Archive for June, 2010

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.

Evolution: Conclusions

Somewhat miraculously, I managed to win Evolution without going any farther off schedule. My intelligent species was the Silurians Sleestaks Saurosapiens, which evolved somewhat after their time — I had managed to keep a fairly sizeable and diverse stable of dinosaurs alive after the Cenozoic extinction event, which actually doesn’t seem to be all that unusual for this game, despite the game’s arbitrary penalties on the feeding rate for for creatures that are out of their proper era. (It’s a pretty good system for keeping creatures from developing too far ahead of schedule, because getting a toehold is a struggle for any new species, but an established species that isn’t struggling any more is less affected.) But honestly, I think I could have pulled off a win even if my dinosaurs had gone properly extinct. Evolving a different intelligent species would have taken longer, but I was far enough ahead to take that time.

I think I was more or less primed for victory by my previous game, which was the first time I had actually played a game to completion. Well, not played exactly. Most of the Mesozoic era, and all of the Cenozoic, I zipped through at the maximum time scale. There wasn’t much point in interacting with the game at that point: I had failed to get a mammal population going, and the extinction event left me with nothing but a few stegasauri (more or less a dead end, good for a score bonus at game’s end but only capable of evolving into ankylosaurus and triceratops) and one single low-population dryosaurus unit. A dryosaurus can take you places — it’s a potential ancestor of both Saurosapiens and Psittacisapiens, not to mention all other bird species — but the catastrophe had left these particular dryosauri in a bad state, and they weren’t long for the world. Still, I let the game play out to the end, more or less leaving it alone once I had established triceratops and ankylosaur habitats. The ankylosaurs managed to survive to the very end, even as the virtual player named Darwin filled the world with bats and rabbits and thylacines, finally winning at the 57-million-years-ago mark by developing intelligent wombats.

The main thing I got out of watching that session was an appreciation of the degree of multitasking needed to win. There’s something in the neighborhood of 200 species in the game, which is a drop in the bucket compared to reality, but still far more than it’s easy to manage in your head if you’re in a dominant enough position to have most of them coming to you. (And yes, you do want to develop every species you can, if only to keep them out of the opponent clades.) Being the loser is relatively easy: once you start losing in earnest, you only have to keep track of two or three species at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot easier to keep winning than to start winning. The classic strategy-game positive feedback loop definitely applies here. You might think that the periodic cataclysms and die-offs would put everyone on an even footing, but no. The clade that’s most widespread before the event tends to have the most survivors afterward, and also is in the best position to capitalize on any extinctions.

All in all, I’d say this is actually a pretty good game. Seeing it on a store shelf back in 1997, you’d probably assume that it’s just watered-down educational fare, but there’s some real game here. The main thing I’d change is the UI. The game uses a sort of MDI interface, with various components of the game, including the main view and the various information dialogs, placed in distinct windows with their own title bars, which you can drag around and minimize and so forth (all within a parent window). This may have seemed like a good idea in 1997, when people were still figuring out how to best take advantage of Windows 95, but only one of these sub-windows can have focus at a time, and that’s inconvenient — especially when focus is taken away by a modal pop-up.

Evolution: Environment and Migration

I’m still consistently losing. Or rather, consistently giving up when it’s clear I’m going to lose. I’ve started loosening up a bit with regards to deciding when that is, though. It doesn’t do to be too disheartened at the opponents beating you out to evolving a new species: in order for it to do them any good, they have to keep it from going extinct. And most new species have a bit of a handicap there, in that their ideal environment isn’t the same as that of the species that spawned it — that being more or less the point of speciation.

