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Point And Click Adventure Games Film Studies Essay

5318 words (21 pages) Essay in Film Studies

5/12/16 Film Studies Reference this

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The intentions of this dissertation are to delve into the depths of a much-loved yet dwindling genre of video game, the Point and click Adventure. Setting out to investigate what made the genre so popular in the 1990’s and discuss the mystery surrounding what game theorists and fans refer to as “The Death of The adventure game”.

Point and Click adventures are all but a dusty book in the archive that is today’s hugely successful gaming industry. However its position in the minds of the people that experienced it that singles out point and click as not only important to its fans but to the video game industry itself. Many games since the mid 80’s have come and gone, leaving very little, if any impact on the gaming industry. Developers today hold the genre in high regard. In an interview with Claas Paletta of Daedalic Entertainment, I asked him about his experiences with the point and click genre:

“Point and click had a huge impact on me and my friends as teenagers in the 90’s. I remember waiting for the next LucasArts or Sierra title to be on the shelves. Its what made me want to be where I am today, I just wanted to be involved in video games. I still play them all to this day, If I can get away with it.”

Claas, like many involved in the gaming industry have shown just what an impact the genre has had on their careers. Point and click is a genre that inspired a generation of game developers, with their witty humor, mind-bending puzzles and in-depth story.

This ability that point and click had to tell a story was in no small part due to the biggest developer in the genre and of the 1990’s, LucasArtsâ„¢. Founded under the name LucasFilm Games in 1982, they were originally set up as a research development company, however in 1984 they announced themselves as a developer and publisher of entertainment software. After several years of development a member of the LucasArts team developed the SCUMM engine, which stood for Script creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, a game that begun the revolution in Point and Click. His name was Ron Gilbert, he would go on to be a driving force behind the point and click generation of games at LucasArts, with titles such as the famous Monkey Island series and Day of the Tentacle; a sequel to Maniac Mansion. It was this engine that rejuvenated what was at the time parser driven adventure genre. The player would have to type commands into the game to achieve progression, however with the advent of the SCUMM engine ‘Point and Click’ was born.

With the experience of many successful movies in their arsenal, LucasArts and their development team, were able to create in-depth story and complex narrative that could only be comparable to that of the movie industry. Games at this time simply could not compete with the complexity of some LucasArts titles. The likes of Sierra who some would say kick started the adventure genre in the 80’s with titles such as the Kings Quest series (1984-1994) were unable to create anything to get near the sales levels that LucasArts achieved. The first Monkey Island sold around 44,000 copies in the US alone, with estimates claiming Europe tends to double that number.

According to an interview with Tim Schaefer (2007), co-creator of the monkey Island series:

“In 1990, Monkey Island took nine months to make and cost $200,000. In the early ’90s, we were really excited if we sold 100,000 copies of a PC graphic adventure.”

This would leave sales at an estimated 150,000 units Worldwide. So considering the context of the time, and the money spent on the development of the game, Monkey Island was a huge success. Moreover, taking into account the ownership of PC’s in 1990, in which not every household would own a PC, this figure was considered to be a very high and successful number despite it being vastly overshadowed in today’s market.

These sales were no fluke, of course the standard of game was the main contributor to its success, nevertheless LucasArts had one main advantage over their main rivals Sierra, an already huge captive audience. This audience was due to the huge success of the film franchises Star Wars and Indiana Jones. George Lucas had built a huge fan base due to the success of these movies, a fan base that were hugely excited by the prospect of video game versions of their favorite movies.

Poss quote.

With such a huge following LucasArts were able to create videogames that would appeal to the masses. They could call upon their already established film franchises to excite and connect with the player. For example the use of subtle references to the StarWarsâ„¢ saga in the second Installment of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revengeâ„¢(1995). During the climactic fight scene near the end of Monkey Island 2, LeChuck proclaims to be Guybrush’s father, a twist taken directly from the Star Wars Movies in which you discover Darth Vader is, in fact Luke Skywalkers father.

Its this innovative ability to interweave story, narrative, humor and in some cases popular culture into a single entity that set LucasArts and the genre it helped to re-mould, apart from other games of the time.

Narrative within games had never been so advanced, it created mass appeal for PC gamers, a generation that played games before they progressed into the mass consumer market that they exist in today. So is narrative in question today? With titles being churned out much like in the movie industry, is narrative in modern gaming not what it was in the early to mid 1990’s?


When investigating this area of media it is important to take into account the ways in which I will tackle research surrounding the subject. The majority of the dissertation will be reliant on looking into the History of not only the point and click genre but the history of video games overall.

