Why I Love (and Hate) Adventure Games

As posted on Videogame Jungle.

“I can’t pick that up”, “That doesn’t seem to work”, “I don’t want to lick that”.

These phrases and more can be found in a genre of videogames classed as the ‘adventure game’ or ‘point-and-click adventure game’. The latter not as common place as it was twenty-five years ago.

My first adventure game was the least regarded in The Monkey Island series, Escape From Monkey Island. The 3D, clumsy-controlled, often-hated game, that ended Monkey Island for nine years until Telltale Games picked up the licence.

After that game I found out my friend had The Curse of Monkey Island, the cartoon-styled game before Escape. And I really enjoyed it. I even managed to pass my friend in the game, having him ask me how the heck I did it. Though it wasn’t until a little later that I played  Ron Gilbert’s original masters (assisted by Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman), The Secret of Monkey Island, and LeChuck’s Revenge. Using the ScummVM emulator it wasn’t the most romantic way to find and play one of my favourite games (my second most favourite game in fact). But that’s life I guess.

Before I knew it I was an adventure game junkie, playing titles like Grim Fandango (another of my favourites), Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle, Beneath a Steel Sky, and Full Throttle. I tried a few Sierra games, but I found them incredibly punishing.

Then I found out adventure games were dead. It wasn’t a lucrative business anymore — players had moved onto more action-oriented experiences. Some developers refused to believe this, stuck their fingers in their ears and continued to make classic point-and-click adventure games, such as Pendulo Studios, the creators behind the Runaway series.

Although there is the genre ‘Action Adventure’ like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, pure adventure games are an altogether different breed. Often comprising of an inventory, item collecting, item combining, dialogue trees and interaction with characters and the environment. These games are slowly paced and require a great deal of patience.

Which is one of the reasons I sometimes hate ‘em. Getting stuck in an adventure game is made harder because you often don’t know what you’re doing wrong. Developers may have made a puzzle far too elusive, or it’s there right in front of you, and you just can’t see it. With a wealth of locations and possible item combinations, you could be stuck for a great deal of time. Possibly years if you let it get to you.

At first I was a big believer in playing without hint guides. But sometimes all you need is that little nudge in the right direction to get you back on track. Zack and Wiki lets you earn Crystal Balls, three of them per level, each giving you a bigger hint. Telltale Games use audio cues, their characters dropping hints when you’ve been making little progress, where it be Sam from Sam & Max, or  Guybrush from Tales of Monkey Island. Unfortunately some of the clues are a little vague or they may go over your head. In any case Telltale’s games are usually pretty easy to finish, plus being episodic helps reduce the length of your overall playtime. The remakes of the first two Monkey Island games (the ones I first played on ScummVM) offer several hint options. One is Object Highlighting, highlighting all the objects onscreen you can interact with. ‘Pixel hunting’ is common in adventure games, sometimes the one object you need is well hidden, and often the root cause of my trouble. The other technique used is text hints, starting vague, the more times you use it, the more detailed they get. As well as arrows pointing you in the right direction.

The problem with this comes down to self-discipline. When you play an adventure game, or at least in the old days, you walked around locations again and again, rehearsing every dialogue line, trying to figure out what you’re missing. You can hold off from firing up the old search engine, because it requires a little effort, first you have to leave the game. In these remakes, with a press of a button you can figure out what your next objective is. This walking around aimlessly can drive a person mad, just mad enough to “accidently” slip their finger on the hint button… again and again. Until you’ve finished the game feeling rather guilty and all over gross, because you’ve just cheated your way through an adventure game. The feeling you get from finally achieving a difficult puzzle on your own with no outside assistance is a natural high like no other. And one worth preserving.

This is the reason why I am “part-way” through many an adventure game. I’d simply given up on them, “I’ll come back to it later”, but deep inside I knew I was lying to myself. I got stuck. And I refused to load up a hint guide. Though these days I’m a little more lenient on myself. The big problem is once you start using, can you stop?

Making adventure games easier doesn’t work either. You miss that high, and without challenge you may as well be turning pages in a book. The only solution I can see: Be smarter!

Though difficulty is still a bit of a problem. Adventure games have improved over time. The interfaces of the early graphical adventure games were cluttered and rather messy to be quite frank. The original text adventures (Zork etc.) inspired these interfaces. Verbs including Give, Open, Close, Pick Up, Look at, Talk to, Use, Push, and Pull are all your interactions in The Secret of Monkey Island. You need to click on the verb first and then on the on-screen object or character.These were eventually replaced in Sam & Max with reduced verb options attached to the right mouse button, changing the cursor to an eye for ‘Look at’, or a mouth for ‘Talk to’ for example.

It’s not all about the puzzles. Adventure games are actually story-heavy, and the puzzles you solve are usually a part of the story (although some may appear a little farfetched!).  What more, adventure games can be about anything. Where else can you find games about  a  young man going through trials to become a pirate, falling in love and having his girl taken by an evil ghost pirate? Or a skeleton travel agent  uncovering corruption in the land of the dead?

The characters are personified through dialogue trees, which I absolutely adore in adventure games. Often found in Bioware’s games and other RPG’s these days, they give you more control than watching a boring old cut scene. And it makes replaying them even more enjoyable, choosing new lines of dialogue each time you play.

“Look behind you it’s a three-headed monkey!”. Of course the reason I loved Lucas Arts adventure games was their trademark humour. Putting characters in crazy situations. As well as the fact adventure games have the best timing, nearly impossible to pull off in other genres. But there’s still the risk of repetition, character’s lines repeating, usually due to a player’s experimentation, repeatedly clicking on stuff.

When you’re not stuck, adventure games are super relaxing to play. You can go at your own pace. No failure, no game over screens, and you can’t die (in most games anyway — I’m looking at you Sierra!).

I think I‘ve come to terms with my love-hate relationship with adventure games. I crave their puzzles, their stories, characters, and dialogue. Their humour and pacing. But I also despise their difficulty and repetition. Even though some people may think adventure games are six feet under, adventure games have simply transformed. They continue to innovate such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or Double Fine’s just-released Stacking. And there’s still plenty people out there making the adventure games you know and love (and sometimes hate).

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