Game: The Experiment AKA eXperience 112
Developer: Lexis Numérique
Publisher: The Adventure Company
The adventure genre isn’t really known for its innovation. That’s not a criticism, merely a fact. Being innovative isn’t a requirement for a good game. But every so often someone will try something new within the genre and we get unusual games such as Fahrenheit. Another good example is the brilliantly unique game In Memoriam, and the same developers have continued exploring new ground in The Experiment. Unfortunately, despite many good ideas, this isn’t as successful as their earlier efforts.
The Experiment is a title that fits well into the story of the game, but also applies to the game itself. It’s very unlikely you’ll have played anything else like this before. (And in case anyone stumbles across this and feels like suggesting similar games, bear in mind I’m aware of Lifeline for the PS2 and Critical Path. Neither of them is quite the same thing.) The game is played out through a security system interface. You can bring up various windows such as maps and security cameras and can access the email accounts and files of various people. It’s an unusual way of working.
The storyline of the game is hard to explain. It’s told through a combination of flashbacks and reading emails and messages from the various accounts. It begins with a woman named Lea Nichols waking up in an abandoned research ship, unable to remember exactly what has happened. During the explorations of the ship, you come across the remains of the crew and start to uncover the experiments that were going on there. Piecing the whole plot together can be difficult, since it’s uncovered in bits and pieces here and there, but it’s quite rewarding to discover information like this.
So working from the security system is where we come to the main difference with a traditional adventure game. You have no direct control over the character, and no direct communication either. The best you can do is nod the camera for yes or move it from side to side for no. Helping Lea to move around the ship therefore involves attracting her attention towards where you want her to go. This is done by bringing up the map screen and using it to turn lights on and off, turns on computer systems or make phones ring. You also use the map to activate security cameras, of which you can have up to three open at once, either showing different perspectives of the same scene or different parts of the level.
The system works reasonably well, but Lea’s response to your distractions isn’t very consistent. There are times when she’ll head off towards a light you’ve turned on several rooms away that she can’t possibly have seem, and yet other times where she’ll completely ignore something a few feet away from her and you’ll have to painstakingly guide her a bit at a time using any objects in between, or navigate a winding awkward path around the room just to get where you want to go. Most of the time it works alright, but when it doesn’t it can be frustrating, especially given that Lea’s walking speed is so slow, snails would have to detour around her.
The walking speed becomes even more annoying when you end up retracing your steps. There’s often no clear indication of where you should be going, and you can end up wandering around trying to find where to go, or what you’ve missed. Even worse is one part of the game when you finally get access to the lower decks. The first thing that happens when you get there is find out you have to go and fetch something… from all the way up on the top deck again. Several minutes later you get to the top deck after the tedious manoeuvring, only to pick up what you need and have to head straight back to the bottom again. In another point in the game you find a store room with fuses, which Lea won’t take with her because she doesn’t need them. So she heads off, climbs a long ladder even more slowly than her walking pace, walks into a new area to find she needs a fuse. So she heads all the way back, and while trying to guide her around the room when she gets there, I accidentally make her pick up the wrong fuse. She automatically heads back to the room to try it without giving me a chance to correct the mistake, meaning I have to wait several minutes for her to complete the return journey again in order to get the correct fuse, and then head back yet again. This sort of dull padding out of the game isn’t necessary, and I can’t really understand how anyone could have thought it was a good idea.
Which brings up neatly on to the topic of puzzles. This type of interface means traditional adventure game puzzles aren’t possible. We’re playing as a detached unknown person in a control room with no direct contact with Lea, so there’s no inventory. And this is one of the main problems. The developer’s seemed to struggle at times with finding ways to include puzzles. For big stretches of the game there aren’t any. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, as I have no problems with a game focusing entirely on story rather than challenge, but the plot isn’t really strong enough to support everything here. The few puzzles integrated into the environment, other than the aforementioned nonsense with the fuses, involve you taking remote control of equipment around the labs. You might take control of a robot to enter a dangerous area, or you could have to learn to use lab equipment in the correct way to achieve a goal. These puzzles are of mixed quality. Some of them are decent enough, but the controls when you take over the robots are clumsy and annoying.
