Saturday Crapshoot: Fawlty Towers

Richard Cobbett

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Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, a trip to the English Riviera in a bit of multimedia horror that didn't even get to ride the CD-Rom wave and call itself a Torquay adventure...

As an institution, the BBC has done many great things over the years. The iPlayer, for instance. Televising democracy. Cancelling Robin Hood. Combine one of its biggest successes with the power of CD-ROM, and you'd probably expect something quite impressive. And... well, that's actually true, provided you think of impressions as just depressions with better marketing campaigns.

Car on loan from Rentaghost, apparently.

Even by the standards of multimedia tie-ins, this one extracts enough piss to fill a small swimming pool. That takes some doing. Just look at the likes of Stephen King's F13 and comedy enema Microshaft Winblows 98 , and realise with raised eyes and a shocked look that this is almost infinitely worse. At least in both of those games, there was a hint - the slightest, tiniest suggestion - that someone involved might, possibly, maybe have either cared or had a single creative synapse fire. Here, the kindest thing you can say is that at least exposure to the game probably won't, directly, cause flatulence.

(Until you discover that it came out in 2000. Not 1995. 2000. I have never seen development credits fly past quite so fast, or been so surprised not to see the entire mess blamed on Alan Smithee.)

Did any of these multimedia thingies succeed? Sure, a few - not least a couple of the Monty Python games , which benefited from the cast actually being involved. For this one, it's doubtful they were even aware of its existence. It's one of the silliest things the BBC could possibly have done, short of - pffft, I don't know. Creating a Doctor Who game where he runs around shooting Daleks!

Uh... okay. Should have remembered. Okay, I know! Turning 'Allo 'Allo into a platform game...

Hurm. A Transport Tycoon rip-off based on Oh Doctor Beeching?

...well, that's okay then. And at least other top shows were spared. I mean, can you imagine giving this kind of treatment to, say, Only Fools And Horses? I dread to think what it would have consisted of. A leopard printed calculator maybe. A pub quiz minigame. A series of- It exists, doesn't it? Crap.

But back to this specific argument against the license fee.

"Look at you? I don't need to look at you, I can smell you from here."

Really, this picture should say it all. Just admire it. Stare in wonder at the way John Cleese's head has been stuck onto someone else's body and never turns to face the camera. The crap 3D rendering, with what looks like a bench blocking the entrance to the dining table and the carpet actively trying to suck your eyes into a universe of infinite pain. Most notable though is that on this screen... well, guess how many bits of this screen are interactive. Does the plant hold any mysteries? What lies upstairs? Is there a secret hidden in the fact that the grandfather clock quite visibly has no hands, or that some sticky-fingered thief has stolen much of the set dressing?

Nope. Exactly four things are clickable, and one of those is the Quit option - the biggest, and most enjoyable. The office is "Videos", in which you can play short clips almost as efficiently as just waiting for the actual episode to be re-run somewhere. The Kitchen is Desktop Customiser, where you'll find lots of wallpaper, cursors, icons and other accoutrements to make your copy of Windows look crap - but also by far the best part of the experience even if for some crazy reason you don't want the default Windows beep to be replaced by Sybil Fawlty saying "Mrs. Richards" for no reason. I demonstrate:

Hours of fun!

But we're not interested in that, are we? No, what matters is the Games section. This was 2000; the year that brought us Deus Ex and the Millenium Bug. Diner Dash was yet to be a glimmer in the Flash world's eye, but still, would demonstrate that things like running a restaurant could be entertaining. Fawlty Towers at least has some promise there, right? Juggling plates to keep guests happy as everything goes crashing down on all sounds, a Basil constantly being driven into psychotic fury at having to race from the reception to the dining room to the kitchen and dealing with familiar problems like a rat running around or distracting a Health Inspector while Polly and Manuel clean the kitchen... I'm not saying it would be a great game, but at least it could be a game. There are certainly worse licenses to build on.

Yes. This might actually be more promising than expected. "This is why Basil's blood pressure is so high that every papercut risks shooting him into orbit," Fawlty Towers could claim, whipping up endless situations where you can sympathise with the man while still laughing at the continuous crisis that is his tortured existence. It's the kind of thing that would never exactly get into the PC Gamer Top 100, but which could at least be fun - and a brave attempt to actually replicate the spirit of the show in an interactive medium and reward the devoted fans whose love for these characters and willingness to take a risk led to it being worth creating in the first place.

I wonder if they did any of that.

Ouch, right in the soul!

...

It's one thing to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but does the barrel really have to be this shallow?

Oh my goodness. Yes, the first game really is driving Basil - or to be more exact, a clearly empty car - around a map that these days would warrant Google Images getting its name in the credits. You run over guests to pick them up, and drive them back to Fawlty Towers using the most advanced driving engine since the Tomy Turbo . Bounce off walls, spin round the empty streets, it's all good. There are three rounds, each adding more guests to gather, and in the interests of generosity I'll say that it's a refreshing change to play a game that a corpse has a decent shot at winning. Your reward consists entirely out of context sound clips, including the laugh-track, usually brutally cut-off. New material? Hahaha.

Polly, be a dear and bring my suicide pills, would you? The extra-deadly today, I think.

