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With the decline of the adventure game genre from mainstream popularity, the use of the term (and the hybrid term "action-adventure") has been more liberal. It is not uncommon for gamers to apply the term "adventure" or "action adventure" to describe the genre of fiction to which a game belongs, and not the gameplay itself.
Action-adventure is a hybrid genre, and thus the definition is very inclusive, leading it to be perhaps the broadest genre of video games, and can include many games which might better be categorized under narrow genres. Typically, pure adventure games have situational problems for the player to solve, with very little or no action. If there is action, it is generally confined to isolated minigames. Pure action games have gameplay based on real-time interactions that challenge the reflexes. Therefore, action-adventure games engage both reflexes and problem-solving, in both violent and non-violent situations.
An action-adventure game can be defined as a game with a mix of elements from an action game and an adventure game, especially crucial elements like puzzles. Action-adventures require many of the same physical skills as action games, but also offer a storyline, numerous characters, an inventory system, dialogue, and other features of adventure games. They are faster-paced than pure adventure games, because they include both physical and conceptual challenges. Action-adventure games normally include a combination of complex story elements, which are displayed for players using audio and video. The story is heavily reliant upon the player character's movement, which triggers story events and thus affects the flow of the game. Some examples of action-adventure games include The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and Tomb Raider series.
Exactly when a game stops being an adventure game and becomes an action game is a matter of interpretation. There are quite a few disagreements in the community and in the media over what actually constitutes an action-adventure game. One definition of the term "action adventure" may be '"An action/adventure game is a game that has enough action in it not to be called an adventure game, but not enough action to be called an action game." In some cases an action game with puzzles will be classified as an action-adventure game, but if these puzzles are quite simple they might be classified as an action game. Others see action games as a pure genre, while an action-adventure is an action game that includes situational problem-solving. Adventure gamers may also be purists, rejecting any game that makes use of physical challenges or time pressure. Regardless, the action-adventure label is prominent in articles over the internet and media. The term "action-adventure" is usually substituted for a particular subgenre due to its wide scope.
Although action-adventure games are diverse and difficult to classify, there are some distinct subgenres. Popular subgenres include:
- First-person action-adventure, which make use of first-person shooter gameplay, forgoing constant action in favor of important adventure game elements such as environmental problem-solving and a complex plot. These are sometimes called Real-Time Adventure games or RTAs for short. Notable examples of this include Metroid Prime, Half-Life 2, Dishonored, and Far Cry 3.
- Third-person action-adventure, in which gameplay is in the third-person. Notable examples include games like the Tomb Raider series, The Legend of Zelda series, Rune, Severance: Blade of Darkness, the Grand Theft Auto series, the Hitman series and the Uncharted series.
- Open world action-adventure, which focus on nonlinear gameplay in an open world. Notable examples include the Grand Theft Auto series, The Legend of Zelda series and Assassin's Creed series.
- Platform-adventure games, which emphasize both exploration and puzzle solving, but also feature traditional platform game conventions. Examples of games of this type are Tomb Raider series, the Banjo-Kazooie series, 3D Super Mario series, and the Metroid and Castlevania games; the term "Metroidvania" is derived from these latter two and used to describe games in this genre that generally are based on two-dimensional platformers.
- Isometric platform-adventure, which feature freely explorable environments with three-dimensional gameplay and two-dimensional graphics using an isometric projection.
- Stealth games, which emphasize avoiding detection by enemies rather than engaging them in direct combat, leading to a greater emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving than other types of action games. Notable examples include the Metal Gear series, the Assassin's Creed series, and the Hitman series.
- Survival horror games, which emphasize "inventory management" and making sure the player has enough ammunition and recovery items to "survive" the horror setting. Survival-horror is a thematic genre with diverse gameplay, however, so not all survival horror games share these features. The Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises popularized this subgenre and stand to date as the most popular franchises of its kind.
- Survival games, which have open-ended survival without the supernatural elements that can be found in survival horror games.
Action-adventure games are faster paced than pure adventure games, and include physical as well as conceptual challenges where the story is enacted rather than narrated. While motion-based, often reflexive, actions are required, the gameplay still follows a number of adventure game genre tropes (gathering items, exploration of and interaction with one's environment, often including an overworld connecting areas of importance, and puzzle-solving). While the controls are arcade-style (character movement, few action commands) there is an ultimate goal beyond a high score. In most action-adventure games, the player controls a single avatar as the protagonist. This type of game is often quite similar to role-playing video games.
They are distinct from graphic adventures, which sometimes have free-moving central characters, but also wider variety of commands and fewer or no action game elements and are distinct too from text adventures, characterized by many different commands introduced by the user via a complex text parser and no free-moving character. While they share general gameplay dynamics, action-adventures vary widely in the design of their viewpoints, including bird's eye, side scrolling, first-person, third-person, over-the-shoulder, or even a 3/4 isometric view.
Many action-adventure games simulate a conversation through a conversation tree. When the player encounters a non-player character, they are allowed to select a choice of what to say. The NPC gives a scripted response to the player, and the game offers the player several new ways to respond.
Due to the action-adventure subgenre's broad inclusive nature it causes some players to having difficulty finishing a particular game. To compensate for this lack of the player's ability, companies have devised ways to give the player help, such as helpful clues, or allowing them to skip puzzles outright.
The earliest known action-adventure game, Adventure (1980), was an adaptation of text-based adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure for the Atari 2600, with the player having the ability to fight in combat like in an action game. Other early action-adventure games include the stealth games 005 (1981) and Castle Wolfenstein (1981), and the arcade game Tutankham (1982).
The Tower of Druaga (1984) and the action role-playing game Hydlide (1984) combined arcade action, exploration, and RPG elements, influencing The Legend of Zelda. Hydlide was also an early open world game, rewarding exploration in an open world environment. According to Wizardry developer Roe R. Adams, early action-adventure games "were basically arcade games done in a fantasy setting," citing Castlevania (1986), Trojan (1986) and Wizards & Warriors (1987) as examples.
The action-adventure game became an established genre with Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda (1986), which became a success due to how it combined elements from different genres to create a compelling hybrid, including exploration, transport puzzles, adventure-style inventory puzzles, an action component, a monetary system, and simplified RPG-style level building without the experience points. The game was also an early example of open world, nonlinear gameplay, and introduced innovations such as saving on battery backup. It became one of the most influential games of the 8-bit era, inspiring action-adventure games like Metroid as well as RPGs like Final Fantasy. Zelda has since remained the most prolific action-adventure game series through to the present day.
Games like Brain Breaker (1985), Xanadu (1985), Metroid (1986) and Vampire Killer (1986) combined a side-scrolling platformer format with adventure exploration, creating the Metroidvania platform-adventure subgenre. Similarly, games like 005, Castle Wolfenstein and Metal Gear (1987) combined action-adventure exploration with stealth mechanics, laying the foundations for the stealth game subgenre, which would later be popularized in 1998 by Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, and Thief: The Dark Project.
The cinematic platformer Prince of Persia (1989) featured action-adventure elements, inspiring games such as Another World (1991) and Flashback (1992). Alone in the Dark (1992) featured the use of 3D graphics, which would later be popularized by Resident Evil (1996) and Tomb Raider (1996). Resident Evil in particular created the survival horror subgenre, inspiring titles such as Silent Hill (1999) and Fatal Frame (2001). Action-adventure games have gone on to become more popular than the pure adventure games and pure platform action games that inspired them.
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