The Secret of Good Clicking

by Arthur B

Secret Files: Tunguska (on PC, Wii, or Nintendo DS) is a point-and-click adventure made by people who know what they are doing! Rejoice!
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I have to admit, I found my recent experience with Barrow Hill more than a little discouraging. What if the traditionalist adventure game genre had sunk into a deep pit of mediocrity? What if fans’ desires to see new games published following 15-30 year old gameplay mechanics were leading them to heap blind praise upon anything even barely competent, eliminating the need for designers to actually be good at their job?

Luckily, it turns out that not all games embraced by the likes of JustAdventure.com or Adventuregamers.com, stalwarts of point-and-click nostalgia who gave Barrow Hill a free ride, are third-rate knock-offs. Secret Files: Tunguska, by German developers Fusionsphere and Animation Arts, is a third-person point-and-click adventure heavily influenced by the first two Broken Sword games, which makes up for a cliched plot and lacklustre writing with excellent gameplay, learning lessons from the genre’s long history whilst addressing the most common problems with the format.

The story opens in Berlin, as main protagonist Nina Kalenkov discovers that her father has been kidnapped from his office at the natural history museum. It’s soon discovered that the disappearance may be related to an expedition to the Tunguska region of Siberia that Kalenkov Sr. led back in the 1970s to study the aftereffects of the mysterious explosion that occurred there in 1908 - a journey that ended in disaster, and resulted in Nina’s father leaving his post at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and emigrating to Germany.

What ensues involves cultists in sinister dark robes, Russian government interference, sinister corporations, and a plot resembling a rejected X-Files script. The whole package, in fact, borrows a lot from early Broken Sword games - there’s the globetrotting, the plot inspired by a Fortean Times cover story, the inevitable bit where you have to take control of the protagonist’s love interest to solve a few puzzles (the love interest being Max Gruber, a German scientist and one of the blandest player characters I have ever seen in any computer game anywhere), the mildly schizophrenic tone where they’re trying to tell a dramatic story but end up throwing comedy in everywhere because LucasArts’ influence made everyone inject heaps of comedy into their point-and-click adventures in the 1990s, and so on.

A far bigger problem than a little mild unoriginality, however, is the poor quality of the writing. To be fair to the developers, I strongly suspect that, like The Last Wish, the English version of the game has suffered from a botched translation. As with The Last Wish, it’s not that the translation is gibberish - it’s all perfectly comprehensible - but all of the dialogue and in-game documents have this odd, flat quality to them, where whatever subtle nuances or undertones the text may have had in its original format are lost. This is most noticeable in the Nintendo DS version of the game - the one I played - because it strips the game of all the voice acting outside of the cut scenes. (Not that this is any great loss - the voice acting is completely horrible.) With only the bare, unadorned text facing you, it becomes clear just how bad the writing is.

What’s worse is that there are a few blatant typos that sneak in here and there, evidence of a rushed job on the transcription, which is a shame because it undermines what is otherwise a fine presentation. The standard of graphics, in gameplay and in cut scenes, would merely be above average for a small, independent developer’s work on the PC, but by the standards of the DS, which isn’t exactly a graphics powerhouse, it’s incredible; many DS games resort to cartoonish graphics to make a visual impact on its twin tiny screens, but the graphics in Secret Files look exactly like the PC graphics shrunk down to fit the DS screen. The cut scenes, likewise, would seem a bit sparse on the PC, but on the DS look absolutely fantastic, and also show a knack for an exciting action sequence. The visuals also enhance the story in some ways, getting across points which the dialogue struggles to establish - for example, the way characters writhe in agony as sinister black-robed figures bear down upon them, telepathically ripping into their minds, makes you feel like you are watching something genuinely horrible and invasive. (Actually, to give the writing its due, it does do a good job of making you feel as though the player characters are in peril even though, as in many point-and-click adventures, you can’t actually die.)

But where Secret Files really excels is in the gameplay. It’s in the classic, traditional point-and-click adventure style, stuffed to brim with inventory puzzles, but it’s clearly been designed by people who know and love the genre, but also recognise its perennial issues. Most importantly, the game includes a mechanic where you just click on a button and every single interactable object in the scene is highlighted by a large magnifying glass icon, and every exit from the immediate area is indicated by a door icon. To be fair, Simon the Sorcerer 2 from the golden age of point-and-click adventures had included a similar mechanic, but it had only made objects sparkle a bit, making it possible to miss the occasional item - and, more damagingly, the occasional exit to a different area. This is the first time in a point-and-click adventure I’ve seen a control scheme which allows the player to be 100% certain of identifying every single item they are meant to be aware of in a particular area without searching the screen pixel by agonising pixel.

