Review: Timelapse

Official web page; Cyberflix (creators); Barracuda (current publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Dialogue and writing
Very good (although navigation is weak)
Very good
Not too hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die, get stuck, or make a mistake -- except in the endgame (which has timed sequences.)

There comes, betimes, a point when you just can't stand to play another goddamn Myst clone. But --

I thank all the gods and little fishies: I have not yet reached that point.

Timelapse is a great collection of puzzles. A gorgeous collection of puzzles, even. I have absolutely no problem with it as a collection of puzzles, and I enjoyed it a lot. But I am, I mean just a little, starting to feel the desire for a collection of graphical puzzles that's wrapped around a storyline.

Not to say that Timelapse lacks a "storyline". There's the standard voice-over introduction: your best buddy and archaeological crackpot, Professor Alexander Nichols, wants you to come to Easter Island. He says he's found proof of his crackpot archaeological theories linking the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Maya, the Anasazi Indians, the Easter Islanders, and the legends of Atlantic. He says he's found a time portal. He's going to try it.

When you reach Easter Island, of course, you find an abandoned campsite and a mysterious cave.

I say "storyline", in quotes. There's actually a great deal of background in the professor's journal. He found an ancient sage, he learned the secrets of the island, he heard parts of a story-legend that may describe visitors from another time, or another world, or Atlantis. You can tell the authors are fascinated by this stuff, but unfortunately, it's all glop. It boils down to "Cally-cally-catch-me-if-you-can!" Go start poking at petroglyphs.

Perhaps I am unduly jaundiced. I can't stand the X-Files. I am insulted by the idea that my ancestors needed a leg up from aliens. Roswell conspiracy theories bore me. I don't think that "superior" genetic material inevitably brings utopia. And if I never hear another word about stone blocks so perfectly fitted that you can't slip a knife blade between them, it'll be 2500 years too soon.

Most of the background "storyline" in Timelapse is exactly this sort of glop, lifted from the most trite sources. Not even interesting glop. It's interspersed with factual historical details, which I suppose are intended to be educational, and legends about the Atlanteans, which don't fit in very well with the Mayan/Egyptian/Anasazi myth that they're supposed to explain. The professor pops up every so often and says how thrilled he is to be proved right. I'd say skip it all, but this stuff is handed out as the rewards for advancing in the game. I felt some incomprehensible need to read and listen to it all. Maybe I thought I deserved it. Don't ask me.

Anyway, at the end, you get to Atlantis -- or what's left of it -- and learn the truth, of course, which comes as an impressively large set of info-dumps. (Holographic history lessons, technical summaries, diaries, and logs. They're everywhere.) The truth doesn't go anywhere much. Atlanteans visited ancient civilizations and uplifted them. That'll surprise you. There's a bunch more background about who the Atlanteans are and where they came from and where they went, but it's all irrelevant to what you've spent the game doing. More an introduction to a sequel game; but since no sequel was ever produced, I award no points there.

Oh, yes, there's a mysterious figure who appears and warns you off. You have to deal with it in the endgame. Nothing more to be said there.

But enough cavitation re: the plot. I did start off saying that I wasn't tired of this kind of game yet. I did enjoy it. It's a series of big old alien environments full of strange symbols and stranger machines. You have to find the correlations and connections. You're never told the rules, so figuring them out is always the first step -- I'm all in favor of that. The rules aren't generally very complicated; the most complicated concept I recall is addition. But I love a mass of raw and incomprehensible data. Yum.

Well, there are some hints. If you want, you can consult the Professor's journal, which is (inexplicably) updated with information about each new time zone you enter. That has weak hints (in addition to the "storyline" material I've already complained about.) And various puzzles and puzzle areas have the well-known Hollow Voice, booming out instructions in clumsy metaphor. The writing could be better, but it does improve the resolution of the interface in places. Reasons why an action doesn't work, comments about not-quite-right approaches, and so on -- the details that a graphical adventure interface so often lacks. Of course, in other places, the Hollow Voice just gives bad hints. You can't have everything.

The puzzles are, for lack of a better word, well-integrated. Since there's no plot and no reason for any of the scenery except supporting puzzles, that's not too surprising. (Yes, now it's eccentric puzzle-mad priests. Hey, their genetic legacy did survive to the present day -- look at Shivers, Seventh Guest...) But Timelapse does a good job of constructing large, complicated areas, with clues and relevant symbols scattered around. There's no mimesis -- you can't imagine what these places would "really" have been used for, bar puzzle-solving -- but they're fun places to walk around in. Distinctive.

