Review: Titanic: Adventure Out of Time

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

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Dialog and writing
Fairly hard
Very good
Forgiveness rating
You can die. You can make mistakes which make the endgame more difficult, and the optimal solution impossible. In the endgame, you can make mistakes which leave the optimal solution impossible, or even leave any solution impossible.

It's interesting how much this game resembles The Last Express. I don't know if one influenced the other -- or vice versa -- but the designers made many of the same decisions. The setting, of course: 1912, rumbles in Europe, Serbs and Germans and Bolsheviks and British spies dancing every which way. A widely-branched plot with a large cast of interacting characters. A few action scenes, in which dexterity is only a superficial problem. Stylized character animation, allowing a very large stock of dialogue.

In fact, Titanic is such a similar game idea that it's even more interesting how much better The Last Express is. I could summarize, "If you don't have good writing, all your other good ideas aren't worth a damn," and end this review right here.

(But I won't. Heh.)

I have jumped ahead of -- jumped behind -- uh, I have elided some plot. Titanic actually starts in 1942. You're a has-been British secret agent, sitting in a London apartment in the middle of a Nazi air raid. You muse on the Titanic assignment, the one you screwed up so badly -- thirty years ago -- that you were cashiered. Waste of a life. And then all your windows blow in.

Blam. You're on the Titanic, and you seem to have been given a second chance.

This is an interesting premise -- more interesting than I first realized, in fact. You had/have several tasks to accomplish in 1912. Each one affects a crucial event in subsequent history: the outbreak of the Great War, the rise of the Third Reich, the Communist Revolution in Russia. And, of course, your death by drowning on the sexiest boat in history. Now, the "first time" (so to speak) you screwed up every task except the last. You got to a lifeboat, returned to London, were fired, and the rest of history turned out as we remember it. But you can do better.

More on this later.

The course of the game goes pretty much as you'd expect. You run around meeting passengers. One is your contact, Penny Pringle, and she starts you off on your first quest. But you can't get thing A without object B, and you can't get object B without clue C, but fortunately you meet a passenger who wants favor Z and will give you Y in return, and in the process...

The web of obligations and favors is really very well designed. I haven't tried to map it all out, but it's clear that you have great freedom to choose what order you play in. Minor tasks that should be independent are independent. You can be following two or more threads at once, advancing in each as you figure out (or stumble across) where to go and who to talk to. Major events can affect each other, but there are many alternate paths and solutions at the higher level as well.

The most critical event, of course, involves several megatons of ice. That changes everything. But you don't have to have all your eggs in a row at that point. You have opportunities to repair mistakes, bargain with other characters -- they're desperate too -- and generally patch up any holes you may have gotten your game state into, before you head for the lifeboats.

Of course, you're in much less of a rush before the crash.

The game is not strongly timed. You have a watch, but it seems to advance by how much you accomplish, not in real time. So wandering around cluelessly isn't penalized. The iceberg is tied to a particular (and particularly dramatic) encounter, so if you save frequently, you can back up and do extra work before you trigger the collision. After the collision, as I said, you can still do work, but only so much of it. Once the last lifeboat is gone, there's no hope.

So far, this sounds a lot like The Last Express. The big difference? I simply didn't care about anyone in Titanic. The characters are walking plot devices, every one. This is partially a consequence of the very flexible plot structure. You can get into room Q at any point in the game (after you encounter person P and find out what's in there.) This means that person R, who gives you the opportunity to get in, has to stand outside room Q for nearly the whole game. Implausible and boring.

This is endemic. One character is a psychic, meaning that he can give you clues about objects, and his life seems to consist of standing by the stairs being available to you. Except later, when he disappears, so that there can be a subplot of finding someone who will tell you where he is. Another character hangs around for hours for the sole purpose of saying that he saw person K in location L, so that later, when character W says he's looking for something that K lost, you know where to look.

Every piece of dialogue is either background (expressed in fairly clumsy infodumps, sorry, I mean gossip) or (more frequently) a direct derivative of some plot point. Everyone talks in favors and promises. Write it down or keep it in your head, but you know that eventually you'll be completing the favor and redeeming the promise.

Well, you get the idea. The Last Express was full of fascinating, wild characters, people with lives, interacting with each other. Titanic is full of plot devices who mostly wait to interact with you.

"If you don't have good writing, all your other good ideas aren't worth a damn."

