I’ve mentioned this in the past but I’m a big fan of Adventure games, particularly the point & click variety. I love solving puzzles, going to interesting locales and meeting strange new people—something I also enjoy in real life. I like the complex stories, the narrative and even more when these two and the gameplay mesh together.
But one thing I’ve noticed over the past few years as I’ve gone through dozens of these titles is that the protagonists of these games, those we control, whose inventories we use to frantically click everything on everything, aren’t really heroes most of the time. In fact, their actions seem borderline villainous. Cheating, stealing and lying are commonplace in adventure games and more often than not, the solution of a puzzle means the destruction of someone else’s livelihood if not their lives altogether.
Some characters like Guybrush Threepwood aren’t heroes to begin with. He’s a Pirate, so stealing and cheating is part of his ‘profession’. And when you think about it, his quests aren’t to save the world. He’s not out to conquer evil, it all happens incidentally. The Secret of Monkey Island is a romantic story, with Guybrush trying to rescue the woman he fell in love with at first sight, Elaine Marley, but his primary motivation before that happens is to become a pirate, to become yet another man raiding and pillaging across the Caribbean. When you take away the Hollywood sheen off Piracy, you realise that for the most part these weren’t good people. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is a vengeance story and Guybrush goes on his quest just to save his own skin and The Curse of Monkey Island is all about him undoing a screw-up. Escape from Monkey Island is yet another quest to save his own skin and Tales of Monkey Island is akin to Curse in that it’s all about fixing a screw-up, a case of “Nice Job Breaking it, Pirate!”
While I love Guybrush Threepwood as a character, I can’t kid myself thinking he’s a good guy. He’s not. From drugging dogs to sneak into Elaine’s mansion and breaking into the Shopkeeper’s vault for a line of credit to causing a volcanic eruption and pouring oil on someone’s back so he can peel off their map-tattooed skin, the lengths to which Guybrush will go are quite appalling. Sure, it’s dressed up in a fantastic layer of humour and I’ve laughed alongside the rest of the world, but he’s not a hero, he’s barely a good guy and only because the Caribbean is full of worse people.
But it’s not just Guybrush. He’s merely an example of a common trend of point & click protagonists who have no qualms on hurting others to get ahead. Why is it necessary to have these moments? From Gabriel Knight, passing by Deponia’s Rufus and landing on Sam & Max, the number of characters across multiple storytelling genres and vastly different stories that act this way is astounding. Just because they have noble goals doesn’t mean they’re free to perform ignoble actions.
Sam & Max may be an odd example as their world is a satire of ours and their overt cruelty is played for gags and, if you look closely enough, social commentary, but it’s still a valid example. Just taking Telltale’s seasons into account there isn’t a single episode in which the duo don’t completely mess someone’s life. But in a case similar to Guybrush, Sam & Max live in a world where everything and everyone else are much worse than they are. Again, this is part of the satire and humour of the series, which I enjoy to be perfectly honest. Yet, sometimes I felt it was too much.
Gabriel Knight on the other hand falls into the “greater good” kind of character. He’s a sleazy opportunist and will often screw his own friends over to get what he needs. In Sins of the Fathers he ‘borrows’ Detective Mosely’s badge to lie his way into someone’s house. But here’s the thing, losing a badge can get you in trouble if you’re in law enforcement. At best, they dock some of your pay because of it, and Gabriel is willing to let his ‘best friend’ go through that, just because he wants to meet the pretty girl. And that’s without mentioning passing himself as a Priest to trick and cheat an old lady. But he’s trying to find the culprits behind a series of horrible voodoo murders. His goal is noble, but the way he goes about it is anything but that. By contrast, in The Beast Within he’s more of a decent guy, with his actions more on the traditional detective side than sleazy opportunist. But then we get to Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned and he’s back to being the bastard we knew. He’s a lovable bastard, as I love the character, but that doesn’t change the facts.
Deponia’s Rufus on the other hand is an unforgivable monster. The entire game’s built on the premise of his belief that he’s the hero of the story. In truth, most of the time he’s worse than the villains, destroying everyone’s lives in the process. He’s selfish and vain, and while the writers and designers attempt to make him likeable and relatable with the off-moment of selflessness, his actions take him right back to being a completely unlikeable bastard. There are only a handful of puzzles in each game that don’t involve him wrecking someone else’s life, their property or using them as tools in his schemes.
