Touché!: Usability Shenanigans

Like most point-and-click adventures, Touché! lets you use inventory items as verbs, applying them to environmental objects or other inventory items. To a game designer, this is an easy way to create enough potential actions to prevent the player from simply cycling through them all instead of solving the puzzles by understanding them. But as a player who’s currently stuck, I naturally want to subvert this, pruning the possibilities to something I can deal with.

A while back, I noticed a pattern that should help, and I spent my last session confirming and exploiting it. The pattern is this: If an environmental object can have an inventory item usefully applied to it, using any object on it, right or wrong, will provoke some reaction, if only just Geoffroi saying “I can’t use that there” or the like. If not, clicking an inventory item on it will just return the object to your inventory as if you had clicked it on nothing.

Realizing this cuts down on the things I have to think about a lot! For example, in Geoffroi’s room at the inn in Rouen, there’s a locked door leading to a neighboring room. There are several little clues pointing to the importance of gaining access to that second room (starting with the fact that it exists at all, when the same space in the near-identical inn in St. Quentin is empty), but I haven’t done so yet. If you examine the door, you’re told that nothing short of a crowbar will get you through. So… I’ve been kind of hoping that a crowbar would show up. But now, I know that won’t happen. The door doesn’t respond to using a handkerchief or a cantaloupe on it, so it won’t respond to anything else. Perhaps I’ll find a way to reach that room through the window and open the door from the other side or something, but I’m not getting in the straightforward way.

Realizing that you don’t need to bother interacting with something in a particular way is a sort of negative discovery, one that spares you wasted effort but doesn’t move you forward at all. More interesting is the positive discovery of a possible interaction you hadn’t considered. And so I’ve been through all the rooms to see exactly what items are locks that need keys. In the process, I discovered a few anomalies. The blacksmiths in St. Quentin and Amiens respond to objects, but the one in Rouen does not. One and only one of the two guards outside the Louvre does — and he’s also the only one you can talk to. The doorway to the Musketeers headquarters accepts items and I have no idea why. Maybe it gets locked later on? I can believe that characters might be false positives, that the designers may have just decided to handle the case of “what if the player tries to give them something” because it’s something the player might plausibly try, not because it ever does anything. But that door is another matter.

At any rate, the two most intriguing use points I found were things I was already kind of aware of: a pot of purple paint in the Amiens smithy, and a pot of soup hanging over the fire in the Rouen in. (An identical pot in the St. Quentin inn doesn’t accept items.) And so I’ve experimentally tried everything in my inventory on them. Result: partial success! Most things used on the soup pot just make Geoffroi say “Why would I want to get that covered in soup?”, but use an altar cloth snaffled from a church, and it’s transformed into a sticky altar cloth. Which… doesn’t seem like an improvement on the face of it. I have no idea why I want this. But I suppose that’s what happens when you try to skip straight to the solutions without understanding the problems first.

Touché!: Inventory

And I’m stuck again. I’m accumulating a nice big collection of inventory items, though. That’s the one thing I’m consistently capable of doing. I’m imagining a point in the future when the rest of the game consists of just using up all the junk I’ve been carting around, one item after another, pouring it out and transforming it into plot.

The inventory interface in this game is a little peculiar: it’s divided into two pieces. You have Geoffroi’s inventory, which is normally displayed at the bottom of the screen, and you have that of his manservant Henri, which replaces Geoffroi’s when you ask for it by speaking to Henri. Henri doesn’t normally pick up objects on his own, but there are a few special cases, like when Geoffroi pole-vaults into a window and Henri, staying behind, retrieves the pole. You can, however, hand objects back and forth between the two freely, provided that they’re in the same room.

The very first thing Henri obtains is William de Peuple’s corpse. Geoffroi objects that you can’t just leave him lying in the street, but doesn’t want to touch him, so Henri picks him up instead. The stated idea is that you just need to get him to a priest for burial, but, despite an abundance of places of worship, I haven’t yet found one that will take him. So Henri is just carrying a corpse around everywhere we go. The first few times I opened his inventory, it was a bit of a shock to be reminded of this.

I can imagine ways that the game could exploit the division, forcing you to divide useful items between the two while they’re separated or whatever, but it hasn’t really done that. And I frankly don’t see much point to giving things to Henri when it’s not necessary for a puzzle. I’ve contemplated using him as a sort of trash bin, carrying around items that I’ve already used in a puzzle and don’t expect to need again, or alternately items that I haven’t used yet but think I know the use of, thus clearing Geoffroi’s inventory for things I can productively contemplate. But I don’t really have enough confidence to do this.

