It could have been a match made in heaven between the FMV genre and the CD-i, a system capable of playing videos at pretty high quality and good at displaying still pictures. If only the FMV fad hadn't died down so quickly. And, worse, the CD-i never actually took off at all. By 1996, even Philips themselves had given up on it and they released The Dame Was Loaded only on the by then ubiquitous PC platform. Although the game's credits still contain an entry for CD-i programming.
It is a detective adventure game in a decidedly less goofy tone than the popular Tex Murphy games of the time. Which is not to say the game is entirely straight-faced, but overall, it does take itself seriously enough. In fact, the ghost of Raymond Chandler enters the scene as soon as the protagonist's office door opens and a country bumpkin walks in, looking for her lost brother. It's not exactly The Little Sister, but the convoluted plot with its many twists and turns comes dangerously close.
Writing also raises some hope. How about an example of the game's humour? “It made me want to find her brother, so that I could see that smile again.”, exclaims the protagonist from the off, while the camera pans down the back of the young woman. It immediately characterizes the protagonist as a lonely loser. Even more so considering she's not the stereotype femme fatale bombshell, but rather wearing decidedly plain clothes. Using a combination of verbal and visual storytelling. Yes, call me easily amused. “My camera. People take photographs to preserve happy memories. I take photographs of unhappy memories for other people.”, on the other hand, has a serious, almost lyrical quality to it.
The Dame Was Loaded can't quite keep up this level of writing throughout, unfortunately. The protagonist's voice actor tries his best Bogart impression, which may be nice at first… until you realize the guy never, ever changes his tone. Regardless of the scene, the situation, the circumstances. Failing to convey any real emotion. The music isn't half bad, either… until you realize it is the same three loops over and over again. Neither is game-breaking, but the positives on these accounts simply fade out as the game goes on.
On the gameplay side, however, it does surpass the bulk of the contemporary competition easily, however. It doesn't re-invent the wheel for that, but at least it does go back to the qualities which had originally made this sort of mystery game popular in the early 1980s. By the mid-1990s, the dreaded puzzle box design philosophy had broadly taken over. Players would find ridiculously overdesigned mechanical locks on simple doors. They would be asked to match shapes and colours, with just flimsy excuses how that relates to the plot and its progress. The Dame Was Loaded, on the other hand, is a proper adventure game insofar that it challenges emerge organically from the storytelling.
How about an example? One quite elaborate section involves tricking a laundry operator into handing out pieces of clothes to use as disguises. Clear case of adventure game logic (as there should have been easier ways to acquire equivalent clothes), but the way the solution plays out is actually quite smart. This sort of thing increases player agency immensely, narrative and gameplay are all of a piece.
Another notable aspect is that the game world does not stand still, waiting for the protagonist to act. Rather, things just happen, resulting in an overall time limit and several plot points on the way where the player should have achieved a certain level of information to be able to further progress. This has its good and bad sides.
The early game is actually spent without having a lot of direct impact on what's going on. You interview person after person, their hints leading to the next person, rinse and repeat. You search some places. It's mostly nevertheless entertaining and the game supports its player well in the mechanical aspects. Information is automatically kept in the notebook and the way this is linked to the core activity, i.e. talking to people, isn't all that dumb. New facts, new names etc. open up new conversation branches. Atypically for FMV games, they even took the effort of recording custom responses for most combinations of interviewees and topics.
Though then, even if direct impact may be limited at first, turns out there is quite a bit of indirect effect of player actions. The game states accounts for several ways of playing adaptively. Depending on several factors, events happen earlier, later or not at all. Leading to similar scenes having different variants reflecting how far the player got. A major effort which most such games did not bother to take.
The experience of playing it does admittedly consist of a lot of saving and restoring. Oh, crap, I went to this location to check something out, and even though I didn't die, it turned out to be a waste of time. Can't afford this sort of thing, so let's backtrack. It is obviously not nearly the smooth and logical “a follows b” movie-like experience you get fooled into when you watch video playthroughs, all of which are obviously guided by walkthroughs.
And, don't forget, it is a cheesy FMV game. Can this be worth your time, considering everything? Yes, it is cheesy at times, but it is also very apparent that the people who made it knew exactly what they were doing and they did it quite well. Philips' money ensured production value on the top of the scale of what was on the market back then. The plot provides all the treasured clichés of the hard-boiled genre and hits the right buttons. If those are your thing.
In spite of the FMV backbone, The Dame Was Loaded is a proper game. The vast majority of time spent on it is in interacting, not just watching. Strip all the videos, replace them with written dialogue, the actors with pixel sprites, and you would still have a nice game. Not a standout game globally speaking, not a killer application for a failing system, but one which delivers as (in retrospect) few in its niche did.
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