Crapshoot: Trespasser, the Jurassic Park game that was ambitious, at least


From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, he's sorely in need of a palate cleansing after five hours of tedium. And you know it's bad when you resort to this to wash away unwanted memories.

On a day with Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and the Tribes Ascend beta on my PC, do you know what I wasted about five hours of my precious existence playing? That's right—Telltale's Jurassic Park: The Game. Well, it claims to be a game, though I argue that "Jurassic Park: The Vaguely Interactive Machinima That's Suspiciously Like Aliens For Some Strange Reason" would have been almost as snappy.

Did I like it? I did not. Do I recommend it? Only if you're planning a time capsule full of warnings to the future. Honestly, we sent this kind of interactive movie the way of smallpox for a reason. Instead, how about taking a look back at something a bit closer to what Jurassic Park deserved. Something innovative. Something ambitious. Something not shit. Trespasser is definitely two of the three.

See if you can guess which two.

Even if you've never played or seen a picture of Trespasser, you probably know its name. It's one of the great failures of PC gaming, to the point that while it was actually highly anticipated during development, the only thing sparing its name actually meaning failure is that it's busy being 'noun: someone who intrudes on the privacy or property of another without permission'. Few others have hit these lows. Daikatana. Big Rigs. Max Payne 2. Legends in disgrace, every one of them.

It's the right kind of failure though, a game that may have shot for the stars only to hit its own feet, but at least a game with high enough aspirations to try. To give at least some credit, many of its ideas were even still innovative six years later when Half-Life 2 became the first mainstream hit to embrace things like physics puzzles. It's also notable for being one of the few Jurassic Park games to understand the appeal of the franchise, even if it fell far short. Here. Let's compare its core premise to the other game.

JURASSIC PARK: TRESPASSER: Take the role of Anne, sole survivor of a plane crash on the deadly Isla Sorna. Explore a lost world where dinosaurs have retaken their heritage. No conspiracies, no secrets, no big epic story. Just survival. Are you resourceful enough to get back to civilisation?

JURASSIC PARK: THE GAME: Press the flashing buttons when we tell you, bitch.

See? Much more appropriate. Unfortunately, the concept is as good as Trespasser gets. It does have its fans, some of them spectacularly hardcore—and far be it from me to call them deranged and objectively wrong—but it's a game that sticks in the memory more for being quirky than being good. Case in point, the health meter. Trespasser wanted to be a completely immersive experience. Do you have hit point bars in front of your face? No. Nor does Anne. Instead, you have to sneak regular glances at a magic tattoo, which reddens as you take damage. And where is that magic tattoo, you ask?

This approach to realism undercut by both reliance on magic, and being the only game in history where I've felt I should apologise to the main character for checking her... uh... vital statistics, quickly becomes an albatross around Trespasser's neck. Much as it can't give you a health counter, it can't show you how much ammo you have either. Instead, you're reliant on Anne keeping you up to date as she picks up new guns and shoots at raptors, calmly intoning 'four shots left' in life and death situations, as well as try to remember the last number between the scattered action sequences.

JURASSIC PARK: TRESPASSER: Tried and failed to create something new and interesting.

JURASSIC PARK: THE GAME: Didn't try even a little. Still failed.

Trespasser's real innovation though was creating the worst interaction system in the history of all gaming—the arm. Anne breaks her left arm during the crash at the start, forcing her to use the most malformed, painful looking appendage imaginable to do everything from shooting guns to pressing buttons. And you control it directly, sweeping it around the screen with the mouse, gripping items with a right-click, and manipulating the scenery to both cross holes and put holes in cross dinos. Again, any hint of realism is instantly lost by the attempt to create it, with Anne routinely doing impossible things like picking up crates by sticking her hand onto the side as if both are covered in invisible Velcro.

Here, try this. Find a keypad. A burglar alarm will do. Put one arm behind your back, and punch in a six-digit code. Now reset the burglar alarm before your neighbours call the police. Now take a few steps back, lock your finger in front of you, and do the same thing by moving backwards and forwards, never stretching or retracting your arm even a little. If you find yourself mashing the wrong keys, that's absolutely fine. If Trespasser has some odd ideas about magic boob-tattoos, it's nothing compared to how it thinks human arms work. And this isn't even a puzzle. Imagine trying to stack crates in the same way, with the added bonus that objects slip and slide against each other like nobody's business. Or fighting a raptor, again with one hand tied behind your back, and only two bullets in your gun.

JURASSIC PARK: TRESPASSER: Forces you to fight using the most painful interface this side of Die By The Sword, until you decide Anne is having an easier time with her mere broken arm.

JURASSIC PARK: THE GAME: Wants an apology for the mean comments about its buttons.

There isn't much fighting though, because there aren't many dinosaurs. Trespasser only has a handful per level, and they're unimpressive to say the least. The original design called for all kinds of complicated stuff, like an emotional system that would control their reactions to you, and the game being more survival than shooter. Instead, it had to pull most of that out and patch the gaping holes with bits of paper stuck down with spit. The result? A lonely, empty shell of a game where you're lucky to occasionally bump into a big dinosaur or a couple of social pariah raptors.

JURASSIC PARK: TRESPASSER: Stooge around on a quest to prove that while nature finds ways around many things, repeated shotgun blasts to an overgrown budgie's face still remain a challenge.

JURASSIC PARK: THE GAME: Savour the satisfaction of watching the annoying main characters get repeatedly eaten, treating the Death Toll as your unofficial score. Get more than 200 and the God of Achievements will personally come round to your house and poke you in the eyes!

The emptiness is probably Trespasser's biggest problem. If it was a proper open world, it might have worked. If that world had been filled with life, it could have been immersive. Instead, it's a largely linear track through only a handful of levels, where the appearance of terrifying monsters is almost a relief. They may be evolution-honed killers fixated on dinner, but at least they're never going to ask you to try and stack a box on something or type a code into a ****ing keypad. That's horror.

While it's not worth tracking down Trespasser to play it, it is worth reading this Gamasutra post-mortem written a year after it came out. It's a great way to see what the team planned to create, even if the result did end up being disturbingly similar to the film's version of the story—good intentions, slack and rushed development, and likely to leave visitors tapping on the screen and going "Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your, in your dinosaur game, right?" But hey, no QTEs!



Unfortunately, even winning almost every point doesn't make Trespasser a better game than Jurassic Park: The Game. The Game may annoy for its lack of ambition, tedious action, and the fact that it would be over at the halfway point if not for all the characters apparently taking time to suck on a car exhaust before making one specific decision... but it's still more enjoyable than fighting to convince yourself you're enjoying the deeply awful Trespasser experience, rather than admiring it for what it tried to do. Does it deserve to remain one of the Great Failures? Probably, yes. It's as much fun as chewing silver foil, none of its ideas came to fruition, and there's a reason it's never been ripped off. At least its heart was in the right place though, which is a hell of a lot more than you can say for "The Game".