Monday, September 29, 2008

We're All Living In An 8-Color World

As previously threatened, I have been playing through old-school Sierra games. One is a true vintage from the 1980's, the other a remake of an 18-year-old original. One is completely new to me, the other feels like a familiar friend. One is a peculiar specimen, the other a comforting piece of the well-known Sierra style.

I'm still not entirely sure why I started playing Manhunter 2. Well, largely because of the San Francisco connection, I suppose, but still. It isn't one of those games that gets written up in the lists of "best games" or "most underrated" or "great forgotten games". It has a surprisingly slight presence on the Web, which you can count on providing an incredible amount of information on even the most obscure topics; reading through reviews and reminisces, I find them to be generally positive, but not ecstatic.

The game is a real oddity. In tone, it feels far darker and more dangerous than any other Sierra franchise. Even the "Police Quest" games, which I tend to hold up as the paragon of Sierra noir, had a streak of humor and occasional goofiness to them. Manhunter, though, is just relentless... violent, gory, and dark.

It turns out that there's a good reason for this. I hadn't initially realized it, but Manhunter wasn't a "real" Sierra game: they were the publishers, but the game was actually developed by a small studio in Washington state called Evryware. It's easy to forget that early Sierra was a much more diverse operation than the focused adventure-game-producing powerhouse that they became in the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's. Among other things, they published an early Ultima game from Richard Garriott, a notorious flight simulator written by Ken Williams himself, and - news to me until just now - a text adventure (!) that would become the forerunner of Leisure Suit Larry.

So, given that this wasn't directly produced under the aegis of Sierra, that helps explain the different tone. I'm curious if that explains the gameplay as well. I have a strong mental image of what early Sierra adventure games "should" look like: a series of static screens, with your avatar positioned on the screen in third-person perspective. You move around by using the arrow keys, and type commands into a prompt at the bottom of the screen. Manhunter 2 isn't like that at all, and is far more varied. You switch between overhead maps of San Francisco, to first-person perspective (which dominates much of the gameplay), to the occasional third-person scene and the odd cut scene. There is no typing in the game. Most of the gameplay is a series of puzzles and mini-games, none of which are the same. This variety is interesting, and in some ways Manhunter can be seen as a forerunner to Wario Ware; it is also frustrating, as you are guaranteed to be frustrated at some of the games.

The puzzles are generally fine, but occasionally maddening. I had no hesitation about turning to an FAQ when I got stuck, and was almost always glad to have done so. With some games, after I read a solution I am inclined to respond, "Oh, duh! I should have been able to figure that out." That's often not the case here, though.

I'd like to jump a bit more into the plot and such, so I call your attention toward or away from the following


Let me give you an example of a good and a bad puzzle. At one point, you acquire a piece of cloth with a note attached; the note reads "Rub the jewel of heaven." That instruction is both straightforward and mysterious: it is clear that you need to run the jewel of heaven, but you don't have the foggiest idea of what that is. If you pay attention when searching an apartment, you will come across a drawing of some Chinese characters next to the English word "Heaven". Getting warmer. Still later, you enter a staircase with a variety of pictures hanging on the wall, each with a Chinese character. When you closely examine the one with the Heaven character, you will see that there is a jewel with an action indicator on it; rub it to proceed. This is the sort of puzzle that could take a long time to solve, but everything you need to do so is provided to you.

On the other hand, at one point you need to enter Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum. It is locked. How do you get inside? Why, by whacking the midget on the head with a mallet! I mean, duh, right? I may have missed something, but I don't see how anyone could have figured that out without turning to a hint, or reverting to the hated try-using-every-item-on-every-object school of gameplay, which I loathe.

So, obviously, it wasn't the gameplay that kept me going on this game. The story was sufficiently interesting to hold my attention, and even more than that, the atmosphere. Have you noticed that, since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dramatic decline in the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction? Most post-apoc sci-fi is not explicitly the result of an imagined nuclear war between the USA and the USSR, but with the stakes as high as they were, it seems understandable that artists' imaginations were drawn towards stark extremes.

