Review: Traitors Gate

Official web page; Daydream (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Dialogue and writing
Extremely good
Please note
No apostrophe in the title
Straightforward, but often you find yourself with too many possibilities and no idea where to start
Forgiveness rating
You can lose (get caught) easily, often by actions that you could not have predicted were dangerous. However, you cannot get into an unwinnable state; if you make a mistake, you lose immediately. However-prime, you can very easily make the best win impossible, and not know it until you finish the game.

Item: Back in my youth, when I was into paper-and-pencil RPGs, a friend designed a dungeon. I played. I entered a room. "The floor is covered with mist," he said. "On a pedestal in the far corner, you see the Crown Jewels." I went to look, and something horrible happened. Never mind that. The point, my friend explained, is that if you want someone's attention, you put in some Crown Jewels. Nobody passes up Crown Jewels.

Item: In Daydream's previous game, Safecracker, the goal was to break into three dozen safes. The safes lived in an imaginary mansion whose purpose was to hold safes. The safes' purpose was to hold clues to opening more safes. Some flimsy excuse was attached.

Traitors Gate is exactly the same. Except the mansion isn't imaginary. You're breaking into the Tower of London, England's most famous thousand-year-old castle and tourist trap. The purpose of the Tower, as far as you're concerned, is to hold the Crown Jewels of the British Empire.

I don't know about you, but I was hooked. Who passes up Crown Jewels?

Again, a flimsy excuse is attached. You're not stealing the Crown Jewels. No, you're an American agent, part of a secret Pentagon department. This department, you see, had some old Cold War plans for, er, taking possession of the Jewels -- just in case bad old Russia invaded London, or something. Okay, so nobody ever told England that these plans existed. No harm, no foul, right? Except some evil person saw the plans and decided to use them.

No no no, not you. You're the good guy. You have to steal the Jewels first, and replace them with bugged fakes, so that when this other guy steals the Jewels you can catch him.

But you still can't tell England that any of this is going on. It would be... embarrassing. I mean, it sounds like some sort of trumped-up, flimsy excuse to steal some priceless jewelry.


They make it work, you see. I'm not tremendously interested in real-world, modern-day scenarios; I mentioned that when reviewing that Nancy Drew game. At first, I wasn't tremendously interested by Traitors Gate. The Tower, after all, is mostly a museum these days. Little explanatory plaques everywhere. Office space in the private buildings. "Fire exit" signs. No executions, no royal prisoners, no besieging armies; and if any ghosts are about, they don't show themselves to American intelligence operatives.

And after a while, I didn't care. The Tower is a real place. It comes alive off the screen. Not, I'm sure, that Traitors Gate is an accurate portrayal. The designers have cheerfully honeycombed the place with sewers, secret passages, hidden doors, and (of course) totally fictional security systems. But -- nothing, none of it feels ad hoc. The made-up pieces fit in with the real pieces. The real pieces exist because they're real, not because the game needs them. Ergo, the made-up pieces also exist because they're real. Real enough.

A simple trick: all you have to do is years of work. Modelling; rendering. I believe, truly, that Traitors Gate is filled with more care than any other adventure I've played. You can wander around exhibits, plaques, entire rooms which have no direct relevance to the plotline. They exist because the Tower of London has such places -- from the White Tower's Chapel to anonymous storage closets. Yea, indeed, even imaginary offices and safes and vaults. Some such must exist somewhere, and why not these?

Now, the game. As I said, the scenario is realistic. You have an assortment of spy gadgets: lockpick, stethoscope, knockout gas, grappling hook, and so on; but nothing miraculous. And the challenges you encounter are remarkably plausible. Yes, you find a surprising number of people who write down their passwords and combinations; and yes, the warder has a regrettable fondness for puzzle-box safes. These Jewels, after all, are stealable. But no one element stretches the bounds of disbelief too far.