Environment has two components: terrain and temperature. The unit description window — the same one that indicates a unit’s population and how well it’s feeding — mentions the ideal terrain type and temperature for that unit’s species; more detailed information, including how well it survives in each terrain, is available in the species details. It’s easy to fall into the trap of paying attention only to the terrain type, because that’s highly visible: every tile on the map is decorated according to its terrain. But the temperature seems to be even more important to survival, and it’s displayed in a place that users tend to ignore: the info bar at the bottom of the window. It displays the temperature and terrain type for the tile currently pointed at by the mouse pointer — which is to say, it only starts to display useful information when you’re looking at a different part of the screen. It’s invaluable once you start paying attention to it, but I feel like the fact that the info bar is used at all, let alone for such a crucial feature, is a real sign of how new the idea of Windows as a gaming platform was. People didn’t really know how to use it, but they were willing to experiment.

So, when you get a new species, it’s a fragile thing, ill-adapted to its environment and in need of nurturing. Which is kind of the opposite of how evolution is supposed to work, but regardless, the top priority is to get it to its ideal environment before it dies out. Even once it’s there, the environment doesn’t last forever. Plains turn to desert, mountains rise, the climate changes — sometimes catastrophically, as in a major asteroid strike. About all you can do is send your creatures to as many different places as possible and hope for the best. Which you want to do anyway: you don’t want your creatures competing with each other for food. (In extreme cases, I’ve contemplated marching my obsolete creatures into the ocean to make room for the new guys.) No, you want them competing with the opponets’ creatures for food. My greatest competitive successes so far have not been a matter of out-evolving the opponents, or of fighting and killing them, but of driving them away by out-breeding and out-eating them. Which is how invasive species work in real life, so hooray for accuracy.

Spreading your population out isn’t trivial, though. In order to get a unit from one ideal feeding ground to another, you typically have to cross areas not suited to the unit’s needs at all, and while it’s crossing those zones, its population will drop. This is how oceans work, by the way. You can send any species on a trek across the water, and it’ll just walk on it like it’s a blue carpet, not even slowing down. But while it’s out there, it won’t get any food at all. Birds can colonize remote continents more easily than most creatures, but that’s not because they have any kind of in-game-modeled flight attributes. It’s because they can move faster, and thus can cross more ocean before starving to death.

Evolution: Mechanics and Strategy

Posting very late today. Playing the Cenozoic scenario turned out to be an even worse morale-wrecker than attempting a full game. Because life is already pretty well advanced, it isn’t long before the opponents start developing the immediate precursors to potentially intelligent life, such as elephants and parrots and australopitheci, all while I’m still struggling to get out of the small-ratlike-creature phase. Seriously, I need to figure out how they’re managing it. The one trick I’ve figured out so far is to send my newly-spawned creatures out to colonize new territory as soon as they’re fit for the journey, thereby lessening the demands on the land and increasing the rate at which the population increases.

To explain this in more detail: Each “creature” visible on the map actually represents a herd or colony or something — at any rate, a local population. This was not clear to me in my very first struggles with the game; I had to read the manual to really understand it. When you click on a creature, you get a little pop-up window with details on that creature, including a green bar labeled “Population”. I think that when I first saw this I assumed it referred to the worldwide population of that species, but no, it’s the population of that particular “creature”. It essentially functions like hit points for the group. It fills or empties according to how well the creature is feeding; if it fills completely, the creature splits in two. So in this way, the game is more like a simulation of unicellular life than of tetrapods.

Having lots of creatures of a particular species isn’t good simply because it gives them a better chance of surviving. Each living creature also contributes to the rate at which its species accumulates “evolution points”, which is to say, research into development. Evolution points are automatically spent on three things, in proportions you can set on a per-species basis: improving feeding (and thus population growth), improving combat ability (against another species which you specify — predators use this to predate better, prey species to resist predation), and developing a new species (which you specify). It’s a lot easier to evolve a species that’s populous and well-fed, which seems a little iffy to me — doesn’t natural selection play a more prominent role in situations marked by desperate competition to avoid starvation? But I suppose we have to make some concessions to gameplay. The rule for strategy games is that success is rewarded with more success.

