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Pointing & clicking in the age of touching – Thoughts on interface design for modern adventure games

Marcus writes about interface design for modern point & click adventure games.

Back in my days, when we wanted to solve puzzles, we selected verbs, pointed on objects and clicked to execute. What would today’s kids think if we told them about actually typing in commands with your keyboard to accomplish such puzzle solving activities? Oh my. But how does the new generation point and click? Oh, I tell you, young people today don’t want to spend so much time just preparing their actions. They want to act! They don’t have the time to select, point and click! They point and they click. That’s what they do. Why and what does this mean for adventure game designers in the modern age of point & click? Let’s see…

Enough has been written about the evolution of adventure game interfaces. I assume most designers will be familiar with the history of pointing & clicking. If not, check out these articles:

Searching Under the Rug: Interfaces, Puzzles, and the Evolution of Adventure Games (Mark Newheiser)
Shaping Player Experience in Adventure Games: History of the Adventure Game Interface (Clara Fernández-Vara)
Adventures in Interfacing (Vince Twelve)

Adventure game interfaces became simpler and simpler over time. The old and very literal SCUMM interfaces where you had to select the method of the following interaction before choosing the object to interact with have been cleaned up. In following interfaces you often had to select the objects before choosing the interaction. Still to complicated for modern adventure games? There are a lot of games that use the 2 mouse button interface - left click: interact, right click: examine. Big problem: players tend to forget the right click. Some games visualize the two interaction methods to avoid this problem.

With the introduction of new mobile devices game designers have to think about interaction methods that don’t even use a second button. All you can do is touch. You either touch, or you don’t touch. Interfaces have to be much more simple and clean than ever before. Sure, one could easily implement an old-school SCUMM interface on a tablet. But, as stated before, these interfaces are considered outdated and somewhat bulky. Modern adventure games like Broken Age use one single interaction.

Important: Consider the design of your interface at a very early stage. I can’t stress this enough. Puzzle design for point & click adventures heavily depends on the interaction methods that the players can use. When thinking of new puzzles, you will stumble upon questions like “Does this make sense? Will players get this?” all the time. You have to be sure if you can include hints when the player examines objects that can also be used or taken. You have to be aware of the fact that you cannot integrate hints or funny comments at some points, if you decide to go with an one-click-interface and clicking on objects you can somehow interact with always means that the main character will attempt this main interaction.


Old-school SCUMM interface
 

This is one thing modern one-click interfaces take away considering the old spirit of adventure gaming. One more thing that was taken away when 16- or 9-verb-interfaces where replaced by 3-verb-interfaces were that choosing the right method of interaction was part of the puzzles. But I’m okay with this step. What in fact does bug me a little is that the step from the 3-verb-interface to the 2-button-interface takes away the mouth puzzles. Oooh, mouth puzzles. Man, we really had some great mouth puzzles in the history of adventure gaming! Oh, and the mouth puzzles we designed for Unforeseen Incidents! Tasty and ingenious! Now, the decision to go with a 2-button-interface in our game takes away the possibility of mouth puzzles (yeah, we thought about the interface issue too late in the design process). Wait, you are not familiar with mouth puzzles? In early interfaces the mouth interaction was a classic “talk to” interaction. But then, with the reduction from nine to three verbs some subtle game designers came along and thought: Hey, all the cool puzzles where you had to select the right verb first were taken from us. But… at least… we still have the mouth interaction. Let’s make mouth puzzles! Oh, and they did. Now, the mouth interaction could do much more than just talking. We ate, drunk, blew, sucked and bit a lot in the second half of the 90s. The 2-button- and the one-click interfaces now take away the mouth puzzles. R.I.P. mouth puzzles.

DoubleFine's Broken Age uses a modern one-click interface

Well, now what type of interface would you chose for your game? You are super retro and want to make a really old-schoolish game? You can still use text parsers or 16/9-verb-interfaces if it fits to your game. I really like 3-verb-interfaces (because I dig mouth puzzles). I don’t mind holding the mouse button (or the touch finger) a moment (or, alternatively, click twice for interacting). Why do people hate this so much these days? Back in the 90s, we held our mouse buttons for days! We didn’t care! I ONCE HELD MY MOUSE BUTTON FOR TWELVE MONTHS, WAITING FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT TO INTERACT, BACK IN THE DAYS! Man! Today’s kids are so impatient. Anyhow… If you go with a 2-button-interface you’ll probably on a good way. You still can include funny or deep comments using the examine interactions and you can integrate hints. If you want to be super modern and fancy and want to do a tablet/smartphone port, go with a one-click/touch interaction. People will be like, hey, look at this, this is super usable, it feels so smooth. Or are you more the award winning kind of person and definitely want to go for your next prize? No problem. Create something new nobody has seen before that ultimately fits your game! Seriously! I'd like to encourage that! There should be more adventure games with innovative and new interfaces. But always remember: Decide for what interface you’re going to go with before designing the puzzles.

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