Saturday, December 12, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis

Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis (PC)
Though few think of them as such, graphical adventure games of the early to mid 90s were some of the best co-operative experiences of my life. That's because they were some of the few games that my sister and I played together, and having another person to help figure out the puzzles or take the controls for awhile was always helpful. While the only one we ever managed to finish was King's Quest V, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis has stuck with me as the best and most memorable of the bunch. It's too bad we came to the genre too late to play the first Monkey Island, and missed fan favorites such as Sam & Max Hit The Road, but oh well.
Indiana Jones was that game for us, by which I mean, the game that you started what felt like a half dozen times but never finished. Each time my sister and I re-installed and began again, we'd make it a little further, but as far as I remember we never actually made it to Atlantis. Still, there was something of a MacGuyver-like element to the puzzles and situations of the game that we loved. We weren't aware of it at the time because the game doesn't do a very good job of pointing it out unless you've read the manual, but you can actually play through it on one of three paths: a puzzle heavy one, a fighting/action heavy one, and a path in which female protagonist Sophia Hapgood is always with you, rather than falling into Nazi hands for the majority of the experience.

The thing that I think always made us quit the game was its use of elements from other genres. Adventure games, at least for me, are at their best and purest when they stick to what is unique about them, which is to say, their writing/dialogue and puzzles. The latter is often where many go wrong, because they insist on ever larger inventories of increasingly obtuse items, item combinations, and leaps of logic. Moreover, when adventure games forced elements of other genres into themselves, the results always felt awkward and poorly done. All of the fighting in Fate Of Atlantis boils down to mashing the mouse button and wailing away, since the game doesn't explain its system to you and trying to back up and recover will eventually cause Indy to run away. Furthermore, when you get toward the end of the game, you're flying a hot air balloon through screen after screen of empty ocean looking for a submarine. In order to land, you vent the hot gas, causing your balloon to confusingly descend in concentric circles, making it difficult to "aim" your landing spot. For that matter, it's never explained to you that the idea is to land on the sub, so you'll probably waste a boring 20 minutes landing on the various small islands, wondering why nothing is happening.
Odd, then, that the thing that caused me to quit the game this time wasn't these poorly implemented mechanics. Rather, it was the final portions of the game that take place in Atlantis. This part gradually becomes open ended and sprawling; not a problem in and of itself, but the slow movement speed of Indy, and random Nazis patrolling the area who force you into fights or running away via the same repetitive conversation, really grate on the nerves. This also happens to be the only part of the game that has a lot of miss-able items that will be required to finish puzzles, so you're never sure if you can't solve one because you haven't had the "a-ha!" moment or if you need some gewgaw. This is one of the worst problems of the game (and by extension the genre in general): often it's a matter of pixel hunting, gradually moving your cursor around the screen in lawnmower-like paths to make sure you aren't missing anything. But it can also be something as counter-intuitive as having to close the lid of a crate so that Indy is capable of noticing a paper attached to it.
Worse still is that the machinery of Atlantis is powered by a fantastical metal called orichalcum. You come upon beads of it during the course of the regular game, but once you get to Atlantis, you're able to use a machine to make more. My assumption was that the game gave you an infinite supply once you successfully used the device, but as it turns out, if you waste too many on trial and error while solving future puzzles, you run out. This means not only backtracking--via what feels like a half hour of slow movement and the same tedious random Nazi patrols--but having to go through the two-room, three-step process of making more beads. After doing all of this, I accidentally fought too many Nazis in a row and Indy's health hadn't recovered, leading to an easy death. As I hadn't saved for awhile, this meant losing a lot of progress. Yes, that's technically my fault, but why the idea of a game auto-saving for you took so long to make its way into the majority of titles is baffling to me for situations just like this.

The Atlantis portion of the game reminds me a lot of the last bit of the original Half-Life that takes place in Xen, insofar as both are the most frustrating and oblique sections of both. In Half-Life's case, it was because Xen went on far too long, suddenly emphasized the not-so-good jumping mechanics of the game, and was generally pretty confusing and felt out of character with the first 2/3 of the game. The infamous end boss felt like it was lifted from Quake, for god's sake. Anyway, Atlantis's issues are its aforementioned backtracking and sudden supernatural elements. Granted, Indiana Jones has always dealt with supernatural stuff, but in this game it's more a case of the puzzles you begin running into and the supernatural, which is to say, unnatural/made-up stuff that you have work with. As I mentioned earlier, there's a MacGuyver-like feel to the majority of the puzzles in the game up to this point. Hell, you even have to make the hot air balloon yourself, just as McGuyver once made a small, two-seater glider airplane. But in Atlantis, you're using made up machines and items that behave according to the game's internal logic. Unless you developed the game, at least a couple of the things you need to do here will elicit "what the fuck?!" reactions. For instance, at one point you need to fill a stone cup with lava. You figure out pretty quickly that if you insert a statuesque fish head into an Atlantean lava forge, it'll spit that out of its mouth. So you try to "Use" your cup on the lava flowing out of it, but Indy says he doesn't want to burn his hand off. The solution is to place the cup down first and then insert the fish head. Pretty finicky, right? No, pretty idiotic: the flow of the lava doesn't stop as he picks up the now filled up and removes the fish head. How did he manage to do those things without burning his hand, but carefully filling the cup in the flow is impossible?!

Most of Fate Of Atlantis's problems are purely a matter of its genre conventions and the kind of game design philosophy that was taken for granted at the time. Nowadays, though, I think part of the blame has to be laid on the developers, who either didn't playtest the game enough or left in its issues to pad out the length. For its time and judged against the adventure game genre, Fate Of Atlantis was pretty ambitious and tried a lot of things. However, it doesn't hold up particularly well because of those ambitions, since the three different paths outlined above eventually converge at the end of the game, rendering them meaningless. All of the fighting and action elements that it borrowed are awful and clumsy; even if you played the game right now with a FAQ in hand, you'd still find the game frustrating and tedious even while you were bypassing all of the sometimes finicky puzzles and obtuse logic leaps. Unfortunately, then, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis must remain an interesting part of the history of PC games and the adventure genre, but not something that has held up and demands a revisit today.

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