At the very beginning, it obviously makes sense to devote most or all of your evolution points to feeding. But there seems to be a point of diminishing returns there — the detailed species information has another of those green bars indicating how close to its maximum feeding-efficiency potential it is, and this bar seems to only asymptotically approach filling up completely. At some point, it makes sense to devote more and more points to speciation. I suspect that part of my problem is that I haven’t yet discovered the sweet spots for this transition. Do it too late, and the opponents will get the new species before you. Do it too soon and it cuts into the feeding points that would be otherwise growing your population and increasing your evolution point income, with the end result that, again, the opponents beat you to the new species.

You may be thinking “So what, so the opponents beat you out to a few early species. If you have the largest population, you’ll catch up.” Just one problem: When an opponent beats you to a species, it cuts you off. Each species can belong to only one clade at a time. Like the Wonders in Civilization, if someone else beats you to a species you’re in the middle of developing, the points you sank into it just go to waste. In one session, the opponents actually claimed all possible developments from one of my species, leaving it unable to develop further until one of said species went extinct and became up for grabs again.

You may wonder how it’s possible to compete at all in a situation like this, given that speciation is like a branching tree. Claim any common ancestor of all mammals, and you prevent anyone else from developing any mammals at all, right? The game has a way around this, and it’s one of the weirdest things about it in its implications: evolution in the game is what the manual calls “polyphyletic”, which is to say, any given species can evolve through multiple possible routes. Most major branches of the tree of life start out as bundles of about five or six possible common ancestors; not at all coincidentally, six is the maximum number of players. The options from these junctions aren’t entirely equivalent — for example, any of the early mammals can be developed into Miacis and and thence into the entire order of Carnivora, but only one, the Alphadon, can also give you thylacines.

But are thylacines worth it? From the point of view of someone pursuing intelligence, they’re something of a dead end — but then, so is the entire order of Carnivora. But there are strategic reasons to pursue as much diversity as you can: the increased ability to withstand global disasters, the ability to colonize more types of terrain and deny your opponents their exclusive use, even just the points it gives you at the end of the game. Moreover, thylacines and carnivores are predators, and thus have the ability to attack opponents’ creatures — something that you tend not to get on the routes to intelligence. (Saurosapiens notwithstanding — they’re descended from velociraptors.)

But that’s all quite theoretical to me at the moment. Anything I say about advanced strategy is just a repetition of what it says in the beautiful, rigorous, and oft-consulted manual.


evolutionSometime around the year 2000, when the dot-com bubble was deflating — a period that left me in a painful state of burnout, as the reduced demand for programmers paradoxically increased the demands on programmers — I spent a brief stint working under contract to Unplugged Games, Greg Costikyan’s premature venture to put games on cell phones. I honestly didn’t know who Costikyan was at the time, or who he would later become. If I had, I might have approached the work there with a more positive attitude. As it is, I did try to learn a bit about the man’s past work by picking up a copy of Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, but I didn’t spend long playing it. It seemed dauntingly complex, and unintuitive to interact with. My first sessions were spent thrashing about wondering what I could do and watching the computer-controlled opponents encroach on what I thought of as my territory.

Going back to it now, I think I’m doing a little better, having read enough of the voluminous documentation to understand the basic underlying mechanics. But I’m still definitely in the thrashing-about phase, capable of evolving new species but incapable of keeping them alive. The manual says that a single full game takes about six hours (and that’s a fixed length — the game is realtime and progresses through distinct phases regardless of player actions), but it’s clear that I’m going to need multiple practice sessions before I can go for a win.

The game content concerns the evolution of tetrapods up to the development of intelligent life. (So, no trilobites or burgess shale creatures here, fascinating episodes in evolutionary history though they are.) Note that “Intelligent life” here doesn’t necessarily mean humans. There are several possible contenders, based on what-ifs: Psittacisapiens (evolved from parrots, which are already well-adapted to developing spoken language), Elephasapiens (from elephants, which have large brains and a dextrous frontal appendage for manipulating tools 1Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made. ), and a few others. These, and their immediate ancestors, are the only made-up creatures in the game, and also the most significant creatures, because the first player to develop intelligence wins. Or, well, that’s not quite right: according to the manual, developing intelligent life ends the game, at which point the clade with the most points wins. Points are awarded for achieving various milestones (first dinosaur, first mammal, etc), as well as for total biomass and diversity, but intelligence is the game’s golden snitch, giving you a 50% bonus on everything else.

