When I was growing up in the late eighties and nineties, there was always a distinction in my family between “video games” and “computer games.”
Video games could only be played in an arcade or on a console, the gameplay was linear and repetitive, and I was not allowed to play them for extended amounts of time. Computer games could obviously only be played on the computer, and because the ones we had when I was really little were almost exclusively educational, I suppose my mother assumed that they all were, and let me play them on our IBM Compatible for basically as long as I wanted. I was never all that bothered by this set-up, because, in my youthful mind, there was no contest: computer games were better. The graphics were better, the gameplay was more interesting, the characters had voices, which meant more opportunities for personality and thereby story…it was a long list. But best of all, my all-time favorite game genre, which I was first introduced to in elementary school, could only be enjoyed on a computer. How could you expect to point and click with anything other than a mouse?
Yes, the point-and-click adventure: the natural progression of the text adventure with the advent of computer graphics, literally ushering players out of the darkness and into a world of color, definition, and interactivity with anything your cursor could reach. As a child, I was an avid reader who frequently fantasized about jumping into the illustrations of the stories I loved and exploring every corner of them. I was born at a fortunate time, because this was exactly what the point-and-click offered. With the additions of puzzles so difficult and tantalizing that their elusive solutions haunted me even when I wasn’t playing, characters so vividly animated and voice-acted that my teachers started asking me about my friend, Zanthia, who kept appearing in my homework assignments, and a campy sense of humor that had a palpable effect on the development of my own, point-and-clicks were the ideal gaming experience. From the moment that “The Hand of Fate” from the second book of Westwood Studios’ The Legend of Kyrandia (1993, the home of Zanthia) pointed at me, I was hooked. The fact that point-and-clicks were challenging to beat, difficult to locate, and often impossible to install, even when they were brand new, turned my desire to play and vanquish them into a lifelong obsession with tracking them down and doing just that. Sure, I’ve found my share of near-misses (neither of Kyrandia’s other books quite measured up to its second one), but the successes, such as in Activision’s gorgeously atmospheric and hilarious final installment to the Zork series, Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997) and Sierra’s star-studded (read: Tim Curry), suspenseful mystery Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993), join Kyrandia 2 as some of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. (My quest for the point-and-clicks of yore is ongoing, which is regrettably why this is the only place that Day of the Tentacle will be mentioned in this article. It’s next on my list—I promise).
As it happened with the text adventure, however, the ever-growing quality of video game graphics began pushing point-and-clicks off the shelves and into obscurity in the late ‘90s, offering activity and autonomy where the point-and-click could not. I, too, was swept along in the torrent of RPGs and 3D graphics (and don’t regret it, thanks to the Playstation 2 and its irreplaceable innovations), but I lamented the obsoletion of the far more thought-inducing PC games of my younger days; you really couldn’t find anything like them on the market anymore.
It turned out that I wasn’t alone.
There were a slew of players and developers who were tired of the increasingly uniform format of the video game, and wanted to play and make games that were either complete departures from the norm or revisitations of game genres long since abandoned. One such genre, to my euphoria, was the point-and click, adorned with the lovingly crafted visuals, audio tracks, and stories of the indie game movement of the 21st century. Was there anything that could possibly go wrong with this marriage?
Ignore Metacritic, readers: the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Perhaps the general population of gaming “critics” is swayed by hand-painted backgrounds and storylines deeper than Call of Duty’s, but we who played the originals know that it’s okay if the main character’s face comprises only a few pixels when their voice actor provides all the character you need. It’s okay if the music is midi when it’s telling you to fear for your life. We were spoiled by the atmosphere of Myst (Cyan, 1993) and the history of Zork when the internet was a luxury and playing games broke our computers. Game developers have it easy today; if they want to do the point-and-click justice, they have to return to the genre’s roots, which is a lot more complicated than clicking on items and dragging them to your inventory.
