Sacred Cows: Killing Your Darlings, Vol 1
Games. Most of them land with an explosion of excitement, only to burn out quickly and shuffle off into our memories. Occasionally though, one takes root in our hearts and becomes something more - a game that defines a generation, a genre, a memory, or the warm feeling of falling in love for the first time.
But bottoms to that touchy-feely crap! Today, we're taking five games you think you love, and driving the boot into their smug, over-rated faces. Prepare to watch your darlings be murdered, or at least get their toenails lightly ripped out. Nostalgia? That's just another way of saying 'too damn soft'.
King's Quest is the blandest, most insipid, most ridiculously over-rated series in the history of PC gaming. No. It's a strong contender for the least imaginative fantasy ever created in any medium whatsoever. Its primary location, Daventry, is an imagination vacuum - a place with no sense of culture or a single shred of coherence, its form nothing but a green mulch of half-heartedly pinched fairy tales thrown together. Combined, its cast has all the raw personality of a single accountant from Slough.
And the stories? Oh god. With the exception of the decent King's Quest VI, the only question is what self-proclaimed Master Storyteller Roberta Williams doodled to fill up the rest of her napkin.
King's Quest is a nostalgia vampire - a game that latches onto familiar themes and drains them of all life. Its success largely comes from being one of the first graphic adventures, and from then on being one of Sierra's trophy games - the mainstream pioneer of icon-driven interfaces over text, of talkies, of beautiful VGA graphics. Over, ooh, 6.3 tedious games (again, King's Quest VI is excluded, as are a few individual moments from other chapters), its most memorable moments are the ways it found to suck. Cedric the owl for instance, or spending the majority of King's Quest V trying to acquire a tambourine to scare away a snake - the perfect weapon against an animal generally held to be deaf.
(Though in practice they're not. But they're also easily walked past or just plain killed, so bringing real-world logic into the situation isn't exactly in King's Quest V's favour either...)
The proof of its evil though is in its puzzle design. This is a series with a puzzle so bad, even its own hint book was unable to explain the logic - throwing a bridle onto a snake to turn it into a horse. The same game offered a bridge to a magic portal that could only be crossed a handful of times, rendering the game impossible to complete after that for no other reason but hate. Not bad enough? In King's Quest I - the original version at least - you have the infamous Rumplestiltskin puzzle. All you have to do is spell his name backwards. No problem, right? Except that "Nikstlitselpmur" doesn't work. No, instead you have to reverse the alphabet itself to get "Ifnkovhgroghprm". Nnggh! There is no excuse for this!
And it gets so much worse. Elsewhere, you've got key objects hidden behind the scenery just to mock you, endless unwinnable situations and... wait, what's that? They're all from early in the series, and all early adventure games were cruel, right? Well, tell that to King's Quest V - the game where not only do you defeat a yeti by throwing a custard pie at it, but have to reverse the one genuine high-point in the story - the brutal, but oh-so-deserved death of Cedric the Owl - by bringing the high-pitched little shit back to life. That's just sadistic! It's like having to give Jar-Jar Binks CPR, without even the satisfaction of hearing his fragile ribcage crack under the pressure of your reluctant healing hands.
There are a few individually clever moments, even if they're not necessarily much fun. The tension of trying to learn magic in King's Quest III for instance, which has to be done in secret while trapped as an evil wizard's servant. King's Quest IV was one of the first adventures with a female protagonist - Rosella - though not actually the first (Infocom's pirate romance Plundered Hearts pipped it to the post). And as mentioned, King's Quest VI was okay. A beautiful world, an attempt at unifying its fairy tales and pinched themes, even a little actual storytelling. Any goodwill was immediately lost by this godawful song during the credits and this awful intro for the boring next game, before being speared through the heart by the travesty against 3D that was Mask of Eternity... but hey, credit where it's due, right? Grudgingly.
To compensate, here's a cheery video of King Graham being repeatedly murdered.
