Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone

Bonello recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and is currently an Assistant Lecturer in the School of Arts, UKC. Her PhD research comprised a theoretical analysis of the interrelationship between ‘alternative’ comedy and punk. She graduated from the University of Malta with BAs in English Literature and Law, and completed an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute (Stratford-upon-Avon). Her current research includes comedy, literary and cultural theory, horror films, and the intersections between Game Studies, critical theory, and performance.

Contact information:
kb362 at

Self-Reflexivity and Humor in Adventure Games

by Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone


This article focuses primarily on the “adventure game” genre, its metafictional humor, and tendency towards self-parody in both its formative stage and its more recent ensuing nostalgic turn, with particular reference to Zork (Infocom, 1980), LucasArts’ Monkey Island games (1990-2000), and Telltale’s parodic-nostalgic “Reality 2.0” (Sam and Max, 2007). The article highlights a tendency towards parody on the levels of intertextual allusion, metafictional self-reflexivity, and meta-mediality. Parody is discussed in its relation to players’ expectations for the genre. The limitations and possibilities available to the player are discussed in relation to their comic potential. The comic is considered as providing the basis for moments where action is interrupted (interaction becoming inter[rupting]action), and an opportunity for digression. This becomes a means of playful re-engagement in itself, sometimes in the form of a ‘joke’ on the player. This is followed by discussion of a more recent ‘nostalgic turn’, with the parodic approach intersecting with the nostalgic. Finally, the discussion will consider possible implications of the effects of such comic tactics for player engagement and “immersion”, in relation to adventure games. The theoretical framework used is indebted to literary and critical theory — particularly theories of parody, and theories which touch upon the “comic” element at play.

Key Words: Adventure, genre, metafiction, meta-medial, parody, nostalgia, humor, comedy, self-reflexivity.

An established medium or genre provokes, as Guillén (1971) notes, the formation of its countergenre — which both parodies and de-forms, and sets the seal on the parodied text(s). This process tends to take place soon after a genre’s “inception”, and thus has a hand in marking it out as established and codified, as conventions become identifiably associated with a genre. This article considers the process in relation to adventure games, working towards the suggestion that humor is a frequent and often crucial aspect in the experience of playing such a game (and a key factor contributing towards their replayability). Parody is here considered as ‘countergenre’ (with the implication of a close relation to genre[1] and genre-formation), and metafictional self-reflexivity is considered as both a device for producing humor and a signal of ‘genre’. Since parody inhabits its target, it is bound to it — this is the “central paradox of parody” that Linda Hutcheon identifies (1985, p. 26). It therefore tends to be, to some extent, self-referential as well as intertextual. Thus parody is here considered as having a metafictional dimension (Shklovsky, 1990; Hutcheon, 1985), as well as a comic element (Rose, 1993).

With games as a popular medium, the process becomes startlingly clear; within the course of little more than a generation, it seems we have witnessed a phenomenon that could be described as the “birth” of a medium and its development as it took shape, coalescing around distinct genres. This article focuses primarily on the adventure game genre, its metafictional humor, and tendency towards self-parody, with particular reference to Zork (Infocom, 1980), LucasArts’ Monkey Island (MI) games (1990-2000), and Telltale’s parodic-nostalgic fifth episode of Sam and Max Save the World: “Reality 2.0” (Telltale, 2007). The selection of main reference-points is representative of one established line of development, from Infocom’s Interactive Fiction (IF) through LucasArts adventures (see Black, 2012), which has however had influence beyond this specific lineage. The strong recognisability of the conventions is in itself a relevant factor in considering genre-related parody. Examples of intersections and parodic encounters between text and graphic modes will be considered. Reference will be made to other games for comparative purposes, or where they parodically/nostalgically reference relevant and recognisable conventions. The potential for parody is activated with the very formation of genre. The potential for humor and parody is of course present in every game and genre, and in this respect adventure games afford an exemplary case study. Moreover, the suggestion I put forward here is that humor has enjoyed a particular centrality in this genre from its inception, making it a particularly rich genre to consider in this light, with the comic coming to characterize gameplay, replayability, and engagement on a more intrinsic level.

As Nick Montfort notes, the inaugural Adventure (Crowther and Woods, 1975-6) led into an meta-medial “endgame” mode which led the player character to encounter the other inhabitants of the gameworld as uninitialized variables — thus, “the canonical first work of interactive fiction concludes by violating levels of narrative and simulation” (Montfort, 2005, p. 90). It thereby incorporates a self-aware ‘parodic’ re-configuration of the terms of interaction with the gameworld, within a meta-medial/metafictional framework made accessible to the player[2]. This tendency towards self-referential and metafictional commentary would come to characterize the genre (see Lessard, 2012, p. 126[3][).

Adventure games have received attention as a focus of study — for example: Montfort’s (2005) seminal work on IF; Lessard’s (2013) historically contextualising view of the genre’s development and transitions; Fernández-Vara’s (2009) analysis of adventure games in terms of performance. Rather less however has been written on the comic workings of such games. Dormann and Biddle (2009) discuss humor in games more generally, through a qualitative study of player experiences, commenting on the cognitive and social potential of humor. Lessard (2012) discusses the self-referential humor in Crowther and Woods’ Adventure as an example of “hacker humor”, situating it in the context of late 70s’ programming culture, where “hack” indicated a level of technical expertise. Black (2012) analyses The Secret of Monkey Island (SMI) in terms of the relationship between code and screen (the latter being the “representational” level accessible to the player), and suggests that parody often arises from on-screen commentary on the negotiation and possible tension between the two. Identifying particular moments in Zork, Harpold (2007) discusses limitations of medium as opportunity for metalepsis[4], which may be recuperated “within the semiotic plane of play” through “recapture” — a device which masks technical limitations by reincorporating them into the gameworld. Harpold does not focus on the comic potential of such moments, though this may be inferred. Discussion of the comic effect has therefore tended to be incidental, and where it has been the primary focus, this has usually been either in terms of more general suggested potential, or emerging in the course of analysing a specific example.

Here I take the approach of a more sustained look at the comic (which may include such devices) in relation to genre and player expectations, considering moments which seem to foreground disconnection rather than recapture. While the recognition of conventions plays a key part in the discussion, I do not attempt here to lay out an exhaustive poetics of the ‘adventure’ genre, nor would I claim that it is characterized by entirely self-containing boundaries (exceptions and crossovers are also acknowledged here). My approach is indebted to critical and literary theory, particularly theories of comedy and parody, and theories which touch upon the “comic” element at play. I would suggest that a consideration of the comic benefits from an approach which may be applied across disciplines and media. Shklovsky’s account of parody has focused on the “laying bare” of devices in the novel (Shklovsky, 1990); while, in a related vein, a similar “demystifying power” has been ascribed to the comic more generally (Flieger, 1991, p. 183; Zupančič, 2008, pp. 204-5).

