While it’s easy to call out the mindless violence of modern video games, this wasn’t always the case. Many of the classic computer games which were the biggest hits of their times were actually puzzle games, relying on logic and lateral thinking, instead of lightning-quick reflexes.
To compensate for their slower pace, these games used to reward players with great art and a lively sense of humour, and games like Full Throttle and King’s Quest have some of the best lines ever written.
As computers became more powerful and control schemes became more sophisticated, games also became “action-packed”, and these classic adventure games from the likes of publishers Sierra and LucasArts were replaced by Doom, Mortal Kombat and others.
Slower, cerebral games really didn’t have a chance, and languished for the last two decades, but thanks to the iPad, they’re making a comeback.
The point-and-click phenomenon
Myst, first released in 1993, was the best-selling PC game until 2002, when its sales were overtaken by The Sims—the game was so popular that it could be argued that it helped drive the adoption of the then-nascent CD-ROM format.
Myst had only a handful of characters, almost no dialogue, and absolutely no violence. You roamed from one world to the next, travelling by reading the books of each world. Each book had puzzles which needed to be solved—you would find different objects within the world and work out how to use them and since the interactions were complex and wide ranging, it wasn’t uncommon to sketch maps, and make extensive notes while playing the game.
And Myst was by no means a one-off. There were other titles too. Long before Jack Sparrow made pirates cool, Guybrush Threepwood had gamers all over the world in splits with his attempts to become a successful pirate in LucasArts’ Monkey Island series. There were people to talk to and fight with (though you didn’t control the swordplay—you fought by hurling insults instead) but it was still all about finding items in the world and coming up with inventive uses to get past observations.
Getting a second life
In the last decade or so though, these games have largely disappeared—puzzle games as a category would’ve almost ceased to exist in mainstream gaming if it wasn’t for Portal, a 2007 physics puzzle game, but even that was designed as a first-person shooter.
The growing popularity of the iPad, and other touch-screen devices, has brought about some changes though. These devices are ideally suited for puzzle games, and are helping the genre come back, better than ever.
One of the first to do so was Myst, which arrived on the iPhone 3G in 2009, garnering rave reviews and providing the first real proof that the iPhone could be a high-end gaming device. Other titles have followed in rapid succession, such as the Flight of the Amazon Queen, Simon the Sorcerer, Monkey Island Tales, Back to the Future and so on.
There are many things that work for point-and-click titles on touch-screen devices like the iPad. The lack of non-stop action actually facilitates pick-up and play over small sessions, instead of a long gaming break which console games demand.
The simpler controls are also well suited to tablets—all you need to do is look at things, pick them up by tapping them with a finger, and then touching the places where you feel they can be used to solve a puzzle. If anything, it’s easier to play a point-and-click puzzle game on the iPad, as compared to the PC!
In contrast, the popular games today all have highly complex controls which are very hard to port over to a touch-screen device with no buttons.
Of course, it helps that these games don’t require high-end processors and huge amounts of RAM to run smoothly—for example, realMyst (a high-resolution reboot of Myst), released in August, runs smoothly on the nearly two-year-old iPad 2.
And in the next episode…
While point-and-click puzzle games don’t dominate the sales charts the way something like Angry Birds has been able to, there are clear signs that the audience is maturing and we’re seeing more and more new games emerge in the genre, only for tablet users.
One of the interesting new trends is the move towards “episodic” games. Instead of buying a full game which would take several hours to play, and would be relatively expensive, most of the new puzzle games are being distributed for free, or for a low cost (usually not more than Rs.55). If the user enjoys this first episode, they can then buy the remaining installments at their own pace.
Each episode is usually packed with around an hour’s worth of content, and as these games are usually driven by clever writing and an ongoing narrative, the effect is pretty much like watching a gripping TV show, where you buy each episode if you’re interested.
Sam and Max is one of the best examples of this strategy. The game is set around the adventures of the titular Sam and Max, a trench coat-wearing dog and a psychotic rabbit, who work as private investigators. The game is full of eccentric humour and truly difficult puzzles, but it’s not for everyone, so why not dip your toes in the game and then decide if it’s what you want?
At the same time, you also have completely new games, such as The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games. Based on the popular comic book and TV show set in the US, the game offers a look at a different part of the country and tells its own story, parallel to the action in the show. There are moments where you meet some of the established characters, but for the most part, it’s an intelligent adaptation, and builds up its own canon.
Another new entry to the genre is the brilliantly humorous Machinarium, which follows the adventures of a robot who escapes from a scrap heap to make it to the city and fall in love. Classics, such as the Indiana Jones games, are rumoured to be coming next, and possibly even the one-of-a-kind Day of the Tentacle, which combines time travel, puzzle-solving and evil alien tentacles.
Classics that are making a comeback on touch screens
If you used to be a fan of the genre and want to know which of your favourites are back on tablets, or if you want to know which games to try out for the first time, this list should help:
An HD graphics update of the classic ‘Myst’, which was the best-selling game of the adventure game genre. Players flip through the linking books—solving puzzles just as they did in the original game, but the graphics have been updated to look good on modern machines.
Broken Sword: Director’s Cut
Attempting to solve a brutal murder in Paris, you find yourself instead drawn into a vast international conspiracy in this game which looks like a beautifully drawn comic book.
Simon the Sorcerer
Ordinary school student Simon (that’s you) stumbles across a spellbook and discovers another world, filled with goblins, giants and wizards. He needs to use all his wits to get back home. The game looks a little blocky today, but is still engaging.
Sam and Max: Beyond Time And Space
Sam and Max, or ‘Bad Cop. Worse Cop’, the movie. Crazy, hilarious and over the top, this game requires you to save the world’s children from a hairy, evil, pagan god—Santa Claus!
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
Swashbuckle! Swagger! Loot! Insult sword fight! All that and much more waits for the player as they guide bumbling hero Guybrush Threepwood on a quest to become the most infamous pirate of the Caribbean.
Wallace and Gromit: The Last Resort
Based on the popular cartoon characters, and featuring the same visual style and sense of humour, ‘Wallace and Gromit’ puts the fun back in funeral as Gromit must solve a murder that takes place in a seaside resort in their basement.