One other notable thing: Money is not part of your inventory. Your current amount of money is simply a stat, listed to the left of the inventory in the UI. And it’s a stat that’s almost always 0. At the very start of the game, you have 25 francs, but they’re stolen in the introductory chapter. Since then, I’ve found exactly 1 franc, which I’ve already spent on the only thing I’ve seen that costs 1 franc: a plaster replica of the cathedral at Rouen, which I haven’t yet found a use for (although I have suspicions). This all seems to be a big joke, really. As I’ve noted before, you don’t need cash on hand for your basic expenses, but there are quite a few shops and stalls where everything costs at least 2 francs, putting it completely out of your reach unless you can barter for it. At this point, I honestly don’t expect to see any more money; the presence of that “0” in the UI is just a reminder of Geoffroi’s situation. The big punch line: When you’re accosted by a highwayman, he robs Henri of the 100 francs that he’s had on his person all along, but which you didn’t know about because it wasn’t part of his inventory.

Touché!: How to Hide a Church

Finally, some movement in the main plot! I’ve recovered de Peuple’s will (only to have it stolen by a highwayman almost immediately), and I’ve actually met Cardinal de Guise, who’s definitely a baddie and definitely behind the murder. De Peuple’s castle, it seems, is crucial to his plans to wipe out the Protestants once and for all. Geoffroi himself is displaying signs of dramatic irony at this point, reverting to almost willful idiocy as he fails to put two and two together, lest the knowledge threaten his sense of loyalty to power.

I think it’s worth describing the sticking-point I just passed and how I came unstuck. It was, of course, a matter of a missed clickable — in this case, an entire church. It was nestled into the background of the sole exterior view of St. Quentin, where it blended into the skyline so well that I didn’t even think to check it for interactivity. A conversation inside the tavern, however, yields the tidbit “Did you know that the famous Cardinal de Guise is here in St. Quentin?”, in response to which you can ask where you can find him and be told that he was last seen heading to the church. I had heard that dialogue before, but didn’t think it was immediately useful, because (a) I had no real reason to be looking for the Cardinal yet, and (b) it seemed like I’d have to do something about the roadblock before I could really explore the city. It was only after seeing the information again after noting on this blog that I had been to places of worship in only three of the four cities I had visited that it stood out for me enough to remain on my mind when I left the tavern and noticed the steeple in the background. Maybe I shouldn’t be criticizing Geoffroi’s intelligence.

Also, maybe I should take notes more. Note-taking and mapping used to be a crucial part of the adventure-game experience, back in the early days, but today’s sensibility is that they shouldn’t be necessary. Monkey Island was a huge step in that direction, putting overland maps into the game and making sure all crucial dialogue was repeatable. Touché! is definitely post-Monkey Island, and has much the same approach, but it’s also large and complicated enough that I find myself forgetting stuff unless I reflect on it here.

Touché!: Historicity

One thing really distinguishes Touché! from the likes of Ankh and Monkey Island: it’s set in real places, at a specific point of history.

I don’t want to overstate this. It’s still inspired primarily by The Three Musketeers, a work of fiction, and on top of that, it’s basically a cartoon. There are blatant anachronisms for humorous effect, and also less obvious ones: the game is supposed to take place in 1562, about 60 years before Musketeers were a thing. (The novel starts in 1625. Nonetheless, D’artagnan appears as a minor NPC in the game.)

But 1562, it seems to me, was chosen for a specific reason. That’s when the long-standing hostility between the Catholics and the Huguenots erupted into open war.

Conflict between Catholics and Protestants is constantly in the background of this adventure, from the musketeers in Rouen making preparations to go fight the English and their “protestant scum” allies at Le Havre, to the manned roadblock on the road to Burgundy to keep people from joining the rebels. And, as a defender of the French monarchy, the player character’s perspective is very firmly on the Catholic side. Of the four cities I’ve seen, two feature cathedrals you can visit, and one a monastery. Geoffroi takes a moment to praise the inspirational beauty of the Rouen cathedral’s architecture. And yet, Geoffroi is basically untouched by the conflict! For all that he’s technically a soldier, war seems to be other people’s concern; the musketeers apparently mobilize while he’s off on other errands. His chief concern is pursuing an assassin who was seen paying people with Spanish silver, and Spain was hardly Protestant at this time.