More often than these, the puzzles come from other parts of the interface. Mostly, you’ll be finding usernames and passwords for the accounts of various former staff members and hacking into their accounts to find information. The staff have the security consciousness of an MP with a briefcase, leaving their passwords lying around, emailing them to each other and even uploading an audio file of the security staff reading their passwords to the system. So just like any top secret research base then. Usually you’ll find the passwords for one person while browsing the account of another one, but occasionally it’ll be more complex, either from the message being encoded, clued or hidden somewhere. The majority of the story comes from reading the emails and files of the various staff members, many of which are optional but fill in the back-story. The story is interesting at times but a lot of the actual files aren’t presented all that well, meaning you’ll probably end up skimming through many of them just picking out the bits of relevant information. They can be strangely worded at times too, presumably due to translation problems, although there’s nothing too bad. There’s no “all your base” here.
There have been attempts to break the game up a bit later on. For a while, you get to control a bathyscaphe via a camera attached to the front of it. The controls are rather awkward, but it’s not too bad. At the very end of the game, Lea has a camera attached to her so that you can view her movements from a first person perspective, the camera wobbling around realistically as she walks. This last section contains the most ambitious puzzles, involving communicating in a pheromone based language. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really live up to its potential, since you never really have to understand what you or the other parties are saying to complete it. In fact, most of the time, you’ll simply use it to stop plants from blocking your path by emitting a euphoria pheromone, making the plants stand up straight into the air. What do you make of that, Mr Freud?
Controlling the first person camera in this last section can be rather awkward, since it wobbles around even when Lea is standing still. Realistic, but annoying, especially since the very last puzzle in the game requires rapid moving around to communicate with various opponents, and any delay causes you to lose the argument and have to start at the beginning again. Irritatingly, this is one of the occasions where the game disables the save system for some reason, meaning that you have to do the entire section in one go.
There are some small details that are variously nice touches or annoyances. When you reload a save game the following night, Lea complains about having to wait for a whole day (or however long it’s been) for you to come back. Quite a clever touch the first time it happens, but when you hear the same comment every night, it quickly becomes irritating. She also won’t shut up when you’re trying to solve puzzles, continuously nagging you to solve them. She even starts giving you clues about what to do if you somehow haven’t managed to solve the puzzle within about 5 seconds of encountering it. It’s nice to have hints available, but forcing them on the player detracts from any sense of achievement. Another touch that was effective was the filters on some of the cameras. They’re old cameras and are often malfunctioning, so you’ll encounter blurred, out of focus cameras, or flickering pictures, and they’re very well done and convincing. These effects actually help to hide the low quality of the graphics.
The Experiment certainly has plenty of ideas, but unfortunately it doesn’t manage to implement it well. It managed to capture the sense of detachment brilliantly but fails to have any real atmosphere in its setting. The story shows promise but it’s not really well enough told. Some of the puzzles are interesting but the controls are too awkward and there’s too much random wandering. I can’t help but think that a more established developer would have been able to make something great from this game. As it is, The Experiment is a brave attempt to try something new, but one that ultimately fails. I’m glad I played it, but I can’t really recommend it as anything other than a curiosity.
Save System Review: Usually you can save anywhere, but the game occasionally disables the save system completely at random. It’s usually only when some action is taking place and isn’t all that often, but it’s enough to be annoying at times.
Graphics: The graphics aren’t all that great, with the characters being rather plain. On the other hand, the effects on the cameras look very good and help to disguise the graphics.
Sound: The voice acting isn’t too bad, but isn’t all that great either. Lea often sounds rather robotic. The soundtrack on the other hand is very good.
Bugs: There’s the problems with the lights where Lea might not notice them or will notice them when she shouldn’t. At the end of the game, with the language puzzles, I sometimes had to try entering a solution two or three times before it would actually register. There’s nothing major, but there are small problems like these throughout the game.
Gameplay: A combination of good ideas but poor execution means that this never really lives up to its full potential.
Storyline: Similar to the gameplay, this shows promise but isn’t told well enough for it to really work, and the ending is too confused.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Lifeline, Critical Path, being a security guard.
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