughout the 1990s but now was gone, never to return.

Despite its sensationalism, the proclamation that “adventure games are dead” was not entirely hollow, though it is likely no one knew the real significance of that statement at the time. In fact, Gamecenter and the many others who shared their view were noting a tectonic shift in videogame philosophy, from rational to romantic.

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“When I imagine a triangle, even though such a figure may exist nowhere in the world except in my thought, indeed may never have existed, there is nonetheless a certain nature or form, or particular essence, of this figure that is immutable and eternal, which I did not invent, and which in no way depends on my mind.” – René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

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The term “rationalism” is most associated with a political and philosophical movement from the Enlightenment era of eighteenth century Europe, and with thinkers like René Descartes. In fact, the roots of rationalism extend back before Socrates to the dawn of Western philosophy; it represents a fundamental method of viewing the world that has appeared and reappeared throughout history. Above all, rationalists believe that there are objective, knowable truths that exist out in the world, and the chief barrier to discovering these truths is the inherent unreliability of our perceptions. Our imperfect sense organs and brains distort the “real” world and obscure its essence, which lives beyond our muddled subjectivities and unpredictable passions. Descartes would have scoffed at the old adage, “If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” For him, a falling tree is an act of applied mathematics, namely physics, occurring independently of any observer. Confronting the major questions of philosophy and religion likewise requires knowledge, not perception or intuition. Emotion is a key distorter to the truth in Descartes’ view; relying on gut feeling or spirituality to answer the questions of whether there is a god or a soul would be as foolhardy as relying on your sense of hearing to answer the question of whether the tree makes a sound. For the rationalist, logic and reason pave the path to enlightenment.

Our imperfect brains distort the “real” world. 

Descartes famously conducted a thought experiment on the question “How do I know that I exist?” He systematically peeled away every aspect of subjective experience that might be deemed unreliable—from the opinions of others to memories to sensory experience—in order to pinpoint what it is we really know. He concluded that the only true evidence we have that we exist is our capacity to think (“I think therefore I am”)—everything else is wool over the eyes, not to be trusted.

In the mid–1980s, the similar albeit slightly less profound question, “How do I know this is a videogame?” would be answered very differently than today. Such a query might have yielded answers like, “There are discrete levels that increase in difficulty, therefore it is a game,” or, “Progress is tracked by a score system, therefore it is a game,” or, certainly, “If the player fails, she reaches a ‘game over’ state, therefore it is a game.” The medium was young and existed in a kind of philosophical terrarium, bound by certain unwritten rules carried over from arcade era of the late ’70s.

Out of this experimental haze came Ron Gilbert, a young programmer and game designer at Lucasfilms Games (later to redubbed LucasArts). Beginning with 1987’s Maniac Mansion (co-designed with Gary Winnick), he embarked on the impressive project of dismantling the assumptions that had become so ingrained that most game designers had forgotten they were there. Like Descartes, Gilbert sought to find the latent truth of the (gaming) world through the power of the intellect.

When you load up Maniac Mansion, after selecting your three playable characters and watching a brief cutscene (a term coined by Gilbert), the first thing you will notice is that, standing on the titular mansion’s front lawn, nothing is happening. This is intentional. You walk to the next screen and, again, until you interact with the world, the world does not engage with you. You spend the entire game as an intruder in someone else’s house—an undeniably tense premise—and yet the pace is calm and measured because the game holds a static position until you do something. Player-dependent time was a feature that would become a central tenet to “rationalist adventuring.” By deliberately imposing a thinking-person’s pace to his games, Gilbert implicitly encouraged players to pause, take their time, or even physically walk away from the game and ponder it, like some Cartesian thought experiment, before returning to advance the story. Being on a timer or having to react to AI-driven enemies would generate tension and force decisions based on reflex or gut feeling, irrational methods of engaging with the world that Gilbert was trying to avoid.

