Hot Take: Old Adventure Games Are Just Complex Lock-and-Key Mechanics

There’s A Key For Every Lock. You Just Have to Travel To Another Continent to Find It

Jason Dookeran
4 min readFeb 26, 2024
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Have you ever played one of those old point-and-click adventure games like Monkey Island or anything on the SCUMM engine? Recently, I’ve found myself looking at playthroughs of old adventure games (in preparation for making one myself for an upcoming game jam). I’ve realized many of these old puzzles are complicated lock-and-key mechanics. And the worst ones are where you can lose the key.

The Lock-And-Key System Explained

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Most RPG and Adventure gamedevs know about the lock-and-key system. Basically, you have a lock, and somewhere before the player encounters that lock, you have a key. Older games, like the original Legend of Zelda, used a generic key that could be used to open any “small lock.” But adventure games are a bit different.

When you look at how adventure games approach problem-solving, they give you a set of tools that you can carry. These tools can be used in various locations to perform tasks on “hotspots.” Unfortunately, old adventure games never gave up their secrets, and you would pass over a hotspot twenty times in an hour and never know it was there, much less what to use on it.

Finding Keys and Making Keys

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In RPGs, a key is the way you progress through a level. Many RPGs have keys that open specific locks. The lock-and-key system has evolved several times over since the first Legend of Zelda game.

Adventure games have also evolved in giving you tools and allowing you to use them. In the early days, due to programming constraints, you couldn’t code a response for everything a player might want to try on a location. Early on in development, adventure games came up with new ways to give players keys — make them logically figure out what works with what.

Combining inventory items can turn two useless items into a key. One of my “A-ha” moments in gaming came from combining two otherwise meaningless items in a Monkey Island game to make an item I could use to solve a puzzle. It’s a unique sort of feeling getting that from a game in this day and age.

Adventure Games Reward Thinking Like the Developer

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Many of the adventure games I’ve played don’t hold your hand. Even in the old RPG games, you weren’t given clear waypoints to find the stuff you were looking for. No, a discovery was 100% organic, and you literally stumbled across things.

Today, there are a lot of less subtle hints and symbols to lead you to where a quest was sending you. There are fewer “A-ha” moments and more “Why is it located on the other side of the continent” moments. And I understand why, too. With so many games for people to play, it’s nearly impossible to expect someone to spend more than a few minutes fiddling with your game before they give up and go play something that holds their hands.

However, I contend there’s an opening for more demanding and challenging games. They’re aimed at the old adventure game crowd, albeit with more flashy graphics and cleaner puzzles. These games would reward the player for thinking like the developer all over again — a trend missing in game development these days.

What I Want to Do

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After realizing that adventure games are just lock-and-key puzzles, I want to build a modular one. I only have a concept at the moment, but I think it could be interesting. I’ve always been a fan of branching narratives, so this would give me a chance to explore that in more detail. And since I’m trying to ensure that I do one game jam a month, I guess I’ll do this for February’s game jam.

Hi, I’m Jason, and I’m an indie game developer. I’ve started trying to post more about game development and my journey as a solo indie developer over the next few months. I’m trying to make and submit one game to a new game jam each month. If you want to follow along with my journey or just like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my Medium. Until next time, remember never to put your keys after the lock, or your player can’t get it, and the game will break.



Jason Dookeran

Freelance author, ghostwriter, and crypto/blockchain enthusiast. I write about personal finance, emerging technology and freelancing