The “Retro” Money-Making Machine
[Herr M.] Alas, good old nostalgia! What is better than idling in a slightly melancholic mood while pondering the past? Almost anything was better in the good old days: Colours were more intense, one-liners smarter and verb lists longer. We were content with the little things. Who needed more than peeps, pixels and bizzareness?
[Mr Creosote] Nowadays you can turn those nostalgic feelings into hard cash. At least if you can offer some familiar faces from back then too, which keeps you from getting lost in that flood of Kickstarters. Of course Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick had no problems with that.
[Herr M.] They are after all one of the main sources for misty-eyed memories of really great games. Although they became relatively quiet in the last couple of years (if not decades), they still enjoy a very good reputation. So it was quite obvious that sooner or later they would jump on the still booming retro train. It is just surprising that it took them so long.
[Mr Creosote] Well, at least they finished their game, which cannot be said about many similar ones. It is called. Its release was several months ago, so the big hype has cooled down by now. But we do have a reputation of letting our games ripen before we start commenting on them.
[Herr M.] Would it not be kind of moot to speak of so called “old games” otherwise? But, speaking of finishing the games: To be honest I have been so greatly disappointed with most of the other revivals of old games series and the return of comparable game design legends, that I was rather pleasantly surprised by.
[Mr Creosote] Could you give us some examples for which ones let you down?
[Herr M.] The list seems far too long for my liking, but (in order to never give that eternal conflict a rest) I will just point out several Sierra-offshoots. Anyway, there is another thing – besides actually getting finished – that puts today's game far ahead of most Kickstarter attempts and nostalgia-proxies: It has a very clear design goal, which actually manages to build on the nostalgia mentioned above.
[Mr Creosote] I have to admit, that I am not following the Kickstarter craze anymore. This spared me from bigger disappointments.started with a short video trailer, showing only three characters on a static screen and executing one action on a SCUMM-like interface. A couple of seconds, yet they were enough to grab the masses attention.
[Herr M.] My reaction to this was rather reserved, for the reasons mentioned above. Ocassionally I saw a couple of screenshots, which looked quite promising and had a lot of good old quirky vibes, but I was not quite sure whether to trust that gut feeling.
[Mr Creosote] I really liked that joke with the balloon animal and the corpse. Extremely cynical, something they never would have got away with back then. I did not take a look at anything else from the teaser material afterwards; my active interest in the development was next to nothing. So my naive assumption was that this would turn out to be a game which would revert to the looks of old favourites and most of all play like them too.
[Herr M.] I had a very similar impression, but I also thought that it would be kind of boring to play a game like that nowadays. By now a lot has happened in the gaming scene and it seems next to impossible to recapture that old magic. Especially since we have been spoiled by “better” stuff.
[Mr Creosote] So, we have got a game torn between expectations. Of course some of the things you said are true, but I was not quite aware of them until I started playing the game. Suddenly – contrary to my plans – I was a lot more critical of the plot than I thought I would be. Maybe we should start right with it?
Diving Right In
[Herr M.] Said plot builds upon the corpse from the trailer: A short prologue tells the story of how it got to there and soon you find yourself stumbling into a mystery case which centres – as you might have guessed – on a quite bigger picture than balloon animals.
[Mr Creosote] Two cynical FBI-Agents take care of the homicide’s investigation. But it does not even turn out to be the most remarkable thing about the town. Namely, it is almost abandoned, with a lot of things hinting at a grander past.
[Herr M.] There is a derelict factory, a forlorn circus and all those boards nailed to windows or doors put you in a really melancholic kind of mood (greatly emphasised by an eternal dawn). How could get things get so desperate? Why is this such a lonely place? It really makes you curious.
[Mr Creosote] This is not one of your immediate concerns though. A fact which I liked, because it look like a rather modern approach to me: Your surroundings are telling their own story. It might be based on one of its sources of inspiration, namely Twin Peaks, were the crime is just a hook to keep the viewers invested and tell them stories about the town and its inhabitants.
