Non-Review: Schizm

Non-review written by Andrew Plotkin

Schizm wins some painful kind of award for "Game that I hated for all the reasons I was supposed to like it."

No, that's not really very accurate. Makes a good tag line though. Well, too long for a good tag line. Perhaps we should settle for "Dudes, you didn't do this right." Or "Ennh: An Interactive Sigh of Dejection That Will Become Your World, Unfortunately."

Sheesh. Still too long.

Schizm doesn't just ring the Myst-clone bells, it beats them into ploughshares and then into thin bronze foil. And then eats the foil. The tag-line (the actual one, from the box, not me dorking around) is "Mysterious Journey". It's got the misspelled English word for a title. It's got the organic-looking technology; it's got the catwalks. It's got the peculiar machines. It's got the arbitrary puzzles, oh my god, has it got the arbitrary puzzles.

Situation: you are the two crew members of a supply ship visiting a scientific colony on a strange -- lo, a mysterious -- planet. Only all the scientists have disappeared. And then your ship crashes, and you are separated as your life-pods eject. One character is stranded on some kind of living island-artifact; the other is wandering around a huge floating airship.

This is good stuff. Two characters? Lots of potential there! And, you know, I like Myst-clones, as a rule. So what goes wrong?

First problem: the visuals suck. I mean, the models are nice, but... somehow unconvincing. I'd really like to be more specific. You know how Riven had islands, and transportation systems, and machines, and villages, and they were plausible? Schizm has all of that, and they're very enthusiastic, only it's not plausible. I am doing a terrible job of being more specific. I apologize.

Plus it's blurry. It's compressed to hell and gone, it's like looking through crumpled saran wrap, I kept wanting to reach out and scrape the JPEG artifacts off the screen. Even in close-ups! What's the point of having alien numbering systems (and they have alien numbering systems coming out their yin-yang, see below) if you can't read the numbers? How can they possibly need this much compression? Sure, they have lots of turn-animations and move-animations, but can't they compress the intermediate frames and use high quality for the endpoints? Didn't anyone think of this?

(Note: I was playing off the CD version. I'm told there's a DVD version, but I didn't see it anywhere. Don't have any access to a Windows box with a DVD drive, anyhow. So if the DVD version looks better, well, tough.)

I was willing to forgive all of that.

I was willing to forgive the painfully bad acting, and the painfully bad dialogue. I can deal with that, in games. "Perhaps these [prayer bells] have some other purpose... like opening doors!" (A direct quote, I swear.)

I was, more or less, willing to forgive the tedious navigation. (You can't click out of any transition movie, not even the long ones.)

You start by searching for navigational coordinates. Gotta steer those ships and things. So you manipulate the strange -- lo, mysterious -- machines, insanely complicated machines, whose sole purpose seems to be to make the navigation harder. You find the symbols. You work out the numbering systems. You enter the coordinates. You make progress.

The first time I hit a puzzle which totally stumped me, I was generous. It was a clever puzzle, once I looked up the answer on the Net. Not entirely original, but I'd never seen it used in a computer game before. That's worth points.

I felt kind of dumb for not seeing the answer, but I really had been on the wrong track. I'd been interpreting the behavior of the machine wrong. (I thought you used it and then measured the result; in fact you measured the action you were about to invoke.) Not enough feedback on what the thing was doing, perhaps, but that's a common design error.

The second time I hit a puzzle which completely stumped me, I realized the entire damn game would be like that.

The feedback is uniformly inadequate. The machines always behave illogically -- or rather, they behave like machines designed to be puzzles; not like machines designed by the inhabitants of the world, to serve some useful purpose in the world. None of my "what is this for?" guesses were helpful. You never know when you have enough information, or where you should be looking for more, if you don't have enough.

I skimmed ahead in that Net walkthrough a bit. The sad thing is, I like this kind of game design. An underdetermined puzzle is a puzzle you have to be creative to solve. The designers make good use of having two active characters interacting (or not interacting). They re-use territory; they re-use machines. The overall range of action is not too broad (you're exploring one, or rather two, areas at a time), but it's not too narrow (you have to recall where you've been, and possibly go back to make use of things).

And yet the effect is awful. Re-using something from an earlier part of the game is painful, because navigation is so slow and boring -- you can't just zip back and check something out. Experimenting with puzzles is necessary, but the twentieth time you see that animation... that long animation... you just want to punch the screen.

Basically, nothing motivated me to care. No plot. No character depth (whatsoever). No hope of suspending disbelief. Killingly, no sense of wonder. Pretty, yes. So? It's like they wanted to imitate everything that was good about Riven, and double it; and instead they got everything that was wrong with Myst 3. And quadrupled it.

The prospect of five CDs full of puzzles should be exciting, except that, come on, five CDs full of puzzles to figure out more navigation coordinates? When I didn't actually enjoy the first two? Somehow the whole game suddenly became a prospect of horror and agony.

So I stopped playing, halfway through CD 1. Horror and agony will do that to a guy.

Yes, this is all a personal reaction. If you can get into the puzzles, more luck to you. I'm sure you'll find Schizm the meatiest collection of brain joggery since The Fool's Errand.

I stopped playing.

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