Munch’s Oddysee: Product Placement

So, Munch’s Oddysee has these vending machines dispensing power-ups in the form of soft drinks. Some can be used by both player characters, some are exclusive to Munch. A drink called “Expresso”, for example, makes either character run faster, while “Zap!” lets Munch attack nearby enemies with electrical arcs from his cranial implant. Health can be restored with cans of SoBe energy drink, from vending machines with the SoBe logo with the two lizards.

I’m informed that this isn’t the case in all version of the game. Apparently there’s a HD remake for Playstation 3 and Vita that uses a made-up “Health Up!” brand name instead. But in the version I’m playing, it’s SoBe, except for one Health Up machine I’ve seen. I don’t know what the deal is with that.

This is far from the first or worst instance of egregious product placement I’ve seen in games. The example I always think of is Lemmings 3D (aka 3D Lemmings), which stuck Jelly Belly logos all over the place, and even made a huge jar of jelly beans into a major part of one level’s geometry. To this day, whenever I see Jelly Bellies, I think of Lemmings, which is presumably the opposite of what was intended. I also think of the obscure 2002 action-adventure Darkened Skye, which was actually designed from the ground up as an advergame for Skittles, even basing its content on then-current Skittle commercials and including a Skittle-based magic system. The truly remarkable thing about Darkened Skye, however, was that, unlike most games based on junk food, it tried to hide it. The packaging mentioned Skittles only in the small print on the back, and you could play it for a couple of hours before encountering any Skittle content. Today, it’s remembered for nothing else.

And that’s why I feel the way I do about product placement of this sort: that it’s the sign of a game that’s lost its way as art. It’s letting money dictate content. Well, okay, that’s going to be the case regardless. Budgets are limited, and studios need to make games that will sell. But this is letting money dictate content in an obvious and intrusive way, and I have to wonder if the increased brand awareness is enough to outweigh the resentment it engenders. I’ve heard tell that gun manufacturers pay handsomely to get their wares included in the latest military shooters, and that’s creepy, but in a way, it doesn’t seem as bad to me, because at least guns are relevant to a shooter. They belong there in a way that Earth beverages don’t belong in the Oddworld.

The Oddworld setting even gives the whole deal some additional ironies, starting with the way that the whole story is one of struggle against capitalist excess. Putting ads in games is, when you think about it, totally something Glukkons would do. But also, beverage manufacturers in particular were the main bad guys in the previous game. Now, understand that there’s a completely deliberate irony of Abe and the Mudokons using and even relying on the products of their oppressors. Abe’s Oddysee makes it clear that Abe has eaten and enjoyed the Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies made from his people’s sacred animals, and Abe’s Exoddus has him drinking a Glukkon-made beverage from vending machines as part of solving puzzles, much like he does here in Munch’s Oddysee. But the premise of Abe’s Exoddus is that the Glukkons are using the addictiveness of that very same beverage to re-enslave the Mudokons, and late in the game there’s a revelation about how it’s made that I won’t spoil. As such, I have to wonder if SoBe really thought this through. This is the sort of thing that advertisers tend to be sticklers about. The story of Munch’s Oddysee itself doesn’t seem to contain anything so outright negative about its soft drinks, but the game does make all the cutscenes from Abe’s Exoddus available from its main menu as a recap of the story so far. Considering how ham-handed the product placement is in the first place, I suppose it’s just a matter of nobody involved knowing what they’re doing.

CotAB: Cover Girl

One bond left. That means I’m into the endgame. There are five villains, but you defeat one in the intro chapter and one is saved for the very end, so the midgame has three. The last one I beat, the cult of Moander, was such a cakewalk that I suspect I’ve been doing the three middle sub-quests in the wrong order (if indeed there is an ordering; possibly they’re all designed to be accessible to new characters, and just became easier as my characters leveled up).

curse_of_the_azure_bonds_coverartIn Moander’s pit, I teamed up with Alias, the protagonist of the novel. I honestly didn’t think she was going to show up in the game, seeing how her function in the novel is taken by the player characters, but I suppose the leaving her out would have made a lie of the box art. Taken directly from the novel, and repeated within the game as its splash screen, it shows the heroine with her 80’s hair and ridiculous peekaboo armor. That armor seems to be her chief defining visual trait: the makers of the game even went so far as to make a special combat-mode sprite for her, with a visible diamond-shaped flash of skin on the chest.

The reasons behind this character design are as obvious as the target demographic it’s intended to appeal to. Selling games through sex appeal is hardly new, and hardly rare. At least the cover art here shows something that’s actually found in the game, which makes it more honest than a lot of games of the same era. But still not especially honest: anyone who bought it with the intention of ogling Alias during gameplay would probably be disappointed in her EGA representation, and also in how little time she sticks around. The idea of making good on the promises of the cover art — of making a young woman in revealing clothing into a constant feature of gameplay — really didn’t take off until Tomb Raider, which was still years away at this point.