[Herr M.] Yes it is more like setting a mood than actually telling a story. A lot of things are conveyed by images and subtle remarks. This lack of open expositions does wonders for the storytelling, because the plot unfolds a lot more organic and you can take your time to grow into it. Bit by bit you unravel one thing after another.
[Mr Creosote] And many of those uncovered details fuel your interest. For example: I was really amazed by the local community’s technology standard. Like, how did they come up with this and what would be the consequences? Eventually I slowly realised that this too was a piece in the puzzle of how the town ended up in this state.
[Herr M.] I guess you are talking about the still quite dominant vacuum tubes? In my opinion they are one of the prime examples for the game‘s quirky charm, which makes the town and its inhabitants quite distinct.
A Town With Lots of Character(s)
[Herr M.] But even with all those quirks the characters and locations fit nicely together in a rather harmonic way.
[Mr Creosote] Yes the characters really complete the picture. Whether it is the plumbers which wear pigeon costumes for no discernible reason or the sheriff and the coroner, which seem to be the same person but reject it categorically.
[Herr M.] Do not forget the “triplet” at the hotel reception! Each and every one of them has a lot of things to say, but they do so in a refreshingly efficient way: A couple of words are often more than enough to give you an impression. This makes them a lot more interesting too, because filling in the gaps exalts the imagination.
[Mr Creosote] Speaking of efficient: In my opinion Mulder and Scully… err… Ray and Reyes are brilliantly characterised too. Two looks, three lines and you know where you stand with their contrasting personalities. On top of that they are keeping information about their actual motivation to come to this town not only from each other but also from the player. A great start – I was sold to this immediately, because to me this setup shows a very modern approach!
[Herr M.] I, on the contrary, really could not stand them in the beginning. Mainly for their secretive manner and the heavy stereotyping it involved. At first I truly disliked them so much that I almost gave up on the game. But as soon as the sheriff and the coroner turned up the game had me hooked.
[Mr Creosote] That is interesting, because I also thought about quitting until I reached the actual town but for different reasons, of which we will speak later. Actually, I do not think their secretiveness is that cliched. Even today it is a rather seldom used device in adventure games to leave such a gap between the player's and the character's knowledge.
[Herr M.] Well, that is certainly true and after you get used to it, it makes you kind of curious about their hidden agendas. This is largely because they are cleverly revealed bit by bit, each time leading to a gain of momentum. It might be worth mentioning too, that they do not remain the only protagonists.
[Mr Creosote] With which I am not that happy after all. Two more protagonists are introduced by flashbacks, which try to set them up as murder suspects. Yet the simple fact that you get to play them automatically renders any suspicions moot. I think this was not really thought through.
[Herr M.] I feel rather torn about them too, but for different reasons: From my point of view one of them, Delores, is the main protagonist and her delayed introduction seemed like a clever twist to me. The other one, Ransome the clown, adds almost nothing to the plot while his constant cursing and indifference get old really fast.
[Mr Creosote] Ransome is still rather funny in his first couple of scenes. I have to admit though, that he is one of those protagonists of more recent days, which just “have to” be extremely extreme in one way or another.
As far as Delores is concerned things get a lot more interesting from a storytelling perspective. She causes a fundamental and very sudden plot twist to both the investigation of the murder as well as the town's secret. Before you just saw them through outsiders, namely the FBI agents. Afterwards you get insider information through a playable character, which turns the whole narration upside down.
[Herr M.] It definitely alters the focus and opens unexpected doors (actual as well as figurative ones). There is another scene, in which I expected a similarly sharp turn of events, but (as might have been expected after all) it turns out to be a red herring after all. There is a lot of experimentation with changes in perspectives – offered by the different protagonists – in general.
[Mr Creosote] Although I am unsure whether those changes of perspectives work on the narrative level, since there is almost no reflection about them in this respect. For example: It is never explicitly mentioned that Delores opens new ways and throws in new insider knowledge into the balance. This makes me wonder whether the designers even thought about those consequences.