Part of what I liked about MH2 was that its hopeless situation was also ambiguous. The Orbs, an alien race who have enslaved Earth, are horrible (there is a great and chilling sequence in the Wax Museum that provides background on what has happened to Earth since their arrival); yet you spend most of the game directly working for them. I'm still not completely certain, but I believe that "Phil", your direct nemesis through most of the game, is on the run from them, so you're basically helping one enemy any time you try to hurt the other.

Humanity has a raw deal - they're either enslaved, working in lava-threatened mines deep below the city, or confined to a single room and forced to wear the marked robe. In both cases, they are always vulnerable to the powerful Orb-controlled robots, who act as brute enforcers; or to Manhunters, who have the freedom to move around where authorized and carry out the Orbs' bidding. And yet, even the humans don't seem very sympathetic in this game. They're generally pitiful and helpless. Some of them have evidently turned to cultish activity, which makes them just as dangerous to you as the Orbs. You do what you can to ease the plight of humans, but those small gestures seem insignificant in contrast with the scope of their peril.


And then there's the whole rat thing. The plot is surprisingly complex, and I'm not certain that I completely track the whole thing. I both admire and resent the fact that they don't do straight-up exposition in this game, trusting the player to figure out the importance of what has happened. As far as I can reconstruct it, though, Noah Goring was tapped by the Orbs to solve the problem of humans dying too easily in the mines. Using the Orbs' resources, he began conducting genetic experiments on humans, mainly using victims from Chinatown. Most of these were failures, and either destroyed or quarantined on Alcatraz. Eventually, he succeeded in creating a race of rat-men. These were sufficiently hardy, but were also incredibly vicious and cruel. Some of his experiments escaped and began rampaging, killing people throughout the city, and eventually slaying Noah himself.

The climax of the game is actually pretty cool. Phil has slain the rat-king and made himself lord of the underworld. You infiltrate his lair, see the rats for yourself, and make your escape. You then travel to Alcatraz where you release all of the specimens. During the ensuing chaos, you escape in a hot-air balloon and crash into the Castle, a chateu on Telegraph Hill. Meanwhile, the freed mutants take revenge on their Orb slavers, smooshing these floating eyeballs to a sickly pulp. The castle, also known as "Hell", is where the Orbs direct their mining operations. By controlling the various gates guarding excavated tunnels, you can destroy all the below-ground robots, and force lava up through the Bank of America Building and other San Francisco landmarks. Somehow (this is the part I still don't totally understand), doing this reverses the effect of Noah's experiments, and the mutants and rats turn back into their human forms. As far as I can tell, something being sprayed from Coit Tower was sustaining the transformation, and when you destroy Coit, the transformations are reversed. This sight is a little goofy for its 8-color effect, but also weirdly poignant and distressing, particularly in the image of a rat transformed back into a man, still holding the human leg that he has been chewing; he has had his conscience restored to him, and probably will spend the rest of his life wishing he didn't have it.

Warning: The following picture contains pixelated frontal nudity. Weird, huh?

You free the underground slaves, and they plop you into a giant drill. What follows is the last and, by far, most frustrating puzzle in the game: you need to move through an enormous maze filled with lava and make your way to the surface; move one pixel too far away, and you'll die and need to start over again.

Finish the maze, and you'll experience a final chase scene, which ends the game in dramatic fashion: "THE END?"

It may surprise you to know that the answer to that question is "Yes". They never made a Manhunter 3. I think it would be cool to try and bring it back, but I'm sure it'll never happen.


Here are my tips for playing the game:

1. Make free use of the Easy Arcade Setting. Some of the mini-games are simply impossible otherwise, and hard enough on Easy. Note that you need to re-select Easy every time you die or start a new mini-game.
2. As noted above, this is a game where you can use an FAQ and feel okay with yourself.
3. Read everything. It isn't necessarily essential for the game, but is the only way to figure out what the heck is going on.
4. This is the kind of game that rewards you if you use a notebook and pen to write stuff down. Make particular note of any symbols, names, or pictures you see. It will generally be fairly obvious that something is important.

Finally, enjoy the sight of San Francisco. It's really cool to see the dark, futuristic take on this great city. From the griminess of Chinatown to the grimness of the Financial District, this is like a nightmare of the city.


