Earlier this year I was lucky enough to interview Tim Schafer, the man who brought us Monkey Island 2, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Among adventure aficionados, it's fair to say he's something of a legend. He was, of course, promoting his superb platform romp Psychonauts and I asked him if he felt a twinge of sadness at the point-and-click genre falling out of fashion. "People shouldn't cry for any genre", he said. "Be loyal to the concept of quality and imagination, not a scheme for mouse control."
His words have been ringing true this week as I grappled with Secret Files: Tunguska and, more pertinently, digested some of the online coverage the game has been generating. It's a fervently old fashioned point-and-clicker, with nary an action sequence or against-the-clock challenge in sight. It's not a bad game, but hardly one of the greats, and yet early reviews have been bordering on glowing - hovering around the 8 and 9 mark. As I played through this rather unspectacular story and grappled with arcane inventory puzzles, I realised that the game was being given considerable leeway simply for being a solid entry in a sparse and moribund genre. It was being given credit simply for what it was. It's a little patronising really. "I think people actually show disrespect for an art form when they talk about keeping it alive", Schafer told me. "Back off with that feeding tube, buddy! Art forms don't need your charity. They live or die all on their own."
Boom bang a bang
So, Secret Files: Tunguska then. It takes as its basis the mysterious (and real) explosion that devastated the remote Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, an unexplained detonation with the power of an atom bomb, the glow from which could reportedly be seen from London. Many have investigated the site, and come up with theories ranging from the plausible to the outlandish, and it's one such investigation that sets our plot rolling. Nina Kalenkov is our modern-day heroine, tight of trousers and perky of ponytail. Her father is a leading expert on the Tunguska blast and typically, when she swings her impossibly sassy arse by his office one day, the old geezer is gone, the place in disarray. And it's here that you take over, scouring the scenery for clues and items in order to solve the mystery.
To give praise where it's due, Tunguska does at least make some strides in eliminating the frustrations of the point-and-click interface. Operating from a simple dual mouse button control system, a right-click examines things, a left-click interacts with them. Right-clicking also skips dialogue and cut-scenes, while double-clicking on a new location takes you straight there without watching Nina stroll through the scenery. Objects are stored in an on-screen inventory and can be dragged onto other items, characters and areas to see what they do. Tunguska's biggest innovation is a magnifying glass icon that, when clicked, briefly highlights all the items and points of interest on screen, ensuring that you don't spend maddening hours sweeping the scenery to see where the cursor changes.
To begin with, this feature is an absolute godsend, streamlining the gameplay and allowing you to concentrate on what to do with objects, rather than where to find them. However, the more you play the more this feature becomes claustrophobic. The game is separated into bite-sized chunks, each containing a seemingly impassable obstacle barring progress. A truculent guard, a locked door - you know the drill. This means that, at any time, you've only ever got a handful of screens to work with. The magnifying glass makes it easy to gather all the available objects, and then it's simply a matter of perseverance while you run through every combination of items, hotspots and conversations until the puzzle falls into place. There's only a limited number of ways these things can fit together, and it doesn't take long to find them through sheer trial and error. Once one piece slots into place, everything else soon follows and you're on to the next chunk of exposition.
Here's one I made earlier
There are occasional moments where more than one solution presents itself, but this is usually just a case of two objects performing the same function, rather than distinctly different solutions to the same problem. By so rigidly defining what items you can examine and use, the game swiftly comes to feel restrictive. The impressively rendered backdrops become irrelevant, mere placeholders for the handful of items you'll need to MacGyver into a key-catching sluice guard, a laxative sandwich or a makeshift emerald. Logic rarely enters into it - the required solution is almost always the most unlikely and long-winded. It's like Occam's Razor in reverse.
For example, early in the game you need to locate and fix a puncture on a bike tyre. There are only two locations open to you - a museum with just five rooms that you've already picked clean; and Nina's father's house, which apparently consists of just a backyard and a bedroom. Logic dictates that a house would surely contain a kitchen and bathroom - and therefore a sink - but that's not how these things work. Instead you have to drag the tyre onto each and every water receptacle you see until you find the one that the designers want you to use. Only then can Nina see the bubbles that identify the leak, and begin cobbling together a puncture repair out of household refuse. And this mentality persists throughout the game. You're forced to jump through convoluted hoops to solve problems that would have an obvious and simple solution - if only the game would let you open that drawer, use that oven or simply treat the gameworld as a real place rather than a series of tiny independent pocket universes stocked with random objects.
Of course, such bizarre requirements are part and parcel of the point and click genre, and longstanding fans of this gameplay system won't bat an eyelid. And this is where Tim Schafer's words of wisdom hit home. Here's a crazy idea: rather than coming up with a way to help gamers find the impossibly tiny, random objects needed to solve linear puzzles, why not create a point-and-click adventure game where finding impossibly tiny, random objects simply isn't necessary? A game where you can actually come up with your own solutions to problems, using genuine lateral thinking, rather than trying to piece together the solitary linear solution deemed "correct" by the developer? It's not really fair to judge Tunguska too harshly for failing to completely reinvent its genre, but it does raise the question of how many pointless gameplay quirks we'll tolerate simply because we've come to expect them. Praising a game for continuing to use illogical puzzles, simply because that's what other games have done, seems like backwards thinking in this day and age.
Talking in circles
Despite this, Tunguska is a handsomely mounted game - technically, at least. The graphics are top notch, with attractive, realistic locations and well-rendered characters. Real-time shadows and subtle environmental touches flesh things out nicely. But what truly holds it back from greatness is how uninspired it all feels. Adventures require strong narrative but this warmed-over conspiracy storyline - hailed as "compelling" by some commentators - is as hackneyed as they come, while Nina makes for a particularly insipid heroine. She has no backstory, no personality beyond the expected post-Lara quips and flirtations. The dialogue is leaden, full of awkward syntax, with interminable cut-scenes taking five minutes to convey information that could easily be put across in two.
"Did you know my father?"
"Yes, he's missing. Did you know him?"
"I knew your father. You say he's missing?"
"Yes. I'm worried."
"That does seem strange."
"Can you help me?"
"Help you to find your father?"
"AAAARGGH! GET! ON! WITH! IT!"
It's possible, of course, that this lumpy storytelling is the result of being translated rather too literally from the German original, but that still doesn't excuse the often irritating voice acting - from Nina's nasal American whine to some baffling East European accents that seem to wander everywhere from Glasgow to Pakistan. Sadly, as a narrative experience, Tunguska is as poorly staged, clumsily written and predictably plotted as a cheap paperback thriller.
Tunguska does do a serviceable job in most areas but, crucially, never excels in any. If you love point-and-click adventures, and are desperate for something new, then it will easily meet your basic genre expectations - albeit in a short and linear fashion. However, in terms of story and character it can't hold a candle to the likes of Broken Sword, which does this conspiracy guff with far more charm and made its comeback earlier this month, or the genre legends of old. It makes some small progress in freeing point-and-click from the needless bonds of tradition but is it really a compelling, imaginative experience that proves mouse-based adventuring isn't dead? Nope. Not even close. Had Tunguska been released in 1993, it would still have been a middling effort and long since forgotten. That it's being released now, when the field is more sparsely populated, really doesn't change that.