Monday, July 11, 2011

The Secret of Monkey Island and the life & death of point-and-click

The point-and-click adventure genre occupies a strange place in game history, living and dying with LucasArts' non-Star Wars endeavors in the 1990s. The complete non-action nature of these graphic adventures seems counterintuitive in today's game development mentality, where combat is thrown into every title whether it benefits the experience or not--I'm looking at you, Tomb Raider.

I've recently been playing through Tim Schafer's body of work. His games during this period are sort of a microcosm of the point-and-click genre as a whole, bookended by 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island and 1998's Grim Fandango. Both are widely considered classics: there were certainly graphic adventures before, but The Secret of Monkey Island kick-started the genre's mainstream success. And Grim Fandango is perhaps the genre's apex, met with a landslide of critical praise but an utter commercial failure, contributing to the end of the graphic adventure era.

I just finished The Secret of Monkey Island. With limited technology and some monotonous mazes, it'd be easy to overlook in the modern day. But what shines through today is what always stands out in Schafer's games: the writing. Monkey Island's dialogue satirizes both video game convention and clich├ęs of pirate mythology; the game takes inspiration from Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, thirteen years before Johnny Depp's flick.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the writing is combat. "But what does writing have to do with pirate swordfights?" you may ask. Well, being a point-and-click game, Monkey Island doesn't feature swordplay in the traditional sense. Instead, protagonist Guybrush Threepwood must engage in verbal battles with his swashbuckling opponents, trading insults until one of them is overwhelmed. The rapport is hilarious and completely matches the mood of the rest of the game.

I mentioned too many modern games shoehorn combat into the gameplay even when it doesn't fit. Monkey Island pulls it off because it works in the context of the genre. Instead of stabbing, Guybrush declares "You fight like a dairy farmer!" Swoosh, swipe! To which his opponent retorts, "How appropriate. You fight like a cow." Parry! Whiff!

Tomb Raider is a fantastic puzzle game with horrendous gunplay thrown in to make it more commercially viable. "You control a hot woman solving puzzles!" doesn't appeal nearly as much to the average American as "you control a hot woman gripping long, hard shafts and causing massive explosions! ...oh and there are puzzles."

But perhaps if Lara Croft could learn a lesson from Guybrush Threepwood, her games would benefit exponentially, and her tomb raiding adventures could get a step closer to the "games as art" realm we all dream of.

And Tomb Raider is one example in a list of thousands. Point-and-clicking is dead in 2011, but maybe today's game developers could take a few pages from their books and we'd all be a little happier.

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