The real capper is that it's not King's Quest that Williams herself considers the series that defines her career, nor Laura Bow (a far superior game, with some horrible puzzles but genuine inspiration behind it) or her other one-shots. No. It's bloody Phantasmagoria - a game that seems to exist purely to answer the question "What would it be like if someone who never watched horror decided to write a horror story?" It sold plenty of copies and got plenty of attention for its gore scenes... but a duller horror game you will not find. Unless you're really terrified of women in orange shirts walking round empty houses.
(It's also worth noting, just for the heck of it, that while Williams was unquestionably a pioneer, in practice most of Sierra's other female designers produced far superior games and stories during King's Quest's run. Lori Cole for instance did Quest for Glory, especially the fourth game. KQVI co-writer Jane Jensen had the Gabriel Knight games. Finally, Christy Marx was in charge of the very underrated Conquests of the Longbow and its Arthurian prequel, Conquests of Camelot.)
King's Quest's only redeeming feature as a series was that it opened the way to better games on the PC - selling the platform in the first place, and with its later success helping fund many, many better adventures, with puzzles less reliant on moon-logic, and characters who both managed to be more than just their title and never felt the need to say "Zounds!" in public. These games are important parts of the industry. They led to great things. But as soon as the adventure genre started, they paled in comparison to everything else - surviving primarily on the same nostalgic they nibbled on, and letting the latest technology hide their rotten, rotten cores. Again, except King's Quest VI. That one was okay.
One of PC gaming's greatest myths... if you don't count the Nude Raider code... is that Max Payne was a parody. It wasn't. It was just such a badly written, ham-fistedly handled attempt at writing gritty noir that fans had no choice but to pretend it had to have been that dumb on purpose.
This is what's sometimes referred to as Parody Retcon - a technique used by everyone from Stephen King to banana-obsessed creationists. Max Payne is PC gaming's greatest example of it, and it's covered with the telltale signs. Before release for example, nobody was talking in those terms. Even the reviews didn't. "Max Payne's plot is a dark, well-written piece of narrative riddled with analogies and a resigned sardonic tone that conveys Payne's heavy heart" said one. Another offered: "These great-looking comic-book-style cutscenes -- which you can tell use stylized photographs to depict the various characters in the game -- detail an over-the-top crime story that's as confounding as it is engaging"
Only when people like the Penny Arcade crew started mocking its style did the myth of its satirical edge become established. Max's gurning face was sucked into it - surely, nobody would ever put that face into a serious game, right? It couldn't possibly be that it had been in development so long, they simply stopped noticing it... which they did, and made a point of switching for something less stupid in the sequel. And then there were all the meta-bits, like "I was in a computer game!" that... er... only work if the rest of the game is playing it straight. But never mind! Somehow, it's still a satire, right?
No. It's just badly written crap that yearns to be Sin City. If it's not clear from the inclusion of cheery scenes like following blood trails in empty voids populated only with the screams of your murdered family, it's stamped in hard by the nature of the story and Max's interactions with other characters. Tex Murphy is a noir parody. Discworld Noir is a noir parody. Max Payne is simply a street-rat rubbing against noir's shoes in the hope that something other than mud will rub off on it. No game with storytelling as bad as the godawful stuff that goes down in Cold Steel deserves the benefit of the doubt.
The final nail in the coffin comes in the sequel, which does embrace this reputation, in the form of the in-game TV show Dick Justice. That is a spoof... but spoofs don't spoof other spoofs. Okay, unless they're made by Seltzer and Friedberg, but those guys only exist to give Uwe Boll someone to look down to. It also highlights that the 'real' story that we're meant to be involved in is itself still dreadful - a truly cack-handed crime plot that fails utterly at being "A Film Noir Love Story" as it promises, and which ends with the stupidest villain in the history of all things. If you were a crime boss who knew first-hand that there was a cop capable of taking out half a city in the course of an evening, would you actively pick a fight with him? No. And why? Because you - hopefully - weren't written with yoghurt for brains.
Max Payne is the rare example of a game that convinced the world they were laughing with it instead of at it, but that doesn't make it any better written. Enjoy it for its crappiness, but don't fool yourself into thinking it was done on purpose. At least, not in the first game, where the legend began.
