Archive for the 'Interactive Movie' Category


Cyberia: Done

Zak, the player character in Cyberia, is a cyberpunk-as-interpreted-by-videogames sort of hero: a cool tough guy with computerized shades. His voice is permanently bored and his face never changes expression, or indeed shows any sign of being able to move his facial muscles at all, which is a bit of a problem for a kissing scene early on. And he kills and kills and kills. Once you’re in the Cyberia compound, leaving anything alive behind you generally means getting shot in the back. If you manage to slip by someone without killing them, it just means you’re going to have to kill them some other way later.

For the wandering-around-corridors segment of the game contains shooting of zap guns aplenty, usually in the form of shootouts where you and the enemy are popping out from cover repeatedly. This is one of the game’s few ways to keep repeatedly killing you in what would otherwise be a lightweight adventure-style situational puzzle sequence. Some puzzles require actions in more than one room, which is a bit of a strain on the checkpoint system, which is designed to just remember a location, not any state. The result is that the checkpoints can get pretty far apart here, with the result that any time I died, I needed to repeat multiple roomworths of content, including shootouts. Just a few days ago, I complained about the rapid die/retry cycle, but it’s even worse when it’s long.

Each floor of the compound is mostly just one big curving corridor with rooms hanging off it here and there, but in its favor, the place really is conceived as spatially coherent, and there are a couple of puzzles that rely on this. For example, one bit requires you to open a vent so you can reach through it from the other side, after going back the way you came and then coming back through some unusually spacious air ducts.

Also to its credit, the game does go slightly nonlinear here, with two entrances to the compound, one guarded by a guard with a gun, the other by something even more lethal: a spinning metal fan. (For some reason, videogame designers seem to think that fans are the most dangerous things on Earth. Even in a game where you can keep going after falling five stories and taking multiple bullets to the chest, touching a fan kills instantly.) Anyway, the guard route leads to one of those self-contained wall-panel puzzles that I liked so much. Unfortunately, that seems to be it for those puzzles. Just two in the entire game, and one of them is skippable.

We get more story in the compound than in the rest of the game put together, partly through snooping into the staff’s video emails. But the story is pretty much all cliché, including the genre-mandated betrayal of the hero by his employer. Why is this such a mainstay of the cyberpunk videogame? It wasn’t that big a part of literary cyberpunk.

Towards the end, there is more of the FMV swoop-and-shoot, but not in the way I had anticipated. In fact, you get three different contexts for it, two of which involve controlling a machine remotely, so that you’re playing the part of a person sitting and staring at a computer screen. The third, the climax of the game, involves becoming a sort of nanotech superman and flying off into space for the most direct Rebel Assault imitation yet. Space seems to me a better setting for this stuff than Earth, if only because it’s easier to render convincingly.

And that concludes Cyberia, a game that I didn’t want. I’ll say this for it: it’s a pretty pure specimen of its type. If someone asks “What were 90s FMV games like, and why are people so down on them?”, you can point them at Cyberia to answer both questions.

Cyberia: Aerial Combat

So, my latest session was all about the Rebel Assault-style FMV swoop-and-shoot. For a lengthy portion of the game, that’s all you get, just one air-combat mission after another. It makes me think of how the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 were broken up with obstacles that you could only clear by getting out the the vehicle and pressing a switch or something in a guarded building nearby, a fragment of ordinary FPS gameplay inserted to make the whole thing less monotonous. Nothing of that kind happens here.

I have a couple more big complaints about the way air combat is handled here. One is that the underlying movie clip sometimes cuts away to show a third-person shot of a particularly dramatic explosion or your plane noninteractively executing a sweet maneuver, and that’s pretty much always a mistake in the middle of an action scene, particularly if there are still targets on the screen that the mini-cutscene is keeping the player from blowing up. Even worse, because some of these cutscenes show things that you can shoot at blowing up, there is no way to destroy those things before the video playback reaches the cutscene. You’ll be shooting at a plane over and over for a couple of seconds with no effect, and that’s frustrating.

