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Tex Murphy: Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

I played the first game in the Tex Murphy series today, Mean Streets. I didn’t expect much and that’s just what I got. I played the third and fifth of the five games way back when and I loved them. The second one had something of a good reputation, but not the first. Now, I understand why.

Many good ideas, but…

There’s actually a lot of good stuff in Mean Streets. A lot of good stuff. And that’s part of the problem. Many of the ideas are good but:

  • aren’t finished,
  • don’t work well together,
  • don’t belong in this game and
  • while not bad get in the way of gameplay rather than improve it

Still, many of these good ideas are very typical of the early days of video game design, particularly of narrative-based video game design: too much freedom was given to the player, which requires more meaningful content that can or even should be produced.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

Mean Streets had a fully-explorable 3D world in 1989

That, in itself, is impressive. It’s similar to L.A. Noire in concept: the player gets to move at will throughout a city. At specific areas, there are items to interact with. In L.A. Noire, I was impressed the by amount of work that had gone into that system, but I didn’t think it was particularly fun. In Mean Streets, the fact the developers got it to work at all is extremely impressive, but it’s a huge burden on the player and not fun at all. In the end, the player is regularly given four-digit “navigation codes” to be entered in an autopilot system that clumsily navigates through the 3D city.

This system just adds unnecessary steps to get to a destination, when just selecting them from a list would have been much more comfortable. Furthermore, the model for the city is ridiculously simple. It’s just a few shapes on a flat map with in extremely low resolution seen from a tiny viewport. Again, the concept was daring and it’s impressive that it worked technically, but the actual gameplay of it brings nothing but frustration. It takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next, and most of the time, there’s nothing to do but watch very slow movement within an environment and a few numbers changing on the screen.

In the story, the 3D world is navigated with a 3D car. It is possible to fly the car manually and go anywhere. But the controls are so awkward and complex that it is in fact almost impossible to get anywhere by doing that. A fully-polished flight simulator in a rich, detailed world might have been a fun games, but it would not have been an adventure game, at least not in 1989.

Mean Streets allows free input dialog

That’s part of the dream for adventure game developers: allow your player to have rich, detailed, subtle conversations with your characters. Mean Streets goes further and, like Maupiti Island, once a characters has answered a question, the player character, Tex Murphy and either threaten them or bribe them for more information. This is most likely suppose to give a strong sensation of freedom. But it’s not what happens in practice at all.

What actually happens is that both in the manual and in in-game dialog, the player is instructed to write everything down, with numerous repeated advice to check for spelling. The instructions to check for spelling are repeated several times in the manual, sometimes several limes per page in bold, capital letters. What this means, is that one has to write down outside of the game any name that is given and type it back exactly inside of dialog text input boxes. Any deviation will cause the characters to be confused. Bribing or threatening hardly ever worked. It actually never worked when I tried it. I can only guess that it does eventually, if not it would not be in the game.

There’s in built-in help system

It’s possible to pay an informer for hints, but Tex has limited money and there’s no way to know if the informer will have any information or how much she’ll charge for it. This makes the whole process random and frustrating.

The intent and the result

The goal of all this was obviously to hide the linearity of the game. One of the buzzwords of the time was “non-linear.” We now know that there’s nothing essentially wrong with linearity in games. Super Mario Bros. is completely linear and is still considered one of the best games of all time. This absolutely extends to narrative games: the games in the Ace Attorney series are mostly linear and are also very highly praised. The way it’s possible (although not practical) for the player to roam around and the way money can be spent on bribes and informants give the impression that one can reach the end of the game in many ways.

In order to add an action element, there are short combat sections, not unlike in the games of Quantic Dreams. I found they mostly lead to a game over and if one had not saved, a lot of gameplay is lost. But it’s not like the combat sections are announced. They can come at any time and the conclusion of a failed combat section is a game over screen. Combat is generally a bad idea in an adventure game, but unannounced combat that interrupts gameplay based on conversation that just ends the game is even worse.

