The point and click adventure is going through a bit of a renaissance period at the minute. Monkey Island has gone episodic and is seeing regular releases along with all the other Teltale games, Zombie Cow recently hit the scene with 2 brilliant original games, Machinarium has just come out which has some of the best artwork I have ever seen in gaming, and Lucas Arts re-released a load of their old games on steam. So, it’s clearly a popular genre, and one that I’ve invested quite a lot of time in over the years. Just lately though I’ve come to the realisation that it’s not a genre I particularly enjoy. It’s a shame because it’s the one place you can look for solid story, interesting characters, and a decent helping of comedy, but when I try and actually play the games I don’t think I ever actually have any fun.
When I think of a Point and Click adventure, I’m instantly taken back to The Curse of Monkey Island. It’s one of the first games I can remember playing on the PC and I really enjoyed it. I’d play it for hours, just wandering around the town as Guybrush trying to figure out what to do. I was only young when I played it so real feelings of frustration and impatience hadn’t yet dug their dirty claws into me; looking at the interesting scenery, laughing at the funny talking skull and being part of a piratey world was enough. Eventually however I wanted to get somewhere and along with my lovely memories of Monkey Island and my halcyon days, I also recall running up a massive phone bill to the dismay of my parents from calling the Lucas arts helpline to tell me what to do.
As time passed and I mutated into this socially inept gamer, wandering around pretty towns and talking to funny characters stopped being as fulfilling as it once was. Sure, they are all welcome inclusions and something I suppose I actively look for in a game, but I craved narrative, progression, reward. While adventure games still gave me these things, and I still enjoyed the games as a whole, the puzzles always stopped me progressing – just like when I first went for that helpline. By this time though I was, and still am, too proud to use the more modern help of gamefaqs so instead spent hours staring at the screen trying to figure out just what the hell was expected of me. This is when I stopped having fun and my involvement in adventure gaming petered out.
The fundamental gameplay mechanic in point and click adventures – the puzzles – are what stop me playing them. When I get stuck the game effectively dries up. There is no new funny narrative for me to hear and no new pretty locations for me to see, but instead just me trying increasingly obscure things to allow me to progress. I don’t want to sit here getting more and more bored. I want to carry on with my adventure, see where the world is going to take me and do something interesting. Getting stuck just isn’t right for the player, it makes them frustrated, restless, and ultimately it makes them feel stupid.
I hate being made to feel stupid, especially when it’s just because I can’t see the internal logic of a game developer. It stops me enjoying the world they put in front of me and after ten minutes I’ll try anything just hoping that it works; clicking any random object that looks like it could possibly do anything, trying to walk to places I know I can’t, talking to the same people again and again. Inevitably this can only go on for so long and after I’ve tried combining everything in my inventory for the third time and resorted to clicking random places on the screen, what do I do? Exit to desktop. Sometimes it will be the last time I will ever play the game, sometimes it wont. It depends on how compelling the narrative is I suppose, but every time I get stuck like this, the game in question is running the risk of never being played again.
Point and Click adventures need to stop allowing me to get stuck. If I’m obviously struggling, help me along, because if I am struggling then I’m not having fun. What I want from an adventure game is, sensibly, an adventure. I want a breadcrumb trail that leads me through the story while still keeping me engaged through interaction, not making me hunt for items and not really giving me a clue what to do with them. It can be as simple as making something shine on the screen. Just casually draw my attention to what I need, especially if I’ve been staring at it for fifteen minutes. Or make the character say something, a hint like “hmm, I could push the key out of the lock but I would need to catch it on the other side” should be enough to set a player on the right track.
The key thing is that the puzzles have to be logical and fair. Too often puzzles are given to us with solutions so obtuse that it’s more a case of trial and error than actually figuring it out – the puzzles need to follow the logic of the world and have sensible (relatively) solutions. And by fair I mean not over complicating simple tasks – don’t make me get a key made for somewhere when I could just break down the door, or at least give me the option to do either with differing consequences. These are the two big pitfalls of adventure gaming, and both are immersion shattering to the extent of me often dropping out completely to check emails and the likes.
Some titles do get some or most of the puzzle handling right though. The recently released Machinarium has a lovely little feature where you can unlock a beautifully illustrated set of quick instructions for each ‘screen’ by playing through a short but slow side-scrolling shooter. Broken Sword 3, for all it’s faults, had fairly easy going puzzles that always seemed logical, it’s just that finding the items for the puzzles was a nightmare. Even the new Monkey Island games are apparently doing puzzles really nicely through overshadowing solutions early on. Most of the puzzles worked in these games because the player was handled right – given some way of actually finding a solution that didn’t boil down to guess work. The problem is that even these all had puzzles that seemed a touch too odd or random, not quite making enough sense.
When it comes down to it, puzzles in adventure games should be there to compliment the adventure. I’m not saying they should take a back seat, but instead should be a fun part of the story. And the story needs to be good – the big successes of adventure games haven’t happened because of the brilliant puzzles, but because of the excellent narrative they weave or the amazing characters they create. Any puzzles that are there need to be logical, and if the player can’t figure it out they need to be helped. Only then can Point and Click happily make a true comeback for me and stop being such a pain in the arse.