Also, I can’t help but feel that this sort of fast-paced first-person air combat really needs a resolution higher than 320×200. Enemies often spend most of their time onscreen as one or two pixels, too small to identify even on the level of “is it a plane or a tank”, and thus too small for the player to anticipate their behavior or prioritize their destruction. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to learn what’s going to happen and how to react to it by means of exact repetition.

To be honest, there is a pleasure to be found in this: the pleasure of finally overcoming a challenge that you’ve failed many times, a mix of triumph and relief. But I’m impatient with this game, and want it off my Stack, and some of the levels just seem insanely difficult. And so I’ve dropped the difficulty down to Easy for action sequences (the game has separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles), despite the implication in the docs that this setting is for babies and grandmothers. Even on Easy, I had some difficulty with the later shooty levels, but the overall experience was an improvement, replacing the pleasure of overcoming a challenge failed repeatedly with that of getting it right on the first try. 

There was just one problem: the game doesn’t support switching difficulty settings on the fly. To drop down to Easy, you have to create a new profile and start over from the beginning. But I didn’t have a whole lot of ground to re-cover, and it goes a lot faster when you know what you’re doing. Also, I decided to take advantage of this discontinuity by switching to a different machine, and found that on the other one I could play full-screen without problems. I’m finding this much nicer, even if it does expose the pixelation more. Well, it’s not like the graphics were all that good anyway, right?

Anyway, I seem to be done with this stuff, at least for now. Last night, after something resembling a boss fight (involving a large aircraft with three weapons that had to be destroyed individually), I reached my destination, the compound housing the Cyberia project (which is something to do with nanotechnology), and that seemed like a good stopping-point for the session. It remains to be seen if I’ll need to do more dogfighting as I make my escape.

Cyberia

Although it was just a random fluke at first, once a pattern is established, why not carry it out to its conclusion? Ia! Ia!

And she was all like "Cool shades man" and I was like "I know"Cyberia (not to be confused with Benoit Sokal’s atmospheric graphic adventure Syberia) is a thick slice of 90s FMV cheese. I obtained it as part of one of Interplay’s cheap old game anthologies, and it wasn’t one of the games that I bought the anthology for. As a result, I had basically forgotten about it until I saw its name in my list, and had some difficulty locating the disc: I have most of my physical media nicely alphabetized by title, but a CD-ROM with multiple unrelated games on it breaks such a scheme, especially if you don’t remember that the title you’re looking for is on such a thing. Installing the game under DOSBox (and convincing it to use an image of the CD-ROM instead of the real thing) went without problems, except that the color map goes all strange when I try to run it in full-screen mode. Irony, that: here we are playing a game from 1994, when full-screen FMV without special hardware was finally feasible, but I’m playing it in a tiny portion of my screen anyway.

The video content here is all pre-rendered CGI, and shares with most other pre-rendered CGI video of its era the sad attribute that it doesn’t look as good as what’s done in realtime by stuff that you can play for free on the web nowadays. It’s ever the fate of games that emphasize style over substance to age badly. Ah, but what about the substance? So far, I’ve seen three sorts of interactivity: bits where you wander around and try not to get killed, bits where you solve self-contained puzzles, and bits where you shoot at aircraft (or possibly spacecraft; this is a sci-fi game, but I’m not sure just how sci-fi).

The wandering around is weak and Dragon’s Lair-ish, with a rapid die-and-retry cycle and no other way to anticipate the results of your actions. (Like Dragon’s Lair, it even bases its interface on the equivalent of an Atari joystick, four directions and a fire button.) The shooting is more reminiscent of Rebel Assault: you swoop around on a pre-rendered video track and sundry targets present themselves in sync with the scenery (but with a rectangular targeting thingy around them to make it clear that they’re not actually part of it). It’s easy to fail this stuff, and the unvarying background video makes it feel extra-repetitive when you do. As for the puzzles, I’ve really only seen one so far, and it was pretty cool. It involves just as much dying and starting over as everything else, of course, but it was in the service of figuring out an ambiguous mechanism with a minimum of instruction. There were details in its graphical representation that I didn’t notice until I had gleaned some notion of what I was looking for, and that felt very nice. If only more of the game were like that.

