Back In A Click

Originally Published: 28 September 2009

1984.

A year destined to be so epic that George Orwell had already written a book about it (coining the phrase Big Brother and therefore unwittingly giving us several long summers where people were urged not to swear on a Friday night).

But 1984 was notable for one other reason. On the 24th of January, Apple introduced the Macintosh and, in doing so, changed the face of gaming. Despite being named after the flasher’s favourite attire, the Apple Mac brought a new control method to the hands of users – the point-and-click interface – and effectively waved goodbye to the command line interface.

Adventure games, up until this point, had also relied on the command line as a means of input. Gamers across the globe would while away hours telling their in-game characters to GET SWORD or LOOK IN BAG. With the birth of point-and-click, however, games developers hit on the idea that they could still build the adventures they always had, but allow you to control the action with your mouse – ruling out many of the syntax problems of the text adventures.

Many text adventures featured a description with an illustration to set the scene. The earliest point-and-click adventures stuck to this formula, but provided menus or other interactive features, removing the need for a command line.

1984’s Enchanted Scepters featured scenes where the graphics complimented the text.  However, instead of typing a command to pick up items, the player simply clicked on the item to add it to their inventory. Likewise, an enemy encounter would appear on-screen and the fight be conducted through the game’s menu system. This game, while simplistic, boasted over 200 scenes with interactive elements, showing that even the earliest games required a lot of man-hours to produce.

Three years later, in 1987, things really took off. LucasArts, and Ron Gilbert, released Maniac Mansion and the point-and-click world changed.  Debuting on the Commodore 64, Maniac Mansion was released on several other platforms including the Amiga and the NES (albeit in a sanitised version –  microwaving the hamster was not an option). Part of the port-ability of the game came from the unique way it was built. Maniac Mansion was the first game to run on the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion engine, more commonly known as SCUMM. Using SCUMM the developers could build the game without having to write the source code directly.

The SCUMM menu allowed players to construct commands by clicking on the menu at the bottom of the screen and objects in the graphics window at the top. The simplicity of the menu, containing fifteen basic commands, also made the game instantly accessible to the players, something a text adventure could not do.

SCUMM was used for ten years, producing some of the most well-loved games of all time along the way. In 1990, with the help of Ron Gilbert, Guybrush Threepwood washed up alongside a rubber chicken with a pulley in it, and the gaming public heartily embraced him. Maniac Mansion had been funny, but somehow The Secret of Monkey Island elevated the humour to a whole new level and everyone loved it.

By 1997, eleven games had featured the SCUMM engine, including LeChuck’s Revenge (1991) and Day of the Tentacle (1993) which also contained, on a PC within the game, the entire fully-playable version of Maniac Mansion. In a way, it seems fitting that the twelfth, and final, game to be produced using the SCUMM engine was another entry in the extremely popular Monkey Island series. The Curse of Monkey Island (1997), the third instalment of the series (and the first to be developed without Ron Gilbert) saw the SCUMM engine get a massive overhaul to allow for more cartoony graphics and a slicker interface.

During this ten-year period other studios were also enjoying success with the genre. In 1995, the gaming community sat down to enjoy Discworld, a game based around the fantasy world created by Terry Pratchett. Despite being incredibly popular with gamers and Discworld fans alike, the game is probably one of the most obscure when it comes to the puzzles.  This did little to stop two sequels, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed…!? (1996) and Discworld Noir (2000) from being released and doing equally as well – although the same could not be said for Perfect Entertainment and Teeny Weeny Games, the developers behind the titles, as they, unfortunately, ceased trading in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

At the back-end of the SCUMM era, Revolution Software launched a point-and-click adventure which would not only provide one of the most talked about puzzles in gaming folklore, but would also find a way into people’s hearts in the exact same way that The Secret of Monkey Island had six years earlier. In 1996, we were introduced to George Stobart and Broken Sword was an immediate hit, with an equally popular sequel, The Smoking Mirror, released the following year.

Despite the popularity of these titles throughout the late 80s and early 90s, as the millennium drew to a close things were not as bright as they once were. Tastes in gaming were changing, particularly as the capability of the consoles (and their programmers)  increased.  Gamers were demanding fast-paced action – something which adventure games just couldn’t offer. The late 90s brought us Lucasarts’ Grim Fandango (1998), and Funcom’s The Longest Journey (1997) – both of which received huge acclaim while being criticised for their lack of action. A large factor in this change in gaming came about as more people were drawn to the notion of owning a games console instead of a PC – the PlayStation having launched in 1994. Despite Discworld hitting the PlayStation it was clear that console gaming was heading in a new direction.