The comic element will first be considered in its relation to players’ expectations for the genre. The limitations and possibilities available to the player, and the opportunity for digression and detour, will be discussed, giving consideration to the reduction in available actions from text to graphic adventure (see Fernández Vara 2009, pp. 114-5). Parody is discussed in terms of its ability to ‘halt’ and interrupt play, making the player aware of the manipulation at work through the defamiliarization or “laying bare” (Shklovsky, 1990) of ‘learned’ conventions, the player’s positioning, and the player’s own expectations. This is considered as a means of playful re-engagement in itself, sometimes in the form of a ‘joke’ on the player. Escape from Monkey Island (LucasArts, 2000) is considered as suggesting a turning-point in terms of comedic self-referentiality. This is followed by discussion of a more recent ‘nostalgic turn’, with the parodic approach intersecting with the nostalgic, as another means of engaging with established conventions which also acknowledges distance. The question of nostalgia leads into a consideration of the “replayability” of adventure games, suggesting that this quality may reside in the player’s engagement with the humor. Finally, the discussion will consider possible implications of the effects of such comic tactics for player engagement and “immersion”, in relation to adventure games.

Detours and Delightful Dead Ends

On the one hand, the adventure game is a genre immediately so self-referential, it seems to weave a network of texts that refer back to themselves in a way that “establishes” its credentials as genre — on the other, it actively sets up a two-way participatory dynamic, making the player aware of the interplay between the medium’s limitations and the possibilities they enable. The possibilities for digression within this framework of balancing limitations and possibilities (see Fernández-Vara, 2009, pp. 211-3) are here considered in terms of comic function.

Drawing upon Blanchot, and following on from Freud’s emphasis on “displacement” and “diversion” in joking-techniques (Freud, 2001, p. 51), Jerry Aline Flieger bases her theory of the comic on long-circuiting and excess, the comic play residing in “the something left over” (Flieger, 1991, pp. 178-9, 110). “Error”, digression, “proliferating objects”, and the capacity for wandering astray interact with repetition to found the comic (Flieger, 1991, pp. 179-180).

Even given the punishing deaths and constraints of lexical recognition, Zork’s developers saw the exploration of the useless as one of the most delightful features of the game. Indeed, part of the delight in this respect might stem precisely from finding out the text-parser’s limits, encouraging experimentation:

A great deal of the enjoyment of such games is derived by probing their responses in a sort of informal Turing test: “I wonder what it will say if I do this?” The players (and designers) delight in clever or unexpected responses to otherwise useless actions. (Lebling, Blank, and Anderson, 1979, p. 52)

From the bewildering number of rooms in Zork, and the “punishing” of “wrong” choices by character-death, to MI’s narrower range of options and locations, a shift may be seen in the adventure game’s balance of limitations and possibilities, with wrong routes becoming increasingly unavailable post-MI.

However, despite the occasional heightened streamlining of choices in graphic adventures[5], I suggest that this potential for straying, already present in Zork, is not abandoned even within the “narrow[er] range of actions available to players” (Black, 2012, p. 217), and the closing-off of “wrong” paths in MI-influenced adventures. In these, a certain freedom is enabled by encouraging the player to try out all available dialogue options and click on any object with no fear of fatally compromising progress in the game. This allows paradoxically, for digressions and incidental dialogue, the only purpose of which is humorous diversion, unlinked to narrative progression. Indeed, this is more in line with comedy’s tendency to favour situations which incur no fatal or severe consequences (Sypher, 1980, p. 254). One post-MI example is Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Revolution, 1996), where the player character has the option to talk to any character about any inventory-item — ranging from a used tissue to a “priceless gem” — for a variety of responses, including “What kind of madman would go around waving a priceless gem under people’s noses?”, without fear of actual plot-repercussions, such as accidentally giving it away to (or having it snatched by) the wrong non-player character.

The attention to detail implied sometimes extends to background, and occasionally rewards the “pixel-hunting” which was rapidly becoming one of the most notorious sources of frustration in graphic adventures — causing players to search over details not just for an item that might be required to advance the game, but also for small items or bits of background that might yield associated humorous descriptions or comments.

On the other hand, there may be clearly visible objects on the screen which cannot be used, but can be interacted with (clicked on) to trigger a sometimes object-specific comment on the very nature of their uselessness. I would suggest that this “uselessness” does not entirely dispense with the “ludic” structure of rewards Calleja identifies: “Without repercussions, actions lose their meaning, and thus their execution generates no excitement” (Calleja, 2011, p. 165). The “reward” here may operate, rather, in the manner of a “punch-line”.

In MI, this becomes something to be indulged for its own sake, with “uselessness” becoming a feature of the entire series — for example: the underwater sequence in The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990); the excessively “locked and bolted” door in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (LucasArts, 1991); and the inside-the-snake scene in The Curse of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1997).

Excess objects function as a “narrative-derailing” device by providing red herrings (whose purpose is to de-route) — and where they occur, they are characterized by such over-abundance, that they also constitute an elaborate sort of prank on the player, playing upon the expectations being established by the genre. Various temptingly useful implements, including a number of sharp tools and weapons which seem specifically designed for the task at hand (cutting Guybrush free), litter the ground in the underwater scene in The Secret of Monkey Island (SMI). This puzzle involves resurfacing with the idol holding Guybrush down — but all items, apart from the idol itself, are out of Guybrush’s reach. There is only one “correct” solution (picking up the idol), but the player is free to click on all the other apparent yet inaccessible options. In this puzzle, as Karluhati (2013) points out, “the laws of physics are abstracted to serve [the game’s] core mechanics”: thus, the player is in this instance rewarded for having learned the peculiarity of MI’s adventure-game logic which dictates that everything carried by Guybrush becomes weightless. Yet, the player may also reach this conclusion by elimination — after trying out the ostensibly useful items which litter the scenery.

In The Curse of Monkey Island (CMI), a similar situation occurs when Guybrush is swallowed by a snake. Some valuable-looking items (including a Fabergé egg) and some random “lots-o-stuff” can be picked up within the snake. Assorted items that appear to have more obviously useful potential, such as a cutlass, lie scattered around beyond reach, outside the snake. Moreover, as soon as this puzzle is solved (by mixing a purgative), Guybrush ends up in quicksand, which rapidly “suck[s down] all the cool stuff” just found. This trick on the player echoes MI2, where the player is robbed of the satisfaction of starting out with a treasure-filled inventory (removing the seemingly-promised potential for easy acquisition of necessary items through purchase) — as Guybrush is literally waylaid and robbed, a moment after control has been “ceded” to the player following the opening sequence.

The “teasing” comes full circle with the literal red herring in SMI, which is paradoxically required to solve a puzzle and progress in the game. The red herring, a seeming joking anomaly as a literal representation of diversionary tactics, qualifies as the item of “no real importance” that a troll character demands as bridge-toll. A similar reversal of expectations also occurs in Revolution’s Beneath a Steel Sky (1994), where Joey the Robot’s first body in the game is improvised from a pile of cluttered metal framing the scene and marked out only as “junk”, an undifferentiated mass with no distinguishable object singled out as usable.

