Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


Computer Games Frustrate Me

Kate and I have had a pretty good run of fun playing the various Nancy Drew PC games put out by Bellevue's own HER Interactive. So much so that I pre-ordered the last release and Kate and I played through it in a little over one day. That was a bit of a disappointment, to be sure, but not so much that we were soured on the franchise (though we hope the next release is a little more robust) but now we're stuck waiting until the next release which doesn't even have a projected date yet. It's nearly as bad as waiting for authors to finish the next book in a series (looking at you, JK Rowling, George Martin, and Greg Keyes). The earliest Nancy Drew games are a bit rough and some of the older ones we didn't bother to go back and finish because the interface or the "puzzles" were just too frustrating, but each subsequent release has had improvements and the releases of the last two years have been especially good well suited to our tastes.

We've tried some other similar games in between Nancy Drew releases. We played a Sherlock Holmes game from several years ago (picked up cheap or free) that was okay right up to the point near the end where, to heighten the tension I guess, Sherlock Holmes has to regain consciousness, know to look immediately in the right direction or be instantly killed by fricking scorpions. Are you kidding me? All the investigating, searching for clues, solving puzzles and the end game is "Oops, you stepped on a scorpion!"?! Argh.

This weekend we played through an Agatha Christie game from Dreamcatcher Games and AWE Games. AWE has been around for 14 years and has had a hand in designing everything from the LA LAW computer game to a bunch of licensed stuff like Cabbage Patch Kids "Where's My Pony?" and several Spongebob Squarepants titles. Dreamcatcher were involved in at least a couple of older Nancy Drew titles (coincidentally, some of the titles Kate and I found most frustrating).

The Murder on the Orient Express game was released in 2006. Graphically it's just fine, even excellent in some areas. The game play, on the other hand, was a frustration and ultimately unsatisfactory. You play a character who is assisting famous Christie detective Hercule Poirot. That's fine. You spend a lot of time roaming the train and environment, searching for clues. This is also fine. What isn't fine is the frustrating illusion of choice: this game has your character interacting with dozens of different NPCs but you as the player aren't chosing anything but the order in which you click the prescribed dialog. It's not a choice between saying "I suspect you're not telling me the truth" or "I need to get more information. Can you tell me X" you must say both things in order for the game to progress and there is no consequence at all to anything you say. It is scripted and as the player your only participating in the plot is how long it takes you to solve a puzzle. Don't solve it and the story does not progress. Solve it and your reward is a whole new series of "dialog" options that you must click through. The one clever bit of game play involves combining certain items with other items to make the item you need. When it comes to collecting fingerprints, it's fun. When it involves stealing cake batter, it becomes tedious and ludicrous.

Here's what I want from these games:

  • I want to be able to interact with the environment, uncover clues, and solve puzzles.

  • I want my actions within the game to have a consequence.

  • I want to have actual choice: do I lie or confide the truth, do I break open the mysterious seal or not, do I take the A Train or the C Line?

  • I want to find things out and "figure out" the mystery, not have it revealed to me in exposition or by watching NPCs act out the climax while I look on.

  • I want the game to be smart enough that if I happen to discover the clue in the first drawer I open, I'm not forced to open all the other drawers in order to signal I've "searched" things.

  • I DO NOT want to be forced into multiple stupid sub-quests: it's okay if I have to find a cask of olive oil in order to get the chef to cooperate with me but if I know I have to go scuba diving to find the prize, do NOT make me string shell necklaces for three hours (or kill wolves for their pelts, to use a Neverwinter Nights example) before I can continue on my way with the actual mystery.

  • I DO NOT want to have to watch my animated character walk hither and yon from one end of the spooky mansion/luxury train/scary wilderness for every little thing. It's neat the first time, it's incredibly boring and tedious the thirtieth time.

The very worst part of the game for us was the vaunted new twist-ending which you as the player have no part in. You've collected the evidence but there is no way you could figure out the "twist" and so it is simply revealed to you as you watch twelve or fourteen CGI characters act out what should be a movie scene. Then, many minutes later, you are given the "choice" to choose the outcome: what are you and Poirot going to tell the police? Except once again there are three "choices" that are no choice at all, you merely click and to signal that you're repeating your lines and the story moves along as scripted. It denies me all the things I want from one of these games and hits every point that I specifically DO NOT want. With Murder on the Orient Express in particular, Kate and I should have just stuck to reading the book or watching the film. In fact, a copy of the book was included in the game box! At least the marketing guys gave me what I wanted.



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