Non-Review: The Cameron Files: Secret at Loch Ness

Non-review written by Andrew Plotkin

I warn you: I am about to get grumpy.

(Note the tag "non-review". This indicates that I'm not going to give a fair and even-handed view of a game's strengths and weaknesses. I'm about to have at one aspect with a battle-axe.)

Loch Ness is similar, in very many ways, to Necronomicon. It's by the same development group. It uses the same game engine. It's a historical, set in the early twentieth century, which verges into fantastical elements. It's a broad game, with a large explorable area, in which new elements keep appearing through the course of the game.

Unlike Necronomicon, Loch Ness is a dismal failure of pacing and interactivity.

The authors seem to have written down a list of scenes they wanted to see in their adventure game. Puzzles, dialogues, interactions. (This is a traditional way to begin designing an adventure game. I have done this.)

Then the authors put together a large, detailed environment for their scenes to occur in. This environment is a house. A renovated castle on Loch Ness, in fact -- in keeping with the theme. The castle has two floors, an attic, a cellar, secret doors, hidden tunnels, spiral staircases, and many other necessities of modern living. Adjoining the castle are a private garden, a greenhouse, a chapel, and so on. The scenes of the game take place in, on, and around these fine locales.

The authors then began implementing their game.

Very quickly (it seems to me, in this hypothetical story I am telling, which I'd bet money on actually) the authors noticed a problem. Their treasured story-line was a list of scenes. At any given time, the player is in between scenes; trying to do one thing, to get to the next scene. But the player has this immense territory available to explore. The Next Thing is somewhere in that territory. How is the player to discover what to do next?

This problem is known, in adventure game design circles, as the "This game is boring and stupid" problem. (Game design circles that consist of me, anyhow.) From the author's point of view, the player is temporarily failing to find a really great puzzle or cut-scene... but from the player's point of view, there's just nothing interesting to do.

Game designers have developed many techniques to keep games from being boring and stupid. The underlying idea is generally to give the player a goal -- not necessarily the true goal, but a clear goal -- and then mine the path between the player and his goal with further clues or goals. In other words, the player is always trying to do something. And whatever he's trying to do, he has some idea how to start going about it; there is some indication where to look.

This doesn't have to be a blatant giveaway. For example, if a door becomes unlocked, we take it for granted that the player will explore beyond it. New territory is always interesting. Old territory can be interesting as well. If the player learns something new about a room he's been in, he will go back to check it out. A clue might refer indirectly to a known part of the game. Environmental cues might indicate that a room has changed significantly.

(This is all basic material, isn't it? Isn't it?)

Of course these cues, clues, unlockings, and so forth should be integrated cleanly and naturally into the world of the game. This is sometimes called "mimesis" -- the sense of a plausible, self-coherent world. If mimesis is lacking, then these gameplay cues are awkward, artificial, or inexplicible within the fictional world of the game.

Which brings us back to Loch Ness.

The game begins in the sitting room. Just for fun, I turned around to see if I could leave. I couldn't; the door's hotspot was circled with red. Okay, fine. Obviously they have an introductory scene planned; once I've met the main characters and gotten the first plot pointers, I'll be free to leave the room. And this turned out to be the case.

Except that half the doors in the house still had red circles.

You can't go outside. You can't enter the bedrooms or the library or the laundry room. It's not that these doors are locked -- that's a different hotspot cursor -- you're simply told "Don't try."

In fact, just three rooms are accessible: the sitting room, your guest room, and the kitchen. But don't worry: if that's still too confusing, you also have your handy notebook, which serves as in-game help. It says: "Let's take things in order: First of all, get my bag in my room. [...] Start with the kitchen, man, there are always things to discover in kitchens."

Man, there's something in the kitchen all right. Once you find it, you can go farther.

And that's pretty much how the rest of the game goes. To one extent or another.

At first, you make progress because doors are made openable. (Sometimes because you've discovered a reason to go through. Sometimes just because the authors want you to go through, so you discover the door openable for no obvious reason.) That's a bit frustrating, but it flows pretty well. Then you get to the point where you've been (nearly) everywhere in the castle. The authors don't quite have the balls to re-seal doors that you've already been through -- so they pretty much leave you floating. Somewhere in the house is a New Thing, and your job is to walk around until you trip over it.

Or, you can read the handy notebook. Which tells you where to go, in its jaunty, horrible, hip private detective soul-crushing tone of voice. Start with the kitchens, man! Don't let them rattle you! Anyone who smokes purple jimson weed is sure to hide their house-keys in the ormolu clock!

Occasionally, to make doubly sure you get the point, the narrator actually says these things, in audio voice-over. "Man, I sure could use a drink."