But that’s the ending, which I haven’t got anywhere near yet. At the beginning, all you have is a single early amphibian species. This strikes me as just about the worst place for a beginner. I have some intuitive notions about the differences between wolves and squirrels and giraffes and so forth. I even have some expectations about the mastodon, the eohippus, the tyrannosaur, etc. But when I’m given the choice of what to evolve next, I have to choose between things like eogyrinus and diplocaulus, and I have no idea what their relative merits are. But I suppose this is what makes the game educational. Still, it probably means should probably switch to playing the Cenozoic scenario to get used to the game mechanics and strategy on more familiar grounds before trying to tackle a full game.

To me, the game it most clearly evokes is Civilization: it’s a game played on a world map at a large time scale (although here the time scale is large enough for plate tectonics to significantly alter the map over the course of a game), in which you expand your population and pursue a branching tree of developments, competing with a number of opponents for advancement and dominance. In fact, it reminds me a little of the Civ II “Age of Reptiles” mod, in which all your units were dinosaurs, and you researched technologies like “serrated teeth” and “bony plates” in order to build new types of dinosaur. But that was ultimately played within the framework of Civ, which meant that it was all based on your dinosaurs doing unlikely things like living in cities and tilling the soil. Really, in some ways, this game plays a lot more like a competitive version of The Gungan Frontier. Creatures roam about freely unless told not to, reproduce spontaneously if they’re healthy and well-fed, even potentially prey on their teammates.

More about the game mechanics next time.

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1. Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made.

1997: A New Beginning

Egypt 1156 B.C. has proved unplayable. For one thing, lines of dialogue frequently cut out prematurely — something that I’ve seen happen on other Cryo/Dreamcatcher games. The standard solution for sound problems is to turn off DirectX hardware acceleration, but that didn’t help here. Suspecting that the system speed was the problem, I also used Turbo to turn it down to 1%. This seemed to help somewhat, but there were still a lot of skipped lines.

I could probably work around sound problems in dialogue if necessary, by turning voice off and subtitles on, but that’s just the start of the problems. Opening a piece of papyrus in my inventory, I found there was no way to close it. Certain controls would blur it a little, as if it were going out of focus as part of a going-away animation, but it didn’t go away. Possibly relatedly, when I tell it to exit the game, it sits there playing music and doing nothing until I press Esc. I recall that other games by the same company behave similarly, except that instead of an empty screen, they display the credits. So it looks like there’s some sort of graphics glitch here.

Someday, I’m going to put together a bunch of obsolete hardware and install Windows 98 on it for all these recalcitrant late-1990s games. If I were smart, I would have done this already, in preparation for this stage of the chronological run-through. As it is, I wanted to play an adventure game for 1997 in the hope that I could finish it in a single week, and instead, I’ve spent a full week exhausting my supply of them without getting started.

For my next attempt, I’ve chosen Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, an educational strategy game sponsored by the Discovery Channel and designed by none other than indie game icon Greg Costikyan. After a couple of false starts — running Egypt seems to make my system forget how DirectX works until reboot — it installs and runs successfully. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I probably won’t be getting any gaming in tonight, but we’ll see how it goes. It seems to be designed more or less in the general mold of Civilization, which gives me hope that I can get in a complete session over the next few days.

1997: The Final Revelation

So, I did a sweep of my records, updating everything with its release date as reported by mobygames. 1Except Wizardry III, which I’m already committed to treating like it was released in 1986. The year listed with mobygames search results generally seems to be the date of the earliest release on any platform, so quite a few items on the Stack have been shifted back on that basis alone. But there were also quite a few outright errors in my listings, both forward and backward. There was never any good reason to list Dust as 1997, for example: even the specific edition I have isn’t a 1997 release. (Its readme gives instructions for installing it under Windows 98, which really should have made me realize this sooner.)

