Point and Click Therapy
I’ve been on a tear with smaller games lately. I finished a couple big games in February, Like a Dragon: Ishin and Stranger of Paradise, and I needed a bit of a detour. I stumbled across a point and click adventure game called Lord Winklebottom Investigates. This is an indie game where the titular Lord Winklebottom is a Sherlock Holmes-ish character who also happens to be a talking giraffe. You go to an island where there has been a murder (gasp!) and Lord Winklebottom alongside his stalwart companion Dr. Frumple, a hippopotamus, are tasked with finding out whodunit. It was a delight. Hilarious writing, ingenious and sometimes infuriating puzzles to solve, classic point and click shenanigans. What I realized when playing this game is that there is something about the structure of a point and click adventure game that just……clicks with me. As I untangled the web of mystery I became aware that I was calm. I was happy. Things were serene. Something about this game washed away all of my troubles. Video games have always been a source of escape for me. I think all game players use them, in some fashion, as a type of therapy. What better way to rinse off the filth of the real world than to submerge yourself in a fantasy world, right? The difference in my experience with this game is that the escape became a bit deeper and more meaningful than I feel with most games. I was wonderfully lost in the mystery, all of the actual stress of life evaporating as I pointed and clicked. I started to think about why this might be the case. What do these games do that others do not?
When I was a kid, I got way into Day of the Tentacle. At the time it was a novelty to play a fully voiced video game. It was a DOS game and there were these wonderfully drawn and animated screens, crazy puzzles with batshit solutions, and a narrative that resonated with me as a fan of the original Maniac Mansion. I remember hour after hour spent in front of the computer with my brother combining items to see what would happen, combing through every line of dialogue to see what we might have missed, watching all of the animations and marveling at what we were seeing. It was delightful. In recent years, I have found myself dipping back into point and click games due to the wealth, an honestly overwhelming wealth, of available options on Steam. Darkside Detective, Thimbleweed Park, Monkey Island, and the incredible Shindig are standouts among the ones that I have played. Each one is different, some dealing with mature themes while others simply revolve around throwing a party for your friends. Regardless of the story or themes of the game, the response I have to these games are almost identical. I zone out, get lost, wander off, etc. I find myself clicking every item, reading every description, checking every corner. In Thimbleweed Park I participated in the pixel hunt “speck of dust” quests just because I wanted to hang out on every screen and see what it had to offer. I just want to see and do everything. So, why do these games do that to me? When I start most games I have lofty goals of wanting to do everything. Complete every quest, see every inch of the map, but I eventually drift off into space. Something shiny floats by, I get distracted, and I move on. I will still finish the game but my interest always wanes in completing everything. This doesn’t seem to happen in point and click adventure games. I think the answer lies in their simplicity.
Let’s talk about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for a minute. I started that game as a pretty big fan of Origins and Odyssey and I came in excited for it. I started out hot, as usual, planning on accomplishing all those things I mentioned above. But, as per usual, I didn’t. I became bogged down in all of the systems. There were templars, side missions, side stories, skill trees, gear upgrades, blah blah blah. It had all of the things that these big open world games have and I just found the systems absolutely overwhelming. It’s not that I didn’t understand them or they were too complex, there were just too many. I didn’t care enough about any of them to get invested. Origins and Odyssey starred protagonists that I found compelling, Bayek and Kassandra, while Eivor just wasn’t doing it for me. I walked away after umpteen hours, never really looking back. There is an elegant simplicity to point and click adventure games when done right. This is not to belittle the complexity of their development. Doing a point and click game well is a very difficult thing, see the Double Fine documentary on the making of Broken Age. The beauty of them is in their simple mechanics. You point and you click. You solve puzzles by utilizing the most natural of computer based skills. You physically poke at their environments, trying to elicit meaning from the mystery buried within. There are complex problems to solve but the act of solving them only involves a mouse and a left button. When employing these skills I find myself transfixed by the nature of it all. This can be simplified in the nature of a game like Monkey Island where you are interacting with your environments or it can be dialed up to the complexity of an Obra Dinn where I had to take notes as I played. Regardless of the intricacy of the puzzles being solved, the mechanics never change. I point and I click.
Most point and click adventure games now have layers that build out the experience. One (me) could argue that games like Strange Horticulture are point and click adventure games with added bells and whistles. Despite the addition of these layers they manage to accomplish that same zen-like state for me. I’m not worrying about parrying attacks, I’m not building out a skill tree, I’m not trying to spec my characters or create an s-rank build. I’m just pointing and clicking. There’s comfort in that.