Oh, another thing. In The Last Express, you yourself are a fascinating, wild, mysterious character. You learn more and more about him as the game goes on -- and this works because the game provides all your responses. Titanic, in contrast, has a menu-dialogue system. The game provides a list of four or five lines, you pick one, and the other character responds. Traditional, easy to use, and it makes you into a complete nonentity. The original Colossal-Cave featureless protagonist. People writing menu-dialogue games, take note.

(Featureless except for a beard, by the way. A single scene, late in the game, shows you from third-person perspective. Must be a bit of a jolt for female players. But I digress.)

(But while I'm digressing, I was impressed by the blackjack dealer, and how his part was written. He's only involved in the plot at one point, which means he actually has time to be... the subject of dark allegations. I won't spoil the fun.)

Plot control is a little obtrusive at times. Characters go on convenient errands, leaving thing unattended at just the right time. Objects often appear when you encounter the task of finding them; you can't sneak in earlier and mess up the plot graph. (In one egregious example, you discover that one character is dead, but the body doesn't appear until you talk to someone else.)

The interface is quite nice. It's a standard first-person view, but it uses arrow keys for movement, instead of loading everything into the mouse. So you never have to hunt for turn/walk hotspots; clickable mouse areas are always people or objects. An arrow indicates whether the area directly ahead is walkable, blocked, or a closed door (click to trying opening it.) Unambiguous navigation. People blindly imitating the Myst pure-mouse interface, take note.

Most of the puzzles are fairly easy, if you take a walk-around, talk-to-everyone approach to getting stuck. However, a few seem badly out of balance. In one case, I had to push someone through a particular dialogue sequence, in a fairly bushy menu tree, before I asked a favor of him. I had to go to a cheat page for that. In retrospect, I can see that that particular branch was significant -- he said "Thank you" at the end -- and I had actually tried it; but I had not tried asking him for the favor after every single conversation attempt. No indication that that was the right approach. In another place, I had to go around a particular sequence of actions several times. Eventually the other character involved gave me something. I was solidly on the walkthrough by then, or I would never have tried it that many times.

I played from the walkthrough from that point on, since I had no great fascination with the characters or story. I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.

But the ending turns out to be the best part. First, there's the post-iceberg endgame, which (as I said) can actually be several different endgames, depending on what you've accomplished. Anything from a simple quest for a lifeboat, to a mad rush to grab objects from all over the ship. And there's a fair amount of real-life tension to work with. (Meeting the steerage passengers, trapped below decks, was an effective scene. Mind you, you only have to meet them so that they can do you a favor. But that favor, like everything in the endgame, flows naturally from the storylines earlier on.)

And then the denoument, after you escape on a lifeboat. You have fulfilled none, some, or all of your tasks. History is changed. And you're back in 1942 -- a 1942. If you did everything right, it's an ideal 1942... quite different from the London Blitz of our history. If you missed anything, things are bad, one way or another. All your windows blow in, or the Nazis storm in, or the Communists drag you away, or -- other possibilities -- and blam, you're on the Titanic, and you have another chance.

I spent at least two hours playing through the endgame again and again, deliberately screwing up in as many ways as possible. Because you get a little summary of history each time. I counted seven possible versions of the thirty-year period between 1912 and 1942, including the "real" version and the "ideal" version. I was fascinated. Scribbling little notes about each one. Truly, I was more intrigued by these variations than by the main storyline of the game.

(An interesting note, perhaps not obvious. These histories are seen, and judged, by someone in 1942. Today, we might consider our "real" history to be one of the best of the variations shown in Titanic. The Nazis were defeated, Communism fell apart, there hasn't been a world war for fifty years. But for the observer in air-raid London, it's the worst of all possible worlds. One Great War, brutal revolution in Russia -- and now, he says in bitter despair, a second World War. What could possibly be worse?)

Try it and see.

Conclusion: Good try, but not well-written enough to be really interesting, except for the bits at the end.

Availability: You can buy it directly from the publisher's web page. Or look around in bargain bins. It's a hybrid Mac/PC game.

System Requirements: System 7.1, 68040 or better, 8 megs RAM total, 2x CD drive, 256 colors. (16 megs RAM and Powermac recommended.)

Macintoshness: There are some interface annoyances. No command keys for save and restore, although cmd-Q works. And you can't double-click a game file to start it running -- which means that you always have to boot the game with CD-ROM 1, restore a game, and then swap in CD-ROM 2 to play. Dumb.

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