This week I’ve been tinkering with a preview build of Thimbleweed Park which is the point and click murder mystery from Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick (them off Maniac Mansion). I used to love playing point and click games when I was little – my siblings and I would play them together over weeks and weeks – but for me they feel so rooted in that time’s technology and gamescape that I don’t think I’ve found any of the modern revamps/revisits/reworks/riffs of interest. Thimbleweed Park’s recent trailers did trigger a little frisson of curiosity though, and I’ve also been tasked with booting up The Dig by John for a new Game Swap. The result of all of this was an unexpected 2am conclusion about what point and clicks can learn from hidden object adventures.
The core of this thinking is that a lot of my fondness for old titles comes from playing them in the context of the time and thus dismissing elements of the UI or particular design choices as “normal” where now they would chafe. This means that there’s a mismatch between how such a thing actually plays and the experience I remember having.
It’s something game developers are aware of and every now and again a classic will get remade with an emphasis on giving you the experience you remember while trying to sand off the bits that will chafe now that time and tech have moved on a bit. If you dust off an N64 and play Ocarina of Time then switch to any one of the newer versions of that game you’ll see bits of what I’m getting at.
Obviously when it comes to point and clicks there is a real contingent of fans and players who aren’t bothered by the finicky elements and don’t want the edges sanded off, but I’m willing to be that it’s not just me that would appreciate more of a casual mode. So this is about lapsed point-and-clickers who would go back to those games for the jokes and the story and the oddness of the whole performance but who start to chafe when context sensitive commands are revealed not to be part of that hazy glow of recollection.
Casual modes came up because Thimbleweed Park actually lets you choose between a hardcore and a casual mode at the start. I went with the casual mode because I’ve been burnt by returning to the point and click genre before! I was hoping for something closer to what I described above and that would lure me back in. That didn’t happen and I’ve been digging what a real casual mode would mean for me.
P.S. I’m still at the stage of working out exactly what I would want from the experience so I’ll structure this as a set of related thoughts rather than an exhaustive explanation.
When Thimbleweed Park invites you to pick it offers a casual mode for people who are new or who are “looking for a quicker experience because life is exciting and there is so much to do” and a normal mode which has some extra puzzles “because there is nothing more exciting in life than playing adventure games.”
What I realised early on is that my idea of a casual mode is very different from Thimbleweed Park’s idea of a casual mode. The game doesn’t say this when inviting you to pick, but I’d thought that a casual mode would be about reducing the friction as you go through the game, meaning you’d be able to flow through the story rather than hitting the frequent roadblocks I associate with point and click puzzling.
For me a casual mode with a quicker experience of the game would entice you through the broad sweep of the story making connections more obvious but still finding ways to include you in the humour. I was trying to work out what this would look like and I think it would be closer to a hidden object adventure, funneling you along the pathway of cause and effect more obviously than a true point and click, but still having a rich world that rewarded interaction.
I wouldn’t want a point and click to go full hidden object adventure, but those games are a useful contrast point because they ultimately offer a similar rigid pathway to most point and clicks for the gamer to pursue. They just exist at the opposite extreme with regard to the friction they need to provide to achieve their aims. Point and clicks are a performance – they seek to engage the player in dialogue or play with you through language or interface. Hidden object games are about punctuating an unvarying story with Professor Layton style minigames or object hunts. One requires you not to always know what to do/press/say so you can be surprised by the narrative or jokes you trigger by accident. The other doesn’t want you to be confused by the game because its reward moments are via gentle (or not so gentle) coffee break puzzles which happen along the way and the story is just the throughline.
It feels like a true casual modek (for me) would be somewhere in the middle of that continuum. I’d be happy to sacrifice some of the friction in the pathway through the story if it could perhaps be replaced with moments of confusion and reward elsewhere. Maybe that would come in the form of minigames, but maybe it would be more about having a mode where the puzzles were far more tightly plotted in single areas. It would be a lot of work and I can instantly see reasons why developers wouldn’t think that was a good or fun use of their time. Maybe it would also only please me. I’d obviously still be interested in developers catering to that limited audience, but I can see why it might not happen!
I say this because the casual mode in this particular game has still got me to a point where I don’t know what to do next and the thought of trying to press on is just not appealing to me. I can switch between two FBI agents, one of whom is in an area large enough that the idea of having to comb back through it for whatever I’ve missed seems daunting, and the other has a far smaller area available to explore but one of the interactions I can use her for takes so many clicks to perform that the idea of experimenting with a few ideas makes my eye twitch in frustration.
There actually was a section where I played as Ransome the foul-mouthed clown where the friction was severely reduced. That was welcome in that I didn’t get stuck, and I also had the space to appreciate a couple of interesting things that the writing and the interactions brought out. But this section is why I’m saying that rather than just cut out the friction altogether it needs to move to a different place, because aside from those interesting snippets the rest of that bit was not engaging. The clown felt like a riff I’d seen many times before in the character of Krusty in The Simpsons.
The other thing which felt odd to me was that in this casual mode, I found myself with the same interface frustrations as I’ve found in the genre before. It’s to do with the implementation of the familiar SCUMM-esque verb-object system. My issue here is that going back to a point and click after years playing other games and after years of developers working out how to make actions seem intuitive is painful. When I click on a door and the game assumes I want to walk TO it and not walk THROUGH it I feel myself starting to glare.
I get that it’s leaving the agency to the player and that perhaps you might want to try something else, but if we’re thinking about casual experiences, why have the interface taking me to the door and just standing next to it if that won’t yield a rewarding result, either in the form of a joke or a reaction or… anything? If I wanted to stand near the door I’d then just click near it but without clicking on the object itself.
The verbing of objects is intrinsically linked to point and click adventures and I’m not advocating for its removal. What I’m trying to get at here is that it feels like this is an easy point where devs might miss opportunities to tweak the interface and make it smoother. For example, Thimbleweed Park’s own blurb says “Today’s players don’t want the same experience they had in the 80s… they want the experience they remember having.” As one of those players (albeit more from the early nineties than the eighties with my pointing and clicking), I remember the stories and the jokes and the puzzles being the experience, not the multi-click-to-get-someone-through-the-blooming-door.
I’m going to go back to The Dig soon having bounced off it pretty hard a few weeks ago when I got frustrated and couldn’t seem to get past the first section intuitively. I’ll be creating my own casual mode by simply using a walkthrough for that bit and any other bits I get frustrated by because the thing John’s evangelised is the story. I want to find a way to experience that without also experiencing the frustration of accidentally triggering a conversation that won’t end quickly enough a few times because of a misclick, or accidentally opening my space phone one too many times.