TLC: Branches and Endings

Arguably, I shouldn’t complain about the gratuitous sex scenes interrupting the psychological mystery in Tender Loving Care. In a sense, they’re my own fault! Now that I’ve reached an ending and no longer fear spoilers, I’ve taken a more thorough look at the alternative tracks using VLC, and I find that, in several cases, the only difference between two versions of a scene is how explicit they are. I still think the game was mistaking my intent, though. I’m a completist. If I kept going back to that book on erotic art in the bathroom every chapter, it’s because I wanted to see everything. And so the game… showed me everything.

But not all possibilities, of course. The story seems to always follow a single track, hitting the same key points: Kathryn seduces Michael, someone poisons the dog, Michael becomes increasingly unhinged, and finally Michael contacts Kathryn’s agency to express his displeasure and have them call her away, leading to a confrontation that leaves someone dead. The variations are in the details. Take the scene where Michael contacts the agency: in all variants, he storms into Dr. Turner’s office only to find Dr. Turner absent, then yells at the receptionist until she calls the agency so he can talk to them. The bulk of the scene proceeds exactly the same way in all variants until the call is over, at which point he can continue to be rude to the receptionist and storm out, or calm down and apologize to her; if he apologizes, she either expresses sincere hope that things get better for him, or (the variation I got) warns him not to get in Kathryn’s way. That’s all the variation you get in that scene. Just little things that change what it all means.

Kathryn’s stated reason for seducing Michael is to keep him from dismissing her (which he’s perpetually on the brink of doing), because she can’t let him jeopardize the work she’s doing with Allison. Frame-tale Turner is outraged by this violation of professional ethics, but we’re given reason to believe that similar “unconventional techniques” underlie her tremendous success in prior cases — if successes they truly are. There’s a scene where Kathryn confronts Michael with what she believes to be his own role in Allison’s illness: that he doesn’t really want her to get well, that he was keeping her in the semi-catatonic state that we see her in at the beginning of the game out of a sort of psychiatric Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, because playing the caregiver was his penance for his unprocessed guilt over Jody’s death. That he sees Kathryn as a threat because she just might be able to cure Allison for real. There are at least two versions of this scene. I got the one where she seems to have a point, and where Michael is clearly just as messed-up as Allison, even if less obvious about it. The other variant makes Kathryn seem more like the crazy one, vindictively accusing him for no good reason.

I think the point where I started regaining faith in the game was when the dog died. The dog was a new addition to the household: Allison tells Michael at one point early in her therapy that “Jody” wants a dog, and Kathryn thinks it’s a good idea (get her caring for something real), so he grudgingly gets one, and immediately comes to hate it. He complains that it makes too much noise, but presumably really hates it as a sign of Kathryn’s machinations. “Jody” names the dog Punky, the same name as another dog they had had previously, which had eaten rat poison and died. And the new dog dies the same way: Michael finds the poison deliberately poured into its food bowl. He assumes that Kathryn did the deed as part of her sick mind games. If Kathryn is in fact responsible, she never lets on: even when alone with Michael, she insists that he did it. The question-and-answer segment afterward asks who you think did it, and I fingered Allison, because both Michael and Kathryn seemed sincere, and I kind of suspected that Allison was more than the passive victim she seemed. But the story never provides any definite answer.

In the end, Kathryn, knowing that her time in the house is over, tries to force Allison to a breakthrough by “killing” a doll that Allison had come to identify with Jody. Michael tries to stop her, there’s a struggle, and then comes the single greatest forking of paths in the game. Maybe he accidentally pushes her down the stairs, maybe he clouts her on the back of the head with a hammer. Maybe he calls emergency services to take the body away, maybe he just buries her in a shallow grave in the backyard — I saw the latter, but I didn’t get the follow-up in which Dr. Turner visits the house with a couple of policemen and sorts everything out. (When he’s burying her, he says things like “Your cab has arrived, allow me to help you in!” (thump of body dumped into hole). I had assumed this was just gallows humor on his part, but the Dr. Turner ending has him actually confused about what was happening.) In the most twisted variant, we see Michael and Allison tucking the body (or is she still alive?) into Jody’s bed and saying goodnight. There seems to be only one ending where Kathryn survives: she hits Michael with the hammer instead of the other way around, and then takes his place, in control of the passive and once-more-semi-catatonic Allison. That ending makes Kathryn into a being of pure malevolence, but really, none of the endings are kind to her. Even in the best of lights, where Kathryn had Allison’s interests at heart and had accurately identified Michael’s malign influence and had a solution that would have worked if given enough time, the authors see the need to punish her. Such is the fate of independent-minded and sexually powerful women in this sort of entertainment. (Have I mentioned that Michael, the person directly responsible for her death, is the movie part’s viewpoint character?)

