Point and click adventure games were once a popular genre. Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Simon the Sorcerer. How much fun were these 'insane puzzle quests', as Rincewind put it in Discworld? But the genre died. Who killed it? Some people point the finger at Myst but I will point out the real killer. So sit back as I don my deerstalker hat. The game is afoot!
Firstly, let's discuss the concept of game genres. Something interesting happened when I played Age of Empires 3 the other day:
I accumulated a mass of resources, but before I built a proper army, the enemy made a sneak attack. My small force was slaughtered, my town completely destroyed, and my Explorer tied up like a neat present. It should have been game over - except for on the far corner of the map there was a single unit which had escaped everyone's attention. Could I get this single lone rider to cross the whole map, dodging god knows how many enemy units lurking within the fog of war, to effect a rescue? But more to the point, Age of Empire 3 had suddenly changed from a strategy game to an action game!
Typically we group games that are similar and give this 'genre' a name. But sometimes games change genre. Or games seem to fit in multiple genres. Is Castlevania a platformer or an RPG? Is Thief an action or a strategy game? Should we call Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis a "adventure-fight-game + flight simulator"? It is easier to describe the continuum which games form before discussing the adventure genre. Think of this game continuum like a floor, and Adventure games lie within a chalk outline on it.
From where I'm sitting, I'm acting on this keyboard, which forms letters, words, sentences. And you're reacting to these sentences. Something is either acting, or reacting. Action is change that originates from someone's will. For example, creating a bullet by pressing fire because the player chose to shoot. Reaction is change brought about because of change, in addition to will. For example, dodging a bullet because you want to survive. What is action and reaction can sometimes be difficult to determine, like what came first, the chicken or the egg. Nonetheless, that's the North South direction of the game floor described. North is action, south is reaction. The East West direction is the environment versus the avatar (what the player controls, such as a hero character, or a city). Let's divide this floor into four sections to get a feel for how it works.
In the NW section is PLAYER action on the ENVIRONMENT. So action games, such as shooters, fit well here.
In the NE section is PLAYER action on the AVATAR. This is where strategy games fit.
In the SW section is the ENVIRONMENT reacting, or DESIGNER action on the ENVIRONMENT through the PLAYER. So a simulation like 'the game of life' would fit here.
In the SE section is the AVATAR reacting, or DESIGNER action on the AVATAR through the ENVIRONMENT. Here's where games like RPG's would fit, since you level up your character to prepare for the boss battles.
So the north half would be games where the PLAYER's will dominates. In the south half would be games where the DESIGNER's will dominates. The possibility space is the set of all possible playthroughs of the game. In the north half, the possibility space for success is not pruned. In the SW, it tends to be designed by the DESIGNER. Sometimes there is complete control. In the SW, the possibility space for the AVATAR is designed.
While there are some games which seem to fit nearer to the corners than others, most have elements of each of the four genres. A game like Princess Maker, where you choose what classes to take, is like a strategy game. Unless you want to make a princess who is a warrior and explore the map sections. In that case you are reacting to the difficulty of those maps when choosing classes, and so it is more like a RPG. I think this is a good way to classify games. For example, something that would fit in the SE section would be baking a cake. Taking away the combat and story, aren't RPGs a lot like baking cakes? Something that would fit in the SW section would be building Lego according to the instructions. Aren't point and click adventure games a bit like this if you use a Walkthrough?
If point and click adventure games are 'insane puzzle quests' then let's look at puzzle games. A simple puzzle game (though not a computer puzzle game!) is "Where's Waldo". A child will look at the page for some time and then cry "Found him!". Where does this fit on our game genre floor? There is no avatar, so it is on the western side. But the physical page never changes! In fact environment doesn't refer to the physical parts of the game. It refers to the environment we create inside our head! As the child looks at the page the mental map he builds changes from blank to detailed, like how chemical photographs are developed. It keeps changing, a outline becomes a man, becomes a man laughing, becomes a man laughing because he saw someone get hit with a pie, becomes a man laughing who is soon to be ironically hit by a pie. This map changes until the child has spotted Waldo - in which case the map changes from being unsolved to solved. It is the DESIGNER who has acted on the environment as he created both the solved and unsolved map when he drew a picture with Waldo hidden. If child had cheated, and just drawn Waldo in, the player would have acted on the environment (but that's not a puzzle game!). Puzzle games fit into the SW section of the game floor.
