Reinstall: The Pandora Directive
San Francisco, 2043. A long-dead killer signs off on the murder of a college girl with an iconic black arrow. Chinese-style puzzle boxes crafted from mysterious metal begin arriving on the doorsteps of seemingly unconnected people. Deep in the jungles of Peru, a secret has already damaged the world to the point that most countries have swapped day for night to help people avoid dangerous solar radiation—and now it might potentially destroy the earth forever. And in his lonely, run-down office, the only PI who can possibly save the day... is stuck eating dog-food in order to pay his rent.
The Tex Murphy games mix three of my favorite things into one delicious cocktail—traditional noir fiction in the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett style, near-future science fiction, and adventure games with both ambition and balls. Imagine the excitement of creeping around a building in search of clues, or being able to walk round and see an incriminating memo behind the back of a desk. That’s the Tex Murphy experience (get it for $4.99), and I find it heartbreaking that the number of other games that tried to offer it can be counted on one hand. Well, one hand and maybe one more finger. Maybe.
There are actually five Tex games: two deeply terrible traditional adventures, and three FMV/3D hybrids that are fondly remembered by more or less everyone who played them. The Pandora Directive especially is an artifact of an interesting time, when developers and players alike had realized that the words “interactive movie” were a warning rather than a description, but before the industry was big enough to throw around big budgets or buy in actual star power. The Pandora Directive, for instance, proudly trumpeted its inclusion of B-movie names like John Agar and Tanya Roberts over the man who played Tex, series writer/designer/producer/attempted director and Access’ money guy, Chris Jones. Many other roles were also handled by employees, who offered performances that ranged from decent to charming to the world’s most expensive school play.
The schlocky FMV is all part of the fun though, and the craziness is oddly appropriate considering you’re playing a guy who desperately wants to be a 1940s-era PI despite owning a flying car and being in love with a mutant newspaper girl who occasionally rents a holographic Cary Grant. The Pandora Directive knows exactly how silly it is, and happily embraces it with awful puns, weird characters like a vegetarian street preacher, and one very surreal ending where Tex trades in his PI dreams to become a sad clown in a traveling circus.
When it wants to tell a serious story though, it can. As silly as everything around him often gets, Tex is a wonderfully grounded character—a decent guy who at least sometimes doesn’t deserve the crap he practically begs the world to dump on his head. The Pandora Directive has three paths through it (though they only change a few scenes, and you have to bend over backwards to get to all of them), and the “evil” path is called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams for a reason. It’s deeply uncomfortable to have Tex actually turn cynical, mean, and grabby instead of simply putting on the act, but only because he’s usually such a nice guy you always want to see come out on top.
Trouble is my business
The use of first-person 3D and tense background music also does wonders for making dangerous locations actually feel sinister, regardless of how empty they feel. By far the most nerve-wracking moment is when you find yourself wandering around the long-deserted, corpse-strewn corridors of Roswell, New Mexico—a location that wasn’t quite so played out in popular culture back when the game was originally released—with a deadly alien gas slowly worming its way through the rooms and air vents. Like many of Tex’s puzzles, avoiding becoming the gas’ last meal is a ridiculously over-complicated task, but still a tense one even when you have a Plan.
When you don’t have a plan, the series really shows its age. In the GOG re-release, you’re at least spared the constant disc-swapping as you move from location to location, but have pity for anyone who had to play it when the game was split over six different CDs. Pixel hunting in the third dimension is great when you see something and feel like a proper detective. It’s less fun when you’ve missed a couple of pixels that could be in, on, or behind anything, and have to force yourself to resist the siren call of in-game help or sneaky internet walkthroughs. Tex Murphy may be hard boiled, but no one could call his adventures over-easy.
Once you finally find that stubborn thingy and move on though, you won’t remember the frustration. You’ll be far too busy grinning as Tex mouths off to exactly the wrong guy, or manages to pull defeat from the jaws of victory once again. A fictional PI’s life may suck, but it’s the one he chose. Tagging along for the most dangerous week of Tex’s life, you can totally see why he wouldn’t have it any other way. Give or take a few beatings, perhaps.