Keeping Point-and-Click Adventures Alive

bendan.jpg As alluded to last week with the release of Amanita's hand-drawn opus Machinarium, the era of the point and click adventure -- which reached its pinnacle throughout the 90s thanks to genre-defining works by LucasArts, Sierra and Cyan -- seemed all but forever over in the decade following, as PC prowess pushed first- and third-person to the fore. But a new wave of adventures has recently arisen, ushered in by the re-introduction of more cursor-y consoles and handhelds (think: the literal pointing and touching of both the Wii and the iPhone), the proliferation of digital distribution channels (lowering the barrier away from gun-shy publishers unwilling to invest heavily in 'nostalgia'), and a dedicated core that's never let the classics die (via grey market ports of Lucas's SCUMM engine to basically every piece of hardware with a display device). And so, a brief introduction to those new adventurers, and a quick guide to re-playing the classics in new ways. Ben There, Dan That / Time Gentlemen, Please [Zombie Cow, PC] Apart from Amanita (covered exhaustively last week), the top team keeping the spirit of click alive is the UK's Zombie Cow -- founded by Dan Marshall and aided by a small crew of consultants, most notably co-writer and -designer Ben Ward. The pair are, as you might have guessed, the stars of Zombie Cow's first adventure outing, Ben There, Dan That, a game that manages to infuse the best of indie spirit (lean, economical, and highly stylized art and design) with the best of what LucasArts taught us made these journeys so great: razor-sharp wit and dialogue, self-aware and -referencing (and, here, Lucas-classics referencing as well) at every turn, never afraid to break the fourth wall and let the player in on the jokes. The duo have followed in that same tradition with the recently released Time Gentlemen, Please a sequel that can be demo'd and purchased either from Zombie Cow itself or via Valve's Steam (BT,DT remains a free download). Both come highly, highly recommended, and serve as a nice tide-over while you await the studio's third chronicle: Revenge of the Balloon-Headed Mexican.
windo16x9.jpg Windosill [Vectorpark, web/PC/Mac] At the opposite end of the spectrum is Patrick Smith's Windosill, a game written up at greater length in the past at Offworld. Part of his Vectorpark series of gorgeously hyper-surreal click-toys, Windosill is as far from a character-driven narrative adventure as you can come. Instead, Smith pulls you into his somehow at once super-flat and mind-bogglingly physical and living worlds that writhe and bounce and squish at every prod. Each screen presents a new diorama to be explored, and while you'll get a good taste via its demo version, do move on to the full, paid version to see the screen I've been squirming for months to not spoil online (when you've reached a room with three residents, you'll know you're there). Play online at windosill.com -- where you can also get the PC/Mac downloadables -- or find it at Steam. hostmaster.jpg Host Master and the Conquest of Humor [Double Fine, web] And, even as a one-off joke, a special shout-out to Host Master, a throwback from Brutal Legend creators Double Fine which sees studio head Tim Schafer -- himself one of the genre's top artists with his past work creating Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango -- prepping for his GDC 2009 awards show role in classic form, which, if nothing else, proves that he's still 'got it'. The Best of the Rest: If you haven't had your fill with the above, your next best ports of call are the continuing episodic efforts of Telltale Games, who remain the highest profile studio keeping the form alive: their Sam&Max and Monkey Island revivals are essential plays, alongside their work with Wallace & Gromit and Strongbad, and they're one of the few that have managed to infiltrate the Wii with downloadable ports. LucasArts has also re-dedicated itself to the form with their Special Edition remake of the original Monkey Island coming to Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and the iPhone, and their offering of Loom, The Dig, and Indiana Jones adventures on Steam. The iPhone has also seen shrunk-down but no less playable versions of Cyan's Myst and Revolution Software's cyber-fantasy Beneath a Steel Sky (still free on PC via Good Old Games). And finally, for more indie offerings, see Silver Wish's Axel and Pixel, just brought to Xbox 360 via 2K Play, rabbinical adventure The Shivah and fellow Wadjet Eye works Puzzle Bots (and the original Nanobots) from Montreal's Erin Robinson. There's likely several handfuls more great indies that I've left off above: leave any additions overlooked via the comments below!

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  1. That Full Throttle picture reminded me of one way to keep those games alive, simply rehash the imagery for other art. Check this music video out, it’s a mashup of Full Throttle and the stoner rock of Wolfmother

  2. I saw Erin Robinson speak on an independent games panel at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She gave a hilarious, honest, and compelling presentation about the difficulty of developing independent games and I urge you to support her work.

  3. Your use of the term “grey market” with respect to ScummVM implies some sort of nefarious goings-on. I can assure you that my impression of the project from when we interviewed one of the project leaders (http://twit.tv/floss80) is that they are very (perhaps overly) careful to ensure that all property rights are completely respected. In fact, by helping to continue the execution engines, they’ve created a market for new games.

    I would hope that you would consider editing that portion of your story to paint them in a positive light, rather than a negative one.

    — Randal Schwartz, host of FLOSS Weekly

  4. It’s called Full Throttle, one of LucasArts’ classics. As for other adventure games of note, you could do worse than checking out the Blackwell series, also from Wadjet Eye.

    Also, Brandon, I know you occasionally write a post about it, but this would have been a good time to mention the improving state of IF games.

  5. Matthew: I do plan to write a column on just that, if only because I keep meeting people that haven’t yet played Photopia (or realize that they can quite easily on their iPhones through Frotz).