[Herr M.] Well, this is due to a second peculiarity shown by the game's characters: They talk next to nothing with each other. Actually they say just the bare minimum and often at those times when you have no control over at least one of them (e.g. in the cutscenes).
[Mr Creosote] Exactly. Delores has to know a lot more about the vacuum tube's history and the reasons for using them, because she is the niece of the town's former patriach and CEO of their largest factory. But somehow she never shares her knowledge with the player. While this might have been difficult to pull off in an believable way, it was rather hard for me to swallow playing a character who has such an obvious advantage over me.
Like we said above, Ray and Reyes are ahead of the player, too, but only about minor things (i.e. their secret objectives) and the game explicitly reacts to it. This did not only make it acceptable but also intriguing to me.
[Herr M.] I have to disagree, because I think this also makes Delores rather interesting since it works for her too. She indirectly tells you all the things you need to know right at that time, which adds a bit of meaning even to apparently banal statements. This also avoids the overused amnesia trope or having to play a secondary character, who has to discover all those things anyway and eventually does not gain more (or less) knowledge.
[Mr Creosote] OK, but how is Delores really that important (let alone Ransome)? In the end she does not do anything that could not have been done by Ray or Reyes one way or the other. This would have led to a couple of more puzzles too, like gaining access to the mansion etc.
[Herr M.] Delores is heavily involved in the whole affair and has lots of things to do about it. Ransome is unecessary indeed, which is very likely a concious decision though. He simply is a third perspective, the true outsider, whicht might make him interesting – at least in this regard – after all.
[Mr Creosote] Well, I am not so sure about this. I think the reason for including Delores is something else than playing around with different perspectives. To me it looks a lot more like she should remind you of Bernard from Maniac Mansion. Her dream job, game development, hugely caters to the target audience, too. All of this turned her into my least favourite protagonist.
[Herr M.] Funny thing, I liked her the most. Maybe because I have a thing for nerdy women or because I fell for the admittetly obvious crowd pleasing. She might be inspired by Bernard, but to me she seemed like a relatively underused stereotype. If there is one thing about her I did not like, it must be how nothing she does ever goes really wrong.
[Mr Creosote] Eventually you also get to play as a ghost, Delores‘ father Franklin, who has been murdered too. It is nice that he opens up a new kind of gameplay, since he cannot physically interact with this world.
[Herr M.] In terms of gameplay this probably makes him the most versatile character. At least he is not stuck to the usual “look” – “take” – “use” – pattern. It is just too bad I had the impression that he spends most of his time with waiting, which might or might not be quite fitting to his role. And his plotline develops at a snail‘s pace. Anyhow, he roams a ghostly parallel world… which, come to think of it, is kind of empty too. Oh well, a somewhat dull character after all, which in my opinion was a concious design decision, because simply put he is supposed to be a bore.
[Mr Creosote] Certainly, on the character level he is designed to follow the classic revival plot: A chickenly nobody learns to surpass himself. Yet this does not really happen until the very end and even then it is only optional. The main plot does not really need him too. Technically speaking you could remove him without missing a thing.
[Herr M.] Still you have to ask the question: Should he (or the similarily redundant Ransome) have been removed? I do not think so, for as boring, tiring or useless for the storyline as they might be, they still do offer a bit of variety and add some depth.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, on the one hand they do, but on the other hand they just hurt the focus. I am quite sure that the game would feel a lot less tedious without those two, for the simple reason that the more characters you have the more things you have to give a try. And the latter will get you almost nowhere especially with the ghost, yet you keep on trying whenever you seem to get stuck. Fewer characters might have reduced searching space as well as spared us some frustrations.
[Herr M.] Yet having larger searching spaces has the follwoing merits: There seems to be something to do all of the time. And if you do not know how to go on in one particular figure‘s shoes, you can always try something else with one of the others. Overall you get stuck more seldom this way, because there are lots of things to do simultaneously. On top of that things seem to be a bit more lively or organic: No character acts on his own and their plotlines overlap quite often.
