This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure.
People talk about adventure games in the 90s; they'll usually talk about LucasArts putting out masterpieces whenever the fucking planets aligned like Leonardo da Vinci, and Sierra being prolific but largely producing uniform beige like a jobbing painter and decorator. But one can easily forget that it was a broad and competitive age of PC gaming with a number of artistic phases. The one we don't like to talk about is the FMV phase, because for some reason, everyone felt having live action video in a game immediately turned on the green light for explicit sex and violence from realms that even the least supervised fourteen-year-old boy would be loath to probe, and with video compression being what it was at the time, we ended up with something that looked like partly-cooked pancake batter being poured onto the floor of a ketchup factory.
One of the very few decent FMV franchises was the Tex Murphy series which has lain dormant for many years, but in this wonderful age of Kickstarter, that is not dead which can eternal lie and with strange aeons even entitled nerds in their mid-30s creak open their wallets.
Tesla Effect is a brand-new, successfully Kickstarted Tex Murphy adventure, boldly bringing its signature FMV style to an age of HD, although it does mean that a little lighthearted niche adventure game ends up clogging up 12 sodding gigabytes of space! But what else besides HD video could do justice to every line that Chris Jones's face has acquired since he last played Tex Murphy in 1998? Sorry, that was needless cruel. We can't help how we age, nor indeed can game mechanics. OHHHHHH, this paragraph's going well! This is explained in the plot with Tex having mysterious amnesia of the previous seven years. Yeah right, seven of those special extra long years, maybe.
What I liked about the Tex Murphy games is that as well as sidestepping the FMV pancake-batter torture porn thing, they were lighthearted, good-natured, pulpy adventures about a lovable bumbler in a dystopian post-nuclear future who, for reasons best known to himself, dresses and acts like a stereotypical 40s private eye, which might explain why it did so well on Kickstarter, the land of never moving on from the past, where there's a big statue in the capital city of a man staring up his own bumhole.
Uniquely in its day, the Tex Murphys were full 3D first-person adventure games, albeit with that 90'\s Doom-style 3D that's like real 3D after you let the air out and drown it in a swimming pool, but Tesla Effect is the glorious full-polygonal 3D world the series always dreamed of. Just try not to notice that human characters all mysteriously vanish when it switches from FMV to gameplay 'cos it turns out 3D modelling is actually really hard.
In keeping with the private-eye thing, the first-person gameplay lent itself to an investigative style where most of the work is gliding around the locations on your invisible roller skates, waiting for your puzzle senses to tingle, with the potential tedium of the process lessened by constant examine dialogues that subtly build the work and establish Tex's likability. The other half of it is reading out an ever-growing list of topics to every single NPC over and over again, so they can overact directly to camera as they claim to know bugger-all. Both of these processes are enhanced for the modern age, with, on the one hand, a flashlight that highlights important objects and, on the other, HD video so huge you'll think you're trapped inside a wardrobe with the actor as they claim to know bugger-all about it.
But the question of whether or not Tesla Effect is true to the original series is probably the wrong question to ask, because of course it fucking is; the fans bankrolled it! It wants to attract newcomers to the series like it wants to attract their stinky grandma at a family function. I'm not a newcomer and there were still moments when the game went, "Hey, remember this character?" and I was like, "No." "Well, fuck you, 'cos we're pressing on anyway bold as brass!"
The real question is whether or not Tex Murphy games still hold up. Tesla Effect kicks off with some really nice intrigue when you're freshly amnesia-fied and wandering the streets searching for your first thread to start pulling on as all your old friends talk to you like you're a different man, but as the case unravels, it fails to live up to the promise of the mystery. The plot threads pile up like a horrific car accident, and it gets harder and harder to tell which severed limbs belong to what cadavers. Okay, so that guy was working with these guys who hired another guy from a previous game we're just going to assume you know about, and this other person is secretly related to a character who doesn't appear in the game, but we're going to bring them up like they're important anyway just to fuck with your flowchart.
The problem is created by the game's nasty habit of jumping ahead of us and bridging the gap with a brief explanation blurted hastily out like a promise of undying love to someone on a speeding train. So we have a scene where the wife of a missing person reveals herself to be a spy impostor type and then the narration goes, "Oh, by the way, Tex knows this woman; they hooked up once, so she's gonna seduce him in a hotel room that you're in now for some reason; go get 'em, tiger!" and then you're left standing dazed in a bedroom, clutching a bottle of champagne and a small pamphlet of advice from your dad.
And sometimes you don't even get the narration, as tends to happen with deaths. I was on a roof; I tried to open a gate, but clicking on it just dumped me straight into the "Game Over" screen without explanation. I assumed it was electrified and only noticed after solving the puzzle that no, there was just a big scary dog behind the gate, on the roof, presumably having been parachuted in by the 117th Big Scary Dog Airborne Division, and which was apparently killing me the moment line-of-sight was established with his electrified Eukanuba farts.
I like the game when it's about hunting for clues or having to pursue a lead involving, say, Snickers bars and deducing, "Hey, we should probably go and interrogate Mr. Snickers who wears a modified Snickers wrapper as a jockstrap." I don't like it when it's making some cockeyed play for gameplay variance by adding obnoxious amounts of sliding-tile puzzles and the like, often alleged to be "security systems" designed solely to keep out people who've never filled in the back of a cereal box, not to mention stealth sections that, again, dump you to the Game Over screen if a patrolling guard enters your approximate post code. The low point of the game is a huge ruined facility where all the bugaboos come home to roost: multiple useless rooms with few dialogues, instant-death monsters patrolling for irritation sake alone, and then out of nowhere, a fucking maze full of spiders, which I guess the builders installed because it was cheaper than a daycare center!
On the whole, Tesla Effect doesn't so much reinvigorate a franchise as it does remind you that it existed. And while it has the charm of a game created by actual humans out of love, to err is human and love is blinding. That's why you should always aim your love away from the eye sockets, fellas.
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