The adventure game genre is structured around detours — puzzles frequently open onto other puzzles, leading to 2, 3, 4-part (and upwards) puzzles. In these “concatenated puzzle structures” (see Karhulahti, 2012; Fernández-Vara, 2009, p. 13), the tactic “pick up — combine — use” might have to be repeated a number of times in order to obtain the required item. The valorization of the “useless” and the problematization of the “useful” strikes at the heart of these item-based puzzles, generating potential for error, as expected value is sometimes inverted. Single and combined objects are sometimes made to serve many purposes (and often not the most intuitive one, in a genre where associations could be unmade and remade along any line, including wordplay — for example, the monkey wrench puzzle in MI2, where “monkey” is literalized). On the other hand, a multitude of objects which are specifically designed to do the trick are occasionally offered and revealed to be completely useless — discarded in favour of more indirect routes to solution, eschewing economy and appropriateness in favour of more roundabout routes. In Deponia (Daedalic Entertainment, 2012), for example, anything too obviously useful would be met with Rufus’s retort “who needs fabulous all-round tools anyway?”. Alternatively, as in the case of the intimidating and heavily-bolted door in Lechuck’s Fortress (MI2), the expectation of a puzzle may dissolve.

Figure 1. The "Locked" Door in LeChuck's Fortress. LucasArts. (1991). Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. USA: LucasArts. “Bewildering” puzzle. There is a self-referential allusion here to the expectations for an adventure game, which would include complex puzzles, and a hint that this may not be one of them.

Inter[rupting]Action: *Shudder* Porcelain!

Henri Bergson sees the comic as arising from the interruption of the mechanical and the failure of predictability — the moment where difference rears its head within repetition, and habitual-mechanical behaviour fails to respond to the specificity of that difference, but rather, continues to apply the learned rules. This learned response is revealed to be inadequate, and to proceed from “mechanical inelasticity”, as opposed to what Bergson deems a more “natural” flexibility (Bergson, 1980)[6]. We could recall here the formula for parody, involving both difference and repetition (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 217), both imitation and transformation (Genette, 1997a, p. 5), which also lies more generally behind the “rule of three” in comedy technique (establish — reinforce — overturn; see Double, 2005, pp. 207-8).

The heavily-bolted door in MI2 invites, then interrupts, the player’s customary means of interaction with the genre (the expectation of a puzzle) and might momentarily stump the player. Indeed, it invokes what Veli-Matti Karhulahti (2013) considers a “classic example” of fiction puzzles typical of adventure games, which he describes thus:

[the] locked door problem that involves the navigational puzzle of finding a key by exploring the storyworld through the player character, and the object manipulation puzzle of opening the door by unlocking it with the obtained key.

The typical route to solution would therefore already involve several stages; yet this moment in MI2 actually multiplies the apparent obstacles (the locks and bolts) — before causing the apparent obstructions to dissolve. The implied short-circuiting (through the “open” command) occurs only after/alongside the invitation to uneconomic excess expenditure of energy/skill on the part of the player.

The assumption of human “agency” in this moment translates into awkwardness, and thus inefficiency. Yet, that awkwardness is lingered on, moved into the centre, where the receiver of the joke is also the dupe — exposing the medium’s manipulation at work by breaching the relationship of trust. Any awkwardness here would seem to counterintuitively arise from the excess of skill, rather than the lack thereof — whereby adventure-game conventions and the player’s familiarity with them become the very targets of the parodic gaze (this puzzle occurs towards the end of the game, so a degree of skill-acquisition and honing through repetition could be assumed). The “locked” door’s only “puzzle” thus turns upon the bafflement of the player, turning the awkwardness itself into the focal point — a quasi-Brechtian distancing which provokes a re-thinking of the problem/apparent obstruction, the usual strategies for solution (which no longer apply), and of the player’s role. This may cause even an experienced adventure-gamer to momentarily re-live the newbie’s awkwardness during the acquisition of basic skills[7]. In the capacity for being led comically astray, Flieger remarks the part played by hesitation or “dalliance” (Flieger, 1991, pp. 63, 106). Kant’s notion of surprise and incongruity in jokes may also apply here — where “the joke must have something in it capable of momentarily deceiving us, [a] semblance [which] vanishes into nothing” (Kant, 2007, p. 162).

An overabundance of useless objects and the interruption of productive action may be considered to be a parodic extension and exaggeration of the adventure-game puzzles which constitute the core-gameplay. These have been perceived as “progress-halting” (Grayson, 2012) and “time-wasting” (Ron Gilbert in Laurel, 1993, p. 96)[8], prompting a reconsideration of the relationship between interaction and interruption.

Indeed in one concluding joke on the player, SMI reveals that the player’s actions through the whole game have been one huge “unnecessary” diversion — with Governor Elaine Marley, seeming damsel in distress, finally declaring that she had it under control all along. Black (2012, p. 230) notes that moments such as these draw upon the tension between interactive gameplay and “narrative” in a potentially productive way.

Although Sierra On-Line established a formula for graphic adventure along different lines — incorporating scoring-systems, the possibility of death or failure, and the marked passing of time — the rpg-adventure hybrid Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (Sierra, 1990) offers another interesting example of diversion and derailment as a joke on the player. This springs from a choice offered to the player, and is, however, more final. It turns into a short-circuit to a possible early ending which is not completion, yet does not involve death — and proceeds from something presented as a triumph rather than failure. Upon succeeding at the Wizard Challenges, the hero is given the option of dedicating himself to the Wizard’s Institute of Technocery. If chosen, the “hero” simply opts out of adventuring, thereby entirely ceasing to interact with and impact the world outside the Wizards’ Realm. In the SMI case therefore, play is enabled and constituted by that very diversion, which interrupts the continuing unfolding of the main plot in cutscenes — while in the case of Quest for Glory II, play is seemingly halted by this possibility of radical diversion, paradoxically activated by the player’s choice. In both cases, however, there is a relationship between interaction and interruption, entailing an effect of disconnection from the unfolding events within the game.

This has implications for the positioning of the player, which also has an impact on the way these moments are experienced. In LucasArts adventures, and adventures following these conventions, the player-character relationship itself tends to be characterized by both connection and disconnection. This is true of games more generally, as Vella points out: the player acts within the gameworld through the avatar, yet the player character retains distinct characteristics, leading to an “oscillation” and construction of identity between the two “subject positions” of avatar and player “within”, and “in relation to”, the gameworld (Vella, 2013).