tlc-eval At any point in the exploration phases, you can bring up your personal psychological profile from the main menu. (In a nice bit of confusion-of-levels, you can also get it from your file in Dr. Turner’s office, in the few exploration scenes set there.) The profiles at those points are short, giving about a half-dozen canned points that are obviously generated from the last round of Q&A. Once it’s all over, however, you can get your full evaluation, which turns out to be multiple pages of wishy-washy generalities reminiscent of Astrology columns. But what do you expect?

The endgame menu also gives you the opportunity to watch your entire personally-generated movie from start to finish. I’ve seen it claimed online that, in addition to the CD-ROM and DVD-ROM and branching DVD-Video versions, there was a release of TLC as an ordinary non-branching movie. I’m not convinced that this is true, because there’s a lot of confusion among the few people who have even heard of TLC, but if it is, I have to wonder what branches, what ending it chose. At any rate, without the exploration bits, it does seem to have something like the right length for a feature film. One review I saw complained that even with the exploration, it only takes about five hours to play. Obviously I took longer, partly because I was so thorough in sweeping the rooms for new text items, partly because it’s been a busy couple of weeks and I only played a chapter or two at a time. I submit that this is the better approach for this piece, as it leaves time for contemplation. This makes it unlike most movies, which benefit from staying immersed in the experience.

TLC: The Monster at the End of the Book

It’s with some trepidation that I approach the ending of Tender Loving Care. If there’s one thing that TLC does a lot better than its predecessors and enginemates The Seventh Guest and The Eleventh Hour, it’s provoking a sense of dread. It’s better at this because dread is the anticipation of something bad to come. T7G and its sequel wear horror on their sleeves, putting ghosts and skulls and spiders everywhere like a haunted house in a carnival. There’s nothing to dread, because you’ve already seen how bad things get. TLC puts you in a beautiful house on a sunny day, and tells you that it’s all going to go horribly wrong. It’s sort of like Hitchcock’s famous example of the ticking time bomb, except that it doesn’t even tell you what’s going to happen, which gets your imagination involved.

But then, the closer I get to the end, the more the story takes shape and denies imagined possibilities. For example, for a brief time, I was imagining a cheesy third-act twist where it turns out that Jody is alive and Michael is actually the delusional one. There was some slight evidence for it at the time, such as a minor character claiming to have seen Allison with a little girl in a wheelchair. The whole possibility was pretty thoroughly ditched shortly afterward, and good thing, too, because it didn’t really fit in with where the story had been or was going. But the important thing to note here is that I was imagining a cheesy third-act twist.

No actual ending to this story can compare to what the imagination conjures up from mere suggestions. But more than that, my expectations of a 90s interactive movie are not high. The appearance of a bit player in an Eleventh Hour t-shirt provoked fresh worry by reminding me of the work’s lineage when I least expected it. I want it to live up to the promise of its unusual and intriguing beginning, but the more it becomes concerned with piling on the gratuitous nudity, the more I come to regard it as just another gimmick title pandering to the stereotypical teenage male gamer. And so I approach the ending with trepidation — not just the dread of what’s to come in the plot, but of how far the aesthetic experience will descend in the pursuit of cheap thrills.