As players of video games, we are very used to being dropped into foreign situations and having to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing there. Nowadays, we can usually expect a tutorial or some hand-holding at the beginning before we’re released to explore and destroy as we will. With point-and-clicks, even the new ones, this is not the case. Plot points typically don’t come looking for you. You have to go find them, and there is no guarantee that you will succeed in doing so. Everything you need in order to complete the game is hidden—even the clues for the puzzles you have to solve—and searching for them may result in your character’s death within minutes of beginning the game. (I’m looking at you, Return to Zork.) As a result, point-and-clicks often result in feelings of helplessness, of being lost or stuck, at a far more frequent rate than in newer or more straightforward styles of games. Such feelings are inevitable in most point-and-clicks, but, in older games, they structured them so cleverly that they usually didn’t become overwhelming for a while into them. Take Kyrandia 2: you know from the cut scene that Zanthia is about to embark on an epic journey to save Kyrandia from oblivion, but right as she’s about to leave, she finds that her home has been ransacked and all her magical equipment has been stolen. So, right from the get-go, you know you’re operating at a disadvantage (especially if you’ve played the first book of Kyrandia previously and have seen just how powerful an alchemist Zanthia is), and want to look for anything that the thief may have left behind. Even in Myst, where your first-person character is an absolute blank, you have no inventory, and the introductory cut scene doesn’t provide much with which to help you, the place you have been literally stranded in is so beckoning in its silence and strangeness that you can’t help but want to explore it. Westwood Studios and Cyan both knew what they were doing, of course. They had both made point-and-clicks in the past, and what alternative form did they really have for storytelling in a game, anyway?
Enter the new wave of point-and-clicks, the fans who wanted a go at bringing the genre back to the people. And I really, really wanted them to succeed. But despite my enthusiasm for playing them, despite the money I have funneled into Steam for them, I have had difficulty playing more than an hour of the majority of the 21st century point-and-clicks I have played. It would seem that despite their killer artwork, their fully orchestrated scores, and their desire to do homage to the genre, somehow all of these developers forgot the most crucial element of any game: we have to want to play it. And with a point-and-click, as mentioned earlier, the circumstances are working against fun happening.
In the instances of The Blackwell Legacy (Wadjet Eye Games, 2012) and Runaway: A Road Adventure (Péndulo Studios, 2003—a bit early for this new wave of games, yes, but I found it on Steam at the same time as all the others), fun didn’t seem like it was a priority for either game whatsoever. Their plots sound compelling enough in their blurbs on Steam, but, in play, the games seem to have little to do with them. It doesn’t help that Rosa of Blackwell and Brian of Runaway are completely uninteresting as characters. Despite their names and provided backgrounds they are essentially blank slates, paling in comparison even to Zork: Grand Inquisitor’s AFGNCAAP (Ageless Faceless Gender Neutral Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person), and their respectively monotonous and unimaginative voice actors only dull them further. And even though the apartments and storage rooms you end up in in the first hour of each game are full of cabinets and crannies that any veteran point-and-clicker would want to snoop in, more often than not, Rosa and Brian stop you dead in your tracks, suggesting that it’s a bad idea or that looking in there would be useless anyway. What is the use of providing such detailed backgrounds in a point-and-click if your character is just going to discourage you from exploring them? And why, in a genre that already has a tendency to alienate its players, would developers make the playable character so unwilling to try things? Zanthia may be exhausted by her trip before it even begins, jaded by its challenges, and sarcastic to the last, but she has an opinion about everything you click on, will drink any liquid you hand to her, and manages to be funny every step of the way (in no small thanks to her voice actor, the lively Bonnie Lynn Toups). By the time I’d played an hour or so of each game, I felt so stifled as a player and cared so little about the lives of the main characters, even if they were meaningful enough to have games made about them, that the human feeling in me that point-and-clicks most thrive on—which is, of course, curiosity—had been killed. It was time to move on to something that had earned the title of “game.” Something entertaining
Point-and-clicks were always famous for their penchant for quirky humor, after all, so it was only natural for developers of the new generation of point-and-clicks to want to employ it.