I’m not very familiar with The Three Musketeers — I’ve seen one film adaptation, and that’s it. But I do remember that the main villain was a Cardinal, who was trying to engineer a war with England. So on the surface, this game seems like something of a reversal of that, with its pro-church attitude and view of war as constant and inevitable. But I’ve seen a couple mentions of a “Cardinal de Guise”, which seems like an obvious person to step into the Richelieu role. This game does like its pun names.

Touché!: Stasis Report

I took a couple of days off from this game, discouraged by lack of movement in the plot. I’m still in the story’s early stages, i think. The strange thing, though, is that I’m not tempted to cheat. That’s because I keep on discovering new things to do in the game. Little things, like I find a new inventory item, or make a little headway in the B plot. Just not things that are directly helpful in advancing my main goals.

I can skip ahead somewhat. I know that at some point, once I’ve tracked down the villains and recovered William de Peuple’s will, I’m going to have to take it to Paris and find the appropriate authorities to receive it. And I can go to Paris and try to solve the puzzles around successfully navigating the city, which you apparently can’t do without a local to guide you, but I know I ultimately won’t be able to do anything useful there until I get unstuck were I’m stuck. Oh well, at least I can eliminate inventory items from consideration this way.

So, here’s where things stand: My primary task is still to hunt down this blue-cloaked assassin. He was headed towards St. Quentin, and possibly thence to Holland, but was struck with food poisoning on the way and stopped at a monastery in Amiens for medical care. I need to disguise my manservant as a monk to investigate further (Geoffroi has facial hair that prevents him from passing as a monk himself), which is one of those “Find the Three Things” quests so common in point-and-click adventures. I’m having difficulty finding one of the three things.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned B plot: wooing the fair Juliette back in Rouen. This is a pro forma romance; neither Geoffroi nor Juliette shows much real interest in the other, but they’re willing to let things play out regardless. This part of the game is an exception to the pattern I noted before about always moving forward: Juliette sets you tasks that can only be met by visiting other cities and returning to her. My last major breakthrough was finding a way into the tavern in St. Quentin (which, much like the blacksmiths and tailor shops, is almost identical to the tavern in Rouen, but makes different bits of the scenery clickable). There, I found none other than Alexandre Dumas himself, despite his birth being several centuries in the future, and convinced him to write a poem in Juliette’s honor so I could present it to her as my own work. Now she wants flowers. These two deserve each other.

And there are assorted other things in Rouen that I don’t know what to do with. One Michaelangelo da Vinci potters about at the edge of town. I had to solve a puzzle to be able to talk to him, but he runs out of things to say pretty quickly. There’s a bunch of little things drawing my attention to the fact that there’s a souvenir stand directly between the Musketeer headquarters and the cathedral, where it keeps getting hit by errant musket balls, but I have no idea where it’s going with that.

Touché!: Blacksmith

Touché! is pretty big on asset reuse. The exact same character sprite will be used as a street vendor in one city and a random NPC milling about in the background to make the city look inhabited in another. It’s like a small theater company where actors have to double up on roles.

But the biggest bit of reuse comes with the town blacksmiths. It’s a lot like Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy in the Pokémon cartoons: each town has its own blacksmith, and they’re all identical, and the game lampshades this. Moreover, their smithies are also nearly identical. There are some minor differences — one will have its layout mirror-reversed from another, or a paint can on a shelf will be blue instead of red. And these differences can be a sign of what’s important. If there’s a pair of tongs lying on the floor in one smithy and not the others? Those tongs are needed for a puzzle in that town. And I, for one, didn’t notice they were clickable until I noticed that they weren’t in the other versions of the room. I’d be tempted to take screenshots and do some magic in an image editor to find all the differences, except this wouldn’t really be adequate. Some of the differences between the rooms isn’t in what’s visible, but in what’s clickable, or the contents of their verb menus.

There’s a similar thing going on with a couple of identical clothiers, but I’ve only seen two of those.

Touché!: Travel

There’s one thing about Touché! that I found misleading, in a way that influenced my decision to shelve it all those years ago: the treatment of travel.

