Non-Review: The Messenger (Louvre: The Final Curse)

Non-review written by Andrew Plotkin

Sometimes one needs to fling a book across the room hard enough to dent the wall. The dent may be metaphorical or physical, it doesn't matter. Similarly -- sometimes I need to microwave a CD-ROM. I don't actually do it. I'm a pack-rat; I'd rather the physical disk in the archives. (Unless it's an AOL CD, in which case its lightning-furrowed remains are added to the attractive and very non-metaphorical mobile hanging in my hall.) But the judgement remains.

This past weekend I tried playing The Messenger.

First: the user interface is stupid. Not just bad, but stupid.

After you boot up the game, after the obligatory logo movies, you see the main menu. Your choices are "New Game", "Load", "Save", or "Quit". Now, let us leave aside such trivia as the fact that "Save" should be dimmed or otherwise inaccessible (since we haven't started a game yet). Let us focus on the fact that, if you click "New Game", you are immediately given a "Yes/No" prompt.

Now, in the hypothetical parallel universe of UI designers who did not have iron bars blown through their brains in freak railroad accidents, a "Yes/No" prompt is used for an operation that might lose state. For example, quitting a game. Or loading a saved game, when you're in the middle of playing already. Those are options which, if the player chose them by accident, the player would be sad.

Let us listen to one such player. "Oh, I have been playing this game for three hours, and I haven't saved, and I accidentally hit the 'Quit' button. Now I am sad. Why was there no 'yes/no' prompt after I did that?"

Now, let us listen to another player. "Oh, I have just bought this wonderful new game, torn off the wrapper, stuck it in my computer, and then I accidentally hit the 'New Game' option. Now I am sad, because the game has started. Why was there no 'yes/no' prompt after I did that?"

What, you say? You can't hear that? That's right, you can't, because that player doesn't exist. Instead, you can hear me. And my microwave.

The "Load" option triggers the prompt also (even when you've just booted up the game). So does the "Save" option. (Which might be considered reasonable, since there are only four save slots, and you might not want to overwrite any of them. Except it's not. The save screen should have a way to cancel out without saving -- oh, it does. Plus, only four save slots? Are you worried about disk space? (At 20K per save.) Do you think I am too stupid to manage more than four?)

(I could also mention that the "tooltip" area of the screen, which reports where your mouse is, turns into a "button" area -- where you have to click "yes" or "no" -- and there's no visual distinction between the two modes. But frankly that would be an anticlimax. Besides, tooltips were a mistake to begin with.)

Other random interface stupidities.

...if you go to the inventory screen, the "cancel" button (returning to the game) runs an animation. The animation is about a second and a half long. This is about a second and a half too long. Quick, name an operation which the player is going to perform seven hundred times during your adventure game. Now, for twenty dollars: is the player (1) desperate to keep playing this game, or (2) desperate to see the same minor animation which he's seen six hundred and ninety-nine times before? Think hard!

...the arrow cursor's active spot is neither at the tip, nor at the center of the decorative circle. In fact I don't think I ever figured out where the active spot was. Every time I went to click something with that cursor, I had to jiggle it around slightly until I saw the cursor change. It's kind of like having desk-crud stuck in your mouse rollers, except that instead of relieving the problem by cleaning the mouse, I have to relieve my feelings by writing bilious software reviews. And afterwards, I still have the problem. the interface screen, "separate" is spelled wrong.

But no. Enough about the interface. The game concerns a woman who receives a message from her father: go to the Louvre and steal four artifacts, or else. It makes about as much sense as -- well, as the rationale for stealing the Crown Jewels in Traitors Gate. Nonetheless, you pack up your crossbow, your grappling hook, and your tightly polished brightly shined patent leather black Borg body suit, and off you go.

(The back of the game box says that you're a Secret Service agent, which might explain why you have a crossbow, a grappling hook, and a tightly polished brightly shined patent leather black Borg body suit. You wouldn't know it from the game, though.)

Anyway, you meet a ghost, hear more about ancient Templar treasure and curses and stuff, and then you're sent back in time. In order to gather these artifacts, you must explore the Louvre in a bunch of different time periods.

Now look. I will be perfectly -- well, grudgingly -- honest and admit that this is no sillier than half the adventure games I've played. I frequently write reviews saying "This is of course absurd, but..." I will forgive much if I had fun.

Here is why I didn't have fun playing The Messenger.