The next thing that happens in the game is that you need to find a way into the mansion itself, as the front door is locked. The solution is to look under the doormat, where a spare key is hidden. As unremarkable as this may seem, it is a succinct example of environment/inventory-based puzzle-solving, which from the very first was the essence of rationalist adventuring. Players meticulously explore the environment, collect specific items, and then take up the intellectual task of figuring out how the two go together. Conversations with non-player characters (NPCs) add color and helpful exposition, but the heart of the game lies in discovering which parts of the world are locks and which keys, and thereby unlocking the world’s secrets. The point is interaction and experimentation, a thousand fruitless combinations until the right answer (and there is a right answer, objective and immutable) is discovered.

Knowledge, as opposed to passion, could bring a singular sense of accomplishment. 

Gilbert’s bigger point, like Descartes’, was enlightenment. He was attempting to show players that a different kind of fun could be found in videogames by forsaking the primal thrills of running, jumping, and fighting. (This is never more evident than in The Secret of Monkey Island’s “insult sword-fighting” section, which requires the player’s wit, not blade, to be sharp.) Knowledge, as opposed to passion, could bring a singular sense of accomplishment and pleasure. Gilbert wanted players to not merely survive the world, but learn how it works. To whit, an important innovation of Maniac Mansion was the fact that it had no point system, which had been prevalent across game genres, including adventure titles. Gilbert was suggesting that progression through a game—that is, his kind of game, one which promotes the pursuit of knowledge and truth—was satisfying enough on its own.

Gilbert had not fully refined his rationalist vision of gameplay in 1987; characters could die in Maniac Mansion, and players could reach dead ends. Gilbert later proclaimed these features, particularly the latter, to be design flaws. But three years later he achieved the pinnacle of rationalist adventuring with The Secret of Monkey Island, in which there were no player deaths or dead ends. These additions enhanced the effect of player-dependent time: there was now no inhibition to experimentation and exploration, as doing so would never result in a fail state.

Monkey Island followed wannabe-pirate Guybrush Threepwood on a swashbuckling, if self-aware, adventure across the Caribbean. The game was brilliantly written, steeped in irony and sarcasm, and Gilbert used comedy to teach players that they must look past the jokes in order to beat the game. Laughing is, after all, a fundamentally subjective and irrational experience, and will not help you find the truth in an objective and rational world. When Guybrush acquires a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, the temptation is to see it for its absurdist, comedic potential. This would be a mistake: the item is first and foremost a pulley, a useful piece of equipment that functions the same way whether you find it funny or not, and must be used appropriately with rope in order to solve a puzzle and advance.

Gilbert’s ambition to force players to see the truth beyond their distorted lenses reached a famously ridiculous peak in 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. In the middle of the game, Guybrush discovers a water pump behind a rushing waterfall. He happens to have a monkey, Jojo, stuffed into his pants, along with countless other inventory items. Here, Gilbert challenged players to shed their obscuring preconceptions on a semantic level; the puzzle’s solution is to “use Jojo with pump.” Guybrush pulls the little guy out and uses him to twist the pump closed. Jojo has become a monkey wrench.

Gilbert caught a lot of flak for that puzzle and has since apologized for its obtuseness. He went too far, yes, but not randomly; it was in the service of his specific vision of achieving enlightenment in videogames.

For the most part, his approach was hugely successful. Against what one might expect, removing tension and slowing the pace of gameplay forged deep bonds between player and game by forcing the player to spend more time inside the game world, investigating its every nook and cranny. How else can we explain that Gilbert’s games remain so revered and beloved despite being, dare I say, deeply flawed in story and characterization? I love The Secret of Monkey Island more than I love most things, but its plot is a mess. How does the Ghost Pirate LeChuck zap between Monkey Island and Melee Island so quickly when he possesses Sheriff Shinetop? Why go to Monkey Island at all if his plan was always to marry Governor Elaine Marley at the Melee Island church? Many of the game’s characters are thin parodies out of old Errol Flynn movies. Maniac Mansion is even more shoestring and cliche.

