Hard-boiled noir had something of a renaissance in the late ’80s and ’90s. There was James Ellroy’s acclaimed L.A. Quartet, a series of dark crime novels set in post-war Los Angeles. On the big screen, Curtis Hanson’s film L.A. Confidential (itself adapted from an Ellroy novel) won two Academy Awards. And a new genre, neo-noir, came into its own with films such as Michael Mann’s brooding crime horror Manhunter, Alan Parker’s sinister occult mystery Angel Heart, and David Lynch’s beguiling Blue Velvet.
After the flashy excesses of the early ’80s, it seemed people were ready for a return to the darkness that filled the pulpy pages of Black Mask in the ’40s and ’50s. Cynical private dicks like Philip Marlowe walking the streets of Los Angeles solving mysteries for $25 a day, plus expenses, and stumbling into conspiracies involving seductive women with dark secrets. These well-worn cliches were often subverted, notably in The Big Lebowski where the Coen Brothers span a dense Chandlerian mystery, but replaced the detective with a stoner. The Dame Was Loaded, on the other hand, revels in these cliches, amplifying them to a comical degree.
Developed by Beam Software and released in 1995, this point-and-click adventure game delights in another popular ’90s trend: full-motion video. You play as the preposterously named Scott Anger, a detective from the Sam Spade mould with, yes, a tragic past and a drinking habit. “I’d been out of the office for a month doing a little too much thinking and a lot too much drinking,” he monologues over FMV footage of him walking through a dark alley, haunted by ghostly images of screaming women and laughing men. “Now I was out of the gutter and back at my desk I needed something to get me back into the swing of things, then she walked in.”
The story leans hard into noir tropes from the very beginning, with a sad, beautiful woman walking into Anger’s office and sharing a sob story. Her name is Carol Klein, she’s from Oregon, and she wants you to find her brother. But there’s a catch: you have an important job in New York coming up, leaving you with only three days to crack Klein’s case. While FMV games are often fairly static, dull affairs, involving little more than prodding the right object to see the next bit of low-resolution video, this time limit gives The Dame Was Loaded a palpable feeling of urgency. Time is always passing as you play, meaning every trip to sniff out a lead, interview a person of interest, or even save the game makes the clock tick mercilessly down to Anger’s deadline.
Yes, it’s annoying. Time limit puzzles are rarely fun. But what makes it more bearable here is that, in most cases, screwing something up doesn’t mean that it’s game over—it just closes off a potential lead, steering the narrative away from one of its nine possible endings. An early example of this is when you’re interviewing a sultry woman named Louise Creel, whom Anger unironically describes as having “legs that won’t quit”. Interact with a bottle of booze on the mantelpiece and she will leave the room to get some ice, giving you a few moments to poke through her handbag and look for something that might help with your case. But if she catches you in the act she’ll angrily kick you out of her house and refuse to answer any more of your questions.
Time to kill
The biggest problem with the time limit is that you can straight-up fail the case. Finding the right clues leads to a time extension on your three days and a switch to a second disc. But if you don’t make any headway the game unceremoniously ends before you even get a chance to slide that second CD-ROM into the drive. It’s extremely harsh, especially when the game is so reluctant to ever tell you what to do next, or even give a vague hint. If you’re playing the game legitimately without a walkthrough you’ll find yourself repeating the same sections over and over, desperately hoping you’ll trigger the right chain of events to get the time extension. Which is why, today, I suggest playing along with a guide, or at least with one on hand. Life’s too short to listen to that opening monologue 50 times.
Anger has a knack for pissing people off, but there are ways to get characters on your side, too. Denton, an old cop manning the desk of the local police precinct, won’t give you the time of day unless you hand him a donut. You can pick the donut up in the diner you visit for breakfast every morning, but if you leave it in your inventory too long it’ll go stale and he won’t take it. Later, a prisoner won’t spill his guts unless you give him a cigarette pilfered from your partner’s desk. There are many more of these almost simulation-like elements in the game, including Anger getting tired and having to take a nap in his office before continuing his investigation, or being forced to play a hand of poker with a gangster before he’ll answer a question. It’s a surprisingly interactive, reactive game in places.
