Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
One of the cardinal sins of videogame design is frustrating the player. Puzzles, especially when it comes to the world of point and click, often expect the player to make leaps of logical understanding using a limited set of tools. When, however, this leap is so far as to be nonsensical (see the mid-90s Discworld for a case in point) you can drive them either into acceptance that they must click everything on everything to progress or simply away.
Far worse than that, though, is when the path is blocked not by a lack of player understanding but by the game not keeping up with the player. When the puzzle can be solved or even started before the designers believes it should be, to block a solution sees the beginnings of a slippery slope. Distrust emerges, out comes the FAQs and walkthroughs, and gone is any semblance of faith in the player’s abilities.
And for all the positives that I can credit Gray Matter with, I cannot forgive it for this.
Things start entertainingly enough as a broken down bike sees Samantha Everett find her way one wet and windy night to the home of Professor David Styles, only to witness an apparent abduction on his doorstep. The plot thickens further as the next day Sam turns out to be a young, up and coming magician, and Professor Styles a world renowned neurobiologist investigating the paranormal. It’s though a lost episode of the X-Files had been set in the Oxford.
Conveniently Styles is in need of a new assistant and so Sam fills that role, starting her post by rounding up six ne’er-do-wells (read: students) to take part in his studies. So begins your quest, collecting any item that isn’t nailed down, listening to all those around you, and attempting to coerce, bribe and trick those same people into helping you achieve your, and your new boss’, goals.
One interesting addition is Sam’s talents as a magician and how they can be woven into the plot. Rather than, say, just clicking on a private letter to whisk it away to your inventory, Sam needs to set up a sleight of hand trick that employs distraction and some light fingered prowess to switch it with a similar object so her victim is none the wiser. The employment of such techniques manages not only to explain how the protagonist can get away with such unusual acts but also adds a further level of depth to your adventures. Not all tricks can simply be performed without preparation as props need collecting and the stage setting before they can be pulled off.
Control switches between Sam and Styles meaning you also get to witness first hand his continuing grief for his late wife. His research is fuelled by keeping her memory alive and so don’t be surprised if he is rather melancholic, leading him to look wistfully on most aspects of his life.
The degree of thought required for most puzzles is well pitched so as to be challenging but not so much as to leave you beating the desk in frustration, and most require a combination of knowledge of what’s to hand and some lateral thinking. The design is lean enough to block off irrelevant parts of the town that would otherwise offer nothing but red herrings, and those that are accessible are nicely colour coded to indicate whether you have done all you need to there.
Where it all begins to go wrong is in the inflexibility of your progression. A great example of this being reasonably early on when Styles is collecting mementos of his wife to help in his latest experiment. Off round the house I go identifying dress, photos and wine amongst other things, but find myself with a complete inability to actually pick them up. Much time passes with little movement on the task and so in frustration I look further afield. To my utter annoyance it turns out that to allow myself to pick said items up I need to examine Sam’s motorbike and then talk to the housekeeper about it. Quite why that particular gem prevents me from progressing is beyond me, but it is definitely not an isolated occurrence. On at three other occasions I thought I had softlocked myself (once I actually had done and had to restart the game in its entirety) only finding from FAQs that I had gotten ahead of the game logic.
If a shooter failed to recognise headshots, an RPG robbed you of XP, or a tennis game falsely calls a ball out, you wouldn’t stand for it. Why should it be any different here?