Travel is represented by little figures of Geoffroi and Henri walking about on a sepia-toned map of France with locations of importance marked on it. But there’s a certain amount of rigmarole before you can access that. In the early part of the game, just after the assassin you’re after flees to St. Quentin, or possibly Amiens, and you have to pursue him, you have a long conversation with a stablemaster about your travel options. He has horses available for hire, but they’re prohibitively expensive. There’s a coach, but it takes longer to reach your destination, and even though it’s a lot cheaper, it still costs money, and this is just after all your cash has been stolen by the assassin’s friends. So it all sounds like this is going to be a logistics puzzle, weighing costs of money and time when both are in short supply. And above all, it gives the impression that it’s vitally important to do everything you need to do in Rouen before heading onward. The last thing you want to have to do is mess up your optimizations by backtracking to pick up an inventory item you missed.

But in fact none of that is the case. Yes, money is a limited resource, but nearly all of your expenses can simply be charged to the regiment, so your shortage of spending money is hardly a factor at all. And once you’ve gotten through the first night, time basically doesn’t pass. You can wander all across France and back without anything changing.

I do think, based on what I’ve seen, that it is probably possible to do everything you need to do in each place you pass through, so that you never have to backtrack. Not that any real player would actually pull this off. You’d pretty much have to know exactly what you were doing. But the whole thing seems to have been designed around that ideal, of solving all the puzzles in an area and moving on, never to return.

Touché!: Assorted Grumblings

Let’s just get all my minor complaints about this game out of the way. The sound quality is really poor — dialogue has an audible hiss. Sound effects are often downright irritating, especially when played repeatedly. The music volume is too loud for my tastes by default, and any change you make to it in the settings menu isn’t stored, so you have to change it again at the beginning of every session.

Speaking of things that happen at the beginning of every session, there’s no main menu. This is often a good thing in games — Fidel Dungeon Rescue, for example, does the straight-into-gameplay thing really well, giving you a title screen that doubles as the first level of the game and loading straight into your last save on every subsequent session. Here in Touché!, it just automatically plays the opening cutscene and dialogue, forcing you to either sit through it or repeatedly hit the skip-line button (space) before you can access the save menu.

About half the characters in the game have English accents and the other half have exaggerated fake French accents.

The verb UI is awkward to use from my laptop’s trackpad. It’s basically a drop-down context menu accessed via the right mouse button, but it leaves out some of the functionality of a normal drop-down menu. In a normal drop-down menu, you can either click to open the menu and then click on the desired item, or hold and drag to open the menu and release the drag when the desired item is highlighted. Here, only the latter works. Right-clicking on things just provides a cursory description. To do anything else, you have to right-drag.

A lot of the game’s dialogue is repeated whenever you do something, never dying off. This includes banter between Geoffroi and Henri when you try to exit to another room, which is something that you do a lot when you’re trying to solve an adventure game and aren’t sure if you have everything you need for a puzzle or not. It’s like the testers were all working from walkthroughs or something and didn’t have the experiences of a real player wandering around. It would be understandable if the dialogue in question contained hints, but even then, I’d expect it to switch to an abbreviated version after the first time. Very often the scene-transition dialogue starts with Geoffroi saying “Come on, Henri!” in an exasperated tone, provoking exactly the same reaction in the player.

Touché!

If I keep comparing these games to Monkey Island, it’s because it’s really striking how pervasive its stylistic influence is, especially compared to other popular point-and-click adventure franchises like King’s Quest. Touché! The Adventures of the Fifth Musketeer is possibly the most obvious Monkey Island wannabe I’ve ever seen. The opening scenes of Rouen at night are a dead ringer for the town on Mêlée Island, and I swear that the player character has the same walk animation as Guybrush in Monkey Island 2.

And yet I dropped it, back in the day, because I was finding it dull. What few puzzles I saw were prosaic, and the humor, which is mainly based around pointing out foibles, seemed relatively soft and safe. Much like “dad jokes”, it seems to exist more to fill a social function than to actually provoke laughter.

And, when you come down to it, the whole musketeer fantasy is a lot more… square than the pirate fantasy. Pirates are criminals. Guybrush, in the first game, is basically a nerd who wants to join a dangerous gang. Sure, his first challenges are all about proving himself to the Pirate Leaders, but he never actually finishes that. When he completes the tasks necessary for his pirate certification, the Leaders are nowhere to be found. He goes and starts being a pirate anyway. The musketeers, meanwhile, are supporters of monarchy. Geoffroi Le Brun, Touché‘s player character, is already an ensign in the musketeers when the game starts (unlike d’Artagnan in the novel, whose introduction is a lot more like Guybrush’s). His first main goal is to hunt down an assassin who killed a nobleman. So he’s basically a cop. Before long, he hires a manservant! Guybrush also hired some help, a crew for his ship, but they never really accepted his authority or obeyed his orders. Whereas Henri slides firmly into the role of comical sidekick, like Sancho Panza, complaining a lot and openly expressing an inordinate desire for food and wine but always staying by his master’s side and never really questioning his rule.