Gilbert achieved this via the blunt force of reason. 

And yet we remember these early LucasArts titles as a great bastion of story and character in an era that was increasingly stuffed with space marine shooters and plotless platformers. Gilbert achieved this not through emphasis on story and character itself, but via the blunt force of logic and reason. We sat and thought for hours within the Edison mansion and the pirate-filled Caribbean, read and reread the sharp dialogue, thought and rethought the clever puzzles. Through our rationalizing we felt connected, in touch with a deeper truth than videogames customarily offered. And so, despite ourselves (and perhaps despite Gilbert’s intentions), we fell in love.

Even within genres that did not follow some or any of Gilbert’s tenets, the superordinate goal of rationalist adventuring—that gameplay involved discovering the truth of the game world and subsequently mastering it—could be seen as prevalent in game design throughout the 1990s, from Sonic the Hedgehog to Warcraft. The roles of emotion, interpersonal relationships, and immersion in videogames remained vague and deemphasized.

Note that I described the first Monkey Island game as the pinnacle of Gilbert’s rationalism, even though the second contained its most extreme manifestation in the Jojo puzzle. This is because Monkey Island 2 was also strongly influenced by a counter-rationalist perspective, one that would grow and ultimately overtake Gilbert’s in popularity. It was embodied by Tim Schafer, another LucasArts writer and programmer who had worked with Gilbert since the original Monkey Island—though it was not until the sequel and beyond that he began to solidify his distinct artistic vision that would come to represent the yin to Gilbert’s yang. If Gilbert was the champion of adventure gaming rationalism, Schafer would become the scion of romanticism.

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“I shall be. Who is I? Evidently that which is.” – Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Outlines of the Doctrines of Knowledge

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Nineteenth century romanticism emerged as a response to the previous century’s rationalism. Many romantics thinkers and artists objected to the opposing philosophy’s moral and political absolutes; others reacted against the rationalization of science, which they viewed as artificial and devoid of awe or reverence for the natural world; still others were horrified by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—arguably the Age of Enlightenment’s most lasting legacy—and what they perceived as its crushing impact on the human spirit.

Cartesian thought’s biggest failing was in accounting for subjectivity. Returning to our tree falling in the forest, Descartes would say that the tree is real, part of the immutable physical world, and that our perceptions of it are false, dim and distorted. But what, then, are our perceptions, our passions, our senses of self, if not things belonging to that same physical world? Immanuel Kant attempted to bridge the gap and legitimize the subjective, essentially arguing that there are two trees: the actual tree (which he called the “thing-in-itself”), which makes a sound no matter what, and the tree that we perceive (the “thing-as-it-appears”), which only makes a sound if we’re around to hear it. This only served to frustrate philosophers already weary of the dualism provoked by Descartes: Why should we bother with the “things-in-themselves” if all we can ever experience are the “things-as-they-appear”? One of Kant’s disciples, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, followed this question to its logical extreme, rejecting the notion that there is any “real” tree whatsoever; rather, he asserted that our consciousness generates the world. The tree makes a sound because we hear it; if we are not present there is not only no sound, but no tree.

The tree makes a sound because we hear it. 

While Fichte continued to prize reason as the means of understanding the subjective, other romantic thinkers began to focus on more irrational phenomena. Goethe fully subverted the Cartesian agenda when he wrote, in Faust, “Feeling is all;/ Names are sound and smoke/ Veiling Heaven’s bright glow.” Romanticism positioned emotion, not reason and knowledge, as the core of authentic human experience.

Schafer’s early collaborations with Gilbert were of a Kantian vein, between two worlds, a rationalist and proto-romantic vision blended together. But Schafer soon struck out on his own path and, while not entirely rejecting the rationalist framework, emerged more Fichtean and Goethean than Cartesian. In the end, Schafer’s romantic sensibility would have the more global impact on gaming, while ironically also precipitating the initial (but not permanent) decline of the graphic adventure.