TLC: Thematic Apperception

The question-and-answer sections of Tender Loving Care come in two types. After the video sequences, you’re quizzed about your impressions of what you just saw, as I described before. The transitions into the video sequences are done through the game’s approximation of a Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. This is a psychological evaluation tool along similar lines to a Rorschach test: the idea is that you’re shown a picture, and have to fill in details, tell a story about what’s happening in the picture and why. Except of course that here you’re not filling in the details yourself: you’re picking answers from a list, which means your evaluation and its consequences can only go in a limited set of directions, like one of those personality quizzes that used to be (and possibly still are) so popular on the social networking sites — “Which videogame character are you?” and so forth. (I should make a quiz like that using Michael and Allison Overton and similar obscura.) And like those quizzes, the answers I want to give are frequently not among the options available. You often get a scattering of odd replies, none particularly close to what you’d have chosen on your own, as if the game is trying to make you come off as unhealthy. And really, even without the answers, the questions themselves are often leading, spoiling the exercise’s real usefulness as a TAT.

But that’s okay, because the game isn’t really a psychoanalyst, and the point of the TAT questions isn’t really to act as a TAT. Rather, it seems to me to have two purposes. One is simply to provide some variety in gameplay, to provide a buffer between exploration and movie mode. (This is even more apparent when you consider the occasional alternatives, like the one time where it has you guess at Zener cards instead.) The other is thematic. It’s there to make the player aware of the idea of a TAT and how it works, so that they can later have the realization that, in a sense, the whole game is a TAT. That the investigation into the mystery of what happened chez Overton is just a pretext to give you ambiguous data and see what you make of it. Which is, of course, obvious when you look at the game from outside, but the game wants you to recognize it even as Dr. Turner questions you. In case you don’t get it, a magazine in the game makes it more obvious: it contains an interview with Dr. Turner, in which he describes his ideas for a kind of electronic TAT, perhaps to be distributed on CD-ROM.

This isn’t the only written matter in the game. The exploration sequences are pretty much all about finding stuff to read — and after the first few chapters, the finding isn’t such a big deal, because it pretty much uses the same objects in the same locations over and over, only varying from chapter to chapter which bit of text you’re shown. Michael and Kathryn both have computers on which they’re keeping journals, the biggest source of information about their inner thoughts, including secrets not mentioned in the movie. Allison has a hand-written diary that looks and reads like the scrawled ravings of a lunatic — probably the most ham-fisted touch in the whole work, and frankly insulting to the character.

Even when not directly about the main plot, in-game texts often deal with it obliquely. There are an unusually large number of mentions of people who have lost their children. Television content seems to always involve psychiatrists, nurses, or both. Like in a dream, the whole environment is obsessed with the same few themes. In the bathroom, there’s a book on erotic art — something the whole game certainly qualifies as — that starts with a lengthy discussion of the place of voyeur figures — which is essentially what you are, if you prowled around this stranger’s home enough to find the thing.

Some things are less definitely connected to the main plot, but highly suggestive. In Michael’s study, there is a large volume titled “Women Who Kill”, a history of prominent murderesses. The first chapter, made available piecemeal over the first several chapters of the game, is about women who killed their children to spite their husbands. It even describes a woman who did so by means of an auto accident, the same way that Jody died. There’s really no suggestion in the main story that Allison deliberately killed Jody, but after reading that stuff in the context of so many things that are commenting on the story, one naturally starts to wonder. The second chapter of the book is mainly about poisoners who provided beleaguered women with the means to do away with their oppressive spouses. This seems more like Kathryn’s role, but again, there’s nothing to suggest a definite and literal connection in the plot, except perhaps for an unusual emphasis on food and cooking throughout, which might possibly be leading somewhere.

Of course, all of these suggestive and biasing tidbits mean that the game as a whole isn’t any better as a real TAT than the explicit TAT segments were. But at this level, I’m willing to regard it all as primarily a work of fiction, and my persona within it as part of that.

TLC: Story Basics

One thing that really struck me when started my first pass at Tender Loving Care all those years ago was how adult it seemed. I’m not talking about the nudey parts here; titilating the viewer with glimpses of boobs is more adolescent than adult. I mean that it was pretty much the only thing at Electronics Boutique 1Remember them? with a story aimed at people above the age of 16. The whole thing revolves around the suppressed emotions of a married couple. The central question isn’t “How do I beat the bad guy?” but “What is wrong with these people?”

