Making a game feel real has been gaming’s Holy Grail in terms of player immersion.
With the release of the PS5 and Xbox Series X / S dropping in November 2020, the industry showcased to the world how far it had come in terms of technical capabilities: GPUs with hardware-accelerating ray tracing for more realistic graphics, in-house built audio engines delivering 3D object-based soundscapes. It’s certainly an exciting, new (virtual) world out there.
But the growing popularity of indie games sporting graphics and styles of yesteryear — through choice or circumstance — raises the question of whether countless hours of play time, dozens of different mechanics or hyper realistic visuals automatically equals immersion. A number of genres go against this, but only one of them has consistently done so for almost 40 years, and on a drastically smaller budget: point-and-click adventures.
The modern point-and-click adventure community is thriving.
Despite being one of the backbone genres, point-and-click games have remained at the edges, only flirting with the mainstream market. Ask your average Joe to name one and it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll offer up Monkey Island or Broken Sword. Fantastic titles though they are, that early-to-mid-nineties window was the last time point-and-clicks were fully recognized. They deserve better.
The modern point-and-click adventure community is thriving thanks to platforms like Steam and itch.io. Primordia from Wormwood Studios, for example, has an overall score of ‘Overwhelmingly Positive,’ with 97 percent of reviews being positive. Through stoic robot Horatio Nullbuilt and his droid companion Crispin, Primordia takes the player on a journey in a world of machines where man has long been extinct. Stellar voice acting, writing and rooted-in-logic puzzles set against evocative pixel art environments guide players through the muddy waters of humanity and machinery, possibilities of the past repeating itself and what defines the self.
Another high-scoring title is The Blackwell Epiphany from indie adventure heavyweight Wadjet Eye Games, the final game in the Blackwell series. New York medium Rosa Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey help the dead pass over to the other side, but after witnessing a dead man’s violently torn apart before their eyes, their otherworldly mission takes a frightening and dangerous turn. In line with the subject matter, players are faced with the emotions and rippling actions following death through the first class writing and delivery. Combined with the excellent plot pacing and story elements, it makes for a powerful and visceral experience.
Reviews of these titles repeatedly contain phrases like “an outstanding game” and “a masterpiece” — terms also used to describe hit AAA games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. So why are point-and-click adventures only ever brushing with mainstream recognition? What’s keeping them from entering the inner circle? It would be easy to point the finger at their tropes, like putting an endless stream of large items in a coat pocket or puzzles that completely defy logic. And then there are the times when you have to click on every pixel to find the one thing you need to interact with. But since then point-and-clicks have come a long way from ridiculous item combinations.
The year 2018 showed tremendous growth in the genre, with the release of Unavowed by Wadjet Eye and Lamplight City by Grundislav Games. Both games made bold development choices that flew the flag for others to follow. Unavowed adopted a BioWare-esque party mechanic and a silent protagonist — non-interactive items would display the characters’ thoughts when hovering over them rather than saying, “There’s nothing special about that.."
“I really wanted it to be like hanging out with your friends,” says Wadjet Eye founder Dave Gilbert of Unavowed. “I wanted you to like these characters, so by the end of the game, you’ll really miss them. Grow attached to them.” As Unavowed progresses, the player learns more about their companions beyond their skills as they in turn become more comfortable conversing with the protagonist. They begin to open up about topics that were previously off limits and the player is able to see small fragments of their joys and regrets.
Gilbert, speaking via Zoom, says he grew up playing adventure games. “So when I felt driven to create, I was naturally drawn to it because I was familiar with the language of adventure games,” he says. “Adventure games kinda spoke to me, and I felt like I knew I could speak to others through adventure games.”
Lamplight City made an even bolder step by completely omitting an inventory system. Items are used as clues to aid in the protagonist detective’s investigations — a choice that Grundislav founder Francisco Gonzalez made going into the project.
“[Item puzzles] would be very out of place for a detective game when the focus is the investigations and interrogations," Gonzalez says. “A detective wouldn’t combine items to make a crude tool when he can find or ask for one.”
“I knew I could speak to others through adventure games.”
“The most frustrating thing is writing responses for why you can’t do things,” he laments. “I wanted to try and eliminate that. You don’t want to be told ‘No!’ 90 percent of the time. It’s much more exciting when you try something and it triggers a unique response — more immersive.” And therein may lie the point-and-click dilemma.
Since their conception, point-and-click adventures have been strongly based around narrative and storytelling through character interaction. They require a certain level of personal investment and concentration; they’re not light “pick up and play” experiences. For some players, this is a sizable barrier.
True, you won’t find a vast open world to explore or fast-paced combat in a point-and-click adventure. You won’t perform spectacular physical feats or take down colossal monsters single-handedly. But in the wake of 2020, people’s desires began to move away from fantastical freedom and much closer to home.
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important,” author Arthur Conan Doyle once said. The pandemic has emphasized the truth of this statement. “No!” was all that people were faced with.
People were craving things that would say “Yes!” — again, not to their most outlandish fantasies, but to their most basic pleasures: conversation, emotional connection, sharing moments. They craved relatable escapism and now had the time to fully invest in more intricate stories. Entertainment’s purpose had shifted; rather than a way to escape reality and normality, it became a way to return to them. And this is the sweet spot that point-and-clicks tap into.With areas of exploration contained and gameplay simplified, narrative and character interaction naturally take centre stage. The Blackwell Legacy for example — the first installment of the series — only has four playable locations and puzzles are mostly limited to purely conversations and connecting the dots from the information Rosa gathers from them. But in turn, the puzzles become more meaningful and the actions carry more weight as they affect people Rosa has conversed and connected with. Ultimately a player feels more immersed on a grassroots level, and the little decisions they make have a great emotional and personal impact.
This year is already shaping up to be an excellent year for point-and-click adventures, with scheduled releases from genre heavyweights and numerous new and up-and-coming developers. Two titles in particular that were showcased at the recent Steam Game Festival look to follow the path Unavowed and Lamplight City carved out for them.
Cats and the Other Lives by Cultic Games follows the Mason family and their hopes, disappointments, and tensions following a death — as seen through the eyes of the family cat Aspen. From that vantage point, we see intricate layers of emotion via snippets of conversation and poignant family moments.
Backbone by EggNut goes the anthropomorphic route, following raccoon P.I. Howard Lotor. Stuck in the day-to-day tedium of life, he’s resigned to the authoritative regime now in power and the systemic inequality around him. But his next cases will test his world view as they become more and more intense. The prologue of Backbone is currently available to play on Steam.
Both games appear to embrace the core aspects of the genre while remaining unique in their approaches. While she is an animal protagonist, Cats and the Other Lives’ Aspen is still a normal cat, with all the recognized traits and behaviors of one. Conversely, despite being a raccoon, Howard Lotor of Backbone is unmistakably human-like, as are his fellow city-dwellers. Both games aim to craft their own realms of immersive and relatable reality for players to escape to — not a hyper realistic design in sight!
At some point, normality will return to us; what was mundane will be so again. But when that time comes, the outlets that kept elements of normality alive for us should be respected and celebrated — things that weren’t necessarily the most graphically close to reality, but the most emotionally and intangibly close. Point-and-click adventures have been part of video games for almost four decades, evolving from kitschy tropes to powerful pockets of realism. They are still progressing, and we need to show them the respect they so rightly deserve.