Day of the Tentacle
Most over-rated adventure of all time? Most over-rated adventure of all time. Three different timezones to explore, none of them with any character. Three different characters, likewise. Its puzzles are over-complicated messes of time-travel and lateral thinking that borders on insanity. Its plot, supposedly deep and philosophical as it is, barely gets any further than "evil tentacle wants to take over the world", in a creative concept blatantly stolen from hundreds of hentai movies. Those sick bastards.
Played with a walkthrough, you can finish it in just over an hour - a pathetic amount of time compared to games of the era that would add hours and hours of important gameplay time through simple techniques like mazes, or innovative puzzles like the Datacorder in Space Quest VI, where the designer brilliantly forgot to put any of the clues into the game and had to hurriedly throw them together and claim it was copy protection. Day of the Tentacle's copy protection was far blander. If you had a CD version, you didn't even have to bother at all, on the grounds that CD burners were far too expensive.
That was a key part of the experience, wasted!
Probably Day of the Tentacle's biggest crime though was its American-centric viewpoint, which it excused by - and I quote - 'being an American game'. This is the kind of arrogance hitherto only seen by cover discs on French magazines that would offer whole games, only to leave off the English language track. Have you ever tried playing Prisoner of Ice in a foreign language? It's not easy. And in case you haven't noticed, I am totally lying through my teeth about all of this to see how many people rush to the comment thread without bothering to read any of the words. Day of the Tentacle is an amazing game, a beautiful game, a funny game, and arguably the finest puzzle box adventure ever created. Still, I'll add one quick final lie on the end, just for good measure. Lucasarts classic? Please. Glorified frisbee, more like. If only it was possible to throw it so far, nobody would ever find it again...
Grand Theft Auto IV
If there's one really good reason not to be excited about Grand Theft Auto V, it's that GTA IV was a mega-hit. Not so much a game as a demonstration of the slippery slope in action, GTA IV took the brave step of creating one of gaming's most exciting, beautiful, dynamic locations... and using it to deliver an actual gaming experience flatter than a newly roadkilled policeman. What a total waste.
Earlier GTA games understood that they were games first, stories second. And you know what? That worked pretty well for them. I remember solving one mission in GTA3 by stealing someone's getaway car, rigging it with a bomb, and sitting back with Hitman style glee as he blew himself up. Fast-forward to GTA IV and not only do you have to spend hour after hour of a glorified tutorial, every attempt to play with the rules of the simulation is pointedly rebuffed. Your targets are invincible until the part of the script where you're allowed to kill them. Any attempt to create a barrier or tip the odds in your favour will be erased from existence, or bring things to an immediate end. Where once GTA understood the sheer joy of driving around in a tank and being king of the world, now, it's become a boring LA waiter who won't serve you dessert until you agree to take home a copy of its bloody screenplay.
And oh, what a miserable, poorly thought out screenplay it is. Never mind that it's so badly plotted, it practically throws its arms up and drives off a bridge at the end of the first act, with the villain reduced to occasionally phoning you up to say "You may have forgotten me, but I haven't forgotten you!" for most of the rest. Never mind that main character Niko Bellic loses all potential sympathy right around the point where he has $30,000 in his pocket but still feels the need to keep gooning around for imbeciles he has total contempt for. What's much harder to tolerate is that GTA IV lasts for a mere handful of missions before morphing into nothing but a glorified clipshow of the writers' favourite gangster movies. And it can't even do those particularly well. Where's the tension of a bank robbery when your character is routinely let out of jail after rocket launcher rampages? How is one crook meant to feel like a valid threat when you routinely take on the whole city police force for fun? The rules that open world games like GTA are built on simply don't work when you try to play things straight. Dicking around is where the fun is!
(In fairness, GTA IV is at least less stupid than San Andreas - a game where dialogue like "CJ, you variably horrible sociopath, help out me with this and I'll help you get your brother out of jail" could be routinely followed by "Yeah, or I can just fly into the jail and pick him up with my personal jetpack.")