The early noughties, with the PlayStation 2 having launched in 1999 and Xbox in 2002, hammered another nail into the coffin of the mainstream point-and-click genre. Titles were released which made less of an impact with console gamers than their PC predecessors. Escape from Monkey Island (2000) received a fairly lukewarm response, bringing a new visual style and a different feel to the series. A similar treatment was applied to the third instalment of the Broken Sword series. The Sleeping Dragon (2003) received a lot of criticism because the new graphical style made the game hard to control. Tellingly, the fourth instalment The Angel of Death , released in 2006, featured a more traditional style.

PC gamers could still find adventure titles if they looked hard enough, though the glut of newer genres and more sophisticated titles did overshadow the genre. Syberia (2002), a title later ported to the consoles, was a glorious graphic adventure following a young American lawyer on a fantastical voyage of discovery. The style of Syberia was a far cry from the early point-and-click adventures – featuring a more realistic, but still fantastical, world in which to explore. Following the LucasArts tradition, laid down many years before, it’s impossible to find yourself in a no-win situation in this game, although the solution to your predicament may not be immediately obvious. A sequel followed in 2004 with a highly anticipated third part due in 2010.

“During that time [the late 90s] I wasn’t in touch with adventure gaming the way I had been when I was younger, and I think that might be what happened to a lot of us,” says Emily Morganti, formerly of Telltale Games, when I spoke to her about the perceived decline of the genre at the turn of the century. “Younger players grew up, plus all sorts of other distractions cropped up—the Internet, other types of games. The market for games became very big, very quickly, and since adventure games had been around for a while I think they got shoved aside for some newer, shinier things.”

While researching this feature I could quickly list the older, more well-known titles but as it came to the late-90s and beyond I found that I was having to think more about the titles from this period – I knew about the likes of Syberia and Still Life (2005) because they both appeared on the consoles – but adventure gaming on the PC had slipped from my radar. A quick visit to Adventure Gamers, and it is immediately apparent that the PC market was still in the mood for the adventure genre, and has been year after year.

Things changed, however, when Nintendo launched the DS in 2004. The touch screen interface and stylus was practically made for the point-and-click experience and in 2006 gamers around the world found themselves shouting “OBJECTION!” as they pointed and clicked their way through Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Originally released for the Gameboy Advance in 2001, the title was redesigned to take advantage of the touchscreen technology of the DS, with further additions to the fifth case allowing you to blow fingerprint powder using the microphone. The game was a smash hit and point-and-click games slowly ebbed their way back into the gamer’s consciousness. Phoenix Wright proved so popular that a further two games in the series were released (Justice For All in 2006 and Trials and Tribulations in 2008) as well as a new title Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney in 2008. Fans of the series should also note that Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth was released in Japan earlier this year, and will be available outside of Japan early in 2010.

The DS was also the place to check into Hotel Dusk: Room 215 in 2007. The highly stylised drawn characters, looking like something from an Aha video, and almost watercolour backdrops make this a beautiful title to play while the strong narrative really draws the player in. But wait – beautiful, pre-rendered, backdrops and a story driven experience – surely that’s a point-and-click game? A genre that had spent almost ten years in the wilderness was being revitalised, almost single-handedly, by Nintendo and their dual-screen handheld.

Emily has had a DS more-or-less since launch, and finds the reactions to their games amusing. “…you saw people picking up Phoenix Wright or Trace Memory for the first time and going, whoa, this is an awesome new thing that no one has ever seen before!” She’s quick to point out that these sorts of games are not really any different from the titles available on the PC, but that, through the accessibility of Nintendo’s system, the games are brought to a whole new audience. She goes on to say that “story games on the Wii and DS have helped to re-legitimize the genre.”

