Review: The Forgotten

Official web page; Ransom Interactive (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Dialogue and writing
Pretty good
Very good
Extremely good -- thus far
Not too hard
Very good
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake, but in several cases you must leave behind information important to the underlying story. Keep saved games in each area, in case you want to go back and re-read.

I've already lied to you. The most important aspect of this game is its full title, which is The Forgotten: It Begins. The authors are very careful to point out that it is just the beginning -- an introduction to a projected seven-part series.

This fascinates me. The computer adventure industry is famous for sequels upon sequels, yes. But usually the sequels are added on to an original game which is complete in itself. The background is shared, and the authors may have a general idea where the series is going, but very few games end with a genuinely unresolved storyline.

The creators of The Forgotten are taking a chance here. I'm very much afraid they'll get hammered for it.

The prologue of the game (which also appears in the cover booklet) sets the stage. Ancient powers, jealous of the rise of human civilization, created magical artifacts through which they hope to control our history. Humans that collect these items gain great power; but at risk of being themselves hunted and collected by the ancients.

And then the game starts, with that greatest of adventure-game cliches -- you awaken with no memory. Okay, it's a fast way to get the player to identify with the protagonist. You have no idea who you are or how you got here, and gosh, neither does your character. Haven't we done this enough?

I now digress. The fact is, every work of fiction starts with the reader knowing nothing about the protagonist. We have a variety of conventions for setting the stage quickly. This is as true in adventure games as in books. Obviously, an author doesn't need to use these conventions. The amnesia opening is not inherently weak. But in this decadent modern age, it draws attention to a design challenge that players are otherwise disposed to overlook. Making a virtue of necessity, as it were; but still drawing attention to it.

I digress this way because the same trick shows up again, almost immediately. You quickly find letters from one Richard Haliburton. These imply that a Collector who loses power slips into an intangible nightmare state -- unable to touch or manipulate most objects. Well, this perfectly matches the experience of a graphical adventure games. Most objects are scenery, and you can't do anything with them.

Is this taking advantage of necessity? Yes -- but we're used to graphical adventure games. When I can't pick up an object, I take that to indicate that it's simply uninteresting, or unnecessary. I don't feel like a ghost. The authors of The Forgotten are trying to recast this convention, and I don't think it works; it just clashes.

This is not, mind you, a huge flaw in the game design. It's worth a digression, that's all. Back to the game.

The introductory nature... well, it really does feel like Disc One of a seven-disc adventure game. Some doors are barred by magical force -- presumably placed by a Collector using his artifacts -- and you never find a way past some of them. You find ritual circles you cannot enter, puzzles you cannot completely solve, and flashbacks of scenes that you cannot understand. Some of the objects you find have no use in this installment of the game.

And this is going to piss a lot of people off. The authors are obviously concerned about this; that's why they stress over and over that it is an introduction. Game players just aren't used to this kind of pacing. Me, I had to reach back to my attitude towards book series. I know that I won't understand everything in Philip Pullman's Golden Compass series until the third book comes out, and that won't be until June -- at best -- (grn!). The same is true in this game; but I had to keep reminding myself of that.

Furthermore, this is a pretty short game. It's a single CD, for heaven's sake; when was the last single-CD adventure you saw? The authors budget their disk space carefully, with lots of panoramic views and stills instead of costly transition movies, but I still finished in a couple of evenings of play time.

I approve of the experiment. Some stories can only be told over time. The Forgotten introduces several characters, tells some of their intertwined histories, and just barely begins to hint about the real struggle between Collectors that underlies everything. And, of course, your place in it all. I think this is going to be a memorable story.

(Another advantage: since there's no guarantee that any particular item has a use, you're less likely to stumble through puzzles by accident. You can try using everything on everything -- but not every interactable object has a use. Some remain mysteries; and therefore you are never faced with just one mystery to concentrate on. Gives the game a much more open, unpredictable feel.)

But the real payoff isn't going to start hitting until the next installment. Eventually, the authors will have built up enough of the picture; every new piece will cause me to mutter to myself and then swear furiously. Familiar areas will gain depth as new scenes occur in them. But this first chapter can't do any of that.

I really hope it provokes enough interest that the authors can continue development. If the first chapter flops, we'll never know how solid the finished work would have been.

There are other problems. The interface is really shaky. You have, as far as I can tell, six different inventory areas. One item in your hand, up to four more in the regular inventory bar (pockets?), and a bunch more in your backpack (which you can only view on a separate screen). And then the same three levels for your Collection -- your artifacts, as opposed to regular items.

