PQ4: Basics

Officially, Police Quest 4 isn’t Police Quest 4. Everyone calls it that, including internal identifiers within the game resources, but on the box, it’s Police Quest: Open Season, with no hint that it’s a sequel. And for good reason: it’s not. The first three Police Quest games, set in the fictional city of Lytton 1I assume that Walls wasn’t actually thinking of Edward Bulwer-Lytton when he chose this name, but it seems seems kind of appropriate that the games honor the patron saint of bad writing., California, told the story of one Sonny Bonds in his ascent from patrolman to detective. PQ4 drops all that, shifting the scene to Los Angeles and inventing a new protagonist. Lytton, even at its seediest, always felt kind of suburban; LA lets the game plausibly add racial tensions and a gang problem. Or it would if Sierra were up to the task. This is the company that let one of their player characters pose as a rap star by getting her face covered in toner, and I really don’t think Daryl Gates added a lot of nuance to that mindset.

Despite the shift, the basics haven’t changed: the game is a police procedural in which mundane tasks like filling out paperwork are expected of the player, or at least rewarded with points. Most of my last session was spent mucking about at headquarters, and only partly because I couldn’t figure out how to exit the building. (You have to go to the lobby and click right at the very edge of the screen.) But the passage of time makes us approach it differently. Back when the first Police Quest was released in 1987, it reminded a lot of people of the TV show Hill Street Blues, with the way it showed ordinary cops dealing with ordinary crimes (such as traffic violations). Looking at first few scenes of PQ4 today, I’m mostly reminded of CSI.

In particular, of the CSI games, with their toolkit of evidence-collecting devices. PQ4 gives you a similar crime scene kit, although a much simpler one: gloves, plastic bags, a flashlight, some chalk. The surprising thing is that, in the crime scene where the game opens — and that’s another point: like CSI (both TV and game), the game opens at a crime scene, unlike the the more Hill Street Blues-like Police HQ openings of the previous PQs — in the crime scene where the game opens, you don’t actually do any evidence collection yourself. You’re not a CSI, you’re a detective. CSI plays fast-and-loose with that distinction, but if there’s one thing a police chief as writer brings to the table, it’s an adherence to hierarchy. If you, the detective, see a piece of evidence you want collected, you mark it with your chalk, and then you tell someone else to collect it. It took me some time to figure this out.

1 I assume that Walls wasn’t actually thinking of Edward Bulwer-Lytton when he chose this name, but it seems seems kind of appropriate that the games honor the patron saint of bad writing.

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.

CSI: Comparisons

csi-everettCSI: Hard Evidence was apparently made using the same development tools as the Sam and Max and Bone games, but it’s a real contrast in style. For that matter, Sam and Max is pretty different from Bone: wisecracking cynicism and urban decay vs. good-natured fantasy, as well as the contrast in puzzle style mentioned previously. But Sam and Max and Bone are both ultimately cartoons, rendered in a cartoony style. CSI, although pretty close to a cartoon in its exaggerated and stylized story content, tries to be realistic in its visual appearance, including human figures. And this, if you ask me, is one of its weak points. The regulars from the show are passable, but per-episode characters — the victim and suspects — live farther down in the uncanny valley. Mouths in particular seem troublesome, and tend to bunch up in odd ways when characters is talk.

More than that, though, Sam and Max and Bone are both based on the Sierra/Lucasarts paradigm: you have an avatar who walks where you click. CSI uses something more like a Myst-style interface. Movement between scenes is handled through a “locations” menu in your PDA (which also holds the inventory, options menu, and case details), but movement within a scene is handled through clickable hotspots. But the scene itself is rendered in 3D, and even without clicking, you can do some limited shifting around by means of the mouse — or, presumably, the right analog stick in the console versions, which seems like a better fit to the mode of interaction here. It’s not quite like any other game I’ve seen: the closest is Myst V in “panning” mode, but there, the panning was always just a matter of changing the camera’s orientation, not its position. Here, you can use the mouse to do things like circle a car and inspect it from all sides, if that’s the motion that’s scripted for that node.

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

CSI: Hard Evidence

csi-coronerI have been presented with one more Telltale game, and have something of an obligation to give it a whirl. CSI: Hard Evidence is the fourth game based on the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and the second produced by Telltale. Now, I’m not a fan of this show. I’ve seen only one episode, which struck me as cartoonishly over-the-top. But unfamiliarity with the source material doesn’t always stop me from playing adaptations. For example, I played the videogame adaptation of The Da Vinci Code specifically so that if anyone asked me if I had read the book or seen the movie, I could reply “No, but I’ve played the videogame.”

And, in fact, this CSI adaptation has a certain amount in common with the Da Vinci Code adaptation: an emphasis on hunting for clues, lots of special interfaces, and, most of all, easy puzzles.

My impression may be wrong here: I’ve only completed one of the five cases in the game so far, and you’d expect the first case to be the easiest. But a lot of the easiness comes from user interface features that guide you towards the right things to do. For example, once you’ve gotten every possible clue from an area, a checkbox appears on that area’s icon in the travel interface. Also, the crime lab contains various machines for things like DNA analysis or accessing a fingerprint database, and at any moment, those machines that can be usefully applied to evidence you’ve collected have a special exclamation-point icon on them.

I suppose this is because its target audience isn’t fans of adenture games, but fans of a TV show, and a police procedural, at that: the genre of mystery that’s most about following established procedure and least about brilliant deductions. I’ve talked before about how the payoff in adventure games is the pleasure of figuring things out, of the “moment of realization”. The problem is that this can only come with a certain amount of risk that the player doesn’t figure things out and winds up stuck. This game seems to want to avoid that more than anything else. It’s aiming at an experience similar to the TV show, and no one ever gets stuck watching a TV show. Any brilliant deductions that do occur will be spelled out to the viewer — and so it is here.

csi-fingerprintSo where is the pleasure in this game? I assume that there’s a certain amount of fantasy appeal, of joining the CSI family and having the people who you’ve come to know and love on the screen patting you on the back and saying “Great job!” whenever you follow procedure correctly. (The game is presented in first-person perspective with an unnamed protagonist, the better to aid player identification.) Obviously I’m missing out on that aspect; these people are strangers to me. The processing of the clues also provides an element of ergodic narrative, reminiscent of Portal (1986), but less linear and punctuated by little challenges such as finding a partial fingerprint in one of several possible matches. But the most interactive part — the part that seems most like a game — is simply finding the various clues and traces in the first place. This aspect of the game feels a lot like finding collectibles in an action game: it rewards being an obsessive completist and looking everywhere. The focus is on thoroughness.

In fact, there’s an interesting mechanism called “throughness points”. Every scene has various hotspots you can inspect, and not all of them actually contain clues. But whenever you inspect something that doesn’t hold a clue, you get a thoroughness point instead, and these are taken into account in your evaluation at the end of the case. So, with this mechanism, (a) finding new hotspots is never a waste, even if you discover nothing, and (b) you always know if the place you just clicked on contains a clue, because those are the spots without thoroughness points. More interestingly, your stats for the case indicate how many thoroughness points you haven’t found yet, which turns thoroughness points themselves into a kind of collectible — one that consists precisely of an absence of anything to collect.

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