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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.