And if you thought Rufus was bad, never play Randal’s Monday. If you’ve ever seen the movie Clerks, then imagine that Randal in his own adventure game. You’re probably picturing some heinous things right about now, aren’t you? Well, they’re just the start, particularly when you put him in a Groundhog Day kind of scenario.
Some point & click characters get away with their selfish or cruel behaviour because of the comedy element of their game, or because they’re doing it for a good cause, or simply because the victims are the bad guys, but others, much like Rufus and Randal, are downright despicable and turn their games into psychopath simulators, just a series of events where you try to be the worst person you can.
But while these characters and the examples I’ve provided might make you think that all point & click protagonists are evil, the truth is that there’s plenty of examples of decent folk in these games. From Father Arno Moriani in Dracula 3 and the protagonist of Myst to George and Nico from Broken Sword, there are numerous protagonists in the adventure genre that don’t get ahead by screwing over others.
Manny Calavera from Grim Fandango, another LucasArts character, is a decent guy. The most he does is cause some spillage that needs cleaning. But for the most part in the games, his ingenuity helps others instead of wrecking them. And even his goal is noble. He sends Meche through the underworld on foot because the system was corrupt and broken, and when he learns of this he doesn’t say “oh well!” but instead goes on a perilous journey to find her and make sure she gets where she belongs. He’s not a perfect man, but he’s definitely a good one.
The Blackwell Series’ Rosangela and Joey are another example of good characters doing good things. They just talk to people, or find clues in the environment and then help ghosts move on. They don’t resort to trickery nor do they do anything that would cause someone else even a bit of harm.
I’m all for writers having free reign to make their characters as they want, but what is it about Point & Click adventures that attracts so much callousness in the protagonists, such a desire for mischief?
Do note that while I’ve focused on Point & Click games, this is something common in the Adventure genre overall, with even Link from The Legend of Zelda doing some questionable things in his numerous quests. Off the top of my head I can mention traumatising the windmill guy in Ocarina of Time. When you meet him in the future, he’s no longer the happy man you met in your childhood and it’s all because Link played the Song of Storms inside the windmill. It’s a necessary action, but it has dire consequences for the poor man.
I believe part of this “need for mischief” is because in the beginning of adventure games, it was common to create surreal or even ludicrous situations so humour was a big part of it. The character’s ‘evil’ actions were played for laughs, often having quips to go along with them, some slapstick or even simple play on words that wrapped it all in the needed humour to sell it all as some insane situation. But the problem is that not every writer out there has the wit to make such as situation work, which is why we often end up with appalling characters doing horrible things that we just can’t laugh off, no matter how ridiculous the situation might seem.
Another reason is imitation. We learn by examples and we follow in the style of our icons. We all add our own touches to make our work unique but we also bring in some of the elements we loved from the works of others. So when new developers create their games, they tend to bring in the design and story elements of games they loved and admired. It’s why we get so many characters acting this way, because it’s a common trope in the genre from its early days.
What do you think, am I being too harsh on the genre? Is the point & click villainy a matter of particular cases or am I right in that it seems to be a common element? Personally I believe it is, most of the Point & Click adventures I’ve played have at least one moment where you have to cheat, steal or con someone to get to your goal, even in this new era of choice-based adventures.
As I write this, and before I leave you to tell me how wrong I am or how limited my examples have been—which I will welcome as it means we’ll have a discussion—I have started wondering if perhaps the villainous actions by ‘good’ people in these games is itself the point. That we have to do these things to realise that they’re not heroes, not villains, not good or evil but simply people doing what they must to overcome a challenge with the cards—or the inventory—they’ve been dealt. Some will revel in the chaos and some will lament it but they’ll inexorably move forward even if they have to do some appalling things.
But maybe I’m thinking too much about it and it’s just a simple case of genre tropes.
If it is this last bit, then should we move away from this? Should designers and writers in the genre aspire to greater things, to characters who can overcome challenges without having to break something or someone? Or should we accept it as just another part of the Adventure genre, something to go along with the puzzles and inventory?
As a gamer and storyteller, I can deal with the Point & Click villainy if they address it properly in a game, be it by wrapping it in humour or by acknowledging that it wasn’t a good move but a necessary one. If the action has an effect on the characters and helps them grow, then I’ll love the action, but if it’s yet another example of how selfish some adventure characters can be, then I’ll be the first to condemn it.
But that’s just me.
Now I’d like to know more about what you think! Let me know in the comments about your own Point & Click adventure experiences and how you feel about the questionable actions performed by our knickknack carrying protagonists!