The Secret of Monkey Island took place on two islands (Melee and Monkey) and a ship. Players quickly learned that the pirates on Melee were scared of the ghost pirates on Monkey, but beyond this there was little sense of how Guybrush’s story fit into a larger universe. Gilbert, as discussed, was more interested in the hidden truth behind what was right in front of the player, rather than anything happening off-screen. Schafer, on the other hand, would come to prioritize world-building, creating the sense of a living, breathing ecosystem that exists around the game’s protagonist and beyond. Schafer’s games are not just about finding truth in the immediate but locating oneself in the infinite, as a small piece of something greater. Monkey Island 2 demonstrated some early experimentation with this by situating Guybrush in a more fully realized Caribbean, spending much of the game flitting about the “tri-island area.”

Though more fleshed out, the world of Monkey Island 2 remained highly rational, as every piece of the environment, however vivid—from the spitting contest to the Voodoo Lady’s shack—connected thoughtfully to the game’s puzzles. The game world still felt self-contained, Gilbertian through and through; players did not have the sense there was anything interesting going on just past the edge of their computer screens. This would change when Schafer took on his first project as a solo lead designer, the hugely successful 1995 title Full Throttle. Here players took on the role of Ben, the leader of a rough-and-tumble biker gang called the Polecats, as they became embroiled in a murderous conspiracy. Right off the bat, Schafer threw down a world-building gambit previously unseen in the rationalist sphere. As the camera pans down during the game’s opening cutscene, we see a limo driving down a barren desert road. It has no wheels; it is some kind of hovercar.

With practically the first image of the game, and no subsequent explanation, Schafer subverted our expectations of the world. Immediately we recognized that this game existed in a similar but distinct universe to our own, and its rules were not entirely clear or necessarily rational. Through subtle world-building like this, Schafer declared that exploration in adventure games was no longer only about deconstructing pieces of the environment in order to solve puzzles. Rather, it was our route into the world itself. Hovercars were not essential to Full Throttle’s puzzles, but rather to its spirit as an urban fairy tale about the wheels-on-the-ground heroes who take on the corrupt businessmen floating callously above them. We wanted to solve the game’s puzzles, sure, but we also just wanted to live in this world and be part of the emotional journey of its story. Adventure games are more than a sum of their parts, Schafer was trying to say: they are strange and beautiful microverses.

Dissolving the boundary between player and game was the holy grail of romantic adventuring for Schafer—how to make the players feel not like a detached thinker, as in Gilbert’s ideal, but an inhabitant of the game. Starting with 1993’s Day of the Tentacle, which Schafer directed alongside Dave Grossman, audiovisual aesthetics became a central tool Schafer would use to bring game worlds to life. Ostensibly a sequel to Maniac Mansion, but in spirit more of a romantic reimagining, DotT was technologically cutting-edge, innovating full-voice speech and employing record numbers of sound effects and animations. The result was close to an interactive Saturday morning cartoon, and players responded to how fun and funny the game was on a sensory level—its caricaturish cast and slapstick sight gags—not only in terms of its logic and formal structure. Full Throttle pushed the audiovisual envelope further with an authentic biker gang soundtrack, a mix of 2D and 3D art, and a revision of the standard LucasArts adventure interface. Whereas in previous titles the bottom third of the screen was devoted to displaying the player’s inventory and available interaction “verbs,” Full Throttle reconceived how actions and items were accessed so that the entire screen could be devoted to the game world itself.

In addition to developing new principles of romantic adventuring, Schafer experimented with reconfiguring or bypassing the rationalist tenets on which the genre was built. In order to give players a more visceral feel of being the leader of a badass motorcycle gang, Full Throttle featured an extended sequence that broke from the standard environment/inventory-based puzzle-solving. Players were tasked to roam the open roads, engaging rival bikers in physical combat. The mechanics of this action game-within-a-game—a combination of strategic weapon selection and frantic mouse clicking—became the most critically disliked aspect of an otherwise acclaimed work. It felt as though Schafer were breaking the rules of what players had come to expect from LucasArts titles, but he had done so hesitantly, apologetically, with little depth to the fighting system and no consequence to failing other than being forced to get up and try again. The result felt more like padding to an already short game rather than a true innovation, and it did not succeed in making players feel more like participants in Ben’s world.

