May. 25th, 2017

davidn: (Default)
So, The Colonel's Bequest, then. Since completing the game I've read around it a bit more, mostly starting from this dedicated Colonel's Bequest fansite, and I think that despite its flaws - and the sense I had at the start of being completely clueless - I think I grew to appreciate what it was doing. There are also some interesting notes laid out in this recovered design document with some complimentary tea-stains - I love seeing how games of this era came together.

It's certainly an interesting game, particularly when you consider the time it was released - it's still hard to believe it was 1989, a time when most PC games I knew about resembled Jason Jupiter. In terms of graphics, obviously, it was very advanced, and it was an unusually early attempt at making a game that was more about observation than fiddling with things (something much more prominent in the modern era with 'adventures' like Gone Home and Rapture). If you look in "About" under the menu, you get a glimpse from the authors themselves of what Sierra was trying to do here:




They acknowledge that the inventory-based puzzles of their previous games are pushed to the background here in favour of being an interactive story, and - rather pompously, if you ask me - tell the player that if they don't get it then they're not putting enough effort in. Looking at some magazine reviews from the time, it seemed the setting and new idea was appreciated but that some reviewers found the game extremely dull (the linked reviewer's experience being exacerbated by being on the Amiga and therefore having to swap disks every two minutes). I would agree with this, as without a walkthrough there really is very little in the way of the player being given purpose in the game. From first principles, a new player would have to lap the house many times trying to discover the largely random-seeming events that they needed to witness to move the game forward, and there isn't really a thread of clues to follow - your role is to wander around observing things and there isn't any guidance as to what important things are about to happen, not even that you can dig up somewhere to hint as to where to go next.

For that reason, I wonder if this would work better as a visual novel with a limited decision tree instead - in a way, it already is, just with a ton of wandering in between important scenes while you try to find something else worth seeing. Though it's understandable that Sierra kept to the familar adventure-like appearance, as games as non-interactive as that were a long way off in the West when this was released. And it's hard to imagine how they could have balanced that while preserving the sense of mystery as you creep around the increasingly empty house.

One of the most significant things the game has going for it is just how sharply it improves towards the end, leaving me with a good impression! Including an entire alternative ending was something I didn't expect (I thought I'd just done something else wrong earlier because surely they wouldn't have put in an entire ending-like scene for making a bad decision when their usual go-to was just to kill you for the most minor infraction). The game seems very bland at first, but starting very late on once you reach act 7 (if you take the correct route), there is suddenly a sense of danger that's been lacking from the game until that point.

I went back and looked at just how little it's possible to discover - you can blaze through the game in about 20 minutes if you know exactly what you're doing, but you miss out on all of the story and get the Barely Conscious rating if you do so. The only actions that are actually required to reach the end of the game are detailed here - each action that advances time is fixed although the order in which you do them within an act doesn't always matter, so it's up to the player to notice when the clock moves and when to move to the next act. But as for the number of actions that are possible, that seems to be stratospheric - every time this walkthrough says "perform full conversation" it's asking you to run through the whole spiel that I did in addition to trying various combinations to see how their responses change. I'm not totally sure how many of these will produce more than brief generic responses, but... in theory, there's a lot there.

The trouble is that the important actions are so hopelessly arbitrary - the fourth act does the best job at illustrating this even when you have a walkthrough, because you're relying on random chance to prevent you from advancing until you've seen everything. From looking at [personal profile] kjorteo's playthrough, the sequel The Dagger of Amon Ra improved on this in some ways and absolutely fell flat in others - a lot of information you can gather in the sequel leads you to know that you have to be in certain places at certain times, so that you can then eavesdrop and discover further information. However, time seems to advance in a much less controllable way than in this game, meaning that your chances of actually getting anywhere on time are slim even if you do everything correctly.

The final complaint that I have is that even bearing in mind that the game improves the tension at the end, there really isn't any danger - in a game that should have been ripe for danger in every corner, you can't die except in incredibly stupid Sierra ways that aren't related to the ongoing mystery. Yes, you can get grabbed by the mysterious man who lives in the toilet roll cupboard, but most of the time you'll die from falling down the stairs or be pointlessly squashed by a falling chandelier. But I'll definitely give them extra points for the bell.

So that's about where I am - I'm still not quite prepared to call this or Amon Ra good games, because they're immeasurably more enjoyable with a walkthrough on hand that helps you to avoid what the authors considered the actual "game" part, but they're... interesting. And this one in particular was ahead of its time.

The Colonel's Bequest is available on GOG.com!

One last thing I want to note is an oddity with how the graphics in the SCI0 engine are stored - one of the secrets to how good the game looks for EGA is that the graphics weren't actually drawn with regard to limits of the EGA standard - the artists used many in-between colours in their background vector artwork and the engine was written to rasterize the graphics using dithering when a colour wasn't actually available. As the extra colour data still exists in the files, a source port like ScummVM can ignore the need to dither pixels and can produce the backgrounds as they were drawn - and this is what some of them look like.

Undithered artwork )

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