In fact, the weakest element of the gameplay is the realism itself. The Tower is a complicated place. You can't explore all of it in Traitors Gate; you can get into some dozen buildings and towers, usually only a few floors of each. That means you encounter a lot of locked doors. Not to mention locked cabinets, closets, and safes -- many, as I said, irrelevant to the plot. And that means that you encounter a lot of locks that you never open.

Which is buckets of verisimilitude, of course. It's great; it adds to the sense of place. But you see the frustration as well. When you find a new key (and you often do), you may have to try it on every damn lock in the game. Including all the little filing cabinets and junction boxes that you passed by on the way.

Sometimes you can tell when a door is un-unlockable. Many of the stairwells are fire-alarmed, for example; setting off one of those always gets you caught. And if there's no hotspot on a lock, you know you can't manipulate it. But that's not a perfect clue; the designers aren't letting anyone off the hook. Plenty of lock-hotspots simply don't match any key in the game.

What it comes to is, you have to map. And take notes. Copious notes. Mark down every door you pass, and whether you can interact with the lock. The same goes for cabinets, windows; heck, notate potted plants if you see a hotspot on one. If you can't figure out how to manipulate it, it's more important to write it down. You'll be back. Not necessarily successfully; but you'd better check.

(No, that crack about potted plants is not a subtle clue. Sorry. :-)

I still haven't completely explained my dissatisfaction with the game design. It's the realism again, you see. The locations are presented with painstaking generosity, but in a sense that's misleading, because the interaction is not. I'm mostly thinking of the lockpick. For all the locks in the game, your lovely universal lockpick is almost completely useless. It opens exactly two locks that I found. The rest, it doesn't even seem to try. And many of your other tools suffer the same flaw. The knockout gas, the grappling hook, the screwdriver; you can use each in one or two places. This makes sense for, say, the skeleton swipe-card -- you only find a few card readers in the game, and the skeleton card works on all of them. But a lockpick? A shaped-charge explosive?

I understand, of course, how much time goes into rendering a single interesting action. Graphical games can't afford combinatorial explosion. (Which is what happens if you could slap a shaped-charge on any wall in the game, ha ha.) But for all the effort the designers put into building extra places, I feel a bit shortchanged for extra actions.

This is not purely an aesthetic complaint. When your basic tools work so rarely, you get out of the habit of testing them. The stethoscope didn't work on the first two safes I found. I later got stuck, checked a walkthrough, and found that I should have tried the stethoscope on the third. Not enough clues as to the scope of possibility. (Which is, ha ha, what you get when you eavesdrop on -- never mind.) At risk of repeating an old theme, text adventures do this sort of cluing very well; you don't need many words to give the idea that the stethoscope doesn't work on this safe, but who knows about the next? Especially if the next one clicks loudly.

(Which it did, by the way. I may get back to this point: I looked at a walkthrough more than once in Traitors Gate, but every time I did, I realized I'd missed a clue. Maybe not a sufficient clue -- I didn't always feel that I should have solved it myself -- but I did always feel that I should have paid more attention.)

(That may be the biggest compliment I've ever paid a game. Hmm.)

This lack of feedback rears itself at higher levels, as well. Some places in the Tower are well-secured; if you enter, alarms sound. Very well: how to deal with that? The solution is... somewhere in the game. It's hard to tell where. And when you do, it's hard to tell you've dealt properly; trial and error is slow. Again, I recognized clues, but not until after the fact. Not ideal. Keep your map close, and try to figure out the big picture. Maybe you'll do better.

I never did figure out when you have to drag a key onto a lock, and when you can just click on a lock to invoke the correct key. There may be no reliable rule. Make no assumptions. You wind up with a lot of keys; trying every one on a lock is tedious. But I found it necessary. Often. Sigh.

And oh yes... there's a maze. Big. Right near the start. I would be remiss not to mention it. Foursquare and consistent, mind you, but you'll be mapping it. Or go pray to Google for a diagram.