At the start of the story, we have Michael and Allison Overton living in the shadow of a traumatic road accident six months previously. Allison has become extremely concerned with caring for her young daughter, Jody, who was hurt in the accident. In fact, she’s got a one-track mind, turning any conversation toward concern for Jody, and the player quickly figures out that she’s not just obsessive, but delusional: Jody is dead. 2At least, you figure it out if you have the least ability to read between the lines. The game acknowledges the possibility that the player is dim. Several chapters later, just after a flashback to the accident and our first glimpse inside Jody’s unused bedroom, a question-and-answer session asks if you had believed that Jody was still alive. There are three choices: “Yes”, “No”, and “I still do”. Michael humors her, and does things like say goodnight to Jody when his wife demands it, but clearly would rather not have to deal with the problem. Compounding his frustration, the couple have not had sex since the accident.

Sex is a big part of the story, in part because psychotherapy is a big part of the story. Allison has been seeing Dr. Turner (the host character played by John Hurt), but he brings in a colleague, Kathryn Randolph, who has had success in similar cases. Kathryn moves in with the Overtons, masquerading as a nurse for Jody in order to gain Allison’s trust. And hoo boy does she get it. Allison was resistant to the idea of bringing in a nurse, but once she meets Kathryn, they bond instantly — leaving Michael feeling all the more more excluded and ineffectual. He lashes out at Kathryn, desperate to regain some measure of control (and, with it, self-respect), but it’s a losing battle. She has to do what’s right for Allison, and it’s wrong of him to interfere with that, or even to refuse to cooperate in every way, right?

Well, only if the therapy is working. Michael doesn’t think it is. When Allison joyfully announces that Jody has started sitting up and talking, it seems to him like she’s just descending farther into fantasy. Maybe he’s right, or maybe he’s letting his hostility get the better of his judgment. Either way, Allison notices that he doesn’t share her feelings, and makes her displeasure known. So as far as Michael can see, Kathryn is not only ineffective at getting Allison to face reality, she’s also driving a wedge between them. To make matters worse, when he takes his concerns to Dr. Turner, he basically tells him to stop worrying. (In the frame-story, Turner admits that it was a mistake to dismiss his concerns so quickly.)

On top of it all, Michael has the hots for Kathryn — something she may be deliberately encouraging, albeit while taking care to maintain plausible deniability. Why would she do such a thing? Perhaps because she’s attracted to him, perhaps to make him more easily manipulated, more reluctant to dismiss her. Perhaps to make him feel guilty, to punish him for his role in bringing Allison to this state. There’s even some suggestion that punishing Michael is a subconscious motivation of Allison. But that hasn’t really been gotten into in the movie segments yet. Rather, it’s hinted at in the materials you find in exploration mode. I’ll get into that in my next post.

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1. Remember them?
2. At least, you figure it out if you have the least ability to read between the lines. The game acknowledges the possibility that the player is dim. Several chapters later, just after a flashback to the accident and our first glimpse inside Jody’s unused bedroom, a question-and-answer session asks if you had believed that Jody was still alive. There are three choices: “Yes”, “No”, and “I still do”.

TLC as Interactive Movie

Tender Loving Care is not the only interactive movie I’ve interacted with. My trophy case 1The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog. includes such titles as A Fork in the Tale and Psychic Detective, I’ve rented Scourge of Worlds: A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure (the only video DVD that’s ever made me google for a walkthrough), and I managed to catch Mr. Payback while it was still running in specially-modified cinemas. I frankly don’t recommend any of these, except perhaps as case studies in interactivity design. (Mr. Payback was particularly interesting as a UI experiment: by use of subtitles, it polled a roomful of people about what should happen next, reported the results, and applied them, all without ever pausing the action.)

In all of these works, the interactivity is obvious. You’re presented with options, you make a selection, you see the results. In most cases, this amounts to a cinematic equivalent of a “choose-your-own-adventure” interface 2Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot., with all the pitfalls that entails. Tender Loving Care isn’t like that. The connection between your actions and their effects in the movie are far from obvious.