But man, the acting. FMV games are notorious for questionable performances, of course, but The Dame Was Loaded is on another level. The cast, made up of TV actors who clearly aren’t taking the job too seriously, chew the scenery with impressive gusto, and it’s painfully obvious they’re Australians putting on American accents. Your partner, Ralph Spencer, hams it up particularly hard, and a scene involving an angry landlord is a masterclass in bad acting. But there is something charming about it. The cheap sets and costumes look like a holodeck-based episode from an early season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the script is so self-consciously tropey that it regularly slips into parody. It’s funny, even when it’s not trying to be.
If it’s a sober, historically accurate period piece you’re looking for, or something that uses the noir genre in a unique way, this is not the game for you. Its reverence for the genre is endearing, but the whole thing feels like a B-movie—especially compared to something like Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, which goes to great lengths to accurately portray the time period. As a fan of stories set in Los Angeles in the ’40s, and noir detective stories in general, I found The Dame Was Loaded a little too farcical and self-aware to scratch that itch, although I suppose the clue was in that hilariously pulpy title. There are much better examples of the noir genre on PC—Grim Fandango, Discworld Noir, Tex Murphy, The Shivah. Hell, even Max Payne mixes things up with Lynchian weirdness and Norse mythology. When compared to all of these games, The Dame Was Loaded is pretty much just noir-by-numbers.
Time limit aside, the game is a pretty standard point-and-click adventure. The locations, including barber shops, diners, gambling dens, and laundromats, are presented as digitised video stills, and Anger has something cynical to say about every object you can interact with. Many FMV games from this era squeezed their videos into boxes, but they’re all fullscreen here, and the quality holds up surprisingly well on a big, modern monitor. It’s compressed to hell, but nowhere near as badly as some games. There’s also an early example of a context-sensitive adventure game UI in here, with the cursor changing to one of several appropriate interactions when hovering over an object: look, examine, take, talk and so on.
You can bring up your wallet at any time and thumb out a few bills to pay someone off or loosen someone’s tongue, providing you’ve the dollars to spare. A matter made tricky by the fact that you’re constantly having to pay a debt to your landlord off. And if you want time to move faster you can spin the hands on Anger’s watch. This is useful early in the morning when you’re stuck waiting for places to open their doors.
It’s a logical game for the most part, but there are times when it falls back on adventure game absurdity, such as lifting hair from your barber’s dirty floor and gluing it to your lip to create an impromptu moustache. And if you decide to take a nap with the ’tache on it’ll stick to the couch and you will lose your disguise. Figuring this stuff out involves a lot of trial and error, which is made extra difficult by the save system. You have to return to Anger’s office and use the typewriter in order to save your progress, which takes up time. So not I have to hand it to Beam Interactive for trying something different saving does give you a few extra hours to follow leads and hunt for clues, but you run the risk of having to repeat huge swathes of the game if Anger gets into a tight spot, which he frequently does. It’s a maddening design decision.
The Dame Was Loaded is not a good game, but it is an interesting one. I have to hand it to Beam Interactive for trying something different, rather than just creating yet another tepid interactive movie. It has a few ideas I’d love to see used in a modern adventure, particularly the idea of a time limit and having to think about how to spend each hour of the day. The game was recently released on GOG, making it easy to get running on modern systems, and it might be worth investigating—if only as a curio. There aren’t many ’90s FMV games that are genuinely worth playing, but this is a little more worthwhile than most. The goofy dialogue can be a little grating at times, but there’s something entertaining about watching these actors cheese it up. And, importantly, the central mystery is actually pretty compelling, if you can keep Anger out of the bottle long enough to solve it.