The plotline is broad, very broad. You start out in the White Tower, the keep at the compound's center. Your first goal is to get your backpack, which has all the lovely aforementioned gadgets. It's in the sewers, you're told. ("Maze", comes the whisper.) So you do, and that's the first bit... but then you have access to everywhere. (The backpack includes a key to the sewer locks.) Nearly the entire game is open to you, and it's quite up to you where to explore first.

By the time you've sketched the outlines of the world, you'll have a good idea what to try. You'll likely have discovered a few secrets, as well. Lots of secrets; enough for everyone who likes exploring. And I realized, as I got farther (and, later, read walkthroughs) that you don't have to find all the secrets. The overall path of Traitors Gate has quite a few alternatives. You can do many tasks in many orders; more interestingly, you can tackle many tasks from different directions. There are two entirely separate ways into the Queen's House, for example. Three different places to find a critical bit of electronics. One lock that I picked with that lockpick, I later found a key to. (Perhaps the other, as well? Is the lockpick purely an alternate solution?) Some secret passages are helpful, not critical. Certainly not every puzzle supports options; but enough do to give some sense of finding one's own way, not following the designers' tracks. I appreciate that.

The interface bears little comment. I much appreciated one feature: if you hold down the spacebar, every hotspot on the screen lights up with a red icon. There's your sense of focus, done and solved. Pixel-hunting is history. (How come nobody ever did this before? Well, probably someone has; I haven't played every adventure around.) Naturally, some of these hotspots are red herrings -- see earlier comment about un-unlockable doors -- and the feature doesn't apply at all in closeup views; you have to figure out machines and messy desks on your own. It's a good balance.

(While I'm mentioning cursor-related stuff -- the cursor seems to get stuck in the default arrow shape unless you drag the mouse down to the inventory area and back. You have to do this every time you move. Maybe the Windows version doesn't have this bug, but someone should have caught it on the Mac side. And while I'm mentioning Mac bugs, I had to insert each CD twice! Every time I was told to change CDs, the game ejected the disc first try, and I had to shove it back in before it would be accepted. Whazza?)

The other feature which is not entirely obvious is your camera. Other games (Luxor, etc) have featured a camera -- a way to copy visual clues, without dirtying your real desk with real paper. I figured this camera for the same. But it's not. It's an "examine" command; in fact, a "read" command, a way to get the text of signs and plaques that aren't quite readable in the panoramic view. Most games would use rendered close-ups... but I suppose Traitors Gate has way too many signs for that. So you photograph a plaque, and five minutes later your analysis department emails you the text. (Translation of any Latin, thrown in free.) Indirect, but it works; only I wish I'd known it when I first explored. Some of those plaques contain clues. (Did I mention the warder who writes down his passwords? Sometimes he uses historical mnemonics. The Tower is full of historical plaques.)

I was a bit annoyed at the implementation of your PDA, which serves as both background material and interface to electronic gadgets like email and camera. A very good idea (which has been around since the original Journeyman Project, if not longer) but the scroll bars were broken. Really. You have lists, but no scroll bars. Instead, you have little up and down arrows, built into something that looks like a scroll bar. I can't be imagining this, right? Scroll bars are a well-tested, well-defined user interface tool? Beloved by millions? With popular behaviors like "you can drag the elevator up and down" and "you can see whether you're at the top or bottom of the list"? No, no, I protest too much. I should just whimper instead.

Also, the magnification factor on the PDA's map gets reset every time you use any other PDA function. This got tiring very quickly.

Oh, yes, speaking of maps. Yes, you have a map of the Tower on your PDA. You also have a database of every building and tower in the compound, with a bit of history and description of each one. Guess what? The map is unlabelled, and the database doesn't give locations. So you have no way to tell which tower is represented by each little circle on the map. No, no, I am a dishonest son. You can tell by going to each tower, looking at the PDA map -- your location is marked -- and then hitting the "save game" button -- the name of your location is shown as a caption in the save dialogue. Then you write that name in on the hand-drawn map which you've painstakingly copied from the PDA.

