Mini-Review: Overclocked

Designed by Tobias Schachte and Martin Ganteföhr, House of Tales
(Official web site; developers' game page)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

In my last review I referred to the Sam&Max series as "the current zenith of That Sort of Game", and I was sort of kidding but sort of not. That is to say: there are not in fact two independent adventure game industries. The two kinds of (graphical) adventure game that there aren't are the first-person games (descended from Myst) and the third-person games (descended from King's Quest, Monkey Island, etc).

(The distinction in common terminology, of course, is that the first set are called "point-and-click" games, whereas the second set are too.)

This division is real -- you've got an avatar walking around on screen, or you don't. But then it's not an enormous division, outside the biases of my own head. Plenty of puzzle techniques and game mechanisms are common across both sorts of games. (Inventory items, combining items, symbol puzzles, close-ups on funny machines, finding details hidden in the visual display...)

But then -- interface does make a difference. And history makes a difference; every game designer is responding to earlier games, and that means that design ideas concentrate and evolve within a game genre. (And then they jump like plasmids to other genres, but the point is that as long as we have a genre to talk about, it has distinctive characteristics, both inherited and logically inherent.)

Sorry. Starting again. Less abstract.

In third-person adventure games, you walk an avatar around the screen. The items you click on generally have textual labels, if you run the mouse over them. You have lots of conversations with other characters. Where these characters are tied into the plot, they want things which you have to go off to find or do for them.

Those seem like obvious elements, but they're all somewhat foreign to the first-person lineage. The idea of moving your mouse over a button in Myst and seeing "button" as a pop-up label is wrong. And maybe that's because Rand Miller had a fetish for immersion-through-detail, whereas the third-person games have the camera up in a corner of the room so that details are "far away" and low-resolution. But it's tradition now, right?

It was the Myst tradition that hooked me. In a graphical game, I want the graphics to carry the load. I find it dull to watch an avatar walk. I do not like menu dialogs. I don't like menus at all, really; a choice of a few items is not an interesting choice. The point is to look around and see what's important; that can be a much more nuanced and interesting choice point, because it encompasses the obvious, the subtle, and the purely implied in one presentation.

Sorry. From the top. Concrete example, dammit.

Overclocked is That Sort of Game. It has a third-person view. It has textual labels. It has menu dialogs. It has verb dialogs when you click on an object. It isn't even trying to do what I find interesting in graphical adventure games.

Instead, Overclocked focusses on its narrative. It is, I am somewhat startled to realize, one of the few commercial games I've played to put its narrative on top -- to subsume its genre game mechanics to its narrative.

Which is to say, the puzzles are trivial. A couple of objects and a couple of hotspots in a room. A couple of verb options for each object, a couple of dialog choices when talking to a character. Aside from a few password puzzles, you can solve any puzzle in Overclocked by brute force in a couple of minutes; and you usually won't have to, because what you're doing is usually obvious. It's supposed to be obvious. The engagement, the interactivity of this game is paced by what you discover, not what you do.

Although I didn't describe Fahrenheit in those exact words, Fahrenheit is the best comparison I can make to Overclocked.

Does this sound like immoderate praise? Do not mistake me: I'm describing design strategy, not quality. (I do like puzzles, you know.) What I find interesting here is not that the game does something unique -- it's not unique, although it is rare in commercial games. It's that it takes a model which has particular weaknesses for puzzle-solving and exploring, and renders them irrelevant -- by not being a puzzle/exploring game.

If I wanted to go overboard, I might say that Overclocked is not an adventure game; it's some kind of "interactive movie". In a class with Fahrenheit, Gadget, or even Portal. (No, not that Portal, the 1986 one. Sheesh.)

This would be going overboard. Overclocked has puzzles, and all the appurtenances of its sort of adventure game. Better to say it is a puzzle-light, plot-heavy adventure game. We say that all the time about text adventures, and -- most of us -- don't regard those as any less members of the adventure genre.