Guybrush Threepwood, however, is a third-person protagonist who has his own personality and might even refuse players’ instructions. This resistance offers a particular kind of dynamic, suggesting a further degree of independence. Guybrush would sometimes address the player, and the player was never “Guybrush”. This was in line with the LucasArts “design philosophy”:

The old LucasArts school of thought was that we never used the word “you” in design documents. We never said “you open the door,” we always said “Manny [Grim Fandango] opens the door.” You were not the main character, and that was a big design philosophy we all shared. (Tim Schafer in Pearce, 2003)

Though alignment in motivation was aimed at, and to some extent “seamless[ness]”, it was not absolute identity — leading to a relationship that could be better described as a haunting or doubling (with the player as the character’s “intuition”, in Schafer’s words).

Reinforcing the impression of disconnection, Guybrush sometimes comments on the impossibility of an action, but other times his refusal is down to “personal” whim, preference or aversion (“Ugh! Porcelain!”), with no other reason for defying the player. Porcelain items are nonetheless present in the games, and can be clicked on, though Guybrush will usually refuse the player’s further interaction with them.

In Discworld 2: Missing Presumed…!? (Perfect Entertainment, 1996), there is a further forking, as voice-actor (Eric Idle) makes his own presence felt in Rincewind’s commentary when he seems to take offense at a play on words involving his name, a skeletal idol, and the expression for “lazy”: “Bone Idle? I’m not quite sure that I really appreciate that joke! Say no more!”. Such devices — disconnection and forking of voices — also serve to interrupt the action; just as direct comments on the player’s attempted actions break the circle of identification.

In Zork, direct address tended on the other hand to align player with character. Harpold notes that in some instances, the second-person address (“you”) indeed interpellates the player as player, rather than simply avatar, for example where the parser warns the player to “respect” the rules. When entering a dark dungeon without a light-source, the warning “You are likely to be eaten by a grue” would appear. However, this is bound up with a simultaneous invitation to recognize (or, paradoxically, “see”) the medium and its “limitations” — the grue is a creature that lurks in darkness — just as the black text-screen could not yet yield up its “secrets”, visually. This is also an instance of the medium’s own myth-spinning. Though the grue was a creature in Vance’s Dying Earth novels, Zork’s “grue” retains no visible physical characteristics (it never ventures into the light), and therefore remains unidentifiable as such. The “examine everything” convention (requiring a light-source, which itself serves to keep the grue at bay) is blocked in this direction, and no description or visualization is forthcoming[9]. In the later Zork Nemesis (Zombie LLC, 1996), despite otherwise seemingly lacking Zork’s customary emphasis on humor, a reference to grues recalls their first [non]appearance — a book found in the game contains an illustration of “the grue in its natural habitat”: black within a featureless black square.

Zork’s text-parser would frequently take on a role as active presence, assuming the identity of “Zork” (typing in >Zork would trigger “At your service!”), and adopting a “first person” voice in relation to the player’s “you” (>eat grue Z: I don’t think that the lurking grue would agree with you). Zork’s designers have anticipated a player’s testing of the limits of the parser through “bad” language. “Zork” recognizes words like “fuck”, “shit”, and “damn”, and responses vary from the gentle reprimand of “Oh dear. Such language from a supposedly winning adventurer!”, to the sneering comeback “Tough shit, asshole”. Lebling (2014) comments on the design intention for the game to both seem to be “omniscient”, and to have “personality”, fashioned after a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. As the examples suggest, the responses are rarely neutral or toneless. They are, however, pointedly inconsistent in terms of personality — this lends itself to the impression that “Zork’s” first-person position is ubiquitous, a gameworld, rather than a centred “I”. This also means however that, despite the player’s increasing familiarity with the rules and available possibilities, the “game” retains the ability to manipulate, surprise, and challenge predictability.

For example, in similar manner to Guybrush’s porcelain aversion, the blocking of certain paths in Zork seems deliberately whimsical, wilful, or vexing — arbitrary, rather than “logical” or otherwise justified:

Z: A dark chimney leads down. >d. Z: Only Santa Claus climbs down chimneys.

Thus, “Zork” suggests what would appear to be an available direction, using the appropriate syntax a player would recognize as indicating this. A degree of predictability is one of the principles for “interactivity” itself, according to Ryan (1994): “The user must be able to foresee to some extent the result of his gestures, otherwise they would be pure movements and not intent-driven actions”. Zork’s interruption of movement in the downward direction works against expectations after invoking them, and in so doing exposes the game’s manipulation of the player, and provides an opportunity for a memorable punch-line.

Telltale’s Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0”, locating itself in the IF-LucasArts lineage as successor to Sam and Max Hits the Road (LucasArts, 1993), ends with a graphic adventure “reality” disintegrating into a text adventure. The selection of commands in the text-adventure climax of Telltale’s Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0” is still limited, with the protagonists’ voice-overs and a point-and-click graphic adventure interface intersecting and sometimes conflicting with the text adventure. There are available dialogue choices, as in the game’s graphic-adventure mode, yet the “text-parser” still fails to “understand” certain words within Max and Sam’s colourful vocabulary, such as “go ballistic”. The text-parser sometimes intervenes, making its presence felt. There is a marked note of exasperation and implied tone, for example, if the player attempts to perform an action that would take the characters back to the beginning of the process:

Ok, you COULD give the Respect for Living Things BACK to the Corporate Presence, but then it would just eat it again and you’d have to run all over the place getting a new Bosco’s store, dipping it in the lake, etc., etc. So let’s just say you did all that and now you have the Respect for Living Things again, ok?

The principle of predictability is here exaggerated, parodically highlighted, and commented upon. The same things would happen all over again, and the player should have learned this. This however, provides the ground for its (unpredictable) interruption, with repetition being here re-routed into comedy. The “limitation” which blocks this useless path functions as yet another opportunity for a metafictional joke on the player, as Sam comments on the highlighted manipulation: “I feel my agency being denied”.

Nostalgia and Parody

In the more recent examples of adventure games considered here, the humor is retained. “Reality 2.0”, for example, works with recognisable conventions from within this established tradition. Conventions are drawn attention to, and parody becomes a means of engaging with[in] that tradition. In their partially-retrospective approach (conventions may be evoked, then playfully reworked), the implied tone and attitude also tend to suggest a degree of nostalgia.

At first sight, parody and nostalgia — as two approaches to re-constructing a “past” — seem odd bedfellows. Nostalgia derived from “nostos — return home, and algia — longing” (Boym, 2001, p. xiii), would seem to desire rapprochement, while parody would tend to emphasize incongruity. Fredric Jameson indeed sees them as mutually exclusive, favouring the challenging playfulness of parody, while being heavily critical of nostalgia (Jameson, 1991, p. 19; 1998, pp. 4-5). Linda Hutcheon on the other hand finds a way to reconcile the two, by distinguishing between “contemporary revivalism” and “postmodernism’s” more “ironic” use of the past (Hutcheon, 1998). After all, parody itself evokes the genre/text it targets — this is the “central paradox of parody” as Hutcheon points out: “its transgression is always authorized. In imitating, even with critical difference, parody reinforces” (Hutcheon, 1985, p. 26).