[Mr Creosote] …except for Franklin, who does not really “overlap” with anybody. Oh well, it is not all that bad.
Sweet (?) Nostalgia
[Mr Creosote] One of the things that really did annoyed me though were puzzles which were copied 1:1 from older games.
[Herr M.] For example? The chain saw?
[Mr Creosote] The head of the navigator…
[Herr M.] Oh yes, that one! This makes me think of the library search, too. Yet, the most annoying thing about those was, that their solution was far too simple if you recognised them as hommages to the older games.
[Mr Creosote] Which brings us to the most defining side of the game: the meta level. Right at their first apperance the FBI agents break the fourth wall by referencing things from the prologue (in which they were not even present). Back then I found it amusing, but there was yet more to come. Each scene includes things you might recognize from “the past”.
[Herr M.] Yep, although the constant blows at the fourth wall put the whole structure on a rather shaky ground already, they still cram in all those references, which almost brings the whole thing crashing down. Nostalgia has its charm, but this here is almost too much. Just now you laughed about a clever joke and only one second later you have to wonder why it lead up to yet another lame quote from the good old days.
[Mr Creosote] I would like to distinguish this more clearly: Fourth wall is OK, if it stays self-contained. For example like the opening comments mentioned above. On the second level are all those references to technology and pop culture from the 80s. In my opinion the media have done them to death by now. But as soon as it comes to extrinsic self-referencing, I can take this only in very small doses. The skeleton belongs to a certain Dr. Fred, Edna‘s tlephone number and a well known line are written on a wall, Dave and Sandy (as much as I disliked them in the orginal game) are running a diner. There is a hamster in the microwave. Chain saw and fuel, all those battered old hats – and so and so forth. But it goes even further than the third level!
[Herr M.] I guess I am lucky then that I still have not played Maniac Mansion and did not catch most of the references. Although I recognized enough of them to wonder about it. Plus there are more than enough hints at other titles from LucasArts. Like Chuck or “Mansion Mansion”… If you want to you could still see it in a positive light:just is Maniac Mansion 3.
[Mr Creosote] I am not so sure about this, because suddenly you turn up in the tunnels below Monkey Island 2 and the story ends in a fashion very similar to that series. However I would like to come back to that one thing from the beginning that drove me up the wall and almost made me give up:
It is the fourth and in my opinion worst meta level. On the road to town you get hammered right into you head, that the game was designed by those legendary people, who single handedly revolutionized adventure games by removing downers like dying. So blah, blah, blah. Please note that all this self praise shows no signs of irony. And it goes on with things like a characters claiming ‚In a Sierra adventure I would be dead by now.‘ Boy oh boy… Ron Gilbert‘s Why Adventure Games Suck was influental and a real trend setter without a doubt, but drumming this into you on each and every corner shows a total lack of self control. This is fighting battles which have become meaningless decades ago!
[Herr M.] And yet the beginning is not even half as bad as Delores‘ introduction: She wants to become a game designer, of course for the very best game developers ever. I guess I do not have to mention which (barely disguised) company she has in mind. But are you sure that this is not meant as a joke? I have to admit that this kind of humour does not work for me either, but how serious are they?
[Mr Creosote] I see absolutely no signs which would make me think of this as irony. To me it is an attempt at servicing the fanboy culture. It is downright cheap and egotistic.
[Herr M.] Well, it might be that way because it is only talked about on the meta level. No, talking is not the right word, preaching would be more fitting. I guess I can understand why they did this (and I am not only talking about the self-centering here) but if you keep in mind where all of this eventually leads to, those remarks are rather harmless. Deconstruction can be interesting, but they defintely take things much too far.
