The Point and Click Revival; Will it Last?
By Nick Olsen
Point and click (P&C) adventure games have been a staple of the video game industry since the text parser was phased out for a graphical interface. They’ve seen both commercial success and critical acclaim and elder gamers still speak of titles like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island with reverie. Thirty years after, the genre has experienced both a precipitous decline (In 1990, developer Sierra Online would have the highest selling game for 5 consecutive years, Kings Quest V, yet finish the decade by nearly shutting it’s doors and laying off more than 250 employees) and a recent revival. New P&C adventures have sprung up with games like Machinarium, Don’t Starve and The Walking Dead carrying the torch. Even classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge are getting the HD remake treatment, bringing updated versions to a whole new generation of gamers.
But has the genre finally evolved past the flaws that nearly killed it? In some cases, yes; in others, not so much. Before we examine the slate of current P&C games successfully reviving the genre, it’s important to explore the causes for it’s decline.
An exercise in insanity
The premise of nearly every P&C game is solving a variety of puzzles by combining elements of the environment together. In theory this an engaging and amusing idea. In practice, however, developers often felt the need to over-complicate the puzzles, leading to scenarios which bordered on ridiculous or nonsensical.
For example, in The Secret of Monkey Island, the protagonist Guybrush Threepwood is required to pass three trials before he can become a pirate. For one of the trials, the location is guarded by piranha poodles which you must put to sleep by poisoning them before you may advance (why you can’t bash them with your sword or shovel, or walk around them since they’re tied up is strange enough, but I get that they want you to solve a puzzle). So we set off on a quest to find piranha poodle poison with only faulty contextual clues to guide us.
In one of our first encounters, the three head pirates explain that grog, the beverage of choice for all pirates, is essentially the most caustic and horrid thing on the face of the earth. The ingredients list sure make it sound alot like poison. But alas, trying to give the dogs grog results in confounded comment from Guybrush about that plan not working. So we venture off again, backtracking through numerous screens and looking for items to combine to make poison. Eventually, through trial and error, we find that while the dogs love meat, that alone does not poison them. Neither does combining meat with grog.
At some point or another, you may find yourself in an unlabeled area of your map, which by chance happens to be the woods, which by chance happen to contain yellow flowers, which by chance happen to be poisonous (though they don’t tell you when you pick them). Trying to give these flowers to the dogs results in another failure. Ah, but combining the yellow flowers with the meat, well, now you’re in business and have created piranha poodle poison. Why is this the case? I don’t know. But no matter, you may now proceed.
Of course only one character mentions that yellow flowers exist, a gentleman in a jail cell who was put there for picking some. But of course he too neglects to mention that they’re poisonous.
While this is only one example, it’s one that highlights a systemic issue prevalent throughout P&C games: developers appear to believe that simply because you can literally point at, and then click on, any number of objects within the environment, they shouldn’t be required to put much thought into the clues they provide players to allow them to solve their puzzles. By skipping over logic and encouraging random clicks, developers are devaluing the puzzle aspect of the game and increasing frustration levels for players.
Back and forth and over and again
In another effort to keep puzzles from being too simple, developers of P&C games decided to scatter pieces of answers throughout the many screens which make up the world. Unfortunately, this created gargantuan amounts of tedious backtracking.
Looking at our puzzle example outlined above, the poodles are on the left-most accessible screen. Each time our solution for poisoning them fails, we must move back right through various screens, collecting items which may potentially provide our solution. Unfortunately, the only way to test our hypotheses is to try and administer our creation to the poodles. If the ingredients we’ve collected extended as far right as seven screens, we must backtrack through each screen to re-reach the poodles. And if our solution fails? Back out through the same screens we just traversed, aimlessly looking for the answer to our puzzles in a search which could extend well beyond the seven screens we’ve already explored. Think you’ve found the solution? Time to trek back to the poodles! Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Again, this design flaw isn’t limited to The Secret of Monkey Island; rather, it is an example of a systemic flaw within the P&C genre as a whole.
Recently, however, the P&C genre has found new life. Touch screen mobile devices have played a role in this, as developers create lightweight games optimized for small screens and short play periods. But at the same time, P&C games have come back to both PCs and consoles as well. A quick browse through the Steam store and you can identify a litany of games for the P&C player. But has the genre evolved or does it still feature the same flaws that nearly killed it more than a decade ago? To answer this question, we’ll take a look at a sampling of titles including Machinarium, Don’t Starve, The Walking Dead and the HD remake of The Secret of Monkey Island.