So how is this thing like, or unlike, other recent third-person adventures? (The Lost Crown, Next Life, ... Syberia, The Longest Journey, ...)

Verb menus. In many of these games, you have a couple of ways to interact with an object -- typically "look at" and "use". Often these are implemented with the right and left mouse buttons. Invariably I fail to try the right mouse button (because I'm used to the aggressively uni-button Myst plan) and I miss some functionality and get stuck. So, that's not great.

In Overclocked, when you click on something, a menu of little icons appear -- typically "look at" and the appropriate verb ("open", "take", etc.) (This is also true of objects in your inventory.) Clearer? Certainly. More flexible? That too; some objects only offer "look at", a few have a third option (the rarely-used but always-appreciated "think about" action).

Do I like it? Well... no. (How pig-headed, you mutter.) For a start, it doubles the amount of mouse-fiddling you need to do anything. Triples it, in fact, because it's click ...nudge mouse to icon... click. You have to yank your attention out of the game-world and into the pop-up plane. It's only an iota of mental friction, but it dragged at me through the whole game.

I can't help thinking that it's all unnecessary. There wasn't anything in the game that had two active verbs; it was always a combination of (perhaps) one active option and (perhaps) one or (occasionally) two informational options. Can't the information be given as a voiceover on top of the action? I realize it would be awkward in places... I don't know, I just want the interface to get out of my way so I can immerse myself, and this didn't, quite.

On to a non-whining comment. You know how I constantly complain about avatar walking animations? Overclocked gets them really, really right. By which I mean, it's really, really easy to skip them. Click on an exit hotspot, and the room fades out immediately. You still have to walk up to objects when you interact with them, but the usual double-click-to-run applies... and, I grudgingly admit, this walk-up begins before you select a verb icon. Which means that the annoying work of clicking on an icon is multitasked with the annoying walk animations, making both less annoying. Smart move there.

Even better, some of the navigational hotspots are actually "turn around" hotspots. These don't make your avatar move, or even turn around; rather, they switch to a reverse camera angle, showing a different side of the room. This is immediate -- no animation; it lets the designers pack more into each room; and it avoids the somewhat artificial room layouts that most fixed-camera games fall into. Subtle and very clever.

(In fact, the camera does several nice tricks. A few scenes have dramatic zooms and pans -- the game world is just 3D enough to handle this where desired.)

Should I talk about the story? Oh, just a little.

I don't want to spoil much about the story because it is, after all, the point of the game. But it's not too much to repeat the back-cover blurb: you are a psychologist. You're treating five patients who were found wandering, violently incoherent, on the streets of New York. The five are initially amnesiac and unresponsive; but by reminding them of key elements from their experiences, you can coax them to recall events from the preceding week. These appear in the game as flashbacks. You play each flashback from the patient's point of view, while you-the-psychologist records the patient's narration on a PDA. The PDA serves both as an audio journal and a cue for further recollections. By replaying one patient's story for another patient, you bring up more events, and thus you iteratively tease out their shared story.

This is nifty narrative stuff. You are given scenes out-of-order, and from different points of view -- which means you have to piece them together in your head; recognize connections and overlaps. Not just cut-scenes, not just interactive cut-scenes, but interactive cut-scenes that you have to think about and engage with to understand. It's hypertext in an old sense. (See? I told you it was in a class with Portal. Did you think I mentioned that just because I'm annoyed that a recent wildly-popular game has swamped its use of the title? Certainly not.)

On the other hand, the form has drawbacks. When you sit down at the game (after a night's sleep or whatever crude amusements you may pretend beyond videogaming), you might find it hard to get back into what's going on. After all, your previous day's experience was a set of somewhat disjointed flashbacks. Continuing the game means picking the right patient -- could be any of them -- and, most likely, replaying the most recent audio recording -- if you can find it. The disorientation that sets the tone of the story becomes a stumbling block when you try to re-enter it.

