Left Behind: The Fall of Point and Click Adventure Games

From very early on in this blog, I made it obvious that I love point and click adventure games.  Myst was and still is one of my favorite games of all time.  But what exactly happened to the point and click genre.  I’ve talked about it briefly, but I never got into too many specifics.  These games were beloved by many back in the ’80s and ’90s, so what exactly changed in the world of games to make them seem so obsolete?

Well, to find that out, we have to start at the beginning.

 

Rise

The story of point and click adventure games begins with their predecessor, the text adventure game.  Many people known of Zork, the series of games that began in 1980 (technically it was released earlier under a different name, but this was when it was first released as Zork).  But alas, Zork was not the first game of its kind.  The first text adventure game and likely the first adventure game ever made was Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976.

Text-based adventure games were very simplistic.  They described a scene to you exclusively through text and you typed in commands to advance the game.  Initially, commands had to be very simple (i.e. “get key” or “go north”).  But as time went on, the technology evolved and the commands were allowed to be more advanced (i.e. “take the key from the table”).

These text games would set the stage for what would be called “graphic adventure games”.  This would start the transition into the dominant age of the adventure game genre.  As the technology behind computers became more and more advanced, games were allowed to ditch the text-exclusive format and start moving in a direction based on visuals, allowing for greater immersion on the part of the player.

The very first graphical adventure game was Mystery House in 1980.  And it was…well…just take a look for yourself:

 

Mystery House

 

Yeah…it was primitive.

This style of art is known as “vector graphics” and as you can see Mystery House still used the text command interface.  Vector graphics gave way to “bitmap graphics”, which allowed games to show the player character moving in response to the player commands.  Games like the King’s Quest series used this style to great effect.

As the graphical quality of games grew more and more advanced, they moved away from the text-based command inputs, instead using an interface where a player could move a cursor around on-screen and click on objects to have their character interact with them.

This, my friends, is the essence of what a point and click game is.

 

Evolution

The late ’80s, early ’90s were the heyday of the point and click genre.  Technology got better and better.  Voice acting was introduced.  Games gained three-dimensional graphics.  Video games were rapidly evolving to new levels hitherto unseen in the medium.  This era is when games like Gabriel Knight and Grim Fandango were released.

This period also saw the rise of more puzzle oriented games.  Puzzles were present in older adventure games, but were typically relegated to inventory-style puzzles (as in “give this item to this person” in order to progress).  But newer games started moving away from that and focused on puzzles which required interaction with objects in the environment itself.

There are two major games from this period, both released in 1993, that popularized the puzzle heavy approach to adventure games: Myst and The 7th Guest.

The 7th Guest was arguably the game with more puzzles.  In fact, from what I remember when I played it a few years back, it was pretty much ALL puzzles (part of the reason I personally consider the game inferior to Myst is that some of the puzzles require far too much effort on the part of the player).  It featured a lot of full motion video (prerecorded video files featuring live actors).  Nowadays, The 7th Guest seems incredibly cheesy.  It has an over the top flair that doesn’t translate well into modern gaming.

Myst, on the other hand, fared far better.  For comparison, Myst spawned five sequels and a spinoff game, whereas The 7th Guest had only one sequel to its name.  A big reason for this was Myst‘s reliance on atmosphere instead of voice acting.  There were very few characters in the game.  Instead, the game’s story was told through notes and books.  Also compared to The 7th GuestMyst‘s puzzles were tied to the world itself.  There was always some kind of logic behind it.  Often all you needed was a clue hidden somewhere else in the environment.  Myst was atypical for the genre, in that it didn’t have a heavily defined goal for the player.  You were left to your own devices to wander the island and solve its mysteries.

It was considered to be one of the most influential games of its time as well as the “killer app” that sparked widespread adoption of the CD-ROM technology.

 

Fall

Ironically, Myst‘s overwhelming success was part of what led to the downfall of the point and click genre.  At this point in time, video games had become much more of an industry, and like any industry it was driven by trends.  Myst became the trend, holding the record for best-selling computer game until it was beaten out by The Sims in 2000.  So the genre saw an influx of games trying to emulate Myst, causing it to become stale.

But this wasn’t the only contributor to its downfall.  Remember how the evolution of technology contributed to the rise of the adventure game genre?  Well that also led to it falling out of favor (at least in the United States…the genre remained popular in Europe).  The advent of first-person shooters such as Doom and Half-Life meant that these games were able to offer strong, story-driven games but with an emphasis on action gameplay.  By comparison, adventure games seemed archaic, bound by a framework that couldn’t seem to evolve beyond Myst.

Because of all this, adventure games were seen as financially unfeasible.  Slowly but surely, the genre that had pushed gaming so far was being left behind, left to twiddle its thumbs while the rest of gaming passed it by…

 

But in another strange twist of fate, the fall was not the end.  The growth of digital distribution and touch-screen interfaces provided avenues to re-release old adventure games.  And digital distribution in particular led to the rise of episodic adventure games, games with a story structure modeled after televisions shows.  Each “episode” of the game is released separately, but players can usually opt in to buying a “season pass” so they’ll have access to each episode the moment they come out.  Telltale Games found great success with their Walking Dead episodic games series based off the comics and have made many episodic series based off franchises like Game of Thrones and Back to the Future.

This resurgence of the genre also led to what people often deride as “walking simulators”, games primarily focused on telling a story through exploration and discovery rather than solving puzzles.  I have spoken about one of these games many times, Gone Home.  Gone Home tells the story of a girl returning home after a year abroad and finding her house empty.  The game centers around her searching the house to find out where everyone is and revealing the story of her family over the year she was absent.  It’s a very touching little story in my opinion although many gamers despised it, some going so far as to argue that it isn’t a game.

Often, in this ever-increasing digital world, old things can become new once again.  Will games ever go back to the simplistic point and click games of yore?  Probably not, nor should they.  Like any other medium, games should be driven by innovation and evolution.  Every trend will eventually fall out of favor, leading to new and interesting ideas.  But even if you don’t like the current trend, the modern age of gaming has far more avenues for indie game development, leading to plenty of lesser-known games that might scratch that niche itch you have.

Technology is a strange and wonderful thing, isn’t it?

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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