This done, I had two adventure games listed for 1997: Tex Murphy: Overseer, the last of a series that really epitomizes the 90’s FMV genre, and Egypt 1156 B.C.: Tomb of the Pharaoh, one of Dreamcatcher Interactive’s numerous ancient-civilization-themed pixel-hunts. I chose the former.

Overseer is unusual in that it shipped on CD-ROM and DVD together. The original packaging contained a double-width jewel case containing four CDs, and a single-width case containing a single DVD (and a fifth CD). I still haven’t removed the shrink-wrap from the double-width case, as the DVD version is just the obvious way to go here, both for the superior video quality and for simply not needing to swap discs during play. Unfortunately, it also depends on the same the lost technology as Tender Loving Care did: the MPEG2 decoder card, or at least a software driver capable of acting like one. Fortunately, unlike TLC, the Tex Murphy games have a fanbase. There are websites and message boards, some with fresh activity now that the CD version of the game is available on GOG. There were links to patches and DVD drivers, and after some looking, I eventually found ones that weren’t broken. The Overseer intro movie, if nothing else, has successfully played on my system.

But in the process of looking, I found claims that Overseer was released in 1998. Checking mobygames again, I saw that, although the search results list it as 1997, the detailed game description says March 1998. So I don’t know what’s up with that. They’re at least consistent about Egypt, so let’s try that tonight.

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1. Except Wizardry III, which I’m already committed to treating like it was released in 1986.

Dust, and the continuing quest for 1997

1997 continues to elude me. I installed Dust and played it a bit — sometimes it crashes to desktop with an error immediately on launch, but once you’re in, it seems to be stable. Then, for reasons I’ve already forgotten, I checked its mobygames listing. It turns out to have actually been written in 1995. I had two more adventure games listed in my spreadsheet for 1997, and they both turned out to be from 1996. Probably at some point in the past I accidentally told Google Docs to “sort column B” instead of “sort sheet by column B”, or something along those lines. I’m going to have to scan for more errors more thoroughly at some point, but I’ve already found a genuine 1997 adventure game that was mislabeled for a different year. We’ll find out tonight if it runs.

Meanwhile, I did in fact play a couple of hours of Dust, so I suppose I should write about it. Dust is a first-person adventure set in a small frontier town called Diamondback in 1882 (as the first NPC you meet clumsily points out). Its full title is Dust: A Tale of the Wired West, although the “wired” part doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the content; rather, it’s shorthand for “It’s 1995 and we just found out that you can tell stories on computers!” The art is primitive in a way that almost looks naïvist. The sound is gratingly low-quality, and compounds the irritation of talking to characters with annoying manners of speech, which happens amazingly often — much of the dialogue is unnaturally full of colorful westernisms. It’s the sort of writing that probably reads better on the page than spoken aloud, but not by much.

In fact, sometimes the dialogue seems to go out of its way to annoy the player. At one point early on, there’s a dialogue containing a pause of a few seconds, after which the person you’re talking to says “Well, what are you waiting for? Go!” The player’s likeliest reaction to the pause is frustration that, even though nothing is happening, the game hasn’t yet given back control. To then scold the player for being on the receiving end of this mistreatment smacks of bullying, like knocking someone to the ground and then saying “Why are you lying down? Get up!”

Dialogue mode is where most of the game seems to be played. When you talk to a person, they stop being a stiff CGI model and turn into a photograph of a face, which animates in a stop-frame sort of way: it’s not quite FMV, but it clearly has FMV ambitions. Perhaps because it falls so far short, the technology here feels somehow more rustic than retro, as if this were the sort of crude computer game that the grizzled cowpokes and prospectors of Diamondback put together for their own amusement after seeing a kinetoscope in a penny arcade. Still, even the worst of the animation here works a lot better than the complete lack of animation that a lot of adventure games have during conversations. (I’m thinking in particular of The Longest Journey, which was extremely dialogue-heavy but didn’t seem to realize it.)