With Manhunter 2 out of the way, it was time to wrap up the other sequel I was playing: Quest for Glory 2. As in my initial plays through this game, I chose to play as a Thief. In another retro nod, I used my old character handle, Shadowspawn, instead of my modern one, Cirion.

It's probably been about 12 years or so since the last time I played QFG2, so returning to it was a really great experience. That's long enough of a time that I had forgotten large parts of the plot, but I got a warm nostalgic feeling whenever I suddenly remembered what I had to do. I don't THINK that ADG changed any of the puzzles. The combat system has been redesigned (and greatly improved!), but they appear to have kept the puzzles largely intact.

I quickly got over my earlier complaints about the lack of a text parser. I still think it would have been cool, but the hybrid conversation tree captured a lot of what I wanted. Oh, quick note: if, like me, you're confused about how to how to buy stuff, you need to select the lips and click on yourself. This is also how you exchange social niceties with people, make the thief sign, and take other special actions.

The graphics look pretty nice. They are admittedly crude - I think the resolution is something like 320x200 - but I was surprised by how quickly I got over that and was transported into the world. This is a familiar feeling for me... even with incredibly primitive graphics like Ultima IV or VI, after the initial shock of wondering how anyone could stand to look at something, my imagination takes over and I swiftly become immersed in the action. Anyways - the graphics are colorful, bright, and, while not true VGA, compared to the original CGA/EGA they are relatively sharp.

You have a few choices to make when starting a game, and cannot change your mind after picking one. When selecting a conversation mode, I strongly urge the hybrid. When choosing the alley system... well, it's hard to say. I picked the "simplified" one, which was fine, but since beating the game and reading the forums, I kind of wish that I had gone with the original, which has more easter-eggs in it. Early on in the game, I was frustrated when trying to find the money changer - a very familiar feeling, and one I thought I was getting rid of by selecting the simplified alleys! It turns out that the simplified alleys do not directly line up with the map of Shapeir that you get in FACS, so I had spent a lot of time trying to reach Dinarzad from the Gate Plaza, when you can only reach her from the Adventures Guild Plaza in the simplified system. After you get the map, it becomes clearer, but of course, you need to reach Dinarzad before you can get the map. Anyways - if you do the simplified system, don't rely on the FACS map, because it will just confuse you.

Also, note that there are two versions of the game out. I had played roughly halfway through 1.0 when 1.1 was released. Saved games are NOT compatible between the two versions, so you'll need to start over if you want to do 1.1. I'd recommend getting the later version if you haven't started yet; it fixes a few bugs I ran into during the game. However, I can confirm that 1.0 is completely beatable by itself.

I found myself reminiscing a lot about my old runs through QFG2 as I played the game. I remembered various stunts I tried to play, like playing a thief character who didn't get in a single fight in the entire game (completely possible!), or trying to make a Thief/Magic User combo character (imported from QFG1) become a Paladin at the game's end. I have a hard time imagining myself doing this today. When I was growing up, new games were very rare and far between, treasured items that I might spend a year saving up for, and then would play as much as I could. That's part of what I loved so much about the QFG games: you had at least three good plays built into it, due to the different class systems, and the point system encouraged you to try again and get all 500 points. So I was quite inclined to try goofy stuff and see if I could still win the game. I don't see myself being able to ever do that with an RPG again. As my disposable income has gone up, my free time has dramatically declined; there are always a half-dozen or more games out there that I want to play, so I feel like I'm always looking ahead to the next challenge.

One peculiar side-issue is the question of maximizing. Each game had a cap on how many points you could earn in any given skill - 100 points in the first game, 200 points in the second, and so on. I ended up maximizing a lot of my stats and skills, but not all of them. I've been trying to decide whether this is more or less maximizing than I would have done in the old days, and honestly can't remember. I would like to find one of my old save games to see whether I obsessively raised every skill to 200, or just role-played and let the chips fall where they may.

I do remember grinding in specific situations - for example, back in QFG1, I would climb the tree outside the healer's cottage for ten minutes to raise my skill. However, I know that in that case the goal was just to get my climbing skill high enough that I could climb up to the Hermit. Would I have continued to climb to reach the magical 100? I really don't know. Maybe if I was sufficiently bored.