The result felt like padding an already short game. 

Schafer also tried to subvert the Gilbertian policy of no player death, which was antithetical to Schafer’s vision of a more emotional gaming experience. The final section of Full Throttle consisted of sequences that, if not completed quickly enough, resulted in death—with the caveat that the game then immediately reloaded to just before your demise. The gameplay during these portions remained the standard environment/inventory-based puzzle-solving, and ultimately the result was no more dramatic than before, as death had been introduced as a minor inconvenience with no lasting consequence.

Schafer subsequently ceded defeat in his effort to tweak these fundamental principles of rationalist adventuring: his next and final LucasArts effort, Grim Fandango, not only removed the possibility of player death, but in a wry twist featured a cast of characters who were already dead. Schafer also stopped trying to introduce mechanics outside of the usual Gilbertian fare until after leaving LucasArts and founding Double Fine, with the release of the action-adventure-platforming classic Psychonauts in 2005. But where Full Throttle was a mixed bag of failures and successes in turning the adventure game romantic, Grim proved to be Schafer’s greatest success—adherence to rationalist adventuring tenets notwithstanding.

Grim Fandango followed down-on-his-luck Land of the Dead travel agent Manny Calavera through the Eighth Underworld on a four-year journey of the soul, as he attempts to save Mercedes Colomar, a woman he believes he has wronged, and possibly loves. The game continues to be celebrated for its rich world-building, presenting a fully realized fusion of noir fiction and Mexican folklore that players must gradually discover through exploration and dialogue. Grim was also a towering achievement in audiovisual design, with a brilliant and complex score by Peter McConnell, impeccable voice performances, and some of the most impressive art and animation that had been featured in a videogame, adventure or otherwise, to date.

Thirdly, Grim represented a major accomplishment in establishing complex interpersonal relationships between players and NPCs, something that Schafer first showed real interest in on Full Throttle. As Manny, players cultivated game-long ties to an ambiguous love interest, a bitter rival, a stalwart companion, and a host of meaningful friends. Relationships were not incidental background flavor but formed the foundation of the player’s motivation to complete the game. This was supremely romantic: Fichte emphasized that notions of self and self-awareness were inextricably social. We cannot not know ourselves in isolation; our very existence depends on recognizing and being recognized by others. Unlike Descartes’ prizing of objective knowledge, Fichte—and by extension Schafer—rooted the key to enlightenment in the imperative to know thyself, which was accomplished in large part through the intersubjective—that is, through relationships with others.

Grim Fandango’s most controversial innovation was its introduction of “tank controls” to the genre. Rather than pointing-and-clicking with the mouse, the player directed Manny’s movements and actions with the keyboard. This control scheme, combined with the game’s move to 3D models on prerendered backgrounds, made the sensory experience of playing feel closer to Resident Evil than Monkey Island. Many criticized this change, lamenting the sense that Grim was bleeding into other genres, and that if it wasn’t point-and-click, it wasn’t really an adventure game.

This was a gross overstatement; Grim was less a categorical shift from its predecessors than a dimensional progression, an evolution. It maintained all of the characteristics familiar to rationalist adventuring, as well as a pitch-perfect integration of Schafer’s romantic ideals. The tank controls, for all their awkwardness, were the next significant move toward a more romantic vision of adventuring. “Tank controls I thought were superior to point-and-click at the time, because when you’re pointing-and-clicking, you’re distant from the screen and the screen is this other thing that you’re interacting with at your fingertips,” Shafer remarked in the commentary track of the recently released of Grim Fandango Remastered (2015). “But when you’re doing tank controls, you feel like you are in the center of the character, and the world is rotating around you.”