    Day Vexx: I can’t be sure, but the first thought that sprang to mind was some of the old Hypercard stacks by Thoru Yamamoto. The closest I could come to finding them again (I know there’s an archive still hanging around somewhere) was this web version of Mole Hole (which is crazy broken): http://web.archive.org/web/19991122223702/www.bekkoame.or.jp/~thoru/molehole/mole1_m.html

    Does that style look right?

  6. There is a fairly big indepedent adventure games making scene over at:
    http://www.bigbluecup.com/yabb/

    A lot are made using Chris Jones’ Adventure Game Studio, including the games ‘Ben There, Dan That’ and ‘Time Gentlemen, Please’ mentioned above.

    Here are some more nice independent adventures several of which are freeware:

    -Cirque de Zale
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cirque_de_Zale

    -The Blackwell series
    http://www.wadjeteyegames.com/

    -Ben Jordan series
    http://www.grundislavgames.com/benjordan/case7.php

    -Dirty Split
    http://www.dreamagination.org/?page_id=4

    -Nelly Cootalot
    http://nelly.johnsendesign.info/

    -The Infinity String
    http://www.bigbluecup.com/games.php?action=detail&id=901

    -The Apprentice
    http://herculeaneffort.adventuredevelopers.com/apprentice.html

    -A Second Face
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Second_Face

    -No Action Jackson
    http://www.adventuregamers.com/article/id,396

  7. Great, great post! The P&C revival is really cookin these days.

    A similar genre that is fun for a quick fix would be “Escape” games, where you are usually locked in a room and have to figure your way out. I usually find these, as well other point & clicks, at jayisgames.

    I’m also excited to see what comes of hansoloadventures. Looks to be a great throwback, lucasarts-style adventure game.

  8. I recommend B. Sokal’s ‘Syberia.’ The sequel is pretty good as well. Both games have rich landscapes and interesting, deep characters and plot. Check ’em out…

  9. Brandon– That’s not it. I remember it was a hunt for some sort of beast/monster… took you threw various caves, you found skulls sometimes, and then you’d see it and get one shot or something to “kill” it. It was pretty well-drawn, if I recall. I have the feeling it must have come with HyperCard or something, but I was pretty young then, so I can’t be sure.

  10. Time gentlemen, Please is literally the funniest game I’ve ever played. Glad to see it’s getting some recognition.

  11. Slightly off-topic but related: I would probably kill for a port of the old Commander Keen platformer games to a modern system…don’t want graphics upgrades, just want to keep playing the silly thing…most addictive and fun game of that sort I ever had…only platformer I could *finish* may have had something to do with it too. ;0

    1. You can play any of the original Keen games — 1-3, Dreams, 4-5, or 6 — on DOSBox on any modern platform. You just need the original game and 10 minutes or so to tweak DOSBox settings. The GameBoy Color Keen game should be playable with an emulator (though I admit I haven’t tried.)

      It’s cool to see all the old games are still playable, whether by DOSBox, ScummVM, or whatever. In my opinion this means that modern games shouldn’t duplicate the past, but should push the envelope. After all, if you want an existing game you can still play it.

  12. It’s truly amazing how Full Throttle’s (deserved) fame just keeps on growing. I worked on the game and did much of the 3d modeling and animation. It was a great experience from waaay back in the day.

    And props to the first poster for the yt link. That has some footage I actually created and hadn’t seen in many, many years.

  13. How can you not mention the amazing ScummVM for all your nostalgic requirements when it comes to adventure games?

    http://www.scummvm.org

    Support for lots of old adventure games (mostly SCUMM based LucasArts games, but not exclusively) on many platforms, including Windows, Linux, mobile phones (Symbian based and the iPhone), PSP and the Wii.

    There are also some old adventure games that became freeware available from their download page such as Flight of the Amazon Queen and Beneath a Steel Sky, among a few others.

  14. It makes me feel like a bad gamer, but I can’t stand most point-and-click adventure games anymore. I have many fond memories of playing Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and other Lucasarts classics, but now I simply get irritated by the obscure, often unintuitive puzzles and the relentlessly linear gameplay.

    Even though I still have an abiding love for the clever writing and dialogue that thrives in the best of this genre (BT,DT was especially delightful), I can’t shake the feeling that it’d be better as a piece of interactive fiction, without the arbitrary frustration of finding which object to attach to which other object and where.

    Perhaps I’ve been playing the wrong adventure games. The Longest Journey pretty much killed my interest in the genre, because despite its lovely story, the gameplay was simply unbearable. BT,DT was satisfying, but still suffered from everything coming down to a simple “click everywhere, use every item, progress the linear plotline” gameplay.

    I’m looking for an adventure game where the gameplay is as rich as the dialogue, and where I have actual choices in how to move the storyline forward, rather than sticking to a linear path. Any suggestions from the Offworld community?

  15. To this great round-up (including Riu’s exhaustive selection), I would just like to add Ben Chandler’s series of AGS games: Man Boy vs. Doctor Sock, Annie Android, Shifter’s Box, Heed, and the recent Awakener. They are all short but exquisite, with gorgeous art and good writing.

  16. QUOTE from article above “There’s likely several handfuls more great indies that I’ve left off above: leave any additions overlooked via the comments below!”

    They ask for our feedback for suggestions yet they keep taking down our posts. Do you want our input or not?

    1. Well, anonymous, when I get two different registered users and two anonymous comments, all from the same IP and all pushing the same game, within a few minutes of each other, I treat it as spam. When I continue to get the same comments from even more users on the same subject, all from the same ISP, geolocation and IP range, it makes me even more likely to treat it as spam. If you’re not a spammer, feel free to e-mail me at my name at this domain.

  17. I can’t believe the post doesn’t even mention The Neverhood Chronicles. Best point-and-clicker ever. Claymation to boot.

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