80 Days: San Francisco

The 4th of July seemed like an auspicious date to begin the American leg of the journey. The only stop on the entire continent is San Francisco, which happens to be the city I’m in as I play the game. I can report that the simulacrum is a reasonably satisfying representation of the reality. Even though it’s supposed to be set in a different (if indefinite) era, the slope of what I assume to be Powell Street (because it’s right in front of your entry point and it has cable cars running on it) feels just right, and the facades of the houses could be any residential street today. Those streets, by the way, are quite wide and, as in the real city, mostly arranged in a grid, which means this is the best place in the entire game to drive around in a fast car. It even provides a new and faster-looking variety of fanciful car for you to try out. You’re in America now.

There are two spots in this chapter where I failed, in two different ways. The first was a rather Myst-like puzzle involving routing power through a set of electrical boxes with color-coded cables and no clear instructions about what the color-coding indicates, with lots of note-taking and running around to try switches located in different places. Now, I like this sort of puzzle, and I’m not bad at them, but I wasn’t able to solve it within the time allowed — partly because I broke off in the middle to drive back to Oliver’s hotel before he dropped from exhaustion. Now, what happens when you fail to solve a puzzle in this game varies with context. Sometimes your progress is simply blocked indefinitely; sometimes it’s game over; sometimes the punishment is simply the time you spent trying, and the game lets you continue without solving it after enough time has passed. This puzzle was one of the latter sort, and I decided to just keep on playing after I failed, being close to the end and having a considerable lead on Fogg’s time. But it turns out that the approach I was trying at the very end was in fact the thing that would have worked if I had been allowed to keep going, so I feel a little cheated there. Time limits are just bad for puzzles with a strong “Aha!” factor, and possibly for all puzzles of any sort.

The second place I got stuck was in trying to sneak into Fix’s local office to retrieve the last of Uncle Mathew’s patent documents, which Fix had stolen just to slow me down. I have to say that the Fix in the book is a much more sympathetic character. There, he’s sincerely trying to do the right thing, but under a misapprehension about Fogg. The game’s Fix, on the other hand, is just plain mean, a paranoid bully who stoops even to crime, which you’d think would shame his policeman forbear more than Oliver’s travels could. But at least he’s specifically stated to be a different character.

Anyway, I had to break into his office, which was guarded by a bunch of cowboys, and was told that I needed to disguise myself as a member of the cleaning staff. But I couldn’t find a cleaning staff outfit anywhere. After banging my head against that for a while, and taking multiple breaks, I finally resorted to a walkthrough. It turned out to be behind one of the other doors in the building — one undistinguished office door out of many, most of which I had tried, just not the right one.

This gets into one of the big problems with putting an adventure game into an environment like this one. It’s a big environment — not nearly as big as the real city, but big enough that you need some guidance about which of the thousands of environmental objects are interactive and which are backdrops. For most objects, it’s easy to tell: if you’re close to an interactive object and aiming the camera at it, it gets a bright green border around it. There are just three exceptions: people, vehicles, and doors. In the case of people and vehicles, no indicator is necessary, because you can interact with them all — just not necessarily in any useful way. Most NPCs respond with a randomly-chosen line of dialog that essentially boils down to “I’m just here to make the area look populated”. Doors, though, are generally assumed to be permanently locked and effectively just painted onto the wall unless there’s something setting them apart. It could just be that the door is better-lit than the ones around it, or that there’s a quest marker displayed right on the other side of it on the minimap, but there was always something, until the point when there wasn’t.

At any rate, I did ultimately get through the chapter and into the home stretch, the trip back to England, which I’ll talk about in my next post. The musical number at the end of San Francisco is a moment like the ending of Ultima 6, where you hear the Rule Britannia and the Gargoyle theme played together for the first time and realize that they harmonize perfectly (that is, that the reason that Gargoyle music sounds so weird is that it’s Earth music with the melody removed). There’s a particular bit of muzak-y disco that the game has been using as background music basically since the beginning, but only when I heard people singing over it was it clear that it was the instrumental track to “YMCA” by the Village People — and that the game content has already introduced character models for a cowboy, a policeman, and an Indian chief. There’s even a construction site — that’s where the electrical-box puzzle took place — which I speculate was originally planned to provide an excuse for including a construction worker model as well.

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