However, the critical or ironic distance suggested by Hutcheon’s notion of “postmodern” parody is not alone sufficient to explain the interrelationship between nostalgia and parody here. In some instances indeed, nostalgia seems to be uppermost. Jack Keane (Deck13 Interactive, 2007), for example, seems almost to be reverentially celebrating a “dead” genre, while appearing to revive it. At one point, the player enters a room full of adventurers’ debris — which includes — in evident tribute to MI — Jolly Roger flags, and other pirate paraphernalia. These are set out in a manner that suggests untouchable museum pieces, with which the player cannot interact beyond looking. In many other cases however, the approach involves playful irreverence, combining “revivalism” and parody, and coming closer to Margaret Rose’s notion of parody striking a “comic” (rather than predominantly “ironic”) note (Rose, 1993, p. 52).

Escape from Monkey Island (LucasArts, 2000) was the last LucasArts adventure game to be released, and it is as humorously self-referential as the other games in the series. Yet it is difficult to shake the feeling that the self-awareness exhibited in this particular game drives home the closing-in of the genre (and thus appears to further entrench player-expectations in relation to it). Though parody has the ability “to create new works from old” (Rose, 1993, p. 99), the game seems reluctant to offer a “new” direction. Expectations are of course still played with. In the instance of “Monkey Kombat”, the game’s variant of insult-swordfighting, parody is implied in the substitution of elaborate witty insults with monosyllabic sounds. This is, however, rather a case of conventions stripped bare yet faithfully followed, without the turnaround of a punch-line. The learned monosyllabic sound combinations in “Monkey Kombat” forego the appearance of intuitive swashbuckling repartee. The crucial ‘boss’ insult-swordfights in previous games (the Sword Master in SMI and Captain Rottingham in CMI), had involved applying learned responses in novel combinations, with part of the satisfaction in these fights stemming from the feeling that one has intuited correctly, and to some extent proven one’s wit along with Guybrush. Escape’s Monkey Kombat variation on this, however, denies the place of wit, and reduces the insult-trading by stripping it down to sounds emptied of “meaning”. This brings it down to memorising or taking note of the accepted, yet seemingly arbitrary, patterns and combinations — frustrating the player’s attempts to read them in a manner that would construct meaning. With even the illusion of “natural language” denied, this combat makes it clear that this is not a matter of the player’s selection, so much as the application of learned arbitrary rules, requiring only mechanically learned input from the player. This does of course serve to parodically expose the underpinning conventions at work in the earlier games, and may demystify the player’s sense of satisfaction as a participating agent in selecting correctly: there would, in fact, always be one correct pairing of insult-riposte, and the player has always been applying an acquired repertoire of learned responses. However, though the rules shift for the final battle, in accentuating the grind, Monkey Kombat reinforces “mechanical inelasticity” without quite challenging it.

The game seemed moreover to enact the death of the genre, playfully and a little cynically, by re-presenting the entire franchise as a repackaged commercial enterprise. It returned to MI’s “theme park” origins[10] and spun the myth into a satire of American consumerism, offering a further level of reified fictions with locations like Starbuccaneer’s Coffee™ and PlanetThreepwood™. This reproduces and develops the series’ recurring “TM” in-joke in a more sustained way, and the metafictional aspect here refers to the wider production process, demystifying its tendency to spawn franchises, merchandise, spin-offs that exceed the games themselves, as well as the consumerism surrounding the non-independent games industry (and thus the consumers — the fans and players themselves). Guybrush Threepwood™ has become a commodity within his own world. Escape from Monkey Island thus seems to signal its own status as a “redundant” addition, a post-script which reframes the prior entries in the series in a “postmodern” fashion that precludes both over-reverential monumentalising, and the sentimentalization associated with a more conservative-preservationist strand of nostalgia[11].

Figure 2. Starbuccaneer's™ Coffee. LucasArts. (2000). Escape from Monkey Island. USA: LucasArts. “Home of expensive espressos and gentrified java” — combining parodic self-reflexivity towards medium and merchandise.

The adventure game “revival” of recent years responds to this with a heightened self-awareness. The kind of nostalgia more frequently encountered here is one more in line with what terms “reflective nostalgia”, which does not seek to deny distance and indeed “cherishes” it (Boym, 2001, p. 49), reflecting on it in a manner which allows for the adoption of a comic tone of self-awareness. A number of recent adventure games, most notably Deponia, Sam and Max (Telltale, 2006-2010) and Primordia (Wormwood Studios, 2012) have signposted their nostalgia for the genre by highlighting the aforementioned “uselessness” of the required tools, and the increased foregrounding and literalization of “junk” or discarded objects — Deponia’s world is one literally built upon junk and urban waste, while Primordia is set amidst discarded machinery, like the “junk” which can be used to rebuild a robot body in Beneath a Steel Sky.

A recurring group of characters in Telltale’s Sam and Max, first encountered in “Reality 2.0”, is the C.O.P.S. — the Computer Obsolescence Prevention Society, eternally devising doomed schemes for reintegration into a society where they have outlived their “usefulness”. Both parodic and openly nostalgic, “Obsolescence Prevention” suggests an irreducible distance. The C.O.P.S. include a home Pong console, and an arcade gaming machine. Though they prove their “use” in progressing the narrative, another of their functions is to provide mini-games, car decals[12], and the occasional silly jingle. They also extend the games’ metafictional dimension to incorporate within itself a retrospective look at the history of technological media, games, and Artificial Intelligence. This history becomes inextricably intertwined and associated with the history of Sam and Max themselves (foregrounding an awareness of their place in gaming history), as a younger version of Sam is encountered in the process of creating the arcade machine Bluster Blaster in the later episode Sam and Max Beyond Time and Space: “Chariots of the Dogs” (Telltale, 2008).

Figure 3. The C.O.P.S. in Telltale's Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0”, including the arcade machine Bluster Blaster, built by Sam. Telltale Games. (2007). Sam and Max Save the World: “Reality 2.0”. Telltale Games.

In addition to its more recent “updating” of the genre in The Walking Dead (Telltale, 2012), Telltale, founded by former LucasArts game-designers, has been committed to reviving past franchises, which have so far included LucasArts’ Monkey Island and Sam and Max. Forum activity suggests that these early releases were most eagerly-awaited by fans of the LucasArts games, a niche target audience old enough to remember (see also Connors, in Morganti, 2005). Accordingly, the games — while accessible enough in their puzzles to admit new players — are also riddled with humorous allusions as winks at more “seasoned” adventurers (allusiveness being another familiar genre-feature)[13]. Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0” even includes an allusion to “traditional” fantasy elements found in games featuring some kind of dungeon-exploration, such as Zork , through such items as an upgraded/enchanted “+2 Sword”[14]. The nostalgia in this case is, in-keeping with the tone of the series (and of the genre), playfully and even affectionately parodic — the game self-consciously works within the genre, while acknowledging distance.