The game also tried to vary mechanics, much like God of War did successfully years later. But what we got instead was what Yahtzee Croshaw would call a schizophrenic interface. There is:

  • a free-roaming 3D interface for the flying car
  • a non-interactive 3D view for autopilot in the flying car
  • a side-scrolling view for combat
  • a face-to-face view with text input for dialog, and another, equivalent one for phone calls,
  • a visual-novel-like themed interface for locations,
  • white-on black text popups for narration

and others that I might not have encountered. Many of those are not bad, again, they’re just out of place, or unfinished, or too numerous, or a combination of the above.

There’s also a huge contradiction between the views of the city in the flying car and in the side-view action sequences. It’s simply impossible that these two worlds have anything in common. Again, not bad as such, but completely incompatible. That is also true of visual-novel-like sections, which have detailed, rich graphics that don’t match either the 3D views or the combat sections.

And, as Tex spends most of his time flying, the title Mean Streets doesn’t make much sense. Tex seems to spend very little time on streets. Yes, the only time the player sees the streets in question is during combat, but that part of gameplay seems so removed from the rest that it seems odd that it would become the titular feature. It’s not like when the title of a work is an deceivingly inconsequential detail, like Slaughterhouse Five or The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It just seems that that title was given because it was a cool title, reminiscent of a cool movie.

The good stuff

There are many, many good things in Mean Streets that are worthy of praise. Many of these have been kept in future games.

First of all, Mean Streets uses technology that was definitely bleeding edge, such as 3D, video and voice. These were very much ahead of their time in 1989. The got in the way of gameplay or were frustrating, but I’m confident that the failure of Mean Streets is what made the subsequent games so good. After their first Tex Murphy game, Access had figured out what to keep and when to use it.

This game also makes me glad for having taken the class Building Virtual Worlds at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and Jesse Schell’s class on game design. These were specifically designed to avoid problems like the one in Mean Streets. I can’t honestly say I would not have done the exact same thing at the time myself.

Why I want to make games

Here at the ETC, a very informative and charismatic speaker asked the students, “Why do you want to work in this field.” This field was video games. In her mind, it most likely was in the AAA industry, but maybe she meant video games in general. I had a looming impression that my answer would be too convoluted to fit in the succinct Q and A format we were in, so I kept quiet. Now that time have passed and I have somehow managed to brush my thoughts into a coherent set of threads, I will answer here.

In short: classics.

Interactive media are in their infancy. We may have come a very, very long way since the seventies, but that’s certain to be only the first few steps of a longer journey still. We’re where the Western novel was in the eighteenth century, where the theatre was in the Renaissance, where painting was in the Middle Ages. We’re still in the times classics are being made.

When I got into Carnegie Mellon, I most likely had a choice between the ETC and Dramatic Writing. In many ways, Dramatic Writing tempted me more, but the ETC seemed to be the right choice. An argument I heard a lot if favor of the ETC is that it would make me much more employable that Dramatic Writing. It would have been a blatant display of a superficial character not to take such an important and practical aspect in consideration. But that was not it.

Why would I have gone into Dramatic Writing? Because I love television. Writing in American television blows my mind, not in every instance, of course, but definitely in most respects. But then what? Let’s say I make it television, for the sake of argument. I get a small job as a story editor on a mediocre show. Then another, then another. Then I get a job as a story editor in a good show. Then another. Then I become a lead writer for that show. Then for another. Then, at last I am given my own show. Even if my new show is a success at that point, what then? I will not be like David E. Kelley, or Aaron Sorkin, or Chuck Lorre. Those people will have moved on by then. And with the Internet and (duh) video games taking center stage, where will television be like by then?

Whereas here, in this medium, I have the opportunity, maybe, someday, with a lot of work, a lot of luck and a bit of faith, to be like the David E. Kelley or the Chuck Lorre of video games. I don’t know if games, or interactive entertainment, or whatever one feels like calling them, are where novels were in the eighteenth century. Maybe they are where novels were in the nineteenth century: big, bold, formulaic behemoths of literature about to gain some level of respectability in the arts. Or maybe that’s where games were in t he eighties and we’ve reached the moderns in games. Maybe our independent games will turn out to have been the Virgina Woolfs or the Prousts of the medium. I don’t know. Maybe one of use will be the Agatha Christie of the medium. Given the opportunity, if earned, I’d take that title with more pride I could express here.