It's worth noting that when a DESIGNER designs a game there is the expression of two wills: the will for the PLAYER to fail, and the will for the PLAYER to succeed. The interesting jokes in where's Waldo, as well the way the lines are directed to lead the eye, are obstacles which the PLAYER must overcome. Unless of course the author didn't put Waldo in! Then it wouldn't be a puzzle game, just something a very mean person created. Sometimes a game designer can put in clues, which are expressions of his will for the PLAYER to succeed. Other expressions of this will can be rewarding cutscenes, for example.
You might wonder, what about puzzles where there is an avatar? Consider the following types of maze games:
1. You complete it by drawing a path through the maze in pen
2. You control an avatar which moves through the maze and the computer screen scrolls with the AVATAR
3. You control an avatar which moves through the maze but the screen does not scroll
In the first situation, the PLAYER appears to be acting on the ENVIRONMENT, but it is actually the DESIGNER action on the ENVIRONMENT through the PLAYER, and so it is a puzzle game. For example, consider a Rubix cube. If someone had a solved rubix cube, and then made 2 turns, and gave it to you, that is a puzzle game (SW). It is up to you to find the solution, which is to make the 2 turns in reverse. Yet your action on the cube is merely to discover what the designer intended for you to do. Contrast this with someone turning the rubix cube randomly until it is a jumbled mess and handing it to you. Even though there is an end success state, there are multiple paths, none of which the person who handed it to you has specified. It is now an action game (NW).
In the second situation there is now an AVATAR. When a man rises in a balloon, there are two frames of reference, the first the balloon rises, the second the earth appears to lower. So it might appear that the maze has moved relative to the avatar (ENVIRONMENT changed) or that the avatar has moved through the maze (AVATAR changed). This presents a conundrum. On the one hand the AVATAR seems to have changed the genre, yet they all seem to be puzzle games.
Consider the following: if you walked the avatar through the maze with the screen turned off, randomly pressing keys until a sound let you know you had finished, did you complete the puzzle? The answer is obviously no. Here's a second question: if you accidently solve the puzzle, have you really solved it? It's actually when you realize why what you did to solve the puzzle that you can say that. Another question: why can you say "I've just solved the puzzle" when you aren't playing it (doing something else like riding a bike) but you can't do the same for Mario brothers? In puzzle games, the map you create in your head should be complete so that you can predict the outcome of your interaction. In other words, it becomes like a self contained game inside your head. When you come up with a solution you have acted on the ENVIRONMENT in your head. You only go to play the game in order to get confirmation that the map you created in your head matches the map intended by the DESIGNER.
So situation two and three are still puzzle games because of the creation of the ENVIRONMENT in the players head required to solve them. That said, situation two and three are not identical. Three places an emphasis on the ENVIRONMENT, whereas two places an emphasis on the AVATAR. Playing Prince of Persia (static screens) for example feels different to playing Shadow of the Beast (scrolling screens). As the screen scrolls the ENVIRONMENT changes, and this pushes the game further north.
Also note this is another explanation why the mixed up Rubix cube can be like an action game rather than a puzzle game. Unless of course you know the algorithms, then the changes of the cube become predictable. While there is a DESIGNER for your ENVIRONMENT in your head, ie. you, there is no DESIGNER for the overall game. Also note the 'creative thinking' of designing the map and solution in your head is not restricted to puzzle games. It is also found in strategy games, for example. The important difference should be that puzzle games are self contained, whereas strategy games or RPGs require constant feedback from the game itself.
So we've seen that point and click adventure games are puzzle games even though you control an avatar. So point and click adventure games, which are puzzle games, fit in SW section of the game floor.
So why did these type of puzzle games cease being produced? Did these puzzle games cease being fun? The feeling of fun comes from an increasing feeling of domination. There's a will to fail, as expressed by an enemy ship, and you destroy the ship, you are overcoming that will. The will to fail that you overcome should increase.
This can come from increasing difficulty. If you solve a 100 piece puzzle you might find it fun. And then going on to a 500 piece puzzle you might still find it fun. But doing another 100 piece puzzle might not seem fun. There's not a one to one relationship though. For example, towards the end of completing a jigsaw puzzle the difficulty in fact decreases, yet it is more fun. That's because the pieces you are now identifying were previously the most challenging, and so you have overcome a greater will to fail.
Fun can come from new challenges. For example, setting a time limit for you to solve the puzzle.