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
The fanfare and reverie which surrounds the original version (Lucas Arts, 1990) recently prompted a special edition remake featuring updated sound and graphics. A faithful recreation of the original game (other than sound and graphics) however, means players get to faithfully re-live the frustrations of illogical puzzles, excessive backtracking and somewhat clunky controls. For those who have longed for the days when The Secret of Monkey Island ruled the roost of the P&C genre, the special edition will feel like welcoming a long lost friend who has ditched the ripped jeans and t-shirt wardrobe of his youth for more refined look. He’ll make great company, telling hilarious stories which will keep you laughing well into the night and when it’s over you’ll think fondly of the visit.
But for the newer generation of gamers, The Secret of Monkey Island will seem like an abrupt and awkward visit from a crazy but harmless aunt. You’ll laugh at some of the jokes, but will hope to find an excuse to slip away without offending anyone. When the visit is over, you’ll openly wonder if it’s time to put the aunt in a home, because seriously none of that made a bit of sense.
Of the new breed of P&C games, Machinarium is the most similar to it’s ancestors in that it’s a pure puzzle P&C compete with backtracking and complicated solutions. Similar to The Secret of Monkey Island remake, it’s visually striking with steampunk style settings. Gamers play as a charming but silent robot where dialog is expressed as images in thought bubbles. While the graphics are wonderful, and the story is told in unique fashion (seriously, thought bubbles), the game ultimately suffers from many of the same problems as it’s predecessors: solving puzzles often requires the players to abandon any elements of logic, often resulting in players frustratedly clicking random objects in the hope of miraculously stumbling upon the singular solution.
While backtracking remains prevalent in Machinarium, it has been reduced. Most puzzles require a maximum of three screens for acquiring the necessary components to the solution. But in it’s stead, backtracking has often been replaced with mini-puzzles which need to be solved to gather a single piece of the solution to the primary puzzle. Eventually it begins to feel a little too much like trying to solve the Hatter’s riddle.
We reviewed Don’t Starve in depth a few months ago, applauding it’s simple control scheme and open world setting. There is a singular puzzle acting as the crux of the game: how do I survive as long as possible? Like Machinarium, smaller puzzles exist within the game such as which items can I combine to improve my campfire? But unlike it’s predecessors, the answers are based in logic. Flint + logs = campfire. Campfire + stone = firepit. And so on.
Another positive evolution present in Don’t Starve is that by implementing an open world style of gameplay, Klei Entertainment reduced the annoyance of backtracking. Yes, players can and will backtrack over areas they’ve previously explored to scavenge for resources, but without load times between screens and more fluid controls, it’s significantly less cumbersome to do so. The challenge with Don’t Starve lies within the randomly generated environments meaning resources are never in the same place twice.
The Walking Dead
Renowned for it’s story telling, Telltale Games’ episodic adventure employed traditional P&C controls, with little refinement. What separates The Walking Dead is it’s de-emphasis on puzzle solving. Yes, puzzles are still present in the game, but they’re simple with logical answers, and rarely does the player have to venture farther than a screen or two within a confined area to find all the pieces to the solution. Telltale also incorporated quicktime events at key plot points to increase tension, and emphasized in-game player decisions to impact story outcomes. To traditional P&C veterans the control scheme will feel familiar, but the game mechanics themselves will seem light years ahead of previous generations. The Walking Dead ultimately feels more like an interactive story than a true P&C game, but the core elements of the genre remain.
Stepping back from the brink
Fifteen years ago the P&C genre was staring death in the face. Players moved on to new game genres as P&C games reused the same broken tropes and mechanics again and again. But against the odds, the P&C genre has seen a revival. The question remains though, have developers learned from past failures and evolved their creations to better accommodate modern gamers? Unfortunately, that’s a question with as many complications as a P&C riddle.
Modern remakes of classic games often struggle with the process of deciding what’s prudent: a faithful recreation with updated graphics and sound? Or a new game redesigned with improved controls, story and mechanics which is only loosely based on the original source material? For the P&C genre, it seems imperative to go with the latter. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is the perfect of example of the faithful recreation model. Yes, the game looks and sounds great, but illogical puzzles, excessive backtracking and clunky controls only serve to frustrate the player. It feels a lot like slapping lipstick on a pig.
And how about those brand new P&C games hitting the market? Developers of these games seemingly have more creative freedom than those working to remake classics and some have taken advantage of this by ditching the frustrations of the past. Don’t Starve and The Walking Dead both ditched overtly complex puzzles in favor of those driven by logic and intuition, and both de-emphasized backtracking. These efforts paid major dividends in reducing player frustration and increasing player enjoyment.
But there are still stragglers clinging to antiquated P&C mechanics. Machinarium suffers greatly from having taken this approach, turning what would otherwise have been an endearing journey in a beautiful setting. But a good story and excellent artwork can’t overcome flaws which endangered the genre initially. If developers hope to see sustained interest in P&C games, it’s time to officially ditch the old tropes, travels and insanity in favor of a refined user experience once and for all.