Monkey Island and the point and click genre was a period in gaming, in which, I as a participant was heavily involved. This is a vital consideration when it comes to charting the events of “The Death of The adventure game”

One Research model that will be useful for my investigation is the somewhat controversial method of Auto-ethnographic research. This is the process in which the writer or author writes his or her own personal narrative exploring their experiences within a certain field, rather than relying on the beliefs and findings of others. This is wholly the case in this dissertation due to my exposure and experiences with the subject matter. Despite the process becoming more widely used within the spheres of new media and journalism it is still thought somewhat controversial as a reliable method of research. Many Qualitative researchers have expressed concerns with the validity of the method, expressing concerns that all analytical texts should in some way connect to something larger element of life, rather than stating it’s importance through personal belief. Conversely Chang(2008) argues the benefits of Auto-ethnography. He claims that it allows for a research method that is friendly both researchers and readers because of the texts engaging qualities, allowing the researcher to gain a cultural understanding of self in relation to others, on which cross-cultural coalition can be built between themselves and others. In summary, Auto-ethnography, used in conjunction with other forms of research, will allow this dissertation to become more engaging and allow, what are considered, important self-experiences to be communicated to the reader.

One factor that must be considered if this method is going to be executed correctly is the coherent understanding that subjective opinion of the subject matter can be somewhat skewed by the fact that my relationship with it was established at a young age. The genre was what I grew up playing, it is important not to make drastic claims, solely based upon personal experiences of enjoyment interacting with the genre.

The form that this dissertation will take, heavily relies on the recollection of historical events, breaking down these events and uncovering potential reasoning’s for the fall of the point and click genre. This makes hands-on research a somewhat tenuous subject in uncovering “truths”. Nevertheless, by employing an ethnographic approach that will coincide with the aforementioned Auto-ethnographic method I will endeavor to perform interviews with industry insiders, people that have in some way been involved in some element of the video game industry during the time period in question.

One potential pit fall with interviewing could be the structure of the questions asked. It is important that I set out to ask no leading questions, and leave the participants response to be entirely reflective of their experiences. One potential issue I have encountered during the interviewing process was the location of the interviewees. The majority of the people of whom I wished to speak to are based in either the USA or Europe, this meant that interviewing face to face was implausible, this meant all interviews would have to be conducted via email. Potential problems with this process of interview include the inability of the interviewer to probe any interesting responses, Cowen(2001) tells of the importance of interview technique, she talks of the importance of empathy and rapport, listening and questioning, restatement, clarification and persistence. Many of which cannot be adhered to in an email-based interview.

Chapter 2 – The secret mythology of Monkey Island

It is vitally important to single out and identify what it was that made Point and Click adventure games so popular in the 1990’s. One of the most successful titles released in this period of escapist gaming was the work of a small team at LucasArts. In order to understand their success, we must understand the roots of the games; their inspirations, intentions and results.

LucasArts video games had the advantage of two hugely popular and highly praised film trilogies to call upon when developing their Star Wars and Indiana Jones games. These aforementioned box office hits were all inspired by the works of Joseph Campbell, a prominent figure in the analysis of heroic myth throughout civilization. Campbell was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer who endeavored to break down the structure of myth. Most importantly in the context of this essay, was his analysis of the many faces and intentions of the Hero. Campbell (1968) explains the basic structure in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces like this:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In October 1990 a videogame emerged as one of the most unique and critically acclaimed adventure games of the decade. It also, like many of Lucas’ films, relied on this same myth structure but placed it in a completely new and unique setting. The Secret Of Monkey Island (1990) takes these same principles of the heroic myth as laid out by Campbell and delivers an interactive experience packed with wit and humor that has become a classic in it’s own right.

Monkey Island is one of the best examples of interactive narrative that was released during the point and click era of gaming. It achieved this by using varying techniques of narrative and video game design to deliver a Joseph Campbell experience. Whilst other games in 1990 were helping you build railways or guide two plumbers to save a princess, Monkey Island was setting out to tell a story of Love, laughs and a man’s endeavor to become “Guybrush Threepwood, A Mighty Pirate”.

In the opening moments of the game the player is introduced to their setting, Melee Island. This is where the adventure really begins. We are then introduced to Campbells archetypal “Old Wise Man” in the form of the blind Island lookout; this is where the player and hero, Guybrush Threepwood, are given their instructions to complete the quest of becoming a mighty pirate.

