Review: Temüjin

Official web page; SouthPeak Interactive (creators).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Good (video, not computer-rendered)
Very good
Writing and dialogue
Very good
Quite easy, as long as you remember to move around whenever you get stuck
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake (except in the endgame, where you can easily run out of time)

I was taken quite by surprise. I'd never even heard of this game -- when I first saw it on the eight-buck table at Babbages, my memory tried to confuse it with either Qin or The Riddle of Master Lu. But no. The theme is Mongol, not Chinese (although Chinese magic sneaks in). Temüjin was the name of the Great Khan, Genghis Khan. He's dead.

For a game I'd never heard of, I really enjoyed the heck out of this one.

...Not dead enough, or so the opening imagery shows us. The Khan's funeral rites were corrupted. Instead of being sent to rest, his spirit was bound by a shamanka of Wah-Jin, a particularly nasty goat-headed deity. The Good Witch of the picture, a Chinese concubine, interceded to keep Wah-Jin quiescent; but inevitably the nasty breaks loose. In modern times, of course. In an art museum. A historical exhibition of Genghis Khan's treasures. Where the prize display is a gold-encrusted goat head.

Temüjin draws on the hoariest of story-game tropes: you start with amnesia (and assorted other mental problems, such as disorientation, hallucination, and you can't talk). As per usual, this explains why you-the-player have no knowledge of the game world (and obviates the need for a conversation interface). This comes off rather better than usual, though, because -- unlike most amnesia games -- you're not isolated from all human contact. The Stevenson Museum comes with a full cast, all of whom are happy to talk to you. Or at least at you. Not that they explain what's going on; instead you get a minor blizzard of sly innuendo and clues.

Maybe this will piss you off. Me, I got into it pretty quickly. The acting and writing aren't stellar, but I was able to swing with the melodrama. I was unsure at first about the hokey we-will-tell-you-nothing, do-what-you-must-do scenario; but the designers do have their reasons. All is explained.

And I just had to laugh when... well, I won't push the spoiler envelope. But I assure you, the characters have some idea how strange they sound.

The game prominently headlines its "Video Reality" engine. The first striking feature behind this buzzword is -- the world is not computer-rendered. At least not much of it. These maniacs actually built a museum set, galleries and offices and gift shop and all; dressed it with framed paintings and genuine piles of genuine physical objects; and took pictures. Took video footage, in fact, driving a camera around for each transition movie.

I wouldn't say the result looks better than an all-CGI game. But it absolutely looks more realistic. If nothing else, I love the sheer freedom of clutter. Want a messy pile of paper clips on a desk? You don't have to add thirty individually-rendered curved-wire objects to a model; you just by-gods upend a box of paperclips. The restoration studio, purely filled with messy work benches and heaps of junk, was a minor revelation to me. And nobody had to count polygons for it. Remember when I used to judge computer graphics by dirt? On a stage set, dirt is free!

(Legal note: I naturally mean no disrespect to the Federated Union of Technical Dirt Emplacers, Dust Job Sprinklers, and Smudgepersons, who do such fine work in making film and television scenes the grungy vistas that we admire. And not for free, you may be sure. I just meant it takes no computer-rendering time.)

The other striking feature of the "Video Reality" interface, unfortunately, is that it stinks. The game tries to provide the sense of a fully-pannable interface. But it does this by storing all its scenes and transition movies in 640-pixel-wide images -- and then displaying them in a 320x240 viewport. So you can pan back and forth, but it's fixed-image panning, not the anamorphic panning which we're familiar with these days. And you can only look 45 degrees left and right; to go farther you have to use the turn command.

The effect is actually quite realistic. For about fifteen minutes. (Example of impressiveness: you can do that 90-degree-swivel panning during a transition movie. Because the movies are 640 pixels wide, too. This captures the sense of looking around as you walk, in a way no other pre-rendered graphical game ever has.)

However, after those fifteen minutes, you realize that you're looking at fixed images -- and movies -- through a keyhole. And the "looking around" consists of moving the keyhole around until you've covered all the area -- and then hitting the turn hotspot -- and then doing it again. And again. Facial tics and nephritis follow shortly.

The note I scribbled to myself said "LLB". The next day, I had no idea what I meant. It took another day to remember "LLB" stood for "the Law of Least Bullshit", and another day yet to remember the point, which is this: if you have a large image, for heavens' sakes, show it all at once. Concealing half of the image does not make it look twice as large; players are perfectly capable of noticing that they're looking through a 320x240 porthole.

Now, "LLB" is really much too absolute a statement. A standard panning view also conceals most of the source image; you have to turn around to see it all. I don't object to the idea of doling out data a bit at a time -- in fact, that's what storytelling is -- we call it "pacing".

However, this particular interface is annoying and stupid. If it showed each image all at once, it would be faster, just as visually comprehensible, and more immersive too. End of story.

(And, if I may sneak in a subversive note -- seeing a 360-degree panning source image all at once isn't very realistic. Even fish-eying the view out a bit looks weird and artificial. But if a game lets me do it, secretly, I often do. Just for a quick overview. Immersion is great the first time, but eventually you just want... more data. Less bullshit.)

