I've always been a fan of the aptly named point-and-click genre of adventure games. I suspect much of my ability with the English language stems from puzzling out the solutions for all sorts of conundrums presented by these games, often with a dictionary at hand (which brings us to the interesting question of games as tools for learning, which I will no doubt discuss in another article). Lately though my interest has drifted elsewhere, possibly due to the time constraints presented by adult life: often poring over a challenging puzzle seems less entertaining than just shooting some stuff up when you've only got a couple of hours to spare for gaming. Even so, I recently took a stab at Gemini Rue, the critically acclaimed indie adventure game by Joshua Nuernberger.
I suspect much of my fascination with the game is based on nostalgia: the game looks and feels like the old classics I used to play. This said I'm not sure I entirely agree with the overtly positive reception the game has garnered from critics. The puzzles were a bit too easy, the path forward all too obvious and in the end I felt that the storyline didn't really reach a satisfying conclusion. The game is definitely better than a lot of recent examples of the genre, but with the decline in point-and-click publications since the advent of 3D-graphics there are not that many proper competitors to it: sure, it's good, but I wouldn't call it an instant classic. This mild criticism aside, I did enjoy Gemini Rue, and it got me thinking about a design element which many good point-and-click adventures seem to share, which is (for lack of a better word) minigames, or at least minigame-like sequences, which are encountered throughout the story and are necessary for advancing the plot (as opposed to minigames that are optional, and give the player some sort of a bonus or an achievement).
To allay any potential polemic discussion about the usage of the term, for the purposes of this article, I'll define a point-and-click minigame as a recurring way of storylined problem solving, which has its own logic, oftentimes (but not always) marked with UI elements separate from the general control scheme. In Gemini Rue, such examples are the protagonist's ability with guns, and his fondness of re-organising furniture to gain access to areas otherwise outside his reach. The shooty action sequences are handled with a reflex-intensive minigame, where your goal is to duck when the opponents are shooting and shoot them when they come out of cover after reloading. I'm not sure whether pushing the various boxes and things around is intended as a ”minigame”, but it has its own control scheme which is separate from the general controls of the game, so it fits the bill.
The classic list of point-and-click games is full of such examples. The insult-sword-fighting sequences in the Monkey Island series fit the description, albeit loosely. The second installation of the Legend of Kyrandia series, Hand of Fate, has a lovely alchemy system that exemplifies what I'm talking about exactly. My personal all-time favourite, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, has its fist-fight sequences set up as a boxing minigame (which is actually quite similar to the shooty bits of Gemini Rue). It seems obvious that these types of design elements are shared by many successful point-and-click adventures. But why?
As a rule, all of the minigames are tied to the plot advancement, and tell something important and profound about the protagonist. In Gemini Rue, Azriel is a man with a violent past, and his proficiency with handguns reflects this. In Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood is a bit of a sap, who has to rely on his wits to survive. Zanthia of Hand of Fate is an alchemist, and thus the problems in the game are often solvable with potions she concocts. And Indiana Jones is a classic adventuring action hero, and it would be uncharacteristic of him not to beat up some nazis in his travels. Since actions speak louder than words, these recurring ways to solve problems in a fashion specific to the hero in question flesh out the character in a way unaccomplishable with simpler methods of storytelling. The minigames are a tangible way for the player to experience their character.
The chance to solve problems in a way characteristic to the protagonist increases the player's involvement with the story, and provides depth and insight to the character. The minigame sequences are also used to provide rhythm and variety to an otherwise repetitive gameplay. (On a side note, how many point-and-click puzzles solvable by a variation of ”use stick on X” can you think of? It seems to me that a stick, or a similar baton-like instrument is a staple of the genre, to say the least. Someone should write an article on sticks. Or maybe not.) As a singular design element the minigames are a powerful tool of storytelling for game designers, and their use in point-and-click games showcases their effectiveness nicely. Thus, when considering ways to tell your story via games it is always pertinent to consider what do the game elements you implement tell about your characters and the world they act in.
Oh, and how would an alchemist tame a stegosaurus? With a stick, of course.