Wireframe

Unpicking the secrets of point-and-click cities

By Konstantinos Dimopoulos. Posted

Game cities are routinely shaped by the demands of the genre they appear in, and thus really get to shine in games led by world-building and narrative. Adventure games, in particular, have been lovingly showcasing detailed settings and interactive environments since the late 1970s, and have provided us with some of the medium’s earliest and most intricate cities.

Part of the richness of adventure game urbanism can be attributed to the genre’s requirements for solid world-building, and to the slow, methodical pace of their gameplay, which allows players to take in all the details. Similarly, cities are perfect locations for adventure games: they can serve as pithy encapsulations of larger settings, and the best of them are packed with character, history, overlapping systems, and countless people to talk to.

The adventure genre’s ‘look at’ and ‘examine’ verbs offer ways to subtly provide depth and granularity, while also allowing for the inclusion of a multitude of non-essential details. Players take in the setting organically by choosing when and what to examine, and quickly learn to pay attention both to their surroundings and to the narrative threads running through them, which in turn allows designers to structure complex puzzles, confident that their audience is paying attention. (On the downside, such intense scrutiny means that a game world’s slightest discrepancy will quickly stand out.)

An evocative background blocked off in a logical way can imply a much larger space, as we can see in Grim Fandango.

The focus on depth also comes at the cost of width, as many adventure game cities consist of relatively few locations. If a city is to be convincing, though, that level of detail needs to be matched by a sense of scale, and it’s here that maps can come in useful. They can show the relation between one place and another, tie locations together, and fill in missing spaces, implying a wider geography. Panoramic views are useful too, as are cutscenes, in-dialogue references to a wider reality, and brief travelling animations.

Space constraints also mean the look of each city has to be distilled to its essentials. Locations need to be curated, and become symbolic or characteristic of their wider region and themes. The pirate town of Woodtick in Monkey Island 2 – which consists of half-sunken and stranded ships – is tiny, but remains one of gaming’s most iconic locations. It certainly feels much bigger than its constituent parts: a scrolling background connecting a handful of interiors. Similarly, local history doesn’t have to be conveyed via tedious exposition – indie masterpiece Unavowed simply tells us the story behind Wall Street’s name (it was where the old Dutch city’s walls stood) to remind us of New York’s long history.

INSPIRING EXAMPLES

Adventure game urbanism overflows with ideas, successes, and smart designs. Infocom’s text-only A Mind Forever Voyaging was one of the medium’s first truly evolving cities, and the original Leisure Suit Larry was a masterpiece in cleverly restricting its explorable world via gameplay boundaries: try to cross a road, and a car will run you over; enter a dark alley, and you’ll be mugged. But when speaking of the greats, we can’t forget the stunning metropolis of the afterlife: Grim Fandango’s Rubacava (1998).

Rubacava feels grounded, and allows players to connect to it via its protagonist, Manny Calavera. He gets to actually live in the city, as a full year takes place off-screen, and he goes from a nobody to a club owner. As Manny establishes a connection to Rubacava, so do players. Clever writing like this provides much of the city’s vibrancy, all supported by a superb musical score, and Peter Chan’s stunning art. Well-chosen references beyond the confines of pop culture create a blend of noir literature and cinematography, Mexican folklore, and Mesoamerican history. The city’s striking architecture combines Aztec and Art Deco elements, providing spatial immersion on a grand scale. It feels bigger and older than any individual, even if its size is mainly implied by the scale of its buildings and via cutscenes.

The brilliantly nautical Woodtick from Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge – surely one of the great adventure game locations.

The more traditional-looking Thimbleweed Park, released in 2017, makes certain its 2D world is slowly introduced and much easier to mentally map than Grim Fandango’s heavily abstracted space. On the subject of complex places, the world of Propast from Dreamfall Chapters is also worth closer study. Propast draws inspiration from cities such as Berlin and Prague, and movies like Blade Runner and Judge Dredd. It feels like a logical evolution of European urbanism, preserving traditions and monuments while also serving corporate behemoths.

Modern open worlds seen from the traditional 2D adventure game perspective are both rare, and, as Thimbleweed Park proved, incredibly enjoyable.

Despite its modest size, Propast isn’t easy to navigate, though the game makes up for this by densely packing its locations with life. Streets and alleys are overflowing with activity, and people lead varied and convincing lives in spaces designed not as backdrops, but for a society to actually function in. Locals merely suspect the dystopian nature of their setting, and refuse to give up hope. They still care and try to find ways to challenge oppression, and discuss their thoughts with friends and co-workers on the streets and bars of their city. It’s an example of how much life can be generated in a location, and well worth exploring when thinking of making your own entry in the genre.

Virtual Scumm

Researching the civic spaces, maps, systems, and immersion techniques of a gaming genre that goes back decades and spans dozens of platforms would have been an almost impossible task were it not for the brilliance of ScummVM. It’s an open-source program that lets you run countless classic adventure games by such studios as Sierra On-Line, Lucasfilm, Westwood Studios, Infocom, Cyan, and Revolution Software on a variety of modern platforms. It’s available at wfmag.cc/ScummVM.

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