Thursday, April 28, 2011

Phantasmagoria: A Strictly Visual Adventure

Last week I did something I should have done a long time ago. I played an adventure game.

It was the brainchild of Roberta Williams (known for such Sierra series as Kings Quest and Laura Bow), a horror adventure called Phantasmagoria. The plot was a straightforward Shining knockoff: young couple moves into old mansion, husband gets possessed by a demon, wife has to stop him. As the wife, you explore the mansion grounds while unraveling the backstory of the crazed magician who owned the place. In traditional adventure game fashion, there are rooms to unlock, characters to talk to, and a handful of items to pick up.

What makes Phantasmagoria stand out from other contemporary adventure games (for better or for worse) is that it was designed around the full-motion video technology that was all the rage back in 1995, technology that often took precedence over a game’s playability. (For some good examples, check out the Angry Nintendo Nerd’s review of the Sega CD.) Players still have control in Phantasmagoria, but the game’s extreme reliance on full-motion video limits their ability to interact with their environment. Each time our character did something as simple as wash her hands or open a door, the game had to show it in full video animation. Because this animation takes up a lot of CD space, the game limits how many things you can look at, pick up, or operate. To help players differentiate these few active objects from the background objects (and limit challenge), a single cursor turns a different color when the mouse is moved over an object with a definite purpose.

The giveaway mouse system prevents the puzzles from becoming very hard, and the structure (divided into chapters) makes the game ridiculously linear. Most of its challenges are less like puzzles and more like arbitrary actions to be performed so that time may pass and players can see more cinematic sequences. Epitomizing this is a bar graph that literally shows how much of the game players have seen. In this sense, Phantasmagoria is more of a playable movie than an open-ended adventure game.

The game’s heavy emphasis on visual effects is also striking to those used to traditional adventures where text reveals much of the game’s world. Again, because so little of Phantasmagoria is accessible to players, the game has little to say about the contents of a given room. Instead of a vivid description of a bureau’s contents, the game shows us a few jewels and a cigarette case. Players still get an impression of the bureau, but it comes through visuals, not words. This visual emphasis works to some extent, but as an experienced adventure gamer and lover of prose, I was disappointed.

The easy interface, lack of challenge, and heavy visual effects make Phantasmagoria easy to cruise through, but players who understand the bigger story will find it infinitely more enjoyable. Apart from the plot of Adrienne discovering that her husband is possessed, there is the backstory of the magician who found a cursed book and murdered a succession of wives in gruesome fashion. Said backstory is revealed by talking to people and watching cut scenes like in traditional adventure games, but a surprising amount of information can only be uncovered after stumbling upon hundred-year old letters and newspaper articles. Players must not only discover these sources on their own, but can do so at any point in the game. This is what makes adventure games special: whereas books and movies reveal information linearly, adventure games give players the opportunity to digest it at their own pace. It’s as active as exploring a story in the real world, and that’s what gives the medium real potential. Maybe it just took Phantasmagoria to remind me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Push-Button Service

“Are you all set, or do you need a few more minutes?”
“A few more minutes, thanks.”

It’s strange being back in the US because a lot of things aren’t the same anymore. I live in a different, smaller house now, where most of my things are still in boxes. My old car is in Los Angeles with my brother Kyle, who’s set out for new frontiers of his own. I see a lot of smart phones now, when before they were a novelty. Last week, I was riding down the streets of Concord when I saw—

“Are you guys ready to order yet?”
“Not yet. How about five more minutes?”
“Not a problem.”
(She stretches out the not in a way that suggests that it may, in fact, be a problem.)

What was I talking about? Right—changes. Things seem different at first, though when I really sit down and remember, they haven’t changed at all. Checkout girls at the grocery store always mumbled, avoided eye contact, and wore too much eye makeup. Certain people always spoke so fast that the words ran together. There were always guys with sideways baseball caps and those pants that weren’t quite shorts, weren’t quite pants. But there’s one thing I’m not used to because Japanese—

“Are you all set or do you need a few more minutes?”
“Uh, yeah." (picks up menu) "I’ll have the Reuben.”
“Did you want onion rings with that?”
“No, just fries.”
“O-kay. And for you?”
“I’ll have the Smokehouse Burger. Medium-well, please.”
“O-kay, I’ll bring those right out for you in a bit.”

Japanese restaurants always have plastic buttons next to the napkinholder. After taking your time to decide what you want, you can press the button (which sounds a satisfying ding-dong across the kitchen) and a waitress with a touch-screen tablet will dash up to take your order and read it back as fast as possible before—

“All rightee, here you go. One Smokehouse Burger?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“And one Reuben. Here you go.”
“Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No, we’re fine, thanks.”
“Okay, gentlemen, enjoy.”

Wow this looks good. What was I...? Oh yeah—so it’s like they just want to get away as fast as possible so they can leave you alone. And when another waitress comes over with the food, she dumps it on the table—again as fast as possible—and drops off the check to eliminate another unnecessary interruption. If you want something else, all you have to do is—

“How’re we doing over here? Is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything’s fine.”
“That’s great.”

Fuck, where was I? [You were talking about how the waitresses come by as few times as possible.] That’s right. So they basically fix it so that the waitresses come by as few times as possible. The whole thing’s done really efficiently, and you don’t even have to tip. I guess it is pretty cold though, because the waitresses never want to chat with you or laugh at your jokes or anything like that.

“Okay, gentlemen, all set?”
“No, actually, we were just taking a break to talk.”
“Not a problem; take your time. I’ll just leave this right here for whenever you’re ready.”

Dammit. Anyway, some restaurants don’t have a button, so you have to yell out Sumimasen, which means “Excuse me.” Usually the family restaurants—the ones that look like a Friendly’s or a Denny’s or something—have this drink bar where you can pay one price and go up to get any drink you want: soda, water, coffee, tea, and sometimes hot chocolate. We used to go there just to drink and hang out for hours—the waitresses’ll never say anything. And you’d see people there just reading comic books or studying, and once we even saw these people working on an elaborate craft project. And the restaurant is always open late, so unless it’s crowded it’s never a problem. I don’t even think they’d hassle you if the place was crowded, because the Japanese really don’t like confrontations. I feel like in America, though, they’d always come—

“Did you guys need any change?”
“No—we haven’t even paid yet. You said we could take our time.”
“That’s quite all right. Take as long as you need.”

I think they want us to go. Americans can be indirect too.