(It doesn't help that the PDA's replay interface is terrible. It's a deep tree of menus, each of which is labelled only with a patient number, a date, or a time. You have no way to tell which menu or menus you're in, either. If you've forgotten which patient's recording you're listening to, you have to memorize the dates and times displayed, and then go up to the top and start searching for a folder with the same labels visible! And again if you've forgotten what date or time you've got open. Feh and triple feh.)

(Frankly, even though the PDA acts as an in-game journal, you're better off keeping notes on paper. Diagram it all out. I didn't, and wound up wishing I had. Particularly when -- this is a spoiler, but you need it -- when you hit the endgame and lose the PDA without warning. And yes, some clues from the audio recordings are important after that, albeit not absolutely critical. Quintuple feh!)

Even within a play session, I spent a lot of time randomly trying all recordings against all patients. (Hint: if you get a voiceover "Hrm...", that's a hit.) The right answer was usually to play the most recent recording, but I kept losing track of where that was -- see above -- and also the game has enough variety that that wasn't always the right way to advance. Sometimes you have to go make a phone call, or talk to the grouchy supervising psychologist, or go back to your hotel. The game is pretty good about cueing the change-ups. I'll even say it's very good; this isn't supposed to be a difficult puzzle element. But even "very good" is never perfect, and whenever you fall off the rails, you have to brute-force your way back. I never got truly stuck doing this, but it was frequently the dull part.

One more comment about the story. (One more wafffer-thin comment...)

The subtitle of Overclocked is "A History of Violence". The game is indeed about violence. That could be good or it could be bad, and in this case it's... mixed.

Overclocked wants to be the sort of mainstream, psychological horror story that puts you in the shoes of frightening people and makes you half-sympathetic with them while being half-repulsed. And parts of the game do that, very well. The portrayal of violence and abuse seems banal, chilling, and right. (I have no real-life personal experience to compare against -- I am grateful to say -- so I'll leave that comparison tentative.)

On the other hand, Overclocked wants to be a science-fictional story, about future technology and violence. Parts of the game do this pretty well (although the over-ironic attempt to relate to videogame violence falls flat). But to the extent that this works, it completely undercuts the other aspect. I don't want to get spoilery, but the resolution of the story tripped all my "you can't have it both ways" alarms, and then the ending managed to miss both points while undercutting itself. I respect the deliberate ambiguity there -- it's certainly more interesting than a neat bow-tie -- but I still felt that it failed to address what (I thought) the game had been about.

On top of this, I don't actually like mainstream psychological horror stories. Or, for that matter, science fiction stories which put you in the company (or the shoes) of frightening, repulsive people. (This an unfortunately popular subgenre of SF.) I spent quite a bit of Overclocked thinking "Yes, this is an awful situation. Oh, look, it's getting worse. I wish it would stop." I sympathized with the characters' plight -- but sure as heck not with them.

I didn't stop playing. That was due, I think, to the designer's excellent sense of pacing: the game alternates between your real-world investigation and the flashback exploration of history, and each affords a relief to the stresses of the other. (A much subtler rendition of the dual-world pacing of Silent Hill?) I suppose this is exactly the line the designer intended me to walk -- emotional impact without driving me away entirely. Hail the designer, I say, waving my hand eloquently. But it's not the same as enjoying the thing.

Not the same as enjoying all of it. I enjoyed this game overall. I appreciated it. I disliked some of it. The curate can go get himself some damn waffles.

The summary, if I can summarize all this back-and-forth: Overclocked is a great piece of interactive fiction. It's engaging, narratively sophisticated, and ruthless in its use of adventure-game convention to serve its goals. It's also frustrating in spots, deliberately unpleasant in spots, and perhaps ultimately incoherent. If you're familiar with the experimental range of text-adventure storytelling, Overclocked will be a welcome exemplar from the graphical, commercial side of the fence. If you're not, then play Overclocked to see what games can do.

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