I should emphasize here that there is definitely the possibility of altering what you see. I’ve peeked at the movie clips just enough to confirm that some scenes exist in multiple versions. Whether this constitutes a branching plot or just different presentations of the same events, I’m not yet sure. Once I’ve hit an ending, I intend to take a more thorough look. But regardless of how strong or subtle the changes you wreak on the story, you’re never explicitly choosing one branch over another. Supposedly what you see is dependent on your psychological profile, which the game has been building up through the interactive segments.

The obvious part of this is the periodic multiple-choice questions, but the exploration sequences supposedly play a role too. For example, at one point you can watch a grainy black-and-white striptease on a television in the house, and according to something I recall reading once, the game remembers whether or not you interrupted it. If you watched the whole thing, the game draws conclusions about what sort of movie you want to watch and has Kathryn get her tits out in a later scene. Now, that’s what I read, but it seems unlikely to me that the striptease is the only factor in the decision — certainly there are enough multiple-choice questions about your sexual attitudes, as well as your attitude toward Kathryn in particular. But, short of disassembling the executable or doing a whole lot of experimentation, there’s no way to know which inputs actually have effects. The result is, predictably, a lack of sense of agency — although the free-exploration sequences mitigate this somewhat. Even if you’re effectively relegated to the role of passive observer in a movie that’s putatively interactive, at least you can play hunt-the-hotspot between times.

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1. The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog.
2. Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot.

Tender Loving Care

tlc-disturbingWell, the MPEG2 driver that I installed to get the cinematics in Overseer working also makes Tender Loving Care work almost perfectly. I say “almost” because there still seems to be a slight problem with the sound. Sometimes the story pauses to give the player a series of multiple-choice questions, supposedly to create a psychological profile of the player. Each question makes the mouse cursor disappear for a little while, which puzzled me until I hit a question that was read aloud by a voice-over. I surmise that this is what’s supposed to have been happening for all of the questions. But that’s not a severe enough problem to keep me from playing.

Since my last posts about this game were nearly a year and a half ago, let me recap. TLC is an interactive movie produced at the tail end of the 1990s interactive movie explosion — the sort where it’s not obvious whether it should really be considered a game or not. It’s one of the few such works to ship on DVD-ROM, although there was also a CD-ROM version for people who hadn’t adopted the new technology yet. Apparently there was also a pure DVD version — that is, something that you could play in an ordinary DVD player — but I don’t know a lot about it. I can only assume that it leaves out features from the PC versions, but honestly, I think the interaction with this game is mostly the sort that a vanilla DVD could handle with the right scripting. Basically, you alternate between two phases: watching movie clips and poking around.

The movies, which occupy far too large a portion of the total playtime to be considered mere cutscenes, tell the story of a human tragedy of some sort, involving a mentally ill woman named Allison, her husband Michael, and their live-in psychotherapist Kathryn. I don’t have all the details yet, because I’ve only played through the very beginning, but whatever happened in that house was dire enough that no one wants to live there now, according to the character who introduces the story, another psychiatrist, tangentially involved and now investigating what happened. This host figure is played by John Hurt, the work’s one big-name actor. Although he’s mentioned by the other characters, I have yet to see him interact with them. I kind of suspect that his bits were filmed afterwards, as has been known to happen in other FMV titles — probably the best-known example being Night Trap, which tried to spin a brief introduction by has-been actress Dana Plato into its chief selling point. At least Hurt is a bigger part of the game than that: he shows up at the beginning of every chapter, to comment on what you’ve seen and pose more questions about how you’re interpreting it.

The poking around is a matter of roaming freely through the house where the bulk of the action takes place, opening drawers and reading people’s diaries and the like. It’s all done in a first-person hotspot-clicking interface with FMV transitions between camera locations, kind of like The Seventh Guest without the puzzles. (As noted in my posts from last year, TLC and T7G both use the “Groovie” engine.) How exactly these scenes relate to the movies is a little mysterious. The frame-story presents everything except John Hurt’s commentary as taking place in the past and the house as currently unoccupied, but in the poking-around phases, you see the characters’ possessions as if they were still living there — and moreover, what you can find changes as the story-in-flashback progresses. The really weird moment comes if you walk into Kathryn’s room during the first poking-around segment: you meet Kathryn, who acknowledges your presence. “You’re the… viewer”, she says, a little flustered, as if unsure whether the word “player” is appropriate for a work of this sort. She then somewhat sarcastically invites you to rifle her belongings, noting that she can’t stop you. Suddenly the player seems a little more creepily voyeuristic.

