Well…love affair is probably the wrong word. There’s nothing illicit about the relationship between me and the genre of point and click adventures. Plus games are kind of becoming an intangible thing, with a lot of games being digital downloads instead of on CDs. Which means it would be very hard to…you know…
Wait…this is getting awkward. Let’s start that again.
Point and click adventure games are one of video games’ oldest genres. They are in some ways a natural evolution of text adventure games such as Zork. Point and click games are based around simply that: pointing at objects with your mouse and clicking on them. Movement through these games is very rudimentary. Nowadays most games are played through a full three-dimensional perspective, where you can walk around freely and look at anything you want. But back in the day, point and click games were akin to viewing a series of paintings. You searched for the items or clues you needed inside these “paintings” and used them to progress through the game.
And speaking of progression, story progression in these games was not just relegated to cutscenes (video clips that stop the game to tell you a story or highlight an event). Sure they had them, but most only used them to start and end a game. Much of the story would be told through notes or recordings, things of that nature. This kind of storytelling became very prominent in modern horror games as a way to keep you immersed in the environment while still telling a story. And it all began with point and click games.
One of the earliest and most memorable point and click games was Myst.
Myst is one of those games that transcended the boundary between gamer and non-gamer. Even those who don’t play games hardly at all have usually heard of Myst at one time or another. Myst was developed by a company called Cyan (now known as Cyan Worlds) and released in September of 1993, twenty-one years ago at this point. Upon release Myst was a commercial success, being the bestselling game on the computer until The Sims in 2000. It baffled some, who considered Myst to be little more than an interactive slideshow. It amazed others, who considered it evidence that games could be an art form.
The story of Myst is simple. You, the player character, are whisked away to a strange island after reading a book. While exploring the island you discover a tragic story. A man named Atrus reveals in a recording to his wife Catherine that one of their two sons has done some horrible things. When you enter the island library you discover a red and blue book, which are essentially prisons for the brothers. Each one claims the culprit is the other, and begs you to retrieve the missing pages so they can be free.
The beauty of the game is that there are no time constraints, no arbitrary pressure to complete the game in a certain way or time frame. You’re left to your own devices to discover and seek out the truth behind the tale of Atrus’s sons. There’s no order you need to do things in, and if you know what you’re doing, you can even complete the game in under ten minutes if you have the solutions you need. But Myst is not about completion time. Myst is about the journey.
So you might be asking how I fit into all this? After all, the title is about my relationship with these types of games. Well allow me to explain. Myst is one of the first video games I’ve ever played. I’m sure it was not the first (I can’t actually remember the first game I ever played), but it certainly had a profound impact on me, even if I didn’t understand it until much later in life. I found myself drawn back to it in my later years, even with a bevy of modern games to play.
As video games evolved, point and click adventures seemed to fade away. In the minds of gamers, they were generally regarded as archaic and old-fashioned. Myst‘s legacy would live on, and sequels were made. But they never quite captured the success of the original. And for me, few games ever captured the sense of intrigue that Myst had generated for me. I never really understood why Myst had captivated me so until far later in life.
I think it first started with the Penumbra games, a series of horror games developed by Frictional Games who would later go on to make Amnesia: The Dark Descent. While playing that game, I was captivated by the sense of exploring an environment and discovering the story bit by bit, not through heavy-handed cutscenes but through my own thorough exploration of an area. Sure, both Penumbra and Amnesia still had the modern trappings of games with voice acting and a linear progression style, but it was that sense of discovery and exploration that I had so sorely missed in much of modern gaming. But I still hadn’t fully realized that yet. In fact, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I finally did.
As video games progressed they became far more technologically advanced and began dealing with some pretty brutal subject matter, being decried as an incredibly violent form of media by some. But few games explored much beyond the typical heroic story of good fights evil or macho men with guns defeat horrible alien or terrorist menace. Now, I’ve played a lot of these games, and enjoyed many of them, but there was still an itch I had yet to scratch.