Vice City was the last GTA game that really understood the franchise. It had stories, it had characters, but more than any of it, it had a deep appreciation that the fun of an open world game is having fun in an open world - not painstakingly working through a half-baked Heat remake in a game designed to let you enjoy the same freedom as the average straitjacket. Will GTA V get back to that? We can only hope. If not... well... at least there's another Saints Row on the way. Like a boss. But not Bubble Man.
What's that smell? Is it the most over-rated adventure game ever? Again? Yes! We've looked into it, and this claim is PROVEN BY SCIENCE, whatever your primitive Earth logic claims. Blade Runner is the ultimate demonstration of graphics trumping game - genuinely stunning to look at, with animated backgrounds that have never been beaten... and absolutely nothing to do with them. It's an adventure that mostly exists in preview form, where there was lots of talk of how AI driven the world was going to be, how you'd have to carefully decide what to do and be competing against other detectives for clues and big reveals, and where you'd have to think carefully about what evidence you uploaded.
When Westwood talked it up, it sounded amazing!
Unfortunately none of that stuff actually made it into the game. None of it. Instead, it uses a few random dice rolls to make it look like there's hidden complexity, while failing at the absolute basics of telling a story. My personal favourite moment involves a character called Izo. You have to bring him in, dead or alive, and this is done with a quick chase scene. Since Izo has to be dealt with whether you win or fail though, the odds are good that it'll actually be another detective, Crystal Steele - and incidentally, the fact that this game has a character called Crystal Steele is all you need to know about its storytelling skills - who guns him down and mocks you for not being quicker on the trigger.
Unfortunately, because Westwood wasn't thinking when it wrote the storyline to this dreadful game, later on the plot revolves around you being framed for gunning Izo down, leaving you in the bizarre situation of Crystal going "Don't worry, I have faith in you..." without the option to scream "YOU SHOT HIM! YOU!" in her face. Especially later on, if she decides you're guilty after all and vengefully murders your dog.
The longer the story rolls on, the stupider and stupider it becomes. Let's ignore that your not-Deckard character, a man called Ray McCoy, frequently ends up running away with a 14 year old girl. Never mind that most of the scenes are not-even-thinly veiled attempts to put every scene from the movie into the game somewhere, no matter how tenuous. None of that matters in a game where at one point, you can die by sitting in a comfy chair because it's randomly filled with killer scorpions! It's fair to say that the game usually offers clues about this kind of thing, but they're inevitably the kind that fail because the designers forgot to take into account that the player wouldn't have a copy of the game's flowchart in front of them and thus be able to read into something like not finding a key item on a table.
Oh, and then of course, there's this piece of horror...
Would you believe that this is a) a puzzle and b) easily the hardest puzzle in the game? It's late in the game, where McCoy (as in "The Real McCoy", which is as close to clever as the script ever gets) is on the run. It's spectacularly stupid, with the highlight being when he returns home and finds someone else in his apartment - put there by the police specifically to mind-screw him, but by someone who didn't have the authority to ask the art department to re-render his room without his personal stuff and police equipment sitting on his table, in a fairly typical Blade Runner: The Game face-palm moment.
To cross this plank, you just have to walk across. Unfortunately, as you do, a giant sewer rat leaps out of the other side and charges you, killing you instantly. You can shoot him with your gun, but then the plank collapses as you walk across it. The solution, insane in the way that only a bad game can be, is to let the rat get mere millimetres away from your arse and gun him down there, so that its rapidly cooling corpse weighs the plank's edge down! This is a game that many adventure fans hold up as their favourite of all time. Maybe they got another version that wasn't thrown together by cackling baboons.
The problem with this one is that it's so pretty, and attached to a movie that so many people have fond memories of, it's hard to look past the aesthetics to the inanity underneath. This Let's Play gives a pretty good demonstration of how stupid it is though, as it descends from being a genuinely clever, involving game, into an embarrassing patchwork quilt of much better scenes pinched from the movie.
God, it's a terrible, terrible game. Never like it again! By order!
What are your personal Sacred Cows? Which games' popularity leave you mystified, clawing at the wall and screaming at the stupidity of humanity? Post your biggest offenders in the comments below.