The Adventure Genre
In the 1980s and early 1990s point-and-click adventure games were one of the most popular types of PC games, but the genre fell from popularity in the late 1990s and has not yet managed to make a complete comeback. This is a shame, because these games offer a unique experience and are unlike any other genre, focused as they are on logic, exploration, and character and story development. For many people, the only adventure game they know of or have played is Myst, that classic and incredibly frustrating game that’s been kept alive in various forms for decades.
But Myst is far from the only adventure game still played today, nor is it generally considered the best. There are plenty of point and click games still around, some older (Amerzone) and some more recent (Sanitarium), and many are well worth it whether you’re a veteran gamer or someone looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous slash-and-hacks of the modern era. Without further ado then, here are some of the major features and challenges of the Adventure genre. This guide is meant both to give you a better idea of whether this genre is right for you, and to prepare you for what you’ll encounter in the course of a typical game.
The Point and Click Interface
The reason PC adventures are often called "point and click" games is that they have a simple, streamlined interface. There is almost never any combat, nor are there complicated systems of loot storage or character skills and leveling. You are limited to simply picking up and using objects you find in your environment, or viewing objects like books and signs and sometimes listening to audio sequences. With few exceptions an adventure game can be played entirely with a mouse—there's no need for a keyboard.
This design may seem limiting, and in some ways it is. What it does, though, is keep you focused on your environment and its puzzles and stories. It also forces you to be alert and perceptive. You learn to never leave an area until you’ve scanned it thoroughly, ensuring there is nothing more for you to interact with. Often the objects and clues you’ll need to find are well hidden, easy to overlook. This leads to the frustration of having to go back and scour multiple areas when you find you’re lacking an object or clue you need to progress. These games reward the diligent and patient gamer, who is willing to take his or her time to be thorough and reduce the need for backtracking.
Story and Character Development
Adventure games offer you a limited range of options, and are very linear. You usually have few choices about where to go and what to do. The story, then, is absolutely crucial and is where these games shine. They rely on creative, immersive narratives to keep you glued to the screen. Often playing a point and click adventure feels like living out a book or movie, with you taking the role of the main protagonist. Cinematic sequences are common, and though they are by today’s standards a bit pixilated the cinematics and the environments in general are still impressive for their originality and style.
Though some older games like Myst have little or no dialogue, most feature supporting characters you can interact with. They’ll provide you with backstories, clues, items, and sometimes just amusing conversation. And like the overall stories, the characters in these games are often notable for being both creative and memorable. Your main character will usually have a backstory and strong personality as well, though not so strong that it keeps you from identifying with him or (often) her. Which brings up another point of interest—because the adventure game was often imagined as a more feminine genre, due to its lack of combat and emphasis on dialogue and story, the genre is well known for its strong and engaging female characters, even though the games themselves are not inherently feminine.
There is no one standard adventure plot—the stories are varied and often surprising. But they do usually take the form of a quest (hence the title adventure), though that quest is more often than not for knowledge. The genre could almost be renamed "mystery games," since you usually start out in the dark about almost everything. That’s another reason these games are so immersive—you’re motivated to find the next clue because it will bring you that much closer to understanding what’s going on, to figuring out the reason you’ve been dropped into this unfamiliar environment. Twists and turns in the plot or motivations of the characters are common, and the really good games have stand-out scenes and moments that will stay in your mind for a long time after the credits roll.
Puzzles and Clues
If there’s no combat in an adventure game, what do you actually do? The answer is largely two things: you explore your environment, and you solve puzzles. These puzzles come in many varieties, and range from the simple to the nearly impossible. Sometimes you’ll need to use an object you pick up on your travels to solve a problem you encounter. This kind of inventory-based puzzle can be obvious, like using a key to open a door, or quite tricky, like using a gold ring to reconnect two electric wires. In some games, like The Longest Journey, you might even have to combine several items to create something new.
Other times you’ll need to use clues from the game environment, things you can’t simply store in your inventory. Perhaps you see a phone number on a wall in one area, and need to use it on a phone you find in another area. Or maybe the colors and sequence of the tiles on a wall suggests the proper melody to play on a piano in another room. These puzzles are often more challenging than the item-based variety, and reward close attention and creative thinking. In the hardest games, such as Myst and Riddle of the Sphinx, you might find it necessary to keep a notepad next to your computer to take notes, since often the clue and the place you need to use it at are far apart. Other games like Siberia and The Longest Journey are not so demanding, but still contain challenging puzzles.
In every adventure game there will be a couple of puzzles that for one reason or another are practically impossible. This is where a good walkthrough or a friend who’s played the game before can come in handy. But for the most part, the best adventure games are made up of puzzles that are difficult but doable, and come in a range that rewards both creative and logical thought. This is not a mindless genre—in fact it’s a great defense against those who proclaim that all video games turn people into lazy couch potatoes.
The Journey Begins…
Playing an adventure game is best described as an experience, like watching a movie or reading a novel. These deceptively simple games draw you in and keep you guessing, and though they can get very frustrating at times they more than make up for it in various ways. It’s the perfect genre for those who like being pushed to think creatively, and who enjoy a good story-driven game. And it’s a very accessible genre—the learning curve is short, and since most of the better games are pretty old you don’t need a state-of–the-art computer. All you need is to be able to stay sharp and pay attention, and you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. Have fun playing, and if you’re new to PC gaming in general be sure to check out our guides to the first-person shooter, strategy, role-playing, and action adventure genres as well.