You might remember from my post a couple of weeks ago about the paranormal that I mentioned the Dark Fall games and how they allowed me to get back in touch with my fascination in the paranormal through the lens of video games. You might also remember that they are point and click adventure games. But they were not the ones that rekindled my relationship with the point and click genre. For that, we must turn to an abandoned Victorian-era mansion, caked in dust and hiding the tragic secrets of a wealthy family.
I first heard of the game Scratches a while before I actually played it, about a couple of years before I believe. I stumbled on it by chance, and initially disregarded it as the website I was on gave it a really poor review. Since then, I’ve begun taking video game reviews with a grain of salt, and when I ran into Scratches again on a site called Good Old Games (or GOG for short), I picked it up after a while. I didn’t regret that decision at all.
Scratches certainly wasn’t anything original, gameplay or story wise. In fact, the setup is quite familiar. Michael Arthate, a renowned author of horror, is having trouble with his new novel. He moves out to an old Victorian-era mansion in the hopes that this environment will help him finish his book and perhaps provide inspiration for more down the line. But while there, Michael uncovers a mysterious story that grips him far more than any tale he has written. Michael becomes entangled in the house’s story, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. And at night, strange noises can be heard coming from below…
Like I said, nothing original. It’s a setup we’ve seen before in horror, and the way the game plays is pretty much similar to Myst, albeit a lot more linear. You have to explore the house and discover its secrets through solving puzzles and reading notes. So why was Scratches responsible for reinvigorating my interest in the point and click genre? I chalk it up to one simple thing.
The game is freaking creepy, far creepier than a point and click game has any right to be.
I’m completely serious. The night-time sections of the game sent shivers up my spine. When you wake up in the house in the middle of the night to strange scratching noises echoing through the walls…it’s just unnerving to say the least. I was legitimately engrossed in the story by the end, even with it being laden with familiar horror tropes. And that’s when I started looking for other games similar to it, fueled by a love for story and an interest in horror. I actually even picked up realMyst, a remake of the original Myst, to help me recapture the feeling I once had.
This is where the Dark Fall games entered the picture. I also purchased these games off of GOG, starting with the first game, Dark Fall: The Journal. As some of you may recall, I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago that Dark Fall: The Journal was set in an abandoned hotel overlooking a train station where all the guests and staff disappeared mysteriously one night in the 1940s. Again, I was drawn in by the atmosphere and the exploration, and in the end I immensely enjoyed the story even if it had familiar tropes in it.
I slowly began to realize what it was about Myst that captivated me so. It wasn’t the story itself (Myst’s story often felt like background noise to me, despite it’s complexity), but rather the way it was told. It wasn’t told like it is in a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG), where the game takes away control from you and forces you to watch essentially a mini-movie at times. Instead, it allowed you to explore and discover the story on your own bit by bit, piece by piece. It didn’t hammer the point home, but rather it allowed you to get as much out of it as you wanted. Sure, there were still times when you watched or listened to a scene, but these were usually short and infrequent.
That’s what captivated me about Myst and I experienced that in both Scratches and Dark Fall. I was able to piece together the story through my exploration (and, in the case of Scratches, telephone conversations). There’s nothing wrong with the JRPG method of having you watch a little movie, but in my opinion it sometimes feels like such an inelegant way to tell a story, especially in a medium based on the idea of interactivity. You can tell a story this way, and some of my favorite game stories have been told this way, but there’s something to be said for the idea of player agency, that the player controls aspects of the game and its progression through their actions.
Now, Dark Fall wasn’t downright scary in the way that Scratches could be, but it had that atmosphere about it. There was an ever-present sense of ghostly activity as you wandered through the abandoned hotel and train station. It captivated me in much the same way that the mysterious isolation of the island in Myst did. I wanted to know more about the place, so I went on to seek it out.