By removing the cursor, verbs, and inventory from the screen, and putting the player directly in charge of Manny’s skeletal body, Schafer turned the player from a logical overseer telling Manny what to do into Manny himself. What Schafer had tried but could not fully achieve in Full Throttle was now front and center in Grim Fandango: immersion had come to adventure games, and there was no turning back. The experience of feeling truly ensconced in Grim’s vivid Land of the Dead provoked a previously unconsidered question: Could any game be romantic?

Outside the adventure genre, contemporary releases like Half-Life (1998), Silent Hill (1999), and Metal Gear Solid (1998) were beginning to integrate notions of world-building, audiovisual aesthetic, and to a lesser extent interpersonal relationships into more visceral play experiences. Critical interest was moving away from discrete genres toward romantic notions of hybridization and gameplay fueled by emotions. Sales figures, particularly in the exploding console market, suggested that players wanted to be as immersed as possible. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the smash hit of 1999–2000, and far from a romantic adventure, nevertheless allowed players to feel like a skateboarder as intimately as Full Throttle’s action sequences had failed to make players feel like a biker.

The overwhelming critical praise of Grim Fandango (and decent sales, despite its reputation as a commercial disappointment) secured its position in the gaming pantheon. It would be named on countless “Game of the Year” lists and inspire a new generation of designers who, due to the shifting tides of the industry, would go on to work on just about everything except graphic adventures. As Schaferian ideals seeped into the collective consciousness of broader videogame theory, the graphic adventure was left with little to distinguish itself apart from the rationalist tenets innovated by Gilbert—just as the people who played videogames seemed increasingly disinterested in measured, thoughtful puzzle-solving. And so, with great irony, the critical and commercial descent of a genre built on rationalism fell on the shoulders of Grim Fandango, the most romantic adventure ever produced.

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“Only when they must choose between competing theories do scientists behave like philosophers.” – Thomas Kuhn, Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?

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On December 18, 2014, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick successfully Kickstarted a new game called Thimbleweed Park. The pitch was, “It’s like opening a dusty old desk drawer and finding an undiscovered LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before.” Meanwhile, Tim Schafer is nearing the release of Act Two of Broken Age, his return to a more traditional point-and-click format, and the HD remaster of Grim Fandango just hit the PC and PS4. For the past several years, the iPad App Store has been filled with hit adventures, if not always traditional ones, from Superbrothers to Year Walk to The Room. XBLA and PSN have been stuffed with indie adventure game entries for the last half decade. Are we entering a rationalist revival?

In truth, despite Gilbert’s nostalgic pitch for Thimbleweed Park, videogames can never return to a fully rationalist or romantic orientation. We have entered a postmodern era, in which our once-profound question, “What makes this a videogame?” has been rendered irrelevant. Gaming and interactivity are becoming so prevalent in our culture that we are now less concerned with the question, “Is it a game?” as the question, “Is it interesting?”

Adventure games seemed to be dying in 2000, but in fact they survived through osmosis. As the industry paradigm shifted from rationalism to romanticism, many of the things players loved about rationalist adventures—their intelligence, humor, and humanity—began to emerge like seedlings in genres that had previously been devoid of these characteristics. Adventure games were not dead, but hibernating, waiting for the opportunity to remind everyone that, in fact, we had been playing adventure games all along. The specific aesthetics of pure Gilbertian titles may not be for everyone, but in a hybridized philosophical landscape, romanticism and rationalism are no longer an either/or proposition. Broken Age and Thimbleweed Park can coexist alongside other, very different games that nevertheless share certain underlying values. The “return” of the adventure game should be seen not so much as necromancy as the granting of a lifetime achievement award. Gilbert and Schafer’s games are special. They showed us different and evolving visions of truth and authenticity, and for that we are indebted to them. It may have taken 15 years, but “dead and buried” has been replaced with “alive and well.”