For heavens' sake. I assume, truly, that the designers intended to include a nice printed map in the game box, with names and circles and arrows and everything, and then it got cut out for budget reasons. Bad decision. When you read a plaque mentioning a secret passage from the Whatsis Tower to the Whichify Block, you'll need that overall map. Not to mention the annoyance of constantly switching to your PDA (and setting the magnification) every time you want to refresh your geographic memory

I won't say the graphics are brilliant. Everything looks good, but nothing struck me as spectacular. Of course, you don't get outside much (it's night anyway); and the inside of an old castle isn't that spectacular, except in the tiny details that breathe real age. Traitors Gate doesn't manage that. I wouldn't say it looks perfectly photorealistic, either, but it comes close enough to not distract you.

A few things, however, are hard to see. I couldn't tell that a certain object was covered with a clear plastic sheet, until a walkthrough pointed it out. (It certainly explained why my tools were silently failing to affect the object. Chalk up another point for insufficient failure feedback in graphical games.) Markings on a painting were seriously illegible, when they were supposed to be a vital clue. No, I don't recall the camera helping.

(Footnote: At the same time I was finishing the game, a coworker was on a business trip to the UK. He brought back a videotape tour of the Tower. Not a great videotape -- I wish they had moved the camera within a room, or at least panned -- but by damn I knew that place. I recognized many of the rooms. Traitors Gate is definitely not a perfect rendition of the Tower; textures were a little flat, scenery was a bit simple. But if I go to London, I will know my way around.)

Other scribbled notes... music. The game doesn't have much music, but it's well-used. Music is not looped forever. Instead, in certain situations (usually entering a particular room), a riff starts up -- and plays out, and stops, leaving you with silence (or a bit of environmental sound). It's occasional music, in both senses of the word. Really excellent technique. Everyone steal it.

A few months ago, someone asked about character interaction. In Traitors Gate, there is no character interaction. You're a thief. The only interaction you get is being arrested. Try a different game.

And then you win. Well, I won. Well, I mostly won. That is...

Your goal is to get to the Crown Jewels, and replace three items with fakes from your backpack, and then get out. But you're supposed to do this without leaving any traces of your activity, at all.

This is, in fact, impossible. You can't leave the entire game in exactly the state it began in. Instead: the designers picked some traces you're not allowed to leave, and you'd better not leave those, or you get an imperfect ending sequence. But (sigh) you can't tell which traces those are. In the very first building, you find two locks which can physically force (in two different ways). One, you have to force in order to reach the Jewels. The other, if you force it, you forfeit the ideal ending; you're supposed to find a key later in the game. Many other examples, throughout the game, and not even an attempt to clue you which is which. So -- Traitors Gate is about the first game I've won where I didn't try to see every ending. I simply don't have the patience to replay the entire game -- not in a graphical adventure. Frankly, I recommend you pretend the ideal ending doesn't even exist. Just try to make it out with the loot. Or else play off a walkthrough, beginning to end, in which case why are you playing the game at all?

Am I really out of comments? Wow. I'll probably think of more as soon as I post this. (I actually forgot the bit about the ending, almost.) The wrapup is, Traitors Gate is a very mixed bag, but I enjoyed it plenty. For all the design strangenesses and broken ending, it's a big explore-and-puzzle hunt around a huge world, and I dug it.

Availability: Dreamcatcher's on-line store, or in retail stores. Twenty dollars, the same price as most Dreamcatcher games (and much more twang for the buck, IMHO). Separate Mac and PC packages; get the right one.

System requirements: 100 MHz PPC or Pentium, 32 meg RAM (more recommended), 100 meg free disk space, 8x CD drive, 16-bit color display. I'm told that the Windows install process is very persnickety, or just broken; I believe the publisher was sending out updates for CD 1. The Mac version was unaffected.

Macintoshness: The load/save dialogues are heavily customized, but it's basically the right interface. No menu bar, though. And they ask before changing resolution; good for them.

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