The Wii had launched in 2006, and found a niche as a casual games console. It was family-friendly fun personified with cutesy Miis and various multiplayer sports titles. While the hardcore titles were, for the most part, staying away from the Wii, the Wiimote pointer was crying out for some point-and-click action. In 2007, Zak & Wiki set off on their Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure using the Wiimote to guide them. While it doesn’t look much like a point-and-click adventure, it captures everything about the genre. Using the Wiimote, you point at the screen and a simple button press will guide Zak to where you want him to go, or to what you want him to do. This being the Wii, of course, a certain amount of frantic arm-waving is required – making sawing motions to cut wood, turning the Wiimote to insert a key into a lock – but it is, essentially, a point-and-click title. And a bloody good one at that.

As the genre gained momentum, a development company began to rear its head. Telltale Games was founded in 2004 and made up of staff who were previously employed at LucasArts working on Sam & Max: Freelance Police (a sequel to Sam & Max Hit the Road), until production was cancelled in March 2004. Telltale worked on the CSI games 3 Dimensions of Murder (2006) and Hard Evidence (2007) – arguably point-and-click titles themselves – whilst also dusting off some old LucasArts favourites.

October 2006 saw the launch of episode one of Sam & Max Save The World, described by the 2009 Guinness World Record Gamers Edition as “the first successful episodic point ‘n’ click game”. Running over six episodes, this series saw Sam & Max battling against a hypnotic story arc and was first released to PC audiences. A second season, Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space, was launched in November 2007 and ran for five episodes. Both of these series, as well as a PC release, are available on the Wii and will both be represented on Xbox Live Arcade – the First Season is available now, with Season Two still to be released. Not content with blowing the cobwebs off of Sam and Max, Telltale have also launched Tales of Monkey Island as a five-part series, starting in July 2009. This, again, is available on PC and Wiiware with an XBLA release due once the series is complete. For those of you interested in episodic gaming, Mark is currently preparing a feature on the subject for Ready-Up!

It’s not just the old titles that are enjoying the revival of the point-and-click genre. While the average gamer will instantly recognise re-released titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition(2009), the genre is literally bursting to life across a variety of gaming mediums. The Xbox Live Arcade has brought us Wallace & Gromit, Monkey Island and Sam and Max. PlayStation Network will soon be inviting us to open the Blue Toad Murder Files (2009) – an episodic murder-mystery from Relentless Software. Nintendo continue to bring point-and-clicks to both consoles, with the recent re-release of both the original Broken Sword (albeit with an easier goat) and the LucasArts title Indiana Jones: The Fate of Atlantis, alongside newer titles like the Professor Layton series(2007-????) and Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy (2009).

It’s the Internet, though, that has helped the genre to grow. Alongside online communities such as Adventure Gamers, people who are passionate about the genre can reach people they may not otherwise have met. While Adventure Gamers has a huge catalogue of games available for download, there are also independent developers releasing their titles into cyberspace.

Zombie Cow has recently released Time Gentlemen, Please(2009), an insanely good (and genuinely funny) point-and-click adventure which, throughout the course of the story makes several references to the “Golden Age” of LucasArts so it’s almost as if everything has gone full circle. The developers of the latest games grew up playing the earliest games. “There’s something sedate and pleasant about a point-and-click,” said Dan, when quizzed on the genre, and why he’d chosen to create a point-and-click himself. ”They’re what Ben and I grew up playing, and are a great simple medium for doing comedy, so it felt like a fairly natural choice.”

If the late-80s was the beginning of the first Golden Age for the genre then it looks like we’re entering the second at the moment. In twenty years’ time, you’ll be able to look back on these years, the beginning of the millennium and have your own memories of this time. When people speak of the point-and-click genre, and they will, you’ll be able to wax lyrical on how it was widely accessible across every gaming medium, with small studios offering as much entertainment as the larger more established companies. You’ll be able to say that you played Simon The Sorcerer on your mobile phone (it’s available for the iPhone now) , that you explored beautifully realised lands as a tiny robot in Machinarium, tried to stop the coat-hanger being invented in Time Gentlemen, Please and solved more murders than John Nettles in Blue Toad Murder Files.

Adventure games are funny things. They get under your skin, like a good book or a memorable film. If the circumstances are right, you’ll carry that experience around with you for the rest of your life – whether it’s the second biggest monkey head you’ve ever seen, or helping an elderly man to see his mammoths, an adventure will stay with you more than any other type of game will.

The second Golden Age of the point-and-click is upon us, so make sure you let some of the light shine on you.

 

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