Looking Back At THE ADVENTURE GAME - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s out of drogna.
Ever been in an escape room?

Ever thought that what it could really use to make it better is being broadcast to the nation?

Welcome to The Adventure Game.

Ok, that’s a slightly flippant point – escape rooms might be popular now, but back in the early Eighties they weren’t the brain-challenging day out for friends and family we think of today. In fact, the first modern escape room wasn’t built until 2007, and that was in Japan. So really, The Adventure Game was significantly ahead of the zeitgeist.

In case you’ve never seen it… bear with us, it’s difficult to describe without sounding like there have been some fairly strong halucinogenics involved.

It was a show with a lot of backstory, usually narrated either by a voiceover or in later seasons (it ran for four) by the creator of the game, Patrick Dowling. Dowling was a TV producer whose other credits included Why Don’t You? and the equally ahead of its time Vision On, which involved sections in sign for deaf viewers. In front of the camera though, Dowling had a look and a tone pretty much in line with a Pebble Mill At One presenter, which meant that what he had to explain felt even odder.

The premise was that on the other side of the galaxy lay the planet Arg. Arg was inhabited by the Argonds, a species of scary-looking aliens whose name of course was an anagram of Dragon. They basically stole the crystals from the spaceships of time-travelling species (apparently like humans – which came as a shock to viewers, we don’t mind telling you!), and kept them captive till the travellers made their way through a fiendish set of puzzles and rooms, reclaimed their crystal and bogged off back home.

See? Basically an escape room, 25 years early. On TV.
The Argonds were playful though, rather than intentionally scary, and would hide their dragonish forms in humanoid bodies, the better to interact with their guests *cough, prisoners, cough* and help them out when they were getting terminally baffled. It was, in all fairness, EASY to get terminally baffled by The Adventure Game.

There were physical puzzles, mental puzzles, seriously-are-you-kidding-me puzzles, pattern-recognition puzzles, and potential in-story ways to get out of the game, like falling into a black hole, being zapped by an interplanetary policeman, and so on. And from fairly early on, none of it ultimately meant anything, because you had to survive the Vortex to get home. The Vortex was a kind of 3-dimensional chess game where the humans made moves to try and cross a board, and the Argonds moved a teleportation beam, which was invisible to the humans. If it caught you, you were jettisoned to a hyperspace gateway and had to hitch-hike home.

So far, so bonkers. We’re trying to avoid mentioning the growling potted aspidistra, because that’s a whole other conversation.
The elements that made up The Adventure Game are by no means hidden. Dowling had a keen interest in Dungeons & Argonds – sorry, Dragons, and he was also a keen fan of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. In fact, he asked Adams to write The Adventure Game, but Adams was, perhaps fortunately, up to his worry-lines in work on the TV adaptation of Hitch-Hiker’s at the time. But there are elements of the show that have an Adams-alike feel, from aliens that look like humans so as to not upset their guests, to an angry aspidistra, to what became a standard element of the show – the contestants taking a shuttle that looked like a bus across the galaxy, and, if jettisoned by the Vortex, having to *cough* hitch-hike their way home to Earth.

If the set-up itself seems batfink crazy, it’s worth noting that it evolved over time, too. There was very little mileage to be got out of repeating many of the puzzles, though some became favourites, like a floor pattern with a combination of shapes and colours dictating the safe way across it, a way of working out the Drogna currency system, and the final Vortex game.

But different Argonds would appear over the several series, and their ‘dragon’ forms would also significantly change. Gandor, a kind of wizened faithful old retainer played by Chris Leaver, made it through all four series, aiding and sometimes confounding the contestants by such time-eating contrivances as being deaf until he put his glasses on, and demanding change of a high-value Drogna to return his library books.

Gnoard, a young female Argond played by Charmian Gradwell, stuck with the show through its first three series, and had more of a children’s TV presenter vibe, guiding contestants but also setting out the hidden dangers within which they had to operate.

What was perhaps more odd were some of the bizarre twists that went largely unremarked. In Series 1, for instance, it was revealed that Moira Stewart – a popular BBC1 newsreader on… y’know… the actual news… was an Argond in disguise, and she joined in proceedings, setting up rooms and traps and puzzles for the contestants.
At the end of Series 1, popular Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd competed in an episode, only to return in Series 2 as a mole – no, not an actual mole, you know, a plant… no, wait… someone who worked undercover for the Argonds. Seemingly ‘trapped’ on the planet, it was part of the contestants’ job to rescue her, rarely realising till it was too late that she’d been turned by the Argonds and was trying to lead them into trap after trap.

Similarly, the make up of the contestants was often peculiar. There’d usually be at least one person recognisable from children-accessible TV, someone you MIGHT recognise from grown-up TV, and someone you had no chance of recognising, for a very good reason. They weren’t off the telly. The first episode for instance starred Play School presenter Fred Harris, Elizabeth Estensen, mostly known at the time for a stint on The Liver Birds, and… some bloke named Mark from The Great British Public ™.

That was a format that continued all the way through, the two vaguely famous people never for a moment turning to their unfamous colleague and going “Who the ruddy heck are you?”

It was like a celebrity puzzle-solving show…that always included one non-celebrity – presumably on the grounds that they might have more of a clue about how to solve the puzzles than regular acting types.
For its four series, The Adventure Game matched an anarchic edge of bonkers space Drogna with some fiendishly tricky puzzles, and some games it was very difficult to win.

Strangely – and there’s little to explain this except the delight we take in watching other people struggle with things – it was hypnotic viewing. Seriously, if you’ve never seen three people try to open a set of doors with a ping pong ball, a left-handed corkscrew, a grandfather clock and a potato, you’ve probably never lived.

The point was not really that it could have been a Douglas Adams puzzle show (can you imagine him bringing the fundamental interconnectedness of all things to the party?). It’s that it proved that other groups of people collectively succeeding and failing to solve complex puzzles was TV people would watch compulsively. It also proved that if you added in a sci-fi, fantasy or questing dimension to the whole thing and gave it an enigmatic host, you were onto a winner.

The Adventure Game ended in 1986. Not for nothing, Knightmare, a more overtly Dungeons & Dragons puzzle questing game show, this time with more ordinary and diminutive mortals and no celebrities, started in 1987 on ITV. Three years after that, the more directly escape room-feeling Crystal Maze began, with grown-up members of the public and the joyously odd Richard O’Brien as the host. The same year, 1990, O’Brien hosted an unaired pilot for a UK version of Fort Boyard – basically grown-up Dungeons and Dragons, based on a French original. The version that eventually hit UK screens was hosted by Leslie Grantham of Eastenders fame, and also starred Geoffrey ‘Catweazle’ Bayldon and Tom ‘the Doctor Who everyone remembers’ Baker among its cast of characters. Remember, even The Crystal Maze and Fort Boyard were on TV a good 15 years before the first modern escape room opened its doors to the public.

The point is, The Adventure Game got there first. It took the Dungeons & Dragons concept, translated it through Douglas Adams-style outer space silliness with touches of Doctor Who (not for nothing, when Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary special aired in 1983, it included a distinctly Adventure Game sequence of a patterned floor with a mathematical safe path to cross it), and it proved that watching other people do puzzles for up to 45 minutes at a stretch was riveting television.

There’s still a sense to this day that it shouldn’t be that riveting, as we shout out all the knowledge that we the viewer have been given, in the apparent belief that it will help the people on screen. But rewatch The Adventure Game today and you’ll be just as sucked in as you would have been in 1980 when the program began.

Watch The Adventure Game today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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