That's just a mess. I don't think there's any difference at all between the single "hand" item and the others in the inventory bar. One is singled out for no good reason; that's terrible UI, and I wasted a lot of time dragging items back and forth, thinking that a key might need to be in the hand to be used. When you click on an item in your inventory, it plays a short animation, but this is -- again -- completely meaningless; it doesn't mean you're using the item. You use items by dragging them from inventory to the main screen. More wasted clicks, trying to figure that out.

(Even weirder, in the backpack view, clicking on an object gives you a closeup and a brief text description. A great idea, but why restrict it to the backpack view? When the same command is unassigned in the inventory bar?)

At one point, I thought I couldn't pick up an item. (I was actually stuck in the game because of this.) It turned out to be an artifact, and the take-action failed because I was dragging it to the wrong inventory. Arggh! Sometimes I failed to pick up items because I missed; the cursor (lost in a very large close-up sprite) missed the inventory bar, and the item snapped back where it came from.

At another point, I really couldn't pick up an item, because my inventory bar was full. I had to switch to the backpack view and put away some items. Couldn't that be made automatic? Why is inventory management worth the player's time? Not to mention that the artifact side of the inventory bar was nearly empty -- without that (ahem) artificial distinction, the problem would never have arisen.

And finally, the message "Nothing happens" occasionally flashes above your inventory. I still have no idea what it means. Yes, using a key in the wrong lock gets a "Nothing happens" -- that makes sense. But so does just clicking an inventory item. And I think I saw it in other cases. I'm not sure.

Artistically, The Forgotten is impressive. Not because of visually stunning models -- the rendering is perhaps a bit old-fashioned and simple. Many animations are done with 2D sprites and masks, instead of full 3D rendering.

But the designers have a clear notion of the world they want to create. Broken-down buildings in 1930's New Orleans; hidden passages; the same buildings seen from another time, in their opulent heyday. Ill-lit rooms in an abandoned hotel. Eerie sounds. Attics packed with a jumble of history to look at, even if you can't touch most of it. I have a weakness for Secret Voodoo Cabal stories, and this one does it well. Future installments promise to expand the mystical storyline to other areas of the world -- there are hints about the Anasazi Indians -- and I expect those to look just as good.

I liked the way the game fit together, as well. The authors have a good eye for, hmm, how shall I say... for directing. Making scenes work. Very clever use of lighting to pick out features of a scene. The game leads the player through some strange actions, deftly; it's not all a matter of plugging key A into keyhole B. (I was particularly impressed with a hotel-desk sequence.) There is an excellent balance between advancing the plot through exploration, and sudden magical events, beyond your control, that advance the plot in other ways. Quite a lot happens.

My only quibble is that you are sometimes snatched out of a scene without warning. This never makes the game unwinnable -- you already have the items you'll need -- but it sometimes left me wanting to go back and explore more, just to be thorough. Or, worse, wanting to go back and read letters and journals that I had left behind. (You can't take them with you.) Since the whole point of The Forgotten is to gradually build up a story from fragments, the inability to read old fragments is frustrating. I recommend keeping many saved games.

I ran into a couple of bugs, unfortunately. One closed door is (falsely) displayed open in close-up; you can't get through until you drag the key to where the keyhole ought to be. (Particularly confusing in a game where some doors are never passable at all.) Saved games don't always restore to quite the right location. And there's one particularly horrible flaw at the end, which can prevent you from seeing the endgame. (Note well: if you get a closeup on a Tarot card, always double-click it before you return to the general panning view. It may not do anything, but if it does, you don't dare miss the opportunity.)

And the game text (letters, journals, etc) is rather badly chewed by typos and punctuation problems. That always detracts from a game's atmosphere.

Conclusion: Could be the start of a really great series, but it's hard to say that it stands well alone. It's short, and bugs and interface problems get in the way. On the other hand, the problems can be worked around, and it only costs US$20. And if nobody buys the first chapter, we'll never see the rest of it. I think it's worthwhile as a down payment on a larger, not-yet-complete story.

Macintoshness: Pretty good. No menu bar, but command-R and command-S bring up standard file dialogues. And the thing actually doesn't mess with the screen resolution. (Since it locks out the menu bar, control strip, and so on, you can't go change the resolution yourself without quitting the program and restarting it. But frankly, I prefer that to the recent "standard" of forcing a resolution on me without any way of changing it.)

Availability: Dreamcatcher's on-line store. This is not a hybrid package, so make sure you get the appropriate version, PC or Mac.

System requirements: 133 MHz PPC, 32 meg memory, 130 meg hard drive space, 24x CD-ROM drive. 64 meg memory recommended. The documentation says you need QuickTime 3.0 installed, but the CD actually comes with an installer for QT 4.0.1. The PC version says Win95/98, 133 MHz, 16 meg RAM, and an 8x CD-ROM. No, I don't know what causes the disparity.

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