(That was a particularly painful interlude. The protagonist does not actually want a drink at that point. The protagonist wants to extract something which -- unbeknownst to the player -- he has concealed in his (your) pocket flask. In a non-interactive story, of course, the protagonist can get away with this -- hiding information from the reader, and then cleverly revealing it. And it can work in interactive fiction as well. It doesn't work like this. "I sure could use a drink" is a completely false comment -- a lie told by the protagonist to himself, in the privacy of his own head, for no reason at all. Mimesis is shattered, ground into powder, and then boiled for coffee.)

(At first I thought the authors were going to go into an interesting vein where the protagonist is alcoholic, and wants a drink but won't take one. Using the duality of player versus protagonist, to show a character who is literally of two minds about alcohol. Nice idea. No such luck, though; the authors were merely being clueless.)

And, for all of that, it doesn't work. After a while, I was reading the notebook first, whenever I solved a puzzle; because I had gotten tired of searching the entire house -- again -- to find the Next Thing. Then the notebook didn't help. So I found a walkthrough. A while after that, I was reading the walkthrough after I solved every puzzle, because it was the least painful way of getting to the Next Thing. I don't mean I needed the walkthrough to solve puzzles, mind you. I needed it to find the next puzzle.

I will cheerfully admit that Loch Ness isn't uniformly this bad. I played quite a lot of it before I got annoyed. And then I played more before I got irretrievably annoyed.

It just kept missing the point, in many small ways. For example. You have a standard inventory interface. You can select an object (which pops you out of the inventory), and then try to use it in the world. If you move the object over a hotspot that it works on, the object lights up green.

Loch Ness attempts to enhance this range of possibilities with combinable inventory objects. You can select an object, and then select another object in your inventory to combine it with. Fine! Only, whoops -- selecting an object pops you out of the inventory. How do you select a second?

Easy. If you select a combinable object, you don't leave the inventory screen. Instead, you can move the object around your inventory items. Eventually it lights up green, so you use it there.

Notice: this interface gives everything away. There is no possibility of using a combinable object in the wrong place; it's not even a question of trying and failing. Once you select the object, the game more or less tells you what to do next.

It is, in fact, exactly the same as a notebook saying "Start in the kitchen, man." It is taking the open field of possibilities which an adventure game presents, and saying "Don't you worry your pretty little head about that. Here's how to get to the next cut-scene."

Perhaps you've noticed that this makes me grumpy.

The red circles, which I've already mentioned, are yet another symptom of this. After playing for a while, I noticed that I was seeing red-circled hotspots everywhere. Why? Because otherwise I might be confused about what to do. Many of the puzzles are simply set up like this: you have several red circles and one active hotspot. Your challenge is to guess what to do. Bing! You're right. Once you've done that, one of the red hotspots "clears", and you can do the next thing. This isn't a game, this is a shopping list of actions to undertake.

I have quite a large list of other things that annoyed me. But I've already had about as much fun as I can get out of being brutal towards this thing. I shall summarize:

You can die. You can make a fatal mistake. In one place (maybe two), you can make a fatal mistake without knowing it, save your game, and then discover that you've just overwritten your save file with a fatal mistake, and you'll have to start the game over. Ha ha. (Use your eight save slots cyclically!) There are timed puzzles which kill you when the timer runs out. There are timed puzzles which kill you only when you solve the puzzle, if the timer has run out when you solve it. There is a maze.

Any of these things can be done well, if the designer knows what he's doing. I did not perceive that the designers of Loch Ness knew what they were doing. I bet they didn't even notice that you can save an unwinnable save file. I mean, who pays attention to little details like that?

I might have forgiven the maze, by the way, if I hadn't just played the much cooler maze in Necronomicon. The maze in Loch Ness is not a bad implementation -- it's a realistically confusing area where you have to pay attention to distant landmarks. But it's very flat and dull, and, you know, there isn't a whole lot there. Except for a timer puzzle. Okay, maybe I wouldn't have forgiven it.

I have a short list of things I liked about this game. It boils down to "Good use of spatial relationships, sometimes" and "I liked the way game locations were used in multiple ways." Of course that latter aspect had its problems. See preceding three pages of rant.

Conclusion: This is the first game I have ever written a "non-review" of after finishing. Most of my non-reviews are of games that were blatantly unplayable. Loch Ness wasn't unplayable. It looked pretty good, it had a storyline, it had characters (not great characters), it had hard-boiled monologue (badly-translated or just poor, I couldn't decide, but they were trying). The puzzles were not broken.

However, Loch Ness is aimed at such a novice level of gamer that I was unable to enjoy it. I'm trying to think of an objective way to say this, but I swear, the only word I can think of is "creampuff". This is a game for creampuff adventurers.

(Unless you refuse to look at the handy notebook. Then it becomes a game for bored, frustrated creampuffs who have to systematically search a house over and over again.)

You know, that's what bothers me. Not that Loch Ness was aimed at novices -- I've played novice-level games and enjoyed them. What bothers me is -- the authors made this game easy because they weren't good enough to make it possible. They couldn't make it work as a game, so they plastered over the cracks with stupid hints.

I'm gonna go play something else now.

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