Thursday, July 04, 2013


Editor's note: This post is ancient! I found it while going through my old posts and re-tagging them. I think this was originally written in... 2008, maybe? If memory serves, I was planning on giving this game to a friend (which was a production in itself, but that's another story), and decided to sequester this post to avoid tipping my hand. And then decided to forget about it altogether for years. The good thing about retro gaming, though, is that this post is no less applicable now than it would have been then. The unedited text follows.

In the grander realm of Discworld ephemera, I'm naturally most drawn to the small yet compelling field of video games.  Unlike what you might expect from other works, the Discworld games are not re-interpretations of existing stories into a new medium, but rather original tales that draw upon established characters and settings to create new adventures.

There have been several games, but the last and best-regarded is Discworld Noir.  Both "last" and "best" should be understood relative to the competition of other Discworld games, as it is more than a decade old and has been forgotten.  Still, a passionate tiny minority (tinority?) continues to sing the praise of this lost entry, and so after spreading the wealth around to a friend as a gift, I was compelled to seek out another copy to experience it for myself.

It is... well, it is a darn good classic graphical adventure game, with production values that are decent for its time, and a script that is about 75% as good as one actually written by Pratchett would be.  Which is to say that I wasn't blown away, but I was impressed and pleased.  Perhaps best of all, it may be the least buggy of the various 1990's graphic adventure games that I've attempted to play.  I never once had a corrupted save game, got stuck, or crashed.  The sound did occasionally cut out, but other than that it ran like a charm.

Once I actually got it running, that is.  Based on what I'd read online, I knew it would be hopeless to try and run it on my 64-bit Vista system, "compatibility mode" or no.  Fortunately, after the agony of Quest for Glory V, I knew what would be required, and already had a lot of the ground work prepared.  I set up Microsoft Virtual PC, installed Windows 98 SE on it, then installed the game on the virtual PC and ran it.  Poof!  Just like that, I was transported back to classic gaming land.

The basic interface of Discworld Noir will be familiar to anyone who's played a LucasArts or late Sierra adventure game.  You have a single-action pointer that you sweep around the room, right-click to examine an object, left-click to move, and double-left-click to interact with it.  You also have a traditional inventory system that lets you acquire, combine, and use objects.  On top of this conventional interface, though, they have layered a system that's more appropriate to the... mood of Discworld Noir.

As you may or may not be able to guess from the title, Discworld Noir is a detective story.  The single most important thing you use is your notebook, in which you write down clues as you advance the plot.  You can use your clues on items in the world to, or combine them with one another to try and divine connections.  For example, if you have notes about two separate murders, combining them will cause your character to puzzle out the possible connections between the two.

There are occasional frustrations in the puzzle system, but on the whole it's one of the better adventure games I've played.  It achieves the obvious-yet-to-rarely-done trick of scattering around hints about what you should do that make puzzles non-obvious and non-frustrating.  For example, you may ultimately need to use a particular object in a particular place.  You could eventually figure this out yourself, but if you show the object to various contacts, odds are that one or two of them may offer ideas that point you in the right direction of where to use it.

The voice acting is... generally good.  I was much more impressed after I realized that it's basically one guy and one girl doing every person in the game.  There's, I dunno, maybe two dozen or so characters, each of which has an incredible amount of dialogue, including some pretty involved hard-boiled exchanges.  I can cut them some slack for having the occasional cheesy accent.  Some of the characters are really well done.  You hear an incredible amount from Lewton, your avatar, so it's a relief that he's well spoken and entertaining; I never would have lasted the whole game otherwise.  When characters are really frustrating, it tends to be more the conversation/graphic programming than the actual voice acting... there are a few in particular who, whenever you ask them a question, you'll need to watch this really annoying idle animation for a good five or ten seconds before they say "Well........... hmmmmm.....errrrrr...... I don't know."  That tends to be the exception, though.

Oh, and the sound is quite good.  It's noir, pretty jazzy, a bit repetitive in spots but nicely atmospheric.  And, speaking of atmosphere, they totally nail the mood they're going for and keep it up throughout.  Every scene is dark, it's almost always raining, all buildings are shown with severe angles, and so on.

The graphics themselves are kind of hard to deal with.  They live in that awkward adolescence, between the cheerful cartoony primitive animation of early adventure games and the pretty, smooth animation of modern games.  Studios had figured out how to do 3D and texture models, but didn't yet have enough polygons to make really lifelike characters, and so you're stuck with fully-realized yet amazingly ugly people.  Again, the setting of Noir helps here, as, for example, your avatar walks around in a big trenchcoat with a fedora pulled over his face, so you only need to see his creepy eyes and gargantuan chin in the occasional cutscene.  Like most classic games, it's really only a problem for the first hour or so, and after that you get acclimated and don't really notice it much any more.  (Just to emphasize one more time: while the execution is a bit crude, the overall design is quite excellent.)