Now, John Hurt’s second set of psychological profile questions asks, among other things, whether you trust Kathryn. It’s a nice little narrative trick, because once the question is in your mind, you can’t help but mistrust her a little, even if you didn’t before. In fact I did already mistrust her, if only on narratological grounds: her arrival in the house is clearly set up as the complication that pushes the story out of its ground state and into the rising action. Poking around her room afterward, I found some things that put a new perspective on what I had seen, but for the most part made her seem more trustworthy, or at least less blameworthy. For example, when she first arrives, she argues with her cab driver about the fare, claims that he’s overcharging her; ultimately, Michael pays. Reading her emails, we find a description of what happened beforehand that we didn’t see: the cab driver made some crude sexual remarks while driving, she objected, he got angry. So she wasn’t just being unreasonable with someone of a lower socioeconomic class; she had good reason to believe he was trying to punish her.

But then, given that she knows I’m there, and that I’ll be reading every email she writes, can I even trust what she says there? If she’s a manipulator, she might be manipulating me. But I don’t know yet if this is the sort of question I should even be asking in this game. If it is, I’ll be very impressed.

Tender Loving Care: More tech stuff

After my post about my difficulties getting TLC working, I got a couple of comments with suggestions. Unfortunately, neither has been enough to get things working.

The first suggestion, from Jason Dyer, was to get the official patch from archive.org. Unfortunately, the copy there seems to be corrupt: it’s a self-extracting executable, and it failed to unzip itself. However, finding a patch there inspired me to look for patches elsewhere, and I found a working zip file (not a self-extractor) at patches-scrolls.de. This had a tangible effect: after installing it, I no longer got the error messages about inability to adjust the DVD volume. However, it still skipped over all the video content.

The second suggestion, from malkav11, was to use a video player, such as VLC. A surprising suggestion, perhaps, but apparently Groovie isn’t so much a programming language or development system as a video playback system with a certain amount of scripting capability. Which explains a lot about the design of The 7th Guest. True, it’s a bit more powerful than ordinary DVD scripting — consider T7G‘s infamous microscope puzzle. But even an ordinary DVD player has to be capable of doing more than just playing a sequence of data tracks on a playlist. DVD data includes menus, and that means responding to user input in a scriptable way. Viewed thus, there’s no reason a DVD player couldn’t handle TLC if it could load its scripting engine.

That said, after an evening of fiddling with VLC, I still haven’t convinced it to do anything more than play the individual noninteractive video and audio tracks. Much of the video content is in the form of VOBs, the familiar elements of ordinary video DVDs, but since they’re not in a directory called VIDEO_TS, DVD players won’t recognize the disc as something playable. So, obviously I’m hoping that malkav11 will respond with more details about how he got this to work (although I’m not hopeful, because he barely remembered as much as he said).

Browsing forum posts, I find it suggested that my problems might stem from the lack of an MPEG2 decoder card. Now, I hope that isn’t the case, because that would be silly. No one who has a machine capable of playing Half-Life 2 needs dedicated hardware for DVD decoding. But I don’t know a lot about how Windows DVD drivers work; I’ve basically assumed that programs that need to do MPEG2 playback just make some system call that can be handled through either software or hardware, but what if I’m wrong?

[ADDENDUM] I’m seeing some evidence that there are in fact two different DVD versions: a Groovie-based DVD-ROM one (which is what I have), and a standard DVD version that can be played in an ordinary DVD player. It seems like the simple-DVD version would lose any advanced Groovie scripting, but I don’t know how much TLC takes advantage of that anyway. It’s kind of like the whole problem with “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” interfaces: the interface tells you very little about the underlying model. You just can’t tell how deep or shallow it is from a single playthrough. It might be all on the surface, a simple series of forking paths, or it might be keeping hidden variables, using all your past actions rather than just your present choice to determine what happens next. At any rate, I’m giving up on the play-it-in-a-media-player route for now.

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