Doing the Five-finger Shuffle
Sometimes, life can be decidedly inconvenient. I was reminded of this two days ago when, at about 12:45am, following a evening spent doing Publishery-type-things and a firm decision to go to bed and catch at least a few hours' sleep, an email from Telltale Games popped into my inbox. I could almost feel my willpower ebbing away as I read its glorious and enticing subject line: “Tales of Monkey Island Episode 1 now available for review”. Bugger. It had a download link and everything. Sleep was, sadly, now completely out of the question.
Yeah, it's going to be another gaming column.
As the more long-standing readers of our site will know, I am a huge fan of the Monkey Island adventure games. In fact, I'm a huge fan of point and clicks in general, from my humble beginnings with a 386 processor and the floppy disk version of The Secret of Monkey Island all the way up to the sublime (and tragically overlooked) Grim Fandango*. Since Grim's release, however, point and clicks have generally stopped pointing and clicking, with the majority of major releases proudly presenting a 3D engines designed with complex joypads, not the humble three-button mouse, in mind as a control system. In my estimation this has robbed the adventure genre of a great deal of its romanticism, shoe-horning in a fiddly interface in a bid to appear modern, developers convinced that point and click has had its day and that the only way modern gamers will buy these titles is to be somehow fooled into thinking that they're more Tomb Raider than Day of the Tentacle. In fact, with Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine LucasArts actually reversed this approach, converting their once-proud 2D franchise into a shoddy clone of Eidos' money-maker and sprinkling it with puzzles to fool the point and click fans that they were really playing a sequel to The Fate of Atlantis. Nice try, guys, but no dice. Every adventure gamer worth their salt knows where the appeal of titles like Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, and it's a little factor that I like to call one-handed gaming**.
Between the demise of the SNES and the fateful day that a second hand copy of Final Fantasy VII lured me forever into worshipping at the altar of the PlayStation, all of my gaming was done on my humble PC: a sturdy Pentium II machine from the now-defunct Tiny Computers. This little dynamo would take anything I could throw at it, from Quake II to Unreal, but aside from the odd foray into Dungeon Keeper II territory the majority of the time it found itself running adventures. As I was supporting myself through college by working night shifts at the local Blockbuster Video I often found myself up late at night, with everyone else I knew asleep (oh, what I would have given for WoW back then!) and prety much left to my own devices in regards to entertainment. The PC came into its own then, transporting me into world after immersive world as I figured out puzzles, deliberately chose the rude dialogue options and chuckled myself silly over some of the best comedy known to man – one hand on the mouse, the other on a mug of tea. One-handed gaming.
There were nights were I wouldn't even sleep, hooked as I was on finishing that one... final... puzzle and with an endless supply of tea (and occasionally biccies) on hand to sustain me. The world around me would melt away, unimportant and distracting, as I focused on the screen in front of me. Bernard Bernoulli, Sam and Max, Indiana Jones, Bobbin Threadbare, Guybrush Threepwood... they had quests, important missions, and only I could help them! If only I could obtain another diamond for Doctor Fred's time machine. If I could just figure out where to get some more orichalcum. If I could work out what to do with this hypnotised monkey! And the control method was a huge part of this immersion, requiring no thought or skill, only instinct. I could – and did! – play for hours, time disappearing into a void until that awful moment when the alarm went off, and I realised that I had to go to work. Joypad controls dissipate the effect, bringing you screaming back into the real world every time you forget which button pulls up your inventory or make you run rather than walk, every time the stupid-bloody-3d-ponce-gets-stuck-on-the-goddamned-scenery! It kills the illusion, spoils the dream, and reminds you that you're just playing a game. Frankly, it hardly seems fair. I don't know about you, but I play video games for escapism.
It would appear that this is an issue that Telltale Games are aware of; both seasons of Sam & Max use a simple one-click interface despite the 3D engine, and the new Tales of Monkey Island employs a bizarre “click and drag” movement system which, despite reeking plainly of cross-platform programming (dragging the mouse is obviously a techno-simile for an Xbox 360 controller's analogue stick) seems to work by and large. Of the two, Sam & Max seems to offer the smoother interface, but characters do still get stuck on scenery and the limitations imposed by the one-click system do impact gameplay development – the game has no way to allow you to combine items, for example, meaning that two-tier puzzles are more or less out of the question. Monkey Island, however, overcomes this issue at the expense of a little of that immersion, and sometimes feels a little fiddly as you're trying to steer Guybrush around. What becomes clear through all of this is that the problems with 3D adventures are the fact that they are *3D* adventures; the industry seems to be so focused on pressing forward that they're forgotten what was so great about the things they're leaving behind. Would the gaming community be so horrified if a new adventure game was released in 2D? The leaps and bounds in technology since The Curse of Monkey Island would make for one gorgeously stunning cartoon adventure, and a decent scalability factor would mean conversions for hand-helds a distinct (and profitable) possibility. Get your engine running on the iPhone, you've got yourself a profit margin right there.
It would seem, then, that point and click isn't as dead as certain parties in the industry would have us believe. The success of Sam & Max especially proves that gamers still hunger for entertaining lateral-thinking puzzles, and don't shy away from a mouse (or Wiimote) to control them. Perhaps, rather than hammering more nails in the genre's premature coffin, former adventure giants like LucasArts and Sierra should be giving us what we want – if anything, Telltale's ongoing acquisition of old licences proves there's still money to be made. And in the meantime, there's always Tales of Monkey Island. Excuse me while I go and put the kettle on.
*Yes, I'm aware that Grim Fandango used a keyboard interface and that I'm in danger of undermining my own point, but I say that it's the exception that proves the rule and is therefore worth including. It's also an excellent game.
**Stop sniggering, you!