So, my first impression is that this is the conservative authoritarian reply to the Monkey Island games. But I’m still only a little way in, and that could change.

Kingdom O’ Magic: Wot I Thunk

So, is Kingdom O’ Magic a good game? No, not really. It’s more playable than certain other point-and-click adventures I’ve played lately, and the wandering monsters were a good attempt at keeping the walking-around bits interesting, but I actually think the multi-path nature of the thing backfired somewhat. See, not only are there three quests, there are a number of optional puzzles and alternate solutions to puzzles. For example, there’s a whole complicated chain of actions that culminates in obtaining a palantir. This was one of the last things I did in the game, and by the time I had done it, I had already solved the puzzle that uses the palantir by other means, effectively short-circuiting a large portion of the game and leaving me wondering what the palantir was for and why I had devoted all this effort to obtaining it. My expectation was that any puzzle I left unsolved in the first two quests would become important in the third, but that’s just not the case.

(One strange thing: I distinctly remember certain aspects of the palantir from my earlier attempts at the game, like that it’s dangerous to hold directly, because the Dark Lord can sense that you have it, so you have to carry it around in a box. So I feel like I must have gotten it before, but there were steps along the way that I didn’t recognize at all. Maybe I got further into this game than I know.)

The humor varies — it manages some really good gags, but it’s basically an r-strategy comedy, going for quantity of jokes over quality in the hope of overwhelming the audience with the cumulative effect, like an old Leslie Nielsen film. And it skews low-brow. Full of silly voices, cartoon sound effects, and occasional full-screen stock black-and-white film footage. I haven’t emphasized this enough before: toilets are a major recurring theme. There are at least four of significance, including one that’s just sitting out in the open next to the road. Can you flush them? No, but you can plunge them, using a plunger that, like the palantir, is somewhat complicated to obtain and only used in a completely optional puzzle. My last goal of any difficulty in the game was to obtain a lost grail so I could trade it for some toilet paper.

Then there’s the stereotype humor. There’s a gay-coded hairdresser, pink of shirt and limp of wrist. They don’t even really make jokes about this; you’re basically just supposed to be amused at how stereotypically gay he is. Next door, there’s a wig maker, who is, quite at random, a comical Nazi — that is, he’s not explicitly a Nazi, there’s no swastikas or anything around, but he’s got the whole Hogan’s Heroes schtick. Again, the game is just throwing out any and all potentially comic situations the authors could think of, but stuff like this can actually suck humor out of its surroundings. At one point, the player character actually tells a lawyer joke that I remember from the bit in Escape from Monkey Island that makes fun of lawyer jokes.

I’ll give it this: Coming straight off a game that really wanted to imitate Monkey Island‘s sense of humor, it was quite refreshing to see that this game’s sense of humor was completely different.

And it’s kind of mean-spirited, too. It would come off as more so if it weren’t so wacky; there’s a whole lot of killing of things you can have conversations with, sometimes electively. There’s a sort of new-age hippie peacenik character who seems to be included in the game specifically so you can kill her if you’re so inclined. (Meanwhile, the comcal Nazi is not killable.) The first thing that made me really think “Wow, okay, this is kind of mean” is the gnome-stomping. There’s a trio of gnomes in one of the quests, and you’re expected to jump on them, squashing them into pointy-hatted pancakes. They re-inflate after a little while (to provide a bit of challenge in getting all three down at the same time), but it’s a grotesque moment, and you just have to decide whether you like the game being mean and grotesque or not. I don’t particularly.

I can imagine a lot of this bothering me less in a text adventure, where it’s all a little more abstract. As it is, I really cannot recommend this game. I stand by what I said before about the game being campy and reveling in its own deliberate badness, but on the whole, I think it’s better to be playing a game that isn’t bad.

Not that I’m going to take my own advice. I’ve got some momentum going here, and I’m not going to stop while I still have some crappy MS-DOS point-and-click adventure games on the Stack.

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