After completing Dark Fall: The Journal I went on and picked up its sequel, Dark Fall: Lights Out. This one ended up being an incredibly different adventure. It still had all the ghostly events and atmosphere, but it was set in a completely different environment: a lighthouse. As Benjamin Parker, you go out to the lighthouse one foggy night because the light has failed for some reason. When you land you find no trace of the three lighthouse keepers, and discover a tale of horror within. One of the keepers started acting strange and distant, and the other two became afraid of him. After reading a lot of diary entries and generally getting creepy feelings, you find your way into a cave below the lighthouse. And that’s when things get really interesting as you are suddenly and inexplicably transported from 1912 to present-day 2004.
Yep, it just got real.
Dark Fall: Lights Out actually ends up feeling more like a sci-fi story than a ghost or horror story. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as sci-fi is my genre of choice when it comes to stories. It is in this way that the story of Dark Fall: Lights Out becomes far more intriguing than its predecessor, at least for me. It actually feels almost like a good novel, with the appropriate twists and turns. Science fiction and horror are actually far more intertwined than most people understand or expect, something I learned in a class down at Century College. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the original novel, was a horror story but contained trappings of what we know today as science fiction.
And I went on from there, picking up several other point and click games and other types of adventure games that had similar focuses on exploration and discovery. Many were good, others not so much, but the main idea for me was the idea of being left to your own devices and discovering the world or the story through your own actions. That’s what I loved so much about Myst, and it’s what I missed a lot in modern gaming. I had to turn to a genre of games that aren’t even considered games by a lot of gamers before I recaptured and fully understand that feeling and desire.
But despite this general feeling of disdain that many have towards the genre, it has still impacted games in a significant amount of ways. The idea of discovering the story through notes and recordings is something that most likely began with Myst itself, even if it took a decade or two for it to really reach its full effect. Penumbra and Amnesia are two great examples of this idea of storytelling. You still get bits of story through audio flashbacks and the like, but much of it is told through the notes (and in Amnesia the important ones are actually read to you).
There is one modern game that I think is the epitome of this idea. The rain patters down on the roof as a solitary girl stands on the porch with her luggage. She’s been gone for a year, studying abroad in Europe. She’s excited to see the house and her family, but tacked to the front door is a note from her sister begging her not to look for her. But when has anyone ever followed that advice?
Gone Home is a wonderful achievement of a game, and a perfect example of the impact of point and click adventures. The entirety of the game’s story is told through your exploration of the house, with recorded diary entries by Sam Greenbriar (your character’s sister) being triggered whenever you examine a particularly significant object. Discovery and exploration, that’s what it’s all about.
The magic of Gone Home lies in the story it tells and the way it tells it. It’s a tale of discovering one’s identity, told through the objects that we use to identify ourselves. Most objects won’t trigger anything, but the significant ones will trigger Sam telling you a story that relates to that object in some way. It’s a deep, meaningful experience that I say proves that video games are capable of handling grounded and realistic subject matter that engages you in a way a book or movie never could. In this way, Gone Home is the perfect testament to the legacy of point and click adventure games.
I’d love to say so much more about Gone Home, but that will require another post. This post was focused singularly on the history of point and click games and my personal relationship with them. Gone Home is a wonderful game, and deserves to be considered on its own as a defining achievement of video games as a form of media.
Video games have come a long way. They started out as simple little curiosities, often being little more complex than a tale about a man in red and blue overalls saving the princess. But from there they evolved into incredible representations of fantasy and reality, often being the target of people who didn’t really understand them and who blamed them for the corruption of youth (in much the same way as rap, rock music, comic books, and so on). But among the noise of gunfire, crime, and machismo present in many games can be found a quieter and more meaningful experience, if you know where to look. But video games are not about the one or the other. Video games are about the spectrum of experiences to be had, from here to there to everywhere. They are the sum of tireless hours of work from many different people. And they are not going away anytime soon.
And that’s all for this week’s post. Jack your Ethernet cables directly into your skull to download next Wednesday’s post directly to your brain! Or just read it here. That would probably be easier…….and less deadly. Until then, have a great week.
Author’s note: The picture from the video game “Scratches: Director’s Cut” was taken from the Steam store page for the game (here). I was unable to take my own screenshots within the game, and had to find another source.