(Another problem, which is not stupid design, but inherent to the whole filmed-set approach: it's hard to patch CGI objects into a video. Particularly if the camera is moving. If you walk into a room, and there's a takeable object visible, it "floats" on the video image. The motion doesn't synch right. Of course, some people would argue that takeable objects ought to stand out like sore thumbs, but I don't think the sense of focus has to damage the mimesis, the sense of there-ness, quite so badly.)

And after all of that, I still say I really liked Temüjin. Why? Partially, I enjoyed watching the story go by. As I said, it's not brilliant writing, but it's suitably tricksy and entangled -- one of those webs o' deceit that mystery blurbs love to mention. You gather clues in tiny pieces, in the forms of physical evidence, overheard conversations, and psychometry (okay, yes, another hoary IF trope). Evidence points six different ways. False leads arise. Threads spin themselves out. The Big Picture forms. By the end, you know everything. What else shall a mystery plot require?

The pacing is excellent. The entire game takes place in the museum. You start by exploring the whole place, of course; but as the game moves on, you gain new abilities, each of which leads to re-exploring and getting a whole new slew of evidence. Encounters with the characters also advance the plot, and these pace the game as well, since even if an encounter in a room has become possible (in the overall plot diagram), it won't necessarily happen the first time you enter.

And the puzzles work. Well, they worked for me. (Bar the occasional moldy chestnut -- oh look, bottles which hold two, six, and eleven ounces...) They're mostly starightforward physical actions, with a few acts of magic thrown in for seasoning. The obscure ones are plentifully clued -- although I was occasionally thrown by the presentation of the clues. The designers have taken the stand that if you're stuck, you should go explore some more. Really. In some places, I found myself completely baffled by a situation -- a situation that seemed to have no cluing or direction at all. When I went to a walkthrough, I found that there was no such cluing -- but if I had stepped back from the puzzle, or left the room, the appropriate information would have appeared.

Similarly, when the plot seemed to bog down, it was because I hadn't walked around enough. I had gotten far enough to trigger the encounter that led onwards, but I hadn't actually encountered it. When in doubt, go through every room again. And -- this is important -- if a room has two doors, try entering through both of them. An encounter is set for a particular location and facing, not just a particular room. I don't mean you can miss one by standing too far to the left -- they deliberately put them on doors and other bottlenecks -- but it does sometimes have to be the correct door.

Looking back, I really didn't get stuck on a single puzzle, except for places where I should have explored more. Some of this is due to my "play with everything until I understand it" habits. In fact, those habits were my weakness as well. I went to the walkthrough whenever I couldn't understand something, when often the correct response would have been to stop playing with it and go do something else. So there you go. Wander wander.

Temüjin never gets repetitive... well, yes, it does. When you've gone through every room in the museum three times, the prospect of a fourth run-through is wearing. Even if each round turned up new and interesting encounters, evidence, and other assorted amusement. (Take that, alliteration-boy!)

But what I mean is, the plot-line itself doesn't get repetitive. Chapter 1 is exploring the museum. Chapter 2 is exploring the museum, but you can get into many more things. And then again, but you can get into different things. Chapter 3 is... I have to do what? (Which task may seem absurdly complicated, but is actually quite an easy puzzle. The complication adds to the fun, not the frustration. I am pleased.) (And sorry about the lack of specifics; I am too pleased with Chapter 3 to spoil it.) Chapter 4 is an different task (and catching up on any exploration).

And then the game goes completely loopy; you spend a chapter locked in a room and interacting with the museum (and its inhabitants) in an entirely new way. And then another, completely surreal. (Delightfully so, I found; and I've seen a lot of surreal IF.) And finally you win. Not unexpected, but it does tie matters up.

I could bring forth other nitpicks about the game. (I sometimes had trouble figuring out what objects were, even in my inventory. I had trouble with clues that involved recognizing people, because I'm bad at that. The final puzzle was timed, and was unfairly difficult on my slow (emulated) PC. The designers missed what I think would have been a superior alternate solution in the ending, too.) On the other hand, I could bring forth other compliments as well. (For all the rattiness of the navigation UI, the game has some really nice interfaces for its internal puzzles. I already mentioned Chapter 3. I also enjoyed working with the jigsaw puzzles, and the newspaper anagram. And, before I forget, I like the modern art. Particularly the gizmos. Gizmos!)

But I won't take the time to go into those details. Heh.

Conclusion: I was able to get past the horrid navigation, and found Temüjin to be a engaging and imaginatively-constructed mystery game. However, I can see people being just as likely to be turned off. Fortunately, you'll probably encounter it in a bargain bin, so you won't be risking much if you buy it.

System Requirements: Pentium 90, Win95, 16 megs RAM, 30 megs free disk space, 2x CD drive, 16-bit color display. (Pentium 120 and 4x drive recommended.)

(Interestingly, that 30 megs of disk space does not involve an install procedure. You stick in the CD and go. All hard-drive caching is automatic and invisible. I've just barely gotten used to the Horror That Is InstallShield; Temüjin is such a tremendous improvement that I was left gasping for breath, once I noticed, which took a couple of play sessions. Good engineering is when you forget problems used to exist. This is good engineering.)

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