The bait-and-switch approach is still alive and well, though, and has reached its pinnacle with Evony, the mediocre web-based kingdom-building game whose infamously irrelevant ads, showing pictures of lingerie models, have far passed the point of being distinguishable from satire. I’ve blocked Evony ads on this site, because I frankly find them embarrassing, but if there’s one good thing they’ve done, it’s exposing the sleaziness of game advertising in general through a kind of reductio ad absurdum. It’s easy to get inured to exploitative imagery, but now, when I look at Alias, I can’t help but see her as a step on the road to Evony.

CSI: Final thoughts

So, I’ve finished all five cases in CSI: Hard Evidence. All in all, I enjoyed this game more than I expected to. The chief thing to recognize is that it’s not at heart a mystery game, but a treasure hunt. This was clearest to me at the beginning of the fifth case, where you have to spot a number of bullets lodged in walls. I wish more of the scenes were as clue-rich as that, because it was one of the high points of the game.

I mentioned before that the game automatically tags with a green checkmark those scenes and clues that have been exhausted as information sources. This is just one of several “assists” that can be disabled from the options menu. Personally, I kept them all on, despite my complaints about the game being too easy: it seemed like disabling them would make the game harder in the wrong ways, extending the time spend searching fruitlessly in the wrong places and so forth. There was a point where keeping them on actually got me stuck for a while, though, when I didn’t yet understand that a DNA sample got its checkmark simply by being identified, and that this didn’t mean it was no longer of use in comparison to other samples.

So, yeah, it turns out that it is possible to get stuck after all, at least temporarily. Several forms of evidence processing involve comparing two pieces of evidence, and once you have many individual pieces of evidence, the combinatorial explosion makes it inconvenient to just cycle through all the pairs. So you do have to have some idea of what you’re looking for, some of the time.

There are some good things going on in the game’s UI. Like the navigation: I mentioned before that it’s based on clicking between nodes in a continuous 3D environment, but even more than that, the graph of these nodes is a tree, and clicking the right mouse button moves back up the tree towards your point of entry. The nice thing about this is that exactly the same interface is used for other tree-like UI elements, such as cancelling out of a menu. While I wouldn’t suggest that every game adopt an interface like this, it does seem like a good choice for games in settings where the player shouldn’t be able to get lost.

csi-evidenceThere are points that I definitely think could be improved, though. Nonstandard scrollbar behavior is my perennial gripe about homebrew GUIs, and while this game doesn’t have scrollbars per se, it does have button-based scrolling interfaces which don’t respond to the scrollwheel. It’s not even as if the game engine doesn’t have scrollwheel support: when viewing evidence, you can use the scrollwheel to zoom in and out. And speaking of viewing evidence, the controls for rotating items while inspecting them seem less than ideal. There are four buttons to the right of the view that can be clicked or held to rotate in two directions about two axes. But the axes are relative to the object, rather than the view, with sometimes unintuitive results. Plus, using buttons at all seems a little strained in a game that, in the scene views, normally handles rotation by moving the mouse to the edges of the screen. (Sometimes this even results in keeping an object at the center of your view and circling it, an effect similar to rotating an object in the evidence view.)

There’s also some stupidity in the way the game handles computers: your CSI toolkit contains a “USB data drive” that “detects encrypted data”, which is trivially decryptable by your lab equipment. Furthermore, people in this gameworld seem to be in the habit of encrypting their incriminating emails rather than deleting them. (Heck, just not encrypting them would be enough to escape detection here. It’s not like the game ever gives you the opportunity to read data that isn’t encrypted.) But I’m assuming that this is all inherited from the TV show. Plus, I may just be more sensitive to this than other simplifications made for the sake of gameplay. Goodness knows the fingerprint matching is greatly reduced from how it would work in real life, and the idea of getting a chemical analysis of a substance by sticking it in a chemical analysis machine is probably even more galling to chemists than anything done with computers here.

A certain amount of stupidity of content isn’t the only thing it inherits from the show. There’s the “bumpers”: when you go from scene to scene, you often get a brief montage of aerial views of Las Vegas, signifying “new scene” to the viewer. This is invariably followed by a “Loading” screen, which seems a little redundant, because it signifies the same thing. I suppose the limitations of the technology prevent it from displaying the bumper while loading the new data.

Another thing inherited: product placement. It’s not as blatant as in Lemmings 3D or Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, but one of the cases has a subplot involving possible credit card fraud, and goes out of its way to mention how professionally those folks at Visa dealt with it, as well as just use the word “Visa” in preference to “credit card” wherever possible. (A print ad in the game’s documentation makes it clear that Visa is in fact sponsoring the game, or at least its documentation.)

So, would I recommend this game to people who aren’t fans of the show? No, not really. But perhaps I would as a study of graphic adventure techniques. It’s working with a limited palette, but it does a few interesting things I hadn’t seen before.

Disclosure: I received this game for free from Telltale Games.