The problem with both quirkiness and humor, however, is that if you slather too much of it on, it starts to become more cringe-worthy than amusing. When making The Book of Unwritten Tales (2012), it seemed that King Art’s only aim was to revive the self-aware style of joking that such series as Kyrandia and Zork were so successful at back in the day. The Book’s main character, Wilbur, definitely has something to say about everything you click on, and it’s usually a joke. But it’s not always funny. Before long, the very act of clicking on items you want to use becomes exhausting out of fear of having to hear the inevitable, painfully deliberate attempt at humor, and because they’re just about all you hear, they slow the game to a pace that is unsustainable for a point-and-click. The ability to be funny is a tricky skill, and the idea that a point-and-click has a pace at all might sound strange. But Kyrandia and Zork, especially in The Hand of Fate and ZGA, somehow manage to temper their oddball meta-humor—which never gets tiresome, even twenty years later—with ongoing feelings of purpose, curiosity, suspense, and even danger for the player, triggered by changes in atmosphere and music, and of course in the tone of voice of your usually upbeat character. A sense of momentum is important in any game, but it is essential to a point-and-click, and it can only successfully happen with an approach that changes with the story being told. The moment the movement halts, the moment you stop wondering “what’s next?” is the moment you take your hand off the mouse.
I could go on to gripe about how The Whispered World (Daedalic Entertainment, 2010), despite its gorgeous graphics (that, for all their detail, are not nearly as interactive as should be), further exemplifies the importance of not writing characters who are less interested in playing the game than you are and voiced so abominably that it makes you want to play with the sound off (thank you, Sadwick); how The Inner World (Studio Fizbin, 2013) does with quirkiness what The Book of Unwritten Tales does with comedy; how Syberia (Microids, 2002) is so stagnant, boring, and poorly animated that it’s a wonder that it was successful enough for its developer to release a sequel; how every single game I have mentioned in this new wave of point-and-clicks (with the exception of The Inner World, which is also the newest) has spawned a sequel, a trilogy, or, in the case of The Whispered World, a library of point-and-clicks made in the same mold. I could unleash several more choice words for the misguided developers of these games, in whose clumsy hands the already fragile form of the point-and-click has been not revitalized, but misrepresented for the new generations of gamers. But, instead, I’m going to praise the few who have succeeded in honoring the genre of the point-and-click and have even elevated it to new levels of brilliance with all the new technology and freedom that the indie movement of today has to offer.
The games of the small Czech developer Amanita Design are point-and-clicks only in so far as you point and you click.
There is often no apparent reason for you to click on what you have clicked on, or that clicking on it would unleash the chain reaction that it does. Amanita’s games, which include Botanicula (2012), Machinarium (2009), and the Samorost games (2003, 2005, and a third one has been teased), certainly have obstacles to overcome and puzzles to solve, but it is more like interactive art than a traditional game, and unlike anything else in the game industry. But their immersively weird atmospheres and abstract but idiosyncratic characters fuel your curiosity and delight, whether their games last three hours or thirty minutes. Telltale Games, whose founders have been influential contributors to the point-and-click genre since the ‘90s, and whom I only recently had the pleasure of being figuratively introduced to (yes, yes, I have a lot of games to play still), have still managed to push the point-and-click in new and exciting directions. Their only-just finished The Wolf Among Us (completed in July 2014) provides players with an inventory and plenty of crime scenes to click and sniff around in, but it plays like a movie that just so happens to change with every rapid-paced decision you make for your volatile “Wolf” of a main character. It employs action, continuously slick animations, and moral dilemmas in a genre that has historically been more passive, pixelated, and linear. Telltale has pushed similar boundaries with its The Walking Dead Series, and shows no signs of slowing down its exaltation and expansion of the once-humble point-and-click.
And what would any homage to the point-and-click be without a grateful nod to Tim Schafer and the other wizards at Double Fine Productions? Whatever game you play of theirs, in whatever genre they’ve ventured into, you know you are in the deftest and most caring of hands, and their long history of making games—especially point-and-clicks—a fun and unique experience is beautifully exhibited in their most recent return to their genre of origin, Broken Age (2014, with a second half still to be released). Vibrantly cartooned, skillfully finding the comedy and invention that can bloom in the direst of situations, and reminding us, as Gabriel Knight did, that celebrities like Elijah Wood can be perfect additions to a game’s vocal talent and not stick out like a sore thumb, Double Fine reminds us that wherever a story exists that a little interactivity could liven, the point-and-click has a place to live. Provided that it’s in the care of masters who can capably allow it to thrive.