As previously noted, in one striking instance Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0” breaks its graphic adventure mould to delve even farther back, “reverting” to the conventions pertaining to the “origin” of the genre itself — the text adventure. This supplies the place of the climactic end to the episode, an apocalyptic “end” which returns us to the “primordia” of the world of the genre itself. As the world falls apart, the “climactic” quality provokes the question of medium-specificity, in terms of the medium’s capabilities at different times. The description is deliberately silly and spectacularly excessive (in a manner that seemingly attempts to exceed spectacle, testing the limits of visualization), as though to highlight the limitations of the more “sophisticated” (albeit also nostalgic) graphic adventure, as opposed to the text-based adventure — as all pretence at representational “realism” cracks under a “reality-quake”:

Possibly as a result, the unremarkable office building becomes a remarkable two-storey tall Pamela Anderson, who mumbles something unintelligible before surfing away on a stray pop-up ad (ironically advertising a Pop-Up Blocker). In the distance, an aerial squadron of potbelly pigs begins performing loop-de-loops. The world appears to be ending.

The differentiating factor here is the removal of the graphics — however, this is not a complete separation. As (Boym, 2001, p. xiii) points out, nostalgia rests on “a sentiment of loss and displacement” — nostalgic longing for return thus implies insurmountable distance. In this respect, nostalgia’s creation of a “double exposure” (Boym, 2001, p. xiv) is structurally similar to parody’s “textual doubling” (Hutcheon, 1985, p. 53). As mentioned earlier, the game retains the graphic adventure’s interface, along with its more limited command-options — the player’s ability to test the text-parser’s limits (and explore the environment) is thus reduced; and the protagonists (Sam and Max) are visible and move within the black featureless space. This intersection — with one game-mode occupying, overlapping, or invading another — enables a parodic “double-voicedness” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 195), and suggests an interesting turn: the nostalgic-parodic glance back supplies the means to comment on the parodying text itself, with parody working both ways. Though the player is constrained by limited command-options, other possibilities are opened up. For example, in much the same manner as the indescribable “grue” with no visual counterpart, the abstract becomes a “thing” in this world — one can use a lake of Nauseating Cuteness, pick up a Respect for Living Things (indescribable, insofar as it boasts the standard description for things that are unremarkable — that is, no further description is/can be attached to it: “you see nothing special about it”), and encounter a villainous Shambling Corporate Presence. It is therefore implied that there are certain limitations which circumscribe its graphical successors, but which the text-adventure can cheerfully disregard[15]. Nostalgia is thus doubly-embedded in the game, allowing it to turn around and comment parodically on the current wave of adventures, which includes Telltale’s own Sam and Max.


Another intriguing parodic-nostalgic “guest-appearance” of the genre occurs in a non-adventure game. In the most medium-referential sequence (“http://deckers.die”) in Saints Row: The Third (Volition, 2011), a game which foregrounds comical excess above all else, the cyberworld of Matt Miller (Decker Boss) includes a nostalgic journey through selected moments from gaming history. There is a Tank! (Atari Inc., 1974) sequence, and a short text-adventure. The latter requires picking up a light-source, features an encounter with a unicorn as a fantasy element, and entails a number of possible ridiculous ways to die (all involving an unforeseeable-yet-inevitable “loose flagstone”, in a parody of a chance encounter). As in Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0”, the engagement between game-modes introduces a note of playful conflict, as the player character’s voice-over frequently expresses frustration (“is there a lower difficulty?”), grumbling at the check on the abilities usually available to him/her (and by extension, reflecting the player’s expectations for the game, which must be adjusted for this part). In what may be a nod to Zork, directions and options are sometimes indicated, then denied — for example, “go through hole” is blocked by the parser: “you’re not big enough”. The player character exclaims in frustration, “Then why mention the damn hole!”.

This text adventure — while being a mini-game integrated into the level — also serves as a potentially looped diversion from the main game, offering the option of replay rather than loading up an earlier save in the case of failure, or moving onto the next stage after successful completion. This is unusual within the context of the game, where completion of one stage usually leads into the next; variants on particular mini-games are available at different locations, but these variants are not integrated as potential diversions/interruptions within the main quest-line. The selected attribute of the adventure highlighted here is therefore its replayability, as a property which rests primarily in the player’s engagement with the humor and willingness to attempt a variety of possible responses within the limited branching of the mini-game — even those that are “wrong”, “pointless”, or dead ends. Nostalgic appeal, also highlighted, is implicit in the very act of replay.

Don’t Shit Your Pants! (Decade Studios, 2009) offers another example where nostalgia and parody converge, centring on an action rarely considered plot-worthy. The pattern for an adventure game puzzle identified by Fernández-Vara (2009, p. 140) which involves a trivial action magnified into a puzzle, often involving more than one step, is here distilled to the point of reductio ad absurdum. As in Saints Row the Third’s text adventure, this game likewise encourages attempts to find out all available actions through replay (including some ridiculously disproportionate solutions to the very mundane situation of needing to defecate, such as typing in “die”). Achievements are awarded for discovering alternate endings, or diversions from the goal, within this limited scenario where the one ostensible aim is that contained in the title.


The examples considered here have entailed some interruption of action, identification, expectation, or continuity. The possible impact of such moments on “immersion” is therefore worth a closer look.

Lebling et al. remark that Zork “tries to be real” (Lebling et al, 1979, p. 52), with its own surrounding geography, internal consistency, and the illusion of an “omniscient” gameworld (Lebling, 2014). Lebling notes that this was an attempt to “make it a non-mechanical experience”; yet, the player’s interaction occurs as the player learns how to play the game (Lebling, 2014) and acquires familiarity with the possibilities allowed by the game. The “non-mechanical experience” provided is therefore to an extent the product of an illusion achieved through “manipulation”, as Lebling himself acknowledges.

The association of immersion with a sealed-off and cohesively enclosing world suggests a “totality” of experience (Grau, 2003, p. 13). In suggesting a seamless, unified, and cohesive “total” and “immediate” experience, “immersion” as used here owes a debt to the Wagnerian notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of media into an all-encompassing “total” or “integrated” work of art (Wagner, 1849), which concealed the mechanisms producing the illusion — a mechanical aspect such illusion nonetheless relied on (Ballard, 2014, pp. 133-5).