[Mr Creosote] It is kind of interesting that in the meantime (one of the advantage of a delayed review) there was a patch, which removed a couple of those things from the game. There are still lots of them left though. Anyway this is a strategy I cannot stand, because if there is one thing I like less than self-paise it is giving in to critic remarks and backing away from one‘s own creative vision. You somehow have to stand up to how you wanted to present your game – whether you are successfull or not. Otherwise you make your vision appear weak and arbitrary.
All Secrets Revealed
[Herr M.] The sad thing about it is that the rest of the game actually ranges from quite decent up to really great. If it was not for that non-optional developer‘s commentary the real strengths would shine a lot brighter. Unraveling the mystery is really satisfying and like I said it has a lot of variety to offer.
[Mr Creosote] Exactly, it is sad, because there is another side of the game which caters to those classic feelings too without being the least bit annoying. I would describe the things mentioned so far as “retro” done badly: Simply pointing at things from the past purely as an end in itself. But to forge a bridge back to our expectations mentioned at the very beginning: As far as classic gameplay is concerned the game keeps up rather well. With all the qualities it ensues and without tapping any further into the “retro”-trap.
[Herr M.] Yes, contrary to my intial concerns the game plays a lot like those classics of yore. The developers somehow managed to stay true to the old formula while keeping its magic alive.
[Mr Creosote] To me this is primarily due to the priority of gameplay over story. Unlike the Telltale Games, where Ex-Lucasfilm people also have a finger in the pie,is more than just a pseudo-interactive cartoon.
[Herr M.] On the contrary: It makes far better use of computers as a medium. The story might be as linear as in other games, but you still get a lot of freedom. You can solve the puzzles, which actually deserve that name, in any order you like. And it is solving them which steadily keeps advancing the story.
[Mr Creosote] This is exactly what makes for a rather positive impression contrary to all that dark sides: It is a really interactive kind of storytelling, because interaction and narration are one and are not in conflict with each other. Plus there are actual puzzles…
[Herr M.] …decent ones too, which get your grey cells going and even take centre stage in the game. There is one scene in particular that got stuck in my mind, as a prime example for the best as well as the worst: During the game you visit a con and meet a game designer, who proudly exhibits a puzzle design poster. It is that dead old horse again, that “we are are the greatest” back-slapping… yet at the same time I had to nod with approval, because in hindsight the puzzle design and all its connections seems really clever to me.
[Mr Creosote] The game even avoids that curse of the 90s, when every adventure game just consisted of Myst like puzzle boxes. That is puzzles which feel rather artificial and take place on self contained screens, on which you have to deal with some kind of primitive mechanism. No, the puzzles here evolve as a result of the plot needing a bit more than “opening that closed door” (or at least it tries to cover it up a bit better) and the solutions are inherent in the game‘s world. As we like it!
[Herr M.] That is what makes the classics, and hopefullytoo, so timeless. Graphics and sound took second place even back then. The one thing that actually got people stuck to the screen was the puzzling, thinking about what to do next, and how the game kept you from simply rushing through.
[Mr Creosote] Of course not unlike many other titles, even really great ones, the game does not only play like an absolute epiphany. It might be worth mentioning that Franklin uses just on verb over and over again. Or that there are lots of objects which cannot be combined with certain verbs for any of the characters (which cuts lots of possible remarks and thereby wastes potential gags). Or that most of the characters have identical things to say, probably because they wanted to save on the writing. Or that you should save your game because you can die after all. But overall such criticisim might be petty; those are just the things which keepfrom gaining a review high score. You could probably put it this way: That whole self-praise shtick, as nasty as the taste it leaves behind might be, does not come from nothing. They do no only claim to know how to do things right, they also show that they actually can pull it off.
[Herr M.] Yes, it might not be quite top grade, but my overall impression is very positive and I was pleasently surprised by feeling that good old adventure spirit again.
[Mr Creosote] There are some disappointing overtone for reasons detailed above; even if you deliver such a great performance you should not rub it in to this extent. Still, in the end I have to agree:is a good game, which all things considered I enjoyed a lot.