Game 2 manages to be even worse. It's called "Got A Room, Mate?" - yes, really - and is strictly for the kind of people who'd have gone on Mastermind with Fawlty Towers as their specialist subject had exposure to this not turned them into a dribbling sack of whimpers. The idea is to assign rooms to guests, based on clues from Basil. Logic puzzle then? No! In practice, those clues turn out to be things like "So it's one Scotch, and you each need a screwdriver," and "Mrs Peignoir. Ah, quite charming." which provides exactly no assistance. Luckily, there are two things on your side - a time limit long enough to just work it out by trial and error, and not having any conceivable reason to care. After all, just look at the board. If they couldn't be bothered to recreate the actual hotel layout as seen in the TV show, it seems a bit rich to expect anyone else to waste valuable brain cells putting everyone where they should be.

Shudder. Still, I'm almost positive that the third game will redeem everything!

At least you can legitimately return the game and claim it's Fawlty.

The Manager's Fawlty is the game that clearly saw the most time and attention, which is a bit unfortunate really. The premise is that Basil wants to go into his office and eat some toast. Yes, really. But despite this, up to four players can suffer through it at once, and only one of them gets to be Basil, so... I'm not quite sure how that works. The other players get to personify Sybil, Polly and Manuel, obviously, and despite this only being a four player game, also the Major and a random guest in a nightcap. It's a fiendish game of skill and tactics, and by that I mean 'rolling a single die and then having to physically move your own counter to the target square.'

You'd think there wouldn't be too much that could go wrong with this simple premise, but if Fawlty Towers is about anything, it's making a mountain out of a molehill and then blowing it up with a million tons of C4. For starters, the board is littered with annoying sound clips from the show, none funny out of their actual context. Fail to roll the exact number at the end for instance, and Basil barks out "It's against the law. The law of England. Nothing to do with me." Trying to get on with the game until it's finished though just pops up the scolding error "Wait for the sound to finish before rolling the dice." Nggggh. Some of the choices are also slightly weird. For instance, in the bottom left is a trap square of Basil's hand accidentally landing on a lady guest's buxom bosum, yet it's the square with his head that triggers being kicked back a few squares instead of actually mirroring the mammary-grab.

To make things worse more interesting, a number of squares also offer a Chance card, or a "Sybil's Wig Card", because... I don't know. Also, the picture is clearly not of Sybil's wig. Sometimes, these are mercifully brief: "Sybil thinks Basil has forgotten their anniversary... again! Go back 3 spaces." Other times though, the unlucky player is forced into mini-game hell. There appear to be three of these, though there may be another one hidden somewhere, like a smallpox virus in an unopened copy of Daikatana.

Here's the first one, setting the tone for the rest:

I suppose Basil DOES tend to go to pieces...

Enough said, right? As with all the games, the further you get through the board, the harder the puzzle becomes - mostly because you're increasingly surrounded by other players who would rather beat you to death with a frozen swordfish than watch you solve a sliding block puzzle, or if you're playing alone, you're increasingly likely to realise the hollow void that is your life and willingly fall onto it heart-first. If you do really well, you get to solve a bonus picture after the first one. Hurrah. Next!

More like rat-a-(spit)-ptoooie.

Shooting galleries don't come much lazier than this. As the Major, can you shoot Manuel's beloved Siberian hamster Basil multiple times with a shotgun without hitting one of the Fawlty Towers staff? Of course you can, because you have to have basic motor skills just to launch the game. The highlight here is that the hamster doesn't even pop out of the scenery in any kind of realistic fashion - it's just squares floating over the board in a way that would honestly embarrass a tutorial project in a book called Learn Macromedia Director In 12 Minutes. Written for the dyslexic. In Klingon.

On the plus side, the third game pulls things back all the way, and is a genuinely satisfying-

Surprise! It's secretly crap!

No, obviously not. The final game is called - yes, really - "Moose-La", because the smell of desperation is about ready to drown out all the oxygen in the room. Three poorly compressed, green-tinted JPEGs of a moose head jerk from side to side, and it's your job to throw hoops over their ears because... uh... um... yes. It's almost impossible to control the throw, being completely 2D, with the one sop to being an actual game being that you're not allowed to climb over the Reception desk. Alas, this is immediately undercut by the immediate, in-your-face fact that this clearly isn't the Fawlty Towers reception desk, that the moose head is on the wrong wall, and that there should be a door to the office somewhere. And also that you're wasting valuable seconds of the one life you will ever have throwing hoops over a fake moose's antlers in a way that produces a greater sense of dread than the entire The Stanley Parable.

Your reward for all of this is a single picture, and the chance to be disowned by family and friends alike by asking the question "Shall we play again?" If you don't want that spoiled for you, look away now.

Hurrah! You have completed a great game and proved the justice of our culture!

Despite all of this though, Fawlty Towers does have its fans. Here for instance , a developer (I hope and pray) writes: "An amazing product and an essential part of any Fawlty Towers Collection. any fan with a pc should have this game.. It has all the classic scene`s all the ones we all know and love, making this the best christmas present a fawlty fan could possible ask for (hint, hint!!)" Another, back in space era 2002, declared "Overall I would give it 70%", making it the best RPG since Dragon Age 2!

But not a better interactive Fawlty Towers experience than simply hitting pause the next time you rewatch an episode and pretending you did something to affect the story when it resumes.

Or indeed, stubbing your toe and yelling "ARSE!"

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: DIDN'T MENTION THE WAR

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