The notion that such games are predominantly immersive in the sense of comprising a coherent “totality” could be countered by the aforementioned magnifying and sometimes fragmenting focus on the trivial, which distracts from the sense of overarching continuity. Fernández-Vara (2009, p. 140) compares this to Brechtian techniques for “undermin[ing]” immersion, in its ability to break with the assumed automatism of such actions in “everyday” life. It is also countered by the meta-mediality displayed by the games considered here (including Zork), and their tendency to draw attention to the fact that they are manifestly different from the “real world”, yet not disconnected enough to form a self-enclosed “world apart” — for example, the culminating “Turn off your computer and go to sleep!” in SMI, and the stream of “constructive” suggestions directly addressed to the player after the end-credits have rolled in MI2 (“like […] run for president, […] or milk a cow […] or confuse the person next to you”), which maintain the game’s comic tone at the threshold of play. Comical inconsistencies within the world also persist, and include anachronistic and seemingly displaced elements within the MI games, such as the grog vending-machine. These are somewhat recuperated within the wider MI-mythos with the framing narrative in MI2. The closure there, however, does not completely seal the narrative, and has the feel of a “false ending”; Ron Gilbert allegedly retains the key (the “Secret”) to fully decoding the ending. The “secret” itself, which would provide closure, remains elusive — the impossible and founding puzzle, both promised and withheld, and a topic for endless speculation and object of pursuit even “outside” the games. Gilbert himself stokes up (and puts spokes in) the debate, by regularly teasing the fans — as with the “pi[e]-in-the-sky” reference in Grumpy Gamer (14 March 2008), where an endlessly-deferring pi is offered in place of the “secret”.

Immersion refers to the player’s role as well as experience. The “Wagnerian” kind of immersion was sometimes accused of fostering passivity in an audience. Brecht, for example (1964, p. 38), saw it as dangerously seductive (“witchcraft”), and devised theatrical techniques which would break the spell and enable a more active audience-perspective by establishing critical distance. Of course, active involvement is more readily expected in games, though its relationship with immersion is complex (as it is, indeed, in other media). Calleja (2011, p. 35) points out that “involvement” is an aspect that must be taken into account as a pre-requisite for the player’s experience of “presence” and “immersion” when considering games, suggesting an alternative view of the process (towards “incorporation”). Murray sees participation as reinforcing the sense of “presence” in immersion (1997, p. 125). Lebling (2014) points out that the construction of the gameworld in Zork occurs in tandem with the player’s interaction with it — a relationship which builds upon the player’s expectations, adapting them to the gameworld as a means of more seamlessly facilitating the process of “learning” to play. This also increases the player’s involvement and investment in the world.

However, the moments I have considered are of particular interest precisely because they seem to mobilize the player’s involvement against immersion, turning interaction into inter[upted/ing]action, rather than being a means towards the experience implied by immersion.

Ryan (1994) has discussed the relation between “interactivity” and “immersion”. “Interactivity” is seen by Ryan (2006, p. 108) as having the potential to enhance immersion (particularly “internal interactivity” — for example, through identification with, or projecting onto, an avatar), and to disrupt it (for example, in some cases of “external interactivity”, which may grant more “authorial” control to the player). Fernández-Vara (2009, pp. 211-3) notes the aptness of Murray’s term, “scripting the interactor”, to describe the limiting of the player as “interactor” to accord with the behaviour permitted within the adventure, which tends to return the player’s exploration to a “pre-set path”. This interaction, she notes, is (usually invisibly) shaped by constraints (“script”) which draw force from the players’ expectations, which in turn could be based on conventions cued in by the game. Hence, player participation becomes complicit in its own constraint.

The examples presented here have included occasions where detours have been anticipated, teasingly invited, then blocked with comic effect — highlighting the limitations imposed on the player by the game. In these instances, the player becomes aware of the limitations of interactivity itself, as well as of immersion within the gameworld, and the way both draw upon conventional expectations — even while the player’s involvement is shown to be part of this process.

Between interactivity as enhancing, and interactivity as having the potential to disrupt immersion, a key differentiating factor often mentioned is the impression of immediacy — the extent to which one’s experience appears to be direct and unmediated. Lombard and Ditton claim that: “For an illusion of nonmediation to be effective, the medium should not be obvious or obtrusive — it should not draw attention to itself and remind the media user that she/he is having a mediated experience” (Lombard and Ditton, 1997; see also: Ryan, 1994; and Bolter & Grusin on the “desire for immediacy”, 1999, pp. 21-30). The intrusion of self-reflexivity and meta-medial awareness disrupts the illusion of “immediacy” and “transparency” usually associated with immersion. In response to the powerful “myth of transparency”, Bolter and Gromala (2003, p. 67) suggest the desirability of interface oscillating between “transparency” (the window) and “reflective” (the mirror). As they note, this is not a pure or straightforward opposition, but it helps to describe a possible source for comic effect, which may arise from instances where the transition itself is marked and exploited for comic potential, and some kind of contrast is momentarily foregrounded, such as in the intersection between graphic and text modes — not merely as juxtaposition of separate elements, but elements which can collide, interact, and intrude upon each other.

“Emotional” immersion, associated by Ryan (2005, p. 9) with “emotional attachment to the characters”, is disrupted by the interruption of identification, considered above. Ron Gilbert (in Agnello, 2012) comments on the difficulties inherent in humor which targets the player, and voices his preference for avoiding directly “mak[ing] fun of the player for failing” — in this case, he notes, the character may be the target of the joke instead of the player. As the examples above demonstrate, however, the joke in MI does occasionally rebound on the player. However, it is always in a playfully comic, rather than mocking, tone — even more so in the absence of the possibility of “failure”. The indirect route Gilbert favours suggests a view of humor as requiring a degree of emotional detachment, although he also sees the player’s relationship with the character as involving strong “empath[y]”. As we have seen, a comic effect tends to arise from abrupt dissociation which interrupts such empathy, with the character sometimes coming into conflict with the player’s wishes.

The association of the comic with emotional detachment can be found in Bergson’s “anaesthesia of the heart” (1980, pp. 63-4; see also Critchley, 2002, p. 88), and suggests a distancing process similar to Brechtian techniques of “alienation”, which aim to achieve critical distance by discouraging empathy (Brecht, 1964, pp. 14, 78). This also suggests a route towards re-turning the joke onto the player. Where the player him/herself is implicated, this has usually been in the direction of additional awareness — of the limits on their control, and of the way their own expectations are shaped by convention. This awareness may also result in an effect of critical self-distancing. We could recall here the “se dédoublement” (self-doubling) that Baudelaire (1976, p. 192) suggests takes place to enable the target of the joke to share in the amusement, since as the comic object one does not partake in that laughter. The compelling quality of the self-awareness offered here through comic distancing is the feeling that one has been “let in” on a joke, given access to a usually-concealed mechanism.

The relationship between immersion and the comic could be further explored with reference to an adventure game which appears to break this mould. In spite of the meta-medial potential inherent in the notion of “worlds contained in books”, Myst (Cyan, 1993) strives after an immersive experience which goes hand-in-hand with a more earnest approach. This serves as a reminder that there are exceptions — in focusing on particular games and moments in games, my aim has been to identify tendencies within a genre, rather than attempt an exhaustive reading that posits thorough generic homogeneity. On the other hand, the observation regarding Myst does tend to reinforce the suggestion of a correlation between the comic and the interruption of immersion.


