I’ve come to the conclusion that point-and-click games are stupid. But hold thy axe: there’s a reason. I’ve always had a soft spot for the genre (I gorged on the likes of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango growing up), and no-one was happier when point-and-clickers had a resurgence not so long ago. Recently, however, despite the onslaught of creatively ambitious titles – The Dream Machine, Fran Bow, Detention, even Ron Gilbert’s 80s throwback Thimbleweed Park, to name a few – I’m finding it harder and harder to excuse the genre’s dated mechanics and woefully basic storytelling formula.
You can probably thank Syberia 3, the newest entry in Belgian comic book artist Benoît Sokal’s cult series of point-and-click adventures, for finally helping me see the light. It’s a game that is, in almost every conceivable way, utterly rubbish. It’s badly animated, badly written (or badly translated), and features some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard since the Archers.
The biggest problem is that it’s terrible at telling a story. Not because the pulpy 1930s-style adventure yarn is bad (the game’s spirited nature and rigorous world building are actually Syberia 3's strongest points), but because the game’s structure is perpetually at odds with its narrative.
Ignore that Syberia 3’s puzzles are trite at best, nonsensical at worst; it’s the game’s pacing and structure that do the real damage. You’re subjected to a constant procession of structural roadblocks (usually to allow for another clumsily integrated puzzle) that utterly destroy the story’s momentum. Early on you’re set the task of retrieving a prosthetic leg from a nearby town. Several hours later, having overcoming numerous arbitrary impasses – a broken lift, a broken transporter, a broken water pipe, and a literal roadblock – nothing of note has happened, and you’re still no closer to finding that damn leg.
Syberia 3 feels like someone compiled a list of point-and-click gaming’s worst traits then turned them into a Frankenstein’s monster – and playing it illuminated my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre. More and more I feel like point-and-click games are a terrible, unnatural way to tell a story, with backtracking, item-hunting and puzzle-solving (and the inevitable downtime when you get stuck) completely at odds with narrative momentum.
It particularly doesn’t help that point-and-clickers have doggedly stuck to their flawed quarter-century-old formula (itself borrowed from older text adventures), while other games have subsequently found far better ways to tell their stories.
Let’s jump back to 1998; Grim Fandango, generally heralded as a high point for the point-and-click genre, released and its major advancement was its shift from classic 2D perspective to 3D: elsewhere, despite strong writing and presentation, it steadfastly stuck to the genre’s tried-and-tested formula. At the same time, though, Half-Life was redefining how stories in action games could be told, threading its narrative through the world itself, and using its first-person perspective to frame combat and story concurrently without either halting the other’s momentum.
Since then, developers have conjured up all manner of elegant solutions for handling narrative in games without falling back on the clumsy staccato rhythm of point-and-clickers. We’ve had interactive in-game cut-scenes, audio logs, and written diaries – all fine, if now outdated, means of keeping the action flowing. More recently, titles like BioShock, Inside, and Little Nightmares, have embraced a kind of cinematic mise en scène. The focus is still firmly on the core action – whatever that may be – but careful environmental design creates a sort of storytelling through osmosis. It’s amazing how much narrative detail you can subconsciously acquire simply by existing in these worlds, no laboured exposition required.
Other modern games take the opposite approach, completely foregrounding their narrative and abandoning all but the barest notions of interactivity, as is most often seen in so-called ‘walking simulators’ like Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, or Virginia. Not everyone appreciates the limited interaction, but it does have one major advantage: it gives developers much tighter control over the narrative flow, allowing for the creation of much richer, more precise stories. After all, if a player can’t get stuck, then it’s easier to predict how and when events will unfold.
The best of these games though – Gone Home, or the wonderful What Remains of Edith Finch – incorporate their own intriguing twist on classic point-and-click-style puzzling. Instead of offering tangible items to gather and manipulate within the game world, you’re encouraged to collect and mentally reassemble subtly-seeded story cues as you explore the environment. You’re meant to notice details, put them together in your head, and consider how this new information impacts the old. It’s a more atmospheric approach to puzzling and, as it happens outside of the game world, requiring no structural roadblocks to facilitate, it’s not something that story momentum is beholden to.
In the context of all this experimentation, the point-and-click formula is archaic. Thankfully, the genre’s evolution hasn’t completely stalled. Telltale’s output is interesting insofar as it wears the clothing of point-and-click games (the puzzles, the inventory management, the dialogue trees) but keeps a tight leash on player interaction so that the story never falters. Amanita Design’s Machinarium and Botanica (or developer Rusty Lake’s deliciously macabre room-escape-style games), address the tension between story and puzzles from the opposite direction. Here there’s only the gentlest wisp of narrative, and it’s the dreamily ambient act of puzzling itself that propels things forward.
The really interesting stuff, though, happens when a developer takes the basic point-and-click tenets of narrative, exploration, and item-based puzzling, and drops them into a whole new framework. Ron Gilbert, Mr. Monkey Island himself, had a stab revitalising the genre in his 2013 game, The Cave. Here, lean story-focussed puzzle segments, themed around one of the game’s seven delightfully weird playable characters, are interspersed with platform-style busywork. It’s fascinating to see a genre master play around with the classic conventions of point-and-click gaming, but The Cave’s platforming is so bland that it creates a different pacing problem.
Far more successful is Cavalier Game Studio’s recent, and fantastic, The Sexy Brutale, which takes the fundamental elements of point-and-click games and draws on many other genres to fashion something that feels unique.
In Cavalier's title, you’re caught in a perpetual 12-hour time-loop, trapped inside a casino mansion of ludicrous grandeur – the titular Sexy Brutale – that forever winds back to noon come the stroke of midnight. Throughout the day, the mansion’s guests are all gruesomely murdered in hilariously elaborate ways and then, when the clock resets, the entire narrative starts over again. Your task is to prevent each murder in a very point-and-click manner: by finding and manipulating items around the world.
The Sexy Brutale’s greatest trick is that the ever-looping narrative IS the puzzle and, unlike most point-and-click games, both elements are inextricably linked. Each time you rewind time and explore a new corner of the mansion, you’re learning more about the game’s world, the inhabitants and the stories they have to tell: as a result, you’re eventually able to hone-in on the precise intervention point you need to exploit to stop each murder from happening.
What’s more, each new loop re-contextualises existing knowledge – eventually, for instance, you’ll discover exactly why a bell tolls at 7pm each day, or why the lights flicker just before midnight – and the narrative experience grows so much richer. The Sexy Brutale demonstrates that, with a bit of bold thinking and creative design, point-and-click mechanics don’t need to be at odds with detailed and involved storytelling.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean all point-and-click games should suddenly incorporate time-rewinding mechanics. It’s more that, because we’ve grown accustomed to one increasingly outmoded way of doing things, we forget there are other options.
For a long time, it felt like point-and-click was the genre for people that love stories: that was their niche. As gaming continues to find its own language, though, and the stories they can tell grow ever-richer, point-and-clickers increasingly feel like relics. Beautiful, to be sure, but they belong in a museum. Not least because, as so many of the genre’s heirs show, there are much better ways to keep the soul of point-and-clickers alive than re-animating the same old corpse.