Non-Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Non-review written by Andrew Plotkin

I should have known when I saw the opening menu. With the reckless verve of a blind Formula One driver talking on a cellphone as he steers with his knees, the designers of JttCotE have invented something less usable than mystery meat buttons. The opening menu, you see, is a rendered image of a room. There's a chair, a stove, a door, a television, some pipes, and a few other things.

Not only do you have to roll the mouse over buttons to find out what they do, you have to roll the mouse over things to find out where the buttons are.

I could stop the review right there. You could stop playing the game right there, in fact.

I don't need to list all the game-design screwups in this turkey. Every one -- after the innovative opening menu -- is a classic mistake that you've seen dozens of times before. You've got (just as a sampling) your hotspots too small to find, your tiny "sand" hotspot in the middle of a huge beach, your hotspots that appear (for plot reasons) after you've searched the area twice. You've got bad camera angles that jump back and forth wildly as you walk. You've got the protagonist standing in front of critical objects so that you can't see them. You've got an inventory that works inconsistently when you try to combine things. Insufficient game responses; bad voice acting; inconsistent translation. A (repeated!) puzzle where whatever you're doing silently fails, as if it were impossible, but it's actually because you're not wearing gloves. If you put the gloves on, they silently come off before the next glove puzzle, so that you can fail again.

That may not be a classic blunder, actually. It may be so obviously wrong that nobody's actually done it before.

The one good thing I can say for the interface is that you don't have to steer the protagonist around like a tank, using relative-direction arrow keys. Instead, you can click on a spot, and the computer will steer her around like a tank. I think if you turn the volume way up, you can actually hear the software muttering "Left! No, your other left! You're walking into a wall! Stop... turn... no, too far... dammit!"

(To be serious, there's a laptop computer in the interface which is nicely done. Usually in these reviews I like to pull out individual good design ideas and talk about them. I'm not going to bother this time; but it was a good design idea.)

All the little puzzles are fetch quests. All the medium-sized puzzles are combinations of objects -- related only in the designer's fervid imagination -- and they must be applied in a particular magical order. All the big puzzles are either torrents of vague metaphor, which might have made more sense in the original French but I doubt it, or big symbol-matching puzzles which require so much slow-running around that experimenting with them is agony. The good ideas are badly implemented and the bad ideas are too. Did I mention the tangrams puzzle dropped in the middle?

(By the way, I've figured out what went wrong with the third-person genre of adventure game. They had non-player characters. The whole time the Myst genre was inventing huge, achingly lonely landscapes, with a few barely-glimpsed humans... the other genre was packing itself with NPCs. And every NPC meant a dialogue menu and a fetch quest. And dialogue menus and fetch quests are boring, stupid, and tedious. Every one you put in makes the game less fun. So that's why Syberia and The Longest Journey are lousy adventures.)

Anyhow, I gave up halfway through JttCotE, and that was playing straight from the walkthrough. Looking ahead, I see I missed the jumping-pegs puzzle, the weigh-twelve-balls puzzle, the Tower of Hanoi, and the part where I ram an iron spike through my own forehead to stop the pain.

...Do you ever wonder how those walkthroughs get written? The ones you find on the Net, on or wherever, which solve the puzzles that you're pretty sure no human being has ever solved without jabbing needles under the designer's fingernails? I'll tell you a secret: review copies of games come with walkthroughs. Reasonable enough, since commercial game reviewers have deadlines, and are willing to read spoilers in order to review the whole game.

Now, I got a free review copy of JttCotE. I don't have deadlines -- as you can tell by the fact that this review copy has been sitting on my shelf since October 2003. And the first time I got stuck in the game, I went out to gamefaqs and downloaded a walkthrough, entirely forgetting that one had come with the game.

It was a good walkthrough. The author didn't just copy the publisher-supplied walkthrough -- she wrote a lot of useful and coherent explanation. And I expect she solved most of the game on her own. But, looking at the wording, I'm quite sure that she had access to the same free review walkthrough that I have.

So if you ever go looking for hints on a terrible game, don't torture yourself thinking "Someone must have solved it, or the hints wouldn't be out there!" It's quite possible that nobody has ever solved it.

Now you know.

I see that Dreamcatcher has just announced that it's going to publish Journey to the Center of the Moon. Stop by my place for your complimentary iron spike.

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