The important things is that games are lagging a lot behind most media and that’s normal and we should embrace it and take it as an opportunity to do great things and to be great for it. Interactive entertainment is where the future is still very likely to be shinier, more beautiful, more challenging, more intriguing, more delightful than the present. And I want to be part of that, in some respect.

I, consumerist

It’s been about ten years since I’d lived in America since I moved back here ten days ago. Oh, I’ve visited many times since, but things are slightly different when one lives here. Here are a few poins I thought are worthy of note. They are personal observations about my first ten days in Pittsburgh, not an ideological primer.

  • Coupons are worth it. I saw a lady at the supermarket shrink her checkout bill from $50 to $35 with coupons. Also, the checkout lady refered to them as “cue-pons”, like Mel Brooks’ character in Mad About You. I liked that touch. I’m starting to look into that whole coupon thing. Yes, I am now officially an old lady.
  • My Mac, my internet router and my debit card all arrived early. In the case of my debit card, it was early by several days, and it had a PIN that had been preset by me. Toto, we’re not in Europe any more.
  • I like root beer. I used to confuse it with ginger ale, which is to “ginger-y” for me. But root beer, I like. I also like creme soda, though creme soda tends for suffer more when it’s in its “diet” version.
  • The lady at the pharmacy remembers me and reminds me to take my loyalty card. It’ve lived here ten days. After ten years in London, not a single person behind a counter knew who I was.
  • Verizon’s help desk is well-meaning but not really motivated. Not that I can blame them. When she asked me to open Internet Explorer on my Mac, assuming it was running Windows, I quietly stayed on Chrome. A good thing I was not running Linux. (This last sentence is so going to get quoted out of context.)
  • Pittsburgh is not Manhattan. It’s not easy to find a breakfast with eggs on a weekday in Shadyside. Pamela’s the only one I found so far.
  • The food is healthy. I’m sorry to all of those who assume otherwise, but in my experience it’s true. Don’t get me wrong: unhealthy food is available, and quite easily, too. But on average, I’ve felt well fed without taking huge amounts of insulin without eating at home much more easily than in London or Paris. It’s just that here, when you order a salad, you actually get some greens. Same thing with vegetables. It may be because I eat at CMU a lot, but today, my taco salad had a few tacos, but it was mostly veggies and salsa. And the egg and ham breakfast I had earlier was just that: eggs, ham and a hash brown. No bread, no butter, no baked beans, no croissant, no fried slice, no pastries, no “are you sure you’re sure you don’t want a pastry with that? You can always eat it later.”
  • The buses work better than in London. Now, the buses in Peru worked better than in London (really; I was there and tried them) so it’s not really that much of a challenge. But it’s nice to see that some cities outside of New York in the U.S. have good public transportation. Everything is still made for people with cars, though. But it’s possible to deal without a car.
  • I found generic sucralose (Splenda).

On the whole, it looks like this country is every bit the consumerist’s heaven it’s depicted to be. But I’m really not sure it’s a bad thing. After all, in Britain and France, the main reason we don’t get those sort of things is because we teach the consumers to lower their expectations. That is my experience, at least. (“Well, yes, the train is going to get there four hours late, but you can’t expect it to be on time every time.”)

The U.S., like every country, is not without problems. Actually, it has problems galore. Just look at the news is you want a comical version of the situation and to the Daily Show if you want a soberingly accurate one. But I’m not sure its consumerism is really one of them at all. The people at che checkouts who remember my name seem happy because they’re doing their job well by remembering who I am. That’s nothing to shun or sneer at. If anything, it brings them job satisfaction, which in turn might contribute to some measure of happiness. And I am told by some people who are more learned than I am on the matter that happiness is a very pleasant thing.