Sunday, March 23, 2008

Games From Left Field

What is a ‘Game from Left Field’?

These games are new, innovative and receive almost no attention whatsoever. They’re the indie games, the games made on a shoestring budget. They might not be as pretty as mainstream games, but if you want something new, they’re the only way to go.

To be honest, a lot of indie games are quite bad. What I admire about them, however, is their willingness to try something new.

If games were cars, you could compare a new first person shooter to a ’95 Ford Fiesta with Sat-Nav, a body kit, neon lights underneath, a tuned engine and a top of the line stereo. It looks impressive and sounds impressive, it’s fun to drive, but underneath all the bells and whistles you’re still driving the same car you were driving a decade ago.

Left-field games are like the brand new ‘concept cars’ made by small factories you’ve never heard of. They’re the ones who decide to see if adding an extra set of wheels and a totally new type of engine is a good idea or not. Sure, a lot of the time you’re going to end up with spectacular failures, but every so often you’re going to uncover a gem that gives you an experience you’re just not going to get anywhere else.

The game I want to talk about today is, rather fittingly, ‘The Experiment’ from ‘The Adventure Company’.

The Adventure Company, as you can probably guess from their name, specialize in adventure/puzzle games. Having played a few, such as “And Then There Were None” and “Return To Mysterious Island”, I can say that they tend to be ok, but not great. I’m fine with that for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t expect anyone to spend millions of dollars to deliver a perfectly polished game that might sell 10,000 copies if it’s lucky. Secondly, ‘Adventure Company’ games tend to sell for around the ten dollar mark.

What surprised me about ‘The Experiment’ is that it’s not a ‘point and click’. In fact, I’d have a hard time defining exactly what genre it is. It’s definitely in the ‘point and click’ style, but it’s also completely different.

The game starts with a pre-rendered cutscene showing a wrecked ship on a beach. The camera flies through the interior of the ship until you see a young woman (Lea) in a hospital gown, unconscious, on a bed. You get a security camera’s eye view of her waking up, and then the game begins.

The first weird thing is you’re not given an identity. All you know is that you’re trapped on the same ship that Lea is on, and that you have access to the security cameras and computer system.

You play the whole game from this viewpoint. You don’t control a character by pointing and clicking, you’re just a guy sitting at a computer controlling security cameras and other systems on the ship. That’s the game’s interface, a normal computer desktop. You pull up a map of the ship, click on a camera icon on the map, and then you get a new window showing you a controllable view of what that camera is seeing.

So, how do you play the game?

Well, you have to team up with Lea. If you want her to go to a specific area, you flick the lights in that area on and off to get her attention. If you want her to use a computer, you activate it when she’s near it etc, etc.

For example, you might notice an interesting looking document on a desk, so you flash the light above it to get Lea’s attention. She’ll pick it up, tell you it’s a password and read it out loud. You then go into the computer system and use that password to open someone’s account. From there you might get pointed towards someone else’s account where you see an email which gives you a code for a door…so then you activate that door through the computer and punch in the code to let Lea through.

It’s a whole new way of playing an adventure game, very fun and very interesting.

So, the big question is…Is it any good?

Well, yes and no. While I commented in the past that games have been dumbed down, this one goes too far in the opposite direction. For example, I guided Lea around an area for an hour and a half without progress before finally jumping on google to find a walkthrough to get a hint.

What I’d missed was a reference in someone’s email which would lead me to a description of a particular decryption method in someone else’s files, which would then allow me (with pen and paper, mind you) to decrypt a phrase in someone else’s personal file…which would give me the password to someone else’s personal file…which would give me the code to a door.

Basically, it’s information overload. Every time you get access to someone’s computer account, you absolutely have to read everything in there. This not may sound like such a big deal, but some of those accounts have a couple thousand words in them, most of which is just fluff and back-story. Starting out, it’s incredibly difficult to work out what’s important and what’s not…so it can get very confusing. Plus, if you’re not used to this game type, actually pulling out a pen and paper to decrypt a word substitution cipher would never occur to you.

In other words, you’re wanting to explore and see what Lea can find on the ship…when to progress what you really need to do is leave Lea just standing there for half an hour while you do a lot of reading while looking for the slightest thing that might give you a hint on how to progress.

The only other big problem with this game is that it was originally made in French and has been translated into English. This means that it can get even more confusing because sometimes the translations are a little off. For example ‘backup password’ became ‘indirect password’. Plus, there are some instructions in places to some fairly complicated things that just don’t make a lot of sense.

The only other negative I want to comment on is that the voice-acting is pretty sub par. In one part, Lea walks into a room and comes face to face with a gigantic snake and says “Oh no! A snake!” Unfortunately, this is said with all the fear and urgency of someone noticing they’ve been given diet pepsi when they ordered regular.

So, if this game is too complicated, mistranslated in places and features voice acting that even an amateur dramatic’s society would laugh at, why am I bothering mentioning it?

Well, in case you haven’t grasped the ‘theme’ of this post yet, it’s because this game tries something new and offers me an experience I’ve never had before. While this game itself isn’t spectacularly good, the gameplay mechanic it introduces certainly is. The actual game might only be average, but the main gameplay mechanic is spectacular.

Why hasn’t anyone thought about this before? If you’re playing a game sitting at a computer, what could add to the realism more than making the game about a guy sitting at a computer, using that computer to guide someone through a dangerous situation?

It has a ton of potential. It doesn’t even have to stay in the pure ‘puzzle game’ genre.

Just off the top of my head, how about a sci-fi game, where you play a security officer, using a console to set up force-fields, traps and directing friendly forces around to foil the bad guys who’ve boarded your ship?

You pull up a camera view, see the bad guys running down a corridor, so you set off the alarm and trap them with a force-field. They break through one, so you pull up the layout to that deck, send one squad to chase them while setting up more force fields to funnel them towards another bigger squad. Maybe you can trap them in an area and cut off life support, but if you do that, you’ll cut off life support to an adjacent area, cutting off your own guys. Maybe you activate a turret defence, but by doing that it’ll use power that will weaken certain force-fields, etc. On the other hand, the bad guys can shoot out the cameras or fool the sensors meaning you have to leave certain options open…the possibilities are endless.

Basically I’ve played a game where I’ve stormed a starship or defended a base against invading bad guys. On the other hand, I’ve never played a game where I’ve been the guy on the other end of the radio shouting warnings about the bad guys breaching an area, activating automated defenses or closing security doors to funnel the invaders into a trap.

Long story short, ‘The Experiment’ is a fairly good game. Not great by any means, but out of this low-budget puzzle game could come the ‘next big thing’.

1 comment:

MC Etcher said...

Interesting... Makes me think of Ico in a way, where's all about leading someone else through a maze.