Our protagonist, Guybrush, is already on an island inhabited by pirates much mightier it would seem than he. So this initial opening chapter begins his quest to become a member of a pre-existing society; much like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy. Campbells concept of proving your worth to the tribe before setting out on your journey. This is done by a series of trials in which Guybrush must prove his credential as a pirate, again connecting with Campbells outlining of the heroic myth. Campbell states that the ease with which a Hero defeats these challenges demonstrates how great of a person the truly are. This same argument can be easily transferred onto the puzzle solving element of Monkey Island, and in fact any adventure game. However it also coheres well with narrative idea that the protagonist, Guybrush, must struggle from the beginning in order to prove himself.

Anything but the mighty pirate he dreams of being, Guybrush and the player must solely rely on their wits, and the puzzles and game design reflect this. To beat the swordsman, you have to participate in learning based puzzles. Learning insults by fighting various wandering pirates around Melee Island, then using logic to work out the correct insults to beat the sword master. Another challenge is to plunder some buried treasure from a dark forest, relying on either a guide or stumbling around in the woods until you by chance achieve your goal. Such decisions to solve puzzles or aimlessly wander are often ones faced by various heroes in their journeys through similar darkness. For example, in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, one of the first known pieces of literary work, the character of King Gilgamesh chooses to descend under the mountain in his quest for the Fruit of Immortality, stumbling around until he finds his way out before the Sun reaches him.

The third and final quest is to steal an idol from the governor’s mansion, a test of wits and man-eating poodles this trial similarly harks back to ancient legend and myth. The previously mentioned man-eating Poodles, are a reflection of ‘the beast’ guarding the prize. Guybrush must find a way past this defender before he is able to venture into the governors home, which represents the cave or temple of many ancient myths. Whether it’s the three-headed Cerberus defending Hades or the dragon protecting the Princess (as the governor eventually turns out to be) the beast plays a large role in the structure of mythology. LucasArts’ game design allows the player to be challenged in ways that mimic the patterns and conventions of the heroic myth by testing various skills that allow the overarching quest of the game to be embarked upon.

One of the ways that LucasArts made the story of Monkey Island so compelling was the use of cutscenes to tell the story and fill in the gaps that were unobtainable during initial game-play. During the opening stages of the game a cutscene reads “Meanwhile, deep beneath Monkey Island…” This is where we get our first glimpse of our story’s Villain ‘The Evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck’ and his ghost ship anchored deep under Monkey Island in a place that can only be described as Hell. The player is exposed to the undead crew of the ghost ship ominously discussing your arrival. The glowing blues and reds of this nightmarish locale are equally off-putting and are a stark contrast to that of the colors of Melee Island. This place is equally the subject of myth for all of the characters you meet throughout your journey, they tell Legends of doomed journeys to Monkey Island, ships returning without their crews.

These cut scenes and NPC enabled narrative progression is what allows the player to gain an air of excitement and intrigue. They must venture to this Hellish place, yet have no idea how they will get there. Such an idea of the goal or part of the quest being some distance from home is a convention noted by Propp(1968) in his work ‘Morphology of the folktale’, he stated:

“Generally the object of search is located in ‘another’ or ‘different’ kingdom. This kingdom may lie far away horizontally, or else very high up or deep down vertically.”

The trigger for the main quest to begin is LeChucks kidnapping of Governor Marley. The players’ relationship with Marley is dependant on the order in which the trials are completed, Guybrush will either have a jilted romantic exchange with The Governor due to his not being a pirate or she is taken away just as the relationship with Guybrush has begun. In either circumstance Governor Marley takes the role of the desirable female figure that everyone desires. Numerous NCP’s will talk of their admiration for Governor Elaine Marley, whilst she complains of her annoyance at having to continually turn away their advances. The Villain of the piece, LeChuck is also driven by his lust for Elaine, leading him to kidnap her and take her to the illusive ‘Monkey Island’. The female figure or love interest is an important convention of any myth Campbell explains that part of her value is to serve as both a goal for the hero but also one that can be attained through spiritual purity, in the rather skewed case of Monkey Island this is represented by Guybrush proving himself as a mighty pirate. Campbell explains the female goddess figure as follows:

“She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest…she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again.”

This has never been truer than in ‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ and it’s sequel ‘Return to Monkey Island’ The unattainable female character drives the plot of both games. This however was lost in the subsequent games in the series, highly criticized by the game’s creator, Ron Gilbert, for having Guybrush and Elaine Marry. Part of the function of her role in the story was lost when this decision was made. Guybrush’s endless pursuit of Elaine whilst she laughs him off was one of the key driving forces behind what made the story and characters so successful. When she is kidnapped, neither Guybrush nor the player once hesitates in their need to rescue her.