The highlight function is pretty much vital in the DS version of the game, because in the shrunk-down graphics the tiniest items are invisible, but I’m sure it’s an absolute boon even in the PC version. It’s a heavy-handed but brilliantly effective solution to one of the most frequent problems point-and-click adventures have - an artificially inflated difficulty, achieved by making clues pointlessly obscure. Even LucasArts resisted having such a mechanic for a long time, but I think Secret Files proves that it can work really well. For a long time the argument against having such a highlight button was that it would make games too easy, but if your point-and-click adventure could be completed trivially by someone who had pointed out to them the location of all the things they were meant to interact with then the puzzles are probably very slightly too simplistic. Secret Files gives you plenty of crap to shove into the infinitely capacious pockets that characters in these games have, and a reasonable number of stationary items to interact with in the scenery, and actually judges the amount of both fairly well - there’s enough stuff to filter through that when you do work out a puzzle solution you feel fairly pleased with yourself, and it does a good job of tipping you off through the narration what you are supposed to be trying to achieve in a particular bit, or what you might expect to be able to do with a particular item.

The downside of the highlight system, of course, is that it makes it possible to solve puzzles by brute force - using every item with every other item in your inventory and on screen until something ends up working. However, every point-and-click adventure is vulnerable to this sort of thing, it’s just that if they don’t have a highlighting system it’s possible for the brute force approach to fail because you didn’t notice a tiny one-pixel black key sat on a black mat on a black table in the shadows at the back of the room - and once the process of elimination fails, you’re stuck with a choice between giving up and diving for a walkthrough, since you’re probably only trying brute force because you can’t work out the actual solution to a puzzle (especially since Secret Files gives you just enough objects to make using every item with every other item a bit of a hassle). Ultimately I don’t think it’s a problem that Secret Files it is vulnerable to this sort of thing, since it does at least allow you to progress without jumping to a a spoiler-filled walkthrough, and when you do solve a puzzle through actually working out what you need to do rather than blind experimentation you feel really good.

Speaking of solving puzzles, the other perennial issue with point-and-click adventures is puzzle logic, or rather the lack thereof. In general, Secret Files does an OK but not stellar job with this. A lot of the time you are in places like Siberia, or a Russian military hospital, or a cave in China, or Antarctica, which is a pretty good way to justify the usual convoluted solutions point-and-click protagonists come up with to solve fairly simple problems - if you’re standing around outside a tent in the middle of the tundra it suddenly makes much more sense to make a mirror by wrapping tinfoil around a shard of broken glass rather than just going and finding a mirror, and when I did resort to brute force to solve a puzzle I usually realised the logic behind it - and in a “aha! I should have thought of that!” way rather than a “how the fuck was I supposed to think of that?” way. The game isn’t 100% devoid of illogical puzzles, but the designers do seem to be trying to minimise it. In fact, the designers in general seem to have a very good grasp of the pitfalls the genre can fall into, and do their utmost to avoid them. There’s one bit where for reasons that actually turn out to kind of make sense you end up having to tape stuff to a cat, which has to be a reference to the infamous Old Man Murray article which called out adventure games on their self-pitying bullshit ten years ago.

Secret Files: Tunguska is one of the best adventure games I have played for years, which actually surprised me. Back in 1995 I thought the reason I enjoyed point-and-click adventures so much was because I found the storytelling and writing in them to be quite compelling, better than anything to be found in more or less any other genre of computer game aside from CRPGs - and even then, until the likes of Fallout 2 or Baldur’s Gate you didn’t have that many dialogue-driven interactions in CRPGs, whereas you had stacks in your average LucasArts game. And yet, here is an adventure with a standard of writing that’s average at best, and yet I couldn’t put the damn thing down - clearly, gameplay is important with these things, even if it can seem invisible underneath all the funny jokes in Monkey Island or whatever. Secret Files: Tunguska is a game any designer of adventure games should look to for inspiration as far as gameplay is concerned, presenting as it does a textbook implementation of the point-and-click format.

Oh, and Adventuregamers.com believe it is mildly less good than Barrow Hill, whilst Just Adventure gave it a significantly worse grade. So I've concluded that neither site knows a good game when it sees one.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 11:21 on 2010-09-08
WARNING: Do not play Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis. I repeat, do not play Secret Files 2. It is completely awful; there's a promising opening but then you're dumped on a cruise ship with no plot in sight, camera angles chosen to play up Nina's boobs significantly more than in the previous game, and some of the most idiotic and nonsensical puzzles and plot events I've ever seen in an adventure game.

It's soulless and horrible wherever Secret Files is interesting and worthwhile. And it rips off the Broken Sword plot device of having the two protagonists begin the game having broken off their relