THE UK-BASED Bitmap Books is steadily becoming one of the foremost chroniclers of everything that falls under the umbrella of “retro gaming”. Their exhaustive, full-color volumes trace various threads running through the history of videogames, and while the majority of their titles are dedicated to a specific console (including the NES/Famicom Visual Compendium, reviewed here), other volumes cover everything from vintage arcade cabinets to the lost world of game box art.
The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games is Bitmap’s first volume thus far dedicated to a specific type of game. The book traces the arc of the point-and-click genre from its early days as a graphical advancement of text adventures to its meteoric ascendance in the late 80s and early 90s, and from its waning popularity in the 2000s to its recent resurgence in remastered editions and new-retro titles. With hundreds of full-color images and dozens of interviews with developers and artists, it’s a massive, comprehensive chronicle that adds a great deal of historical depth to Bitmap’s catalog.
While the book’s written content is primarily the interviews, these are placed in roughly chronological order based on the years a given creator was most active in the industry, and a clear progression of point-and-click visuals thus emerges. The earliest games shown feature static artwork that is either black-and-white (for Mac games such as Déjà Vu) or a maximum of 16 colors (for early CGA-era PC games such as the first King’s Quest). Subsequent titles featured sprites (including the earliest third-person player characters, which were moved first via keyboard and later by mouse and controller, as well as NPCs with whom the player could interact), alongside the quadrupled 64-color palette of the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA). Advances in hardware brought new possibilities such as cutscenes (a phrase coined by Ron Gilbert for the non-gameplay scenes in Maniac Mansion, a game that features heavily in the book), as well as seamless transitions between different screens and increasingly complex animated backgrounds.
The lavish, pixel-art style associated with the early point-and-click classics like LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island and Sierra’s King’s Quest and Space Quest series was a unique amalgam of analog and digital production methods. Specifically, backgrounds were often painted by hand onto a grid overlay, allowing them to be copied painstakingly pixel by pixel into digital form. Subsequent improvements in scanning technology allowed a direct conversion from hand-painted artwork to digital, though some creators still preferred to build their images pixel-by-pixel, in a process that required grid-based composition skills similar to those used in textiles. The industry standard was the MS-DOS version of Deluxe Paint, used by everyone from the giants like LucasArts and Sierra down to the smallest companies for the creation of both sprites and backgrounds.
The relatively static graphics and incremental (and occasionally grueling) pace that characterized point-and-click games meant that the genre couldn’t stay on top forever. Several of the creators interviewed describe the transition from 2D to 3D in the early-to-mid-90s as being particularly rough for the point-and-click genre: for games known for their often meticulously crafted pixel landscapes, the simpler, flatter polygons needed for 3D rendering could arguably be called a visual step backwards.
In action-based 3D platformers and shooters like Tomb Raider and Goldeneye, a more sterile, polygon-based graphics environment was easily overlooked in light of their new and thrilling gameplay possibilities. But efforts to bring point-and-click games into the 3D realm, with smooth polygonal graphics that were arguably worse at bringing previously lush, pixelated worlds to life, met with mixed success. At the same time, additional technological advancements brought the industry further into the future, including VGA graphics (which again quadrupled the available palette to 256 colors) and CD-ROM drives.
The massive increase in graphical capabilities and storage capacity inherent in these technologies allowed for new CD-based classics like LucasArts’ Grim Fandango and the groundbreaking Myst, which presented a fantastical world via photorealistic graphics and full-motion video. The era of the pixel “tapestry” was coming to an end, expedited, ironically, by the unprecedented success of Myst. In a 2011 article in Ars Technica, Richard Moss described the subsequent glut of subpar games:
Unfortunately, the runaway success of Myst did more harm than good for the adventure genre. The bottom fell out of the market, and the weakest dragged the strong down with them, as dozens of horrible, broken clones—with far too little differentiation—flooded the adventure landscape, destroying consumer confidence and killing innovation as publishers pushed for "me too" graphics and puzzles.
After spending the early 2000s as relics of a bygone (if still greatly respected) era, point-and-click games have seen a resurgence in the past decade, fueled by a desire to return to their simpler, slower, almost analog-like worlds. In a modern context, the slower pace of these offerings serves as both a counterpoint and a balm.
Indeed, the broader category of adventure gaming, covering everything from 3D exploration-based “walking simulators” to interactive fiction and visual novels, has likewise flourished. Games like Firewatch, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, The Walking Dead series (an interesting hybrid of interactive fiction and Quicktime events from the sadly recently-shuttered Telltale Games), the Samorost series, and titles by countless other creators have brought the adventure genre to new heights. Remasters of old point-and-click titles abound on platforms like Steam and GOG, though these must thread a very particular needle where their controls, UI and graphics are updated enough to compete with contemporary games without losing the feel of the originals.
The unabashed retro throwback Thimbleweed Park, released in 2017 by a team that included Gilbert, Winnick, Fox and Ferrari, was a direct visual and UI analog to their early games. It can ironically take more effort to create simple-looking pixelated sprites and backgrounds than to create the smoothly rendered graphics of the modern era: “the tools I used back in the day no longer really exist,” says Ferrari, “Deluxe Paint won’t even run on any computer I have access to these days.”
The interviews themselves provide the book’s primary content, and give fascinating insights into the development process during the fertile “middle era” of gaming that occurred between the industry crash of 1984 and the console wars of the 2000s. The interviewees reflect the industry of the time in that they are overwhelmingly male, and while this is not the fault of the book, it makes one absent voice even more conspicuous: Roberta Williams, co-founder of Sierra and one of the most important trailblazers in the history of game development. Since retiring from the industry, she’s been notoriously reclusive and reluctant to give interviews, but her presence is felt throughout the book regardless.
As with all of Bitmap’s books, the images are full-color lithographic prints, many of which fill full two-page spreads. The early black-and-white and 16-color efforts can at times look a bit comical spread across two pages, with every blocky pixel appearing in larger-than-actual-size glory. But as the palettes grow and the pixels retreat somewhat, the reproductions take on a stunning, tapestry-like quality. The book also provides a glossary of important terms, printed in a pixelated green-on-black script to resemble DOS screens. With its hefty oversized format and hardcover binding, the book is a figurative and literal heavyweight, and a must-own for anyone with an interest in the history of computer gaming.
The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games
460pp, hardcover, £29.99
Photo/image credits: except where noted, photography by Chris Daw, images © Bitmap Books.