This is actually the only Discworld game that I've played, and I'm not extremely tempted to catch the others... not because I didn't like this one, but because I doubt the others would be more appealing to me.  From what I've read, the other Discworld games are based around Rincewind, who is a perfectly fine character but not one of my favorites.  Noir, in contrast, is based around an entirely new character, Lewton, who is the Disc's first private investigator.  Even better, the game entirely takes place within Ankh-Morpork.  After reading more than a dozen of these books, I feel confident in declaring that one can adopt a rough rule of thumb that the quality of a Discworld book is directly proportional to how much time is spent within Ankh-Morpork.

A-M has always been pretty vaguely defined within the books.  Much like the Discworld itself, you gradually learn a lot about specific locations (the Mended Drum, Unseen University, the Patrician's palace, etc.), but unlike other fantasy authors, Pratchett never sees fit to actually provide a map showing just where these things are.  And good for him - that's not the kind of book he writes, and this method gives him perfect freedom to make new geographical declarations whenever it is convenient to a new plot.  A little bit of that flexibility is lost here, because there IS a map provided, but even so, it maintains the overall feeling of amorphousness.  That is, you can see where the docks are, and you can see where Dagon Street is, but it's presented in a more artistic manner, without bothering to define every street name between the two. 

Besides Lewton, a lot of new characters were invented for this game.  However, more than a few classic characters make appearances as well.  These are generally pretty good.  Least enjoyable is Vimes, who only appears in a few scenes, and comes off as just cranky and (!) incompetent.  Since Vimes is my favorite character in the books, I was disappointed in this portrayal.  On the other hand, they do a surprisingly decent job with Nobby, who is notoriously impossible to represent in any form.  He does look entirely too human, but they offset it nicely by giving him weird twitchy movements, and providing decent dialog that captures his peculiar mix of pride, pettiness, and craft.  The Patrician is mostly absent, but when he does appear, you can believe in him.

Oh!  And I can't skip the bizarre tie-in with Discordianism.  The game out-and-out steals from the Discordian mythos: you meet a priest named Malaclypse (the elder, perhaps?) who worships a deity called "Errata," who is the goddess of chaos.  Sound familiar?  Errata was responsible for starting the Tsortean wars.  Malaclypse is also a repository for every conspiracy theory on the Discworld, and was always entertaining to talk with even when he was useless. Anyways, the theft was so obvious that I have to forgive it.


The plot itself turns out to be surprisingly good.  The game is divided into, um, I think four acts.  The start of the game is quite slow and boring, with a lot of tedium and some of the least-sensible puzzles of the game.  It gets much better once the murders kick into high gear, though, and becomes downright fun once Lewton turns into a werewolf.  Things become nicely layered as more and more players are added, and it was fun to puzzle out and predict who would betray whom. 

The werewolf bit itself was... wow, pretty surprising.  Only in the Discworld would your main character die halfway through, and continue in the game.  Adding the new "scents" subsystem was cool as well; I just wish that they had ended up doing more with it.  I think that you can collect maybe thirty or so scents, but just a fraction of them are useful, and you couldn't do as much with them as I had hoped.

The cut scenes throughout the game are pretty good, but the ones in the second half are excellent.  I especially enjoyed watching Death appear to take the final murders himself... they totally nailed the character's attitude and speech.  Mooncalf's death was entertaining as well.  "I'm a born-again atheist!" he calls out before getting zapped by lightning - which you can totally see coming from miles away.  Atheists don't last long on the Discworld.

One regret: the actual ending proper was pretty anticlimactic.  Double-click on the flying device, watch Lewton pedal, watch Lewton swing a sword, poof!  Game over.  I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but... I dunno, at least interacting in some meaningful way with Nylonepheteh (sp) would have been fun.  Still!  The closing cut-scene was satisfying in an overly referential, cheesy, self-aware way, and I enjoyed it immensely.


So, where does Noir fit within the Discworld canon?  I'd label it "worth checking out if you enjoy adventure games AND Discworld."  It's not the greatest adventure game ever, and isn't the best Discworld story ever, but it's quite good at both, and how many chances will you have to find that?


  1. Oh wow, I didn't know there were any Discworld games!

  2. Like a lot of Discworld spinoffs, they vary wildly in quality. Noir and the live-action movies are worth checking out; the other video games and the cartoons are pretty bad.