My reading has focused on moments which are not accommodated by notions of “immersion” and “recapture”. Though Harpold (2007) also deals with moments of increased visibility of medium which may threaten the “integrity” of the “gameworld”, self-reflexivity and humor may be alternative routes, taken where reinforcing consistency is not the primary concern. While the self-reflexivity of genre and meta-mediality also function here as part of the gameworld, interruptions becoming part of the gameplay, there is a resistance to complete and seamless reincorporation, highlighting the mediality on a level accessible to the player.

Within parameters, in both the graphic and text adventures considered here there is the possibility of wandering astray — even if this takes the form of exploring “uselessness”, or results in dead ends. Dead ends, digressions, and turnabouts may provide the opportunity for a “punch-line”, or a humorous metafictional parodic turn. Interaction in these moments — which suggest a derailment of seemingly intuitive response or action — manifests itself to the player as inter[rupting]action. The combined effect of nostalgia and parody is to introduce another intervening distance, and suggests another avenue for engagement through the comic. Such moments of disconnection or interruption, indeed, do not entail an absence of engagement, but rather an avenue towards reconsidering or shifting the means of that engagement. In drawing attention to and exploiting fractures in the coherence of the gameworld(s), these instances accentuate disjunction, and hence the comic pleasure derived from the teasing and diversionary “pleasure of the game” (Lyotard in Flieger, 1991, p. 191), prolonging and enhancing the games’ re-playability. Manipulation laid bare takes the form of “play” with the player, and the player’s [re]engagement occurs through sharing the joke, and re-considering her own expectations.

Once learned, conventions recede from awareness as habit takes over. This article has drawn attention to instances where both manipulation and the underlying mechanical-habitual nature of learned skills are deliberately exposed, with comic effect. Rather than being merely exceptional instances, it is suggested that these moments become intrinsic to the way we experience the games. They are “exceptional” in the sense that they work in contrast to expectations established in the course of play — yet, in so doing, they self-consciously reveal a “typical” aspect of the game and genre, making the player aware of their manipulation by the game, and her/his own expectations in relation to it. It is for this reason that Shklovsky calls the parodic novel Tristram Shandy “the most typical novel in world literature” (Shklovsky, 1990, p. 170). The interesting paradox implied here is that metafictional humor itself becomes a genre convention, associated with adventure games which — often self-referentially and intertextually — claim/situate themselves within a particular lineage.


I would like to thank Daniel Vella, Lara Schembri, and Veli-Matti Karhulahti, for reading over this article, and lots of stimulating debate on our shared passion for adventure games. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and suggestions.


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[1] With ‘para-’ indicating a relationship of both “nearness and opposition” (Rose, 1993, p. 9).

[2] For Gérard Genette, parody is a species of “transtextuality”, and more particularly “hypertextuality” — categories which involve the relationship between texts (Genette, 1997a, pp. 1, 7). He is sceptical of the possibility that a text could incorporate within itself its own self-parody (p. 124); yet, he recognizes the etymological meaning (par + odia) as singing “in counterpoint” (p. 10), which would seem to allow for the possibility of “intratextual” parody, a possibility I would like to take into account here. Margaret Rose suggests this possibility too when she claims that “unlike satire, the parody makes the ‘victim’, or object, of its attack a part of its own structure” (Rose, 1993, p. 79). In this particular instance moreover, the endgame — by providing something “in addition” to the “main” game experience, might be seen as being in the nature of Genette’s paratexts, which he does include under the broader banner of transtextuality. A “paratext” as defined by Genette includes presentational devices, titles, epigraphs, and all that surrounds and occurs alongside the “main” body of text: “More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold” (Genette, 1997b, pp. 1-2).

[3] Although Lessard (2012) avoids considering Adventure in terms of later genre developments, taking instead a contextualising approach which places it pre-genre-formation, he acknowledges its rooting of certain traits which later became associated with the genre.

[4] “A metalepsis occurs when the ostensible boundary between two narrative worlds is breached […] Metalepses may be also effected from the domain of the embedded narrative outward” (Harpold, 2007).

[5] A rather extreme example of such narrowing of choices can be seen in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (Frogwares, 2012), where opening a cabinet results in the discovery that “The only thing intact is this bottle of ether.” The crucial item is thereby immediately marked out as significant by being, in fact, the only thing there.

[6] Bergson’s view has further notable applicability beyond the adventure format. Ben Hudson (2014) has discussed in Bergsonian terms the potential for slapstick comedy in on-line multiplayer gaming. He sees this as lying in the discrepancy between the player’s “immersion and embodiment in the game-world and their player avatars” on the one hand, and the “mechanical and inhuman simulation” on the other — an incongruity which can be played upon, once acknowledged.

[7] The comic manner in which immersion may be interrupted (and engagement momentarily re-configured) has potential outside the adventure game. It has something in common with those moments where Calleja suggests that the intensity of incorporation could drop with a modification of the level of “conscious attention” required to complete a task. This could be the case where skills in games requiring kinaesthetic control prove inadequate to the occasion (Calleja, 2011, p. 171), though usually this would be a question of insufficient, rather than excess, kinaesthetic skill.

[8] Grayson expressly opposes this kind of interaction to “action”: “But it’s like Newton would’ve said if he got bonked on the noggin by an old-school point-and-click adventure instead of a fruit meteor: for every action, there is an equal and opposite progress-halting puzzle.”

[9] Though limited descriptions would be offered in some later Zork games, such as Zork: The Undiscovered Underground (Blank and Berlyn, 1997).

[10] Ron Gilbert, who had left the series after MI2, has claimed inspiration from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride (Gilbert, 1990).

[11] Stephen Legg identifies one school of thought that links nostalgia with sentimentalization and the establishment (Legg, 2005, p. 488). This would be consistent with what Svetlana Boym terms “restorative nostalgia”, which “takes itself dead seriously” (Boym, 2001, p. 49).

[12] Gaining all possible decals in Sam and Max Beyond Time and Space: Ice Station Santa (2007) earns one the Playstation trophy “A Range of Completely Worthless Decals” — an achievement which rewards the obtaining of declaredly “worthless” items.

[13] Telltale carries on the LucasArts and Sierra “tradition” of inter-game references to other worlds, usually by the same developers — for example: Loom (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) in ; climaxes which seem to mirror each other in Quest for Glory II (Sierra, 1990)and Gabriel Knight 3 (Sierra On-Line, 1999); a Telltale logo featuring Max-and-crossbones.

[14] The +2 Sword fulfils a function in the “2.0” version of “reality”. It is also usable — albeit “useless” — in the text-based (“1.5”) realm. An Xbox achievement nonetheless rewards attempts to use the sword on every possible item/character in this realm.

[15] Veli-Matti Karhulahti (2011) touches upon the relative limitations of graphic and text adventures, remarking that “text has several aesthetic dimensions into which graphics cannot enter,” and observing that these are often related to exploiting the different limitations involved.

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