For all that, the game is oddly ahead of its time. While the rest of the adventure-gaming world was scrambling to imitate Myst, the designers of Dust, oblivious to context, put together a sandboxish interactive environment with multiple viable approaches to your problems. For example, one of your chief initial limitations is lack of money. You can work around this to some extent by giving people items that they want in lieu of cash, or even just being nice to them, or you can try to pick up the money you need by gambling, and even have the opportunity to cheat at poker.

With the emphasis on dialogue and the alternate approaches, it plays a lot more like an RPG than an adventure. That’s why I shelved it the first time around. When I pulled it out of the bargain bin, I had been expecting a Myst clone.

1997 Failure Follow-Up

My success in getting the shooting gallery to work is only spottily repeatable, and I still have yet to get the chase to terminate correctly. Even if I managed to get that to randomly work after repeated failures, I’d be wondering throughout the rest of the game if I was missing crucial events through the same bug. So Blade‘s a bust. It’s time for Dust.

Failing at 1997

Moving on, then. I’m already a week behind schedule, and I want to make some time to finish up the last few games, so lets go for something short. Adventure games usually qualify. It’s hard to pad things out when every interaction is a special case.

Unfortunately, we seem to have entered the danger zone, where the games are too old to run without problems on a modern system, but not old enough that I can easily get around the problem with a robust and stable emulator. The first game that I pulled out of the Stack for this week, an ill-regarded exercise in wackiness titled Armed & Delirious, consistently crashed to the desktop during the intro cutscene, with a popup reading “Unexpected Error”. No tweaking of the compatibility settings helped. Online searches turned up no patches and no record of anyone else ever having solved this problem, and precious few mentions of anyone even encountering it. Such is the doom of ill-regarded games.

After giving that up, I switched to plan B: Blade Runner, a point-and-click adventure loosely based on the movie of the same name. Blade Runner: The Game doesn’t tell the same story as the movie — or, for that matter, as the novel it was based on (again loosely) — but instead puts you in the shoes of a different cop/murderer hunting for a different set of synthetic humans. It’s more or less a sci-fi police procedural, and I’ll probably be comparing it to my recent experiences with Police Quest if I keep on playing. I have to say, it’s a pretty slick package, if low-fi and over-antialiased by today’s standards. I’m particularly impressed by how smoothly the FMV scene transitions are integrated into the action (something probably helped by the fact that I copied all four CDs to my hard drive).

Operation of the game seemed trouble-free at first, but then I hit a wall, ran out of ways to progress. The last thing I did to advance the story was chase a suspect through an abandoned building. The chase ended at a locked door in a room with no other hotspots. Lacking anything better to do, I left, then tried out the shooting gallery back at HQ, only to find that there was nothing to shoot — no targets ever appeared. Growing suspicious, I hit up the net for information. Walkthroughs confirmed that the chase scene was supposed to end with a triggered event: when I reached the locked door, the guy I was chasing was supposed to jump me from behind. I’m hoping that this is the same sort of trigger that was supposed to make the targets in the shooting gallery appear, because I’ve solved that part. An old FAQ suggested that it had problems on fast systems, and that I should use a slow-down program like Turbo to cut the system speed down to somewhere between 30% and 50%. I had to set it to 1% to get the shooting gallery working — and until that happened, I wasn’t even sure that Turbo was having any effect at all.

But I still haven’t completed the chase successfully. Going back to the locked door after having left it once has no effect. I’m probably going to have to do the chase over again — and since my only save is after that point, that means starting over from scratch. If it doesn’t work, I suppose it’s time for plan C. (Or rather, plan D. I don’t have any unfinished adventure games from 1997 beginning with C.)

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