One other way in which playing the game years later is a very different experience: I'm now getting a lot of jokes that just flew over my head the first time. Dinarzad in particular - when I was playing through the game as a youth, I sort of had an idea that she was a "bad woman," but really didn't respond to any of her lines. Now, I read what she has to say, and go, "Oh my GOSH... I can't believe children were playing this game!" Except, of course, I know from experience that it's OK... they seem to have had that rare skill of pitching jokes that would land where they were directed, providing a knowing chuckle from adults and cluelessness from kids.

This game also reminded me how backwards my pop culture evolution has been: I almost always have experienced the parody long before I meet the original. This is especially true of music and Weird Al, but is also abundantly the case for the QFG series. I still remember writing a long story for 6th grade that was based on my adventures in Spielburg Valley, and being incredibly confused when my teacher tried to explain that Spielburg was a movie director. QFG2 has references to Casablanca, the Maltese Falcon, Marx Brothers movies, Monty Python, classic TV shows, etc. ad nauseum; other than the Marx Brothers, I hadn't seen any of that before becoming familiar through the game, and to this day I haven't seen all. It's also a safe bet that there are plenty of jokes I've missed because they parody things I don't know. This is far from a complaint; I think I get much more mileage out of the parodies than I would often get from the original (this case is even easier to make with Robot Chicken in regards to all the 1980's cartoon shows and toys I missed out on).

I found myself reflecting on the setting of the game. I really do enjoy the Arabian mysticism pervasive throughout the game, and worry a little about whether our nation's real-life adventures over there will make future generations less likely to explore this mythology. For a moment I wondered whether Sierra was trying to capitalize on the groundwork laid by Disney in "Aladdin", but I needn't have worried: QFG2 came out in 1990, and Aladdin not until two years later. Against the backdrop of the entire series progression, it becomes even more interesting to consider the variety that the Coles achieved with this franchise. Sometimes I feel like you can divide all of fantasy into two eras, BT and AT: Before Tolkien and After Tolkien. Fantasy before Tolkien was often dismissed as childish, but was also tremendously varied; it drew upon English folklore, Celtic mythology, Arabian mysticism, Eastern religions, and the occasional truly hallucinatory original vision. Since Tolkien, there has been an explosion in the quantity and quality of fantasy, but by default everyone is locked into the basic formula of "Medieval Western Europe Plus Magic," and it seems to take a conscious effort for authors to break out of that and do something original. Well, QFG is derivative, but like the best artists it steals from everyone. QFG1 is the closest they do to straight-up fantasy, but even there it has a very specific Germanic feel, like a dark fairy tale, that I find very appealing. Their choice of creatures, like kobolds and Baba Yaga, put you in a consistent world. QFG2 obviously hails from the land of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Genie of the Lamp, and other examples of the great heritage of fantasy we have from the Middle East. (Tangent: Check out Neil Gaiman's stunning Sandman comic about the last king of Baghdad. I almost get tears in my eyes when I read it, and think about what's been lost.) A few elements carry over from the first game, like the Sauri, but even those are transformed to the desert setting, and your encounters with scorpions, djinni, ifrit, etc., ground you just as firmly in Arabia as the knockwurst put you in Germany.

I'm strongly tempted now to plow ahead with the rest of the series. As much as I love this franchise and point to its influence, I actually only ever owned the first two games. I played all the way through the third game after borrowing it from a friend, and saw a lot of the fourth by shoulder-surfing as another friend played it, but never made it very far on my own. I had even less exposure to the fifth game, just occasionally checking in as my college roommate (who had never played any of the first four games) worked his way through. Still, I have seen enough to know that they do not repeat their setting or influences. The third game taps African folklore, an underused source if there is any in the world of fantasy. I don't remember particularly enjoying this game, but I think that was mainly because there wasn't a whole lot for my thief to do. The fourth game transports you to Eastern Europe, where you get to interact with werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, etc. From the little I've seen, I think the fifth game brings you to a Mediterranean setting, which seems a fitting place to end the series - Greek mythology was, in some ways, the beginning of our culture's attempts to catalog and define our superstitions into fantasies.

It's been a fun journey. Now, back to Grand Theft Auto IV and smashing vehicles into each other!

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