What Adventure Game makers can learn from LucasArts’ classic


There’s no doubt in my mind that the greatest Point & Click adventure game of all time, leagues ahead of all competition, is Day of the Tentacle, by LucasArts. Released in June 1993, it was rated as the #1 Adventure Game of All Time by the Adventure Gamers website, which described it thus:

Day of the Tentacle is a perfectly flawless adventure, the rarest of rare games, that which did nothing wrong. Nothing. There is no weakness in this game, no sieve. Stop waiting for the “but” because it won’t come. This is the perfect adventure game, the one adventure that brought every aspect of great adventures together and created such an enjoyable masterpiece, it almost seems to transcend the level of computer games.

So what is it that makes Day of the Tentacle so fantastic? As I’ve been working on my own Christian computer game, I’ve spent many hours pondering this question, studying it and dissecting its puzzles, trying to learn everything I can about the art of writing an adventure game. And here I am, sharing everything I’ve learnt with you – completely free of charge! It can’t get better than that, can it? So let’s get on with it – we have much to get through!

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The Story

It can’t go without mention that Day of the Tentacle‘s story is absolutely insane. Strictly, it’s a sequel to one of LucasArt’s earliest adventure games: Maniac Mansion. Doctor Fred, your classic mad scientist stereotype, has been pouring toxic waste into a local river. This causes one of his creations, Purple Tentacle, to mutate into an insanely evil genius, intent on world domination. Bernard Bernoulli, a loveable geek, and his two college room mates, Hoagie and Laverne, are sent one day back in time by Doctor Fred, so that they can turn off the Sludge-O-Matic before the toxic mutagen has a chance to contaminate the river, preventing it all from happening. Trouble is, as is always the case with these things, the time machine malfunctions – sending Hoagie 200 years in the past, Laverne 200 years in the future, and returning Bernard to exactly where he came from in the present day. Spanning history, the three of them must work together to repair the time machine and carry out the original plan before Purple Tentacle destroys civilisation as we know it and enslaves all humanity.

That hopefully gives you a feel for kind of bizarre sense of humour that makes Day of the Tentacle so enjoyable. It has one of the longer introductions in LucasArts’ history, but also one of the most entertaining by far. One of the factors that gives the game such terrific replayability, in my opinion, is the sheer fun of the story, which means that even once you know how to solve all of the puzzles, playing through the game is just like watching a favourite movie – this is not the tacked-on second rate story you find in a FPS like Doom! It seems like a first rate story is absolutely essential for a great adventure game experience.

High Production Values

The other thing that really stands out when playing Day of the Tentacle is the incredible quality of every aspect of the game. The quirky Chuck Jones-style artwork, the music, the stand-out script with gag after gag that never fail to make me laugh no matter how many times I’ve heard them, and the incredible voice acting which suits the characters so perfectly – everything about this game is done well, and it all comes together to make a truly magical experience. It’s a daunting standard for an amateur like me, trying to make an adventure game just in the scraps of spare time I can manage to claw out of my schedule, but the message is clear: strive for excellence in every aspect of your game.

The Characters


The characters in Day of the Tentacle are fabulously conceived, all of them a real joy to talk to. From the post-counselling Weird Ed (“peace be with you!”) to the founding fathers (“Whoa! You’re, like, George Washington!” “Very much like him, according to my wife, Mrs. Washington.”), there’s never a sense that you’re just going through the motions of chatting to these people in order to obtain some vital piece of information that you need to solve a puzzle. I’ve played other games where you just can’t skip through the dialogue quickly enough – so tedious does it all seem. I think the lesson is to pick some key character trait and push it to the extreme – George Washington’s arrogance, Weird Ed’s… er… weirdness, Ned and Jed’s cappuccino-drinking artiness, Hoagie’s general slovenliness. You can’t help but love them all!

The Puzzles

But of course, an adventure game wouldn’t be an adventure game without puzzles – and my, what puzzles there are in Day of the Tentacle! More than any other aspect, I’ve pored over these puzzles, analysing them in minute detail, trying to figure out what on earth their process could have been for coming up with each one, how you’d go about writing such ingenious situations. So many of them are comedy gold, their solutions both intellectually satisfying and rib-ticklingly funny. They make such perfect sense once you know the solutions, and they make excellent use of the time travel scenario – with the actions of characters in the past having a knock on effect for other characters in a later time period.

Tim Schafer, one of the two lead designers on the game, brings a very distinctive style to the puzzles, which can be seen in his later game, Grim Fandango. First he sets up a simple, unremarkable scenario: a cat is playing with a squeaky mouse toy, hissing and clawing at anybody who tries to get too close. Then he teaches you a few simple rules about how “the system” works: you can draw away the cat’s attention by sitting on a nearby squeaky mattress. But there’s a catch! The mattress is too close, and the cat still manages to get back to his precious squeaky mouse toy before you get a chance to grab it. You can try sitting on the other bed at the back of the room, but that one thuds rather than squeaking, so doesn’t have the desired effect. The solution to the puzzle then involves a seemingly simple but yet very clever tweak to the situation, as you manipulate the system just enough to achieve your goal. The answer? Swap the mattresses round so that the squeaky one is at the back of the room, meaning that the cat can’t get back in time to stop you taking the mouse toy.

The same simple formula comes up again and again throughout the game, and it makes for a very satisfying experience as you attempt to figure out the system and how you can tweak it to your advantage. The temptation when writing your own puzzles is to stop at stage one: I might have thought of the idea of sitting on a squeaky mattress to divert the cat’s attention, but I probably would have stopped there. Adding the extra stage, though, makes all the difference in the world to the player’s experience.

Buy Your Copy Today!

With all seriousness, if you haven’t already played Day of the Tentacle, do yourself a favour and buy it today – you won’t regret it! A quick eBay search suggests there are still plenty of copies out there, and with the excellent ScummVM application you can play it on a wide variety of modern devices – both desktop PCs or Macs and handheld phones of all kinds.

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  1. […] through and do the bare minimum necessary to beat the game. My favourite example of this is from Day of the Tentacle: 200 years in the past, there’s a room being hired by America’s founding Fathers […]