...step-and-die traps. If you go through the wrong door, the guards kill you. No warning. Restore and try something else. Hope you saved recently.

...the dialogue is terrible. At one point the protagonist says "Sounds like a bad CD-ROM game," implying that the authors were aware of the problem, and chose not to do anything about it. can only carry eight items at a time. Yes, it's the "inventory limit", everyone's favorite adventure game schtick from the beginning of time right up until about 1983. But wait! To work around the problem, many areas in the game have chests. You can stash stuff you don't need in a chest, and come back for it later. In fact, to make this even easier, you can stash stuff in one chest, and later take it out of a different chest. Apparently there's only one chest in the universe. Or maybe it follows you around, like Rincewind's Luggage, and just pretends to be inanimate when you're looking straight at it.

...except that it's not inanimate. Every time you open a chest, you get a little "chest opening" animation. See earlier rant, re "six hundred and ninety nine".

(As far as I can tell, half the problems with this game are the result of someone saying "This interface screen you've sketched out is flawed," and someone else saying "No problem, we'll just rearrange the game design." Or maybe it really was a railroad accident, I don't know, don't touch that, you don't know where it's been.)

...while we're on that subject: Early in the first chapter, you steal some period garb as a disguise. Fine. But whenever you see a cut-scene, your character is rendered in the good old tightly polished brightly shined patent leather black Borg body suit. Inconsistency? Never! They added in quick animations -- or rather, cross-fades -- before and after each such cut-scene, implying that you are removing and replacing the disguise. Never mind that you are certain to be wearing the disguise -- it's not like they would have had to render two versions of the cut-scene animation. No. They're just dumb.

...the first chapter of the game has about eight different locks and about seven different keys. Each key opens a different lock. Notice that one lock remains locked. You can spend hours wandering around the game, trying to figure out what you've missed. It's about halfway through the chapter, so there are several areas still locked or otherwise obstructed. There is no clueing as to which area you should be working on, and which will become available later.

...what's the answer? Yes, your first guess was right: you have to shoot the lock open with your crossbow! Bingo! Actually, that wasn't your first guess, because nobody would guess that. No other lock has been openable by crossbow. No lock later in the chapter can be opened by crossbow. At no time do you experience any interaction that leads you to believe that a lock could be opened by crossbow; indeed, the game designers seem firmly convinced that every lock is opened by its own unique key.

...I only lightly tread on the matter of the scroll which has astrological symbols scattered through the text. Later, you find a combination lock whose buttons are astrological symbols. Aha! Push buttons! The lock opens! Oh, you need a key too. Fair enough, keep exploring. Solve complex puzzle. Receive reward: a grid that, when placed over the scroll, highlights certain words. A hidden message! Which tells you that (1) the treasure is in the treasure room, and (2) the highlighted astrological symbols (to wit, all of them) will open the lock.

Oh, yes, somewhere in there you found the key also.

Hell, maybe game designers are reading my reviews. It must take a deep and thorough knowledge of the balances of game design -- the give-and-take of surprise, logic, and revelation -- to construct a clue which is such a perfect let-down. The revelation consists entirely of stuff the player already knows. The skill. I have no words.

(I have 1657 words so far, including this sentence, but who's counting?)

Now, in the interests of ill-graced fairness, I will list the good ideas in the game's design. The map lets you jump to any room in the game where you've already been. I liked that.

There, I think that covers it.

I was of course playing straight off the walkthrough, from halfway through the first chapter. (The bit with the lock and the crossbow.) (Mind you, this was a nuisance too, because the never-to-be-sufficiently-derided game engine makes you swap CDs twice whenever you quit and restart the game. The game will not start up unless disk 1 is in the drive. Even if your sole desire in life in to play a game saved during disk 2. Start up, swap, hit "Load" (and then "Yes"), swap back. Argh. Argh.)

At the end of the first chapter, the game crashed.

I restarted (swap, load, yes, swap back, argh) and tried the scene again. The game crashed.

"Oh no!" I said. "The game has crashed! I can play no more! I am sad!"

Okay, I lied about the "sad" part.

Conclusion: Looking back over my previous non-reviews, I see that Inherent Evil: The Haunted Hotel had even more painful and obvious game design flaws. By an order of magnitude. I sure had fun writing about these, though.

(Final note: the word "Louvre" has no accent marks. I am sad about that.)

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