The transition from the pirate Island of Melee to the high seas in pursuit of Monkey Island coincides with a shift in chapter but also backdrop. It becomes daytime for the first time in the game, suggesting a new dawn, a new adventure. This theme continues with the discovery of Monkey Island, which is framed and explored during the day time. However before actually reaching the island the player must again fulfill another convention of fairytale and myth. Described by Propp as ‘The Acquisition of a magical agent’ the Hero receives some sort of magic, which helps progress the story. This comes in the form of a potion that Guybrush must put together using inventory items. Once the potion is complete Guybrush enters a Rip Van Winkle-like state. This concept of the Hero entering a dream like state during his journey into the mythical realms is a key element of many myths that Campbell outlines. Once Guybrush has awakened he has reached his destination. This all works towards emphasizing the mythical and mysterious aura surrounding the island, portrayed earlier in the story.

Exploring Monkey Island allows for the skills learnt earlier in the game to be finally tested, albeit applied in new ways. Just as Campbell stated:

“The initial trials will dictate how difficult the hero’s journey will be”

The players ability to puzzle out this section of the game has fundamentally already been tested. Those skills now only need to be refined and adapted to suit the new puzzles. The earlier insult based swordplay becomes collecting bananas to please a monkey enough to hold a gate open for you. Wandering around the dark forest evolves into exploring an enormous island, finding a way to the other side and eventually down under the island, cohering with the earlier mentioned convention of the goal being far away above or below where you start your journey.

Prior to this our wits are tested as we attempt to find a way around the Vegetarian Cannibals that inhabit Monkey Island. Eventually the player finds themselves in the depths of Monkey Island, it soon becomes clear that guybrush will require a guide for this particular leg of his journey. There is only one route through the twisting passageways of Hell, and in order for us to follow this path we must rely on the decapitated navigator.

Once the player reaches the Ghost Pirate LeChuck and his ghostly pirate ship, that was shown in earlier cutscenes, the player finally can feel the satisfaction described by Joseph Campbell of the Hero as he reaches the mythological setting. Once onboard the ship after much jostling with a rather obnoxious severed head, Guybrush must recover a magic root that enables the player to mix a potion that has the power to defeat the ghost pirates. This idea of obtaining a magical agent is representative of the fruit that Gilgamesh pursues a convention also seen in countless other myths. It is described by Campbell as “a Symbol of knowledge and life”, however in Monkey island it is of course a way to make some root beer, which we all know is deadly to ghost pirates. This discovery and return to Melee Island coincides with the return of the Villain, LeChuck. Along with the return of LeChuck comes with it the feeling of terror and danger, this neatly coincides with the return to the darkness of Melee Island, creating a daunting scene for the imminent and fast approaching climax. This meeting of the Hero and Villain is often depicted as a battle, which only the Hero can overcome. However with the wit and satire that LucasArts bring to the genre of point and click, we learn that in fact Governor Marley is still more competent that all the other characters combined. This further cements her place as the divine female, whilst Guybrush defeating LeChuck reflects his role as the hero of the piece.

In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell goes on to explain:

“It is obvious that the infantile fantasies which we all cherish still in the unconscious play continually into myth, fairy tale, and the teachings of the church, as symbols of indestructible beings…but the circumstance is obstructive too, for the feelings come to rest in the symbols and resist passionately every effort to go beyond.”

And this could be described as ‘the result’ of Monkey Island. It explains why it is ultimately such a well loved and critically acclaimed game. It has taken the conventions and structure of Mythology that we all subconsciously know, love and understand and combined it to create a comedic, fulfilling and rich story for its audience. The creators understood what makes story work due to their extensive experience in the film industry, in the creation of Monkey Island they crafted an interactive experience that breathed further life into conventions and structure that have been integrated in mans stories for thousands of years. They proved that games aren’t necessarily all about the graphical elements, by allowing the player to truly engross themselves into a story and character they felt that they already knew they could create a game that would be permanently associated with a genre and a generation for years to come.


Failings of the PAC genre, 3d gaming.

During the mid 1990’s society was very much engrossed in emerging technologies and the age of the computer. Technology was progressing faster than ever before, with home PC’s becoming more and more powerful. Computers were beginning to really show the world, specifically the mass media audiences, just what they could achieve. In 1995 Toy Story was released as the first solely 3D rendered feature film. It set a benchmark for the industry and firmly put a stamp on the market, showing just what computers were able to achieve.