It can come from self mastery. For example, some people replay games to beat their own highscores. Or they keep solving 500 piece puzzles because they're basically masochists. They are overcoming their will to do something more interesting with their time.
From the point of view of purely mechanics the puzzles in adventure games boiled down to "give something to somebody" "use something with something" etc. While the puzzles might have increased in difficulty within the first point and click adventure game you played, the difficulty for the next game will start over. Also, as you play more of these games you get a better appreciate of the mechanics, learn the general form of puzzle solutions, which makes them easier to solve. So there isn't an increasing feeling of domination. So the person who killed point and click adventure games was really you, by playing them.
One problem with this argument that the puzzles were generic and became repetitive is that while the mechanics of interaction was limited, the fictional world of the adventure games was not. In other words the puzzles were not based on rules defined by the game, but representations of the rules of a physical world, and completing puzzles gave the illusion of dominating these physical rules. If games became less fun then it would be because the representation puzzles became familiar (such as different games asking the same puzzle of building a compass), or, they stopped being representational puzzles. For example, games where the solution was nonsensical or unrealistic, such as using black fur from the cat with syrup to make a black mustache, In which case, the murderer would be bad designers, which we'll come back to.
Games such as Lure of the Temptress added NPC who would walk around and interact with other NPC in the hopes this would make the game more interesting and real. This was self defeating because firstly the linear structure of the possibility space was still imposed by the puzzles. Secondly, interaction was still limited to walking, talking, watching. All this stalking and eaves dropping didn't change the game fundamentally - it just made executing the solutions to puzzles or acquiring information time dependent. When adventure games didn't have limited possibility spaces they didn't have puzzles, such as Robin Hood, but instead actions (such as killing) which altered the environment. These adventure games were instead really action or strategy games. They had rules of interaction and NPC behavior which were understandable and exploitable. So for example, Beneath the Steel Sky could have used it's real time theatre where you needed to obtain a certain number of arrests in order to progress onto the linear story. In order to do that, you would commit crimes and plant evidence.
Others also tried to improve on the genre by moving away from it (ie. north). LucasArts for instance included action sequences such as a simple combat engine in FA. Sometimes games included ways for the player to die and this worked, such as in the combat engine of FA. And other times it didn't. This is because when you dodge say a bullet in action shooters the important characteristic is that the death should have been predictable. ie. the fun part is dominating the rules. In games such as Beneath a Steel Sky the ways to die were not predictable. While it might have added to the sense the fictional world was dangerous, it didn't make it more fun. The repeated saving (in order to avoid redoing puzzles) broke the illusion.
Developers were trying push the point and click adventure genre north. For example, giving more freedom by creating multiple paths allowing the player to change the order the puzzles are solved, or choosing between wittier dialogue options etc. This is because freedom is more fun than conforming to the DESIGNER's will. But we'll see there's another reason for designers trying to escape the genre later.
Is it possible that an adventure game with 'old' puzzles might still be enjoyable simply because of the story? What are stories?
Whatever the form of the story (book, movie, mime etc.) we are building a map inside our heads. The viewpoint is related to how information (which changes the map) is restricted. For example, a zoomed out shot versus a zoomed in shot could place emphasis on the environment and on a facial expression respectively. In this map there are characters and the environment. Both characters and the environment can change. Each character can have different wills. Each character will also have a map in their heads, though our ability to see those is limited. The person listening to the story will create parts of the map himself, using for example memories.
The purpose for stories is for learning. For example, someone telling you about when they saw a snake and what they did. The mind is divided into sections, like a company is divided into departments. While the CEO might have complete information, some departments are only fed tidbits of info. When you hear a story about the snake, while the CEO part of your mind knows its a story, the emotional part of your mind might just be fed the info that there is danger. The response of fear would be fed back to the map being built to make it more realistic. So that were you in a fearful situation, you might recall the story about the snake. Hence stories elicit emotional responses. Note that you can still feel separate emotions, such as frustration, about the way the story is being told.
Story can be interactive such as a child playing with her tea set. Or it can be the opposite, such as watching a film. Note that watching a film can still be fun. This is because you are pretending to be taking the actions the hero takes. When you are playing a game, the degree you are pretending is less.