All the puzzles made sense, more or less. A few could be approached by brute force; I'm particularly thinking of two board games. I generally try brute force before thinking, if it looks like it won't take forever. In these cases, it worked. But I could also see ways to apply strategy. Or outright cheating, I think. (I never tried it, as I said. What? No, really...) I got stuck a couple of times, mostly through not having written down enough notes about signs, symbols, and portents. You might want to have hints handy, because it's the sort of game where everyone is going to get stuck somewhere. But I didn't cheat very often. The in-game journal, as I said, usually provides enough of a nudge.

(I must, however, complain about one puzzle. It's the fifteen puzzle. Now, everyone knows that the fifteen puzzle is about the most tedious and annoying puzzle that can possibly go into a graphical adventure. (Except for certain related sliding-block puzzles... and of course the jumping pegs... but let's not go there.) It's tedious because you've solved it before, you know how to solve it, but you can't just whiz through it. You can't generally cheat, either -- certainly not in the Timelapse version, which is scrambled randomly. You just have to slog on through. In a unique fifteen-puzzle twist, the authors decided that if you get a quarter of the puzzle solved (four squares), those squares freeze in place. Thus making it even more tedious and annoying. I spent more time in that room than on any other puzzle. And I didn't enjoy it at all.)

Anyway. Puzzle design aside, everything feels pretty good. The authors have squeezed a great deal of subtlety out of the standard click-on-A, drag-B-onto-C interface. You can only carry one object at a time, but when you drag your possession around the screen, it's more than an icon. You can (in various parts of the game) shake the object you're holding, touch it to another object, rub it against something. These actions have results, distinct results, for all that it's a one-mouse-button control system. You can hear things happen. Timing is relevant, sometimes. I'm having trouble describing this without giving away particular puzzles, but it's a much more tactile approach than just clicking. Major points there.

Navigation, on the other hand, could use some work. In Titanic (the previous game by these people) all movement was the arrow keys, leaving the mouse entirely for selecting objects and people. In Timelapse, they bowed to popular pressure, I think; there are movement hotspots on the screen. But they're generic hotspots. The left side of the screen is always turn left (except for particular clickable objects, of course.) The upper sector of the screen is always move forward; and so on. But the boundaries never change to match the features of particular locations. Clicking on a forward path, for example, will usually fail, because the path's image isn't in the upper screen sector. It can get confusing. Stick with the arrow keys.

(Actually, the arrow keys have a problem too. An four-arrow glyph appears in the low corner of the screen, indicating which arrow keys are active. But it looks like a compass rose, and it's not; the left and right arrows indicate that you can turn left and right, not move left and right from your current location. This gets confusing too, although I got used to it. Perhaps curving side arrows would have been a better design choice.)

(Keyboard or mouse, you spend a lot of time walking back and forth. Gets dull. There are jump-hotspots, which let you traverse long paths in a single click -- but not nearly enough of them. Put in more next time.)

It's pretty. The models are a little crude -- par for the era, I think, it says copyright 1996 -- but that's much outweighed by a good sense of detail, density, and general niftiness. Not enough dirt for my taste, but I suppose if you time-walk back to ancient Egypt, you have to expect crisp, unweathered, polished, and freshly-painted architecture. The Mayan jungle is juicy. Atlantis, of course, is beautiful. Okay, overly shiny and sterile. (More dirt!) But beautiful.

(You wanna know what impressed me? In the Mayan age, there's a paved courtyard. The pavement is just a little uneven. A big shallow puddle has gathered in one corner. It's fringed with darker pavement, where the water is slowly evaporating after the night's rain. You've seen similar puddles all your life. Someone threw one in here. That impressed me.)

Hmm, I'm running out of little scribbled notes. Sound. There are a lot of sound cues and audio dialogue in this game. That's great for atmosphere and interface, but don't expect to keep up if you're hearing-impaired. No subtitles.

The packaging is worthy of note, too... a sour note. The four CDs come in a strange multi-slot cardboard envelope. The thing seems carefully designed to maximize scratching as you take the discs out. I had a lot of scratches, and a lot of trouble with I/O errors crashing the game. I strongly recommend tearing away the cardboard, lifting the CDs out carefully, and storing them in jewel-boxes or individual sleeves thereafter.

Puddles... sounds... not enough jumps... well, I'm out of comments. In short: If you're into copying down glyphs and matching them up with controls, Timelapse will be a few days of concentrated fun. Just don't pay any attention to the plot.

Availability: You can buy it directly from publisher's web page. Be sure to get the Mac version; it's a separate package from the PC version.

Macintoshness: Reasonable. No menu bar, but all the expected command-keys work, and files are selected with the usual dialogue boxes. There are a lot of preferences you can tune, which is nice -- display brightness, transition effect speed, etc.

System requirements: System 7.0 or later, 68040 or better CPU, 256 color display, 8 megs RAM, 2x CD drive. (16 megs and 4x drive recommended.)

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