Meanwhile, in the games industry, the market at this time was in somewhat of a battle between the home consoles. At the time the only real contenders in the race to win the hearts of the consumer were the firmly established Nintendo and new kid on the block, Sega. Nintendo had dominated the market of home consoles since the advent of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1985, some 5 years later Nintendo’s command of the home video game business appeared unassailable. However in the early 1990’s a challenger emerged. Armed with much faster technologies, riskier games and a more aggressive marketing strategy, Sega arrived on the scene with the MegaDrive. As Kline, Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter explain in their book Digital Play (2003), this ‘console war’ pathed the way for the future of home video gaming:

“The contest between Sega and Nintendo revolutionised video gaming, propelling new extremes of technical innovation, marketing intensity, and cultural audacity and opening the way for other contenders”

This new competitive edge to the video game industry had never been seen prior to this first big clash between rivaling factions. The point and click genres main contributors, companies such as LucasArts and Sierra, began to get left in the wake of these quickly growing gaming giants. In an interview with the gaming blog ‘Rock Paper Shotgun’, Ron Gilbert, one of the original co-creators of Monkey Island and inventor of the SCUMM engine, aired his feelings on how the rest of the industry took off and left action adventure behind. He stated that games such as Doom and Tomb Raider appeared and injected adrenaline and new types of energy into video games, an energy that Point and Click simply wouldn’t be able to contend with. This suggests that within the inner circle of those involved in developing point and click it was felt that the genre was beginning to dwindle. As Monkey Island writer Tim Schaefer stated in an independent interview:

“It felt very much, as if the genre we loved and helped to create and nurture had been infected. We all knew what was wrong but were powerless to help”

However, before the effects of the console war could be felt, whilst the home console was in it’s early years, The Action Adventure genre was allowed an environment in which to flourish. With its already established SCUMM system, created in 1987, LucasArts led the way in cutting edge narrative based action adventures. With titles such as Maniac Mansion being such a huge success, the genre continued to go from strength to strength whilst not paying too much attention to the ongoing battle between the Japanese contenders. As a genre, Point and Click offered something to gamers that, at the time, only the movie industry could offer, its ability to connect with its audience through the use of in-depth and immersive story and narrative. However they offered something new in story-telling, the unique quality of video games meant for a potential revolution, breaking the shackles of the standard ‘linear’ storytelling.

LucasArts had a strong team of developers behind the titles such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. The likes of Ron Gilbert and Tim Schaefer were strong believers in story telling. Story as a medium of communication has been on this earth since the dawn of our species, so the implementation of this fundamental value of human society should be an easy one. However, this isn’t always the case. Many games created after the point and click generation in some circles are thought to have neglected these story-telling elements in favour of highly polished graphics or over indulgent gameplay elements. This was never more apparent than in the period after the boom of the first fully 3d games.

With the release of hugely successful titles after their first release ‘Maniac Mansion’, including ‘Day of the Tentacle’, ‘Monkey Island’ and ‘Sam and Max’ it could be said that LucasArts and other leading point and click developers were sitting pretty at the top of the pile of PC game developers. However, the video game industry is not one where a company is allowed to rest on their laurels, there is always someone waiting in the wings to challenge you and take the top spot. This landed in the hands of another Japanese technological giant, Sony. In 1995 the Sony Playstation was released with huge commercial success. This was the beginning of the boom in home consoles and the eventual progression into fully 3D gaming environments. The first major title to bring the concept of 3D environments to the forefront was Core Designs ‘Tomb Raider’, released in 1996 on three platforms, including PC, Tomb Raider would become one of Playstations most successful titles, whilst playing a large role in the 3D revolution of video gaming.

In order to fully comprehend the success of 3D video games, it is important to understand why the consumer wanted to be a part of them. As mentioned in the earlier chapter, Video games up until this point were 2D based arcade games, or more narrative driven titles such as the point and click. What the 3D revolution allowed developers to do was to take this story based game type and mould it into something with higher levels of realism. The creation of 3D worlds arguably allowed for a greater level of immersion for the player. Realistic soundscapes, voice-overs and sound effects, also worked to heighten the players sense of involvement.

Immersion is a word banded about within the arena of video games, but it is important to fully understand it’s different forms and how they affect the player. Were Point and click games just not immersive enough? Or did the marketing led phenomena of progressively increased visuals and graphical aesthetics bring about the end for the un-advancing genre?

When looking at where the point and click failed, it is important to focus on how the industry changed. As previously mentioned with the advancements in 3D graphics, PC games were slowly being left behind, requiring a multitude of upgrades in order to play titles that were easily running on the more compact home consoles such as the Playstation. With the advent of 3D gaming, came a new generation of gamer. It was the era of instant gratification.


“There is no government approved starting place. Sometimes it’s story, other times it’s setting or a lead character. It all evolves in concert with each other. ” (Ron Gilbert, 2007)

These are the words of Ron Gilbert one of the co-creators of Monkey Island, arguably the most popular Point adventure game ever made. Much like his hypothesis for creating video games, this Dissertation doesn’t necessarily begin with a setting or a main character

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