Let's take an example of sinking the boat in the first monkey island game. The start of this subplot is the crew (who at first showed will to help) were sunbaking (will to pleasure). Guybrush's will to dominate and will to be productive did not dominate as he could not persuade the crew. There are a couple of ways this story can play out. If Guybrush doesn't sink the ship, the crew take him back to Melee Island (ie. their will to help triumphs). If he does sink the ship, one of the outcomes is this: he gets a ride back with a cowardly ghost (will to help) who he destroys (will to be malevolent, also shows greater will to dominate than LeChuck). The crew finish in gaol (will to punish dominates them). The latter storyline is more enjoyable. Part of this is because its fun dominating the rules relating to how the story plays out. But part of this is because the combat between wills is more pleasing. The reason why interactive stories are lame (whether they change in real time, or you are choosing between story lines) is because our mind has a set way for thinking about competing wills. The degree to which the combat of wills matches that preset formula determines how satisfying it is. Hence having multiple story lines should only be used as a reward. That is, unless you can get each different story line to conform to the formula.
It's obvious that adventure games can still be enjoyable because of their story because it can be enjoyable to replay them. But the pertinent question is really for a given story, is the puzzle genre best? I mean, how ridiculous is Indiana Jones sneaking on a nazi uboat and making a club sandwich? The story best suited for the puzzle game genre would be detective games such as Sherlock Holmes and the Rose Tattoo.
The other successful story was comedy, in which case a naive, weak and manipulative main character (necessarily created by needing to be helped solving puzzles) is excusable.
The nail in the coffin
Myst had a first person perspective. Sometimes films do this for short scenes, such as Black Dahlia or Doom. This is awkward for depicting social interactions because you are removing half of the information. The other problem is without there being an AVATAR, you are feeding yourself into the map, along with the knowledge that you are watching a film/playing a computer game. While the first person perspective restricted the story because it reduced social interactions, and made it a purer puzzle game, it was still an enjoyable game. I think the blame should lay with designers who made unsatisfying adventure games. I'm not talking about clones of Myst (which I haven't played). I'm talking about games such as Monkey Island 2 and Simon the Sorcerer 2.
Ron Gilbert created the worst ending in Monkey Island 2. Basically, he presented two equally compelling illusions. That's not a satisfying story ending. I think his alibi is that the game did not conform to his vision. There are complicated things in stories such as patterns of symbols which can help set up expectations in the viewers mind. For example, the dream sequence in MI 2 there is Alive parents -> skeletons -> Lechuck and then Lechuck sprays guybrush, indicating the dream is presenting information in reverse. Then in the game you encounter Lechuck -> skeletons -> Alive parents. Ron intended for there to be a scene where the cartographer drowned looking for his monocle. It's possible that this would have made the "it was all a fantasy" more compelling. ie. proceeding the creation of kids and a safer world with the death of a child in a cruel world (ie. will to cruelty precedes will to escape).
The team behind Simon the Sorcerer 2 have no alibi. The first game was fantastic. It was basically a degradation of the worlds of Narnia, LOTR and various fairy tales. Not only were characters such as the troll misbehaving by turning themselves into the victim, the main character, Simon, had no "personal growth" or character arc. He remained a bit of a shithead, sending up the fantasy genre. But the second game was a degradation of the previous game world. Simon remained a shithead, again. Not only were some of the puzzles terrible (WTF magic on shoes why didn't you magic solutions to all the shitty puzzles?) but the ending was a shitty version of the monkey island 2 ending. What were they thinking?
Adventure game designers are really making a game that they lose at. The will for the PLAYER to succeed is really the will for the DESIGNER to lose. Unlike action games, where the DESIGNER can offset this feeling because some players are better than others at the game, in an adventure game, all players ought to be equally able to beat the DESIGNER. Not only this but the designer must react to how difficult players might find the problem, and put in hints and clues. The AGS community is a cemetery of abandoned projects and I don't think it is just the enormous amount of work necessary in producing an adventure game. The nails in the coffin are that you are slaving away in order for to someone to beat you. Even those who got paid to do it are like the resentful Butler of the gaming industry who grow to resent force feeding tidbits of story through inane lateral thinking puzzles. This is why designers stopped making adventure games, or just made shitty sequels. It's possible Ron Gilbert did intend a completely vague ending, just to fuck with peoples heads. Why didn't he make Guybrush pick up the bucket of mud and then say "I just realised I hold the whole universe in my hand PS I'm the Buddha" and just end it there? Even though he went on to make adventure games with humongous, I bet if Ron Gilbert had've known how to code a FPS, the ending on MI2 would have been: turn off your computer and go and buy LOOM 3D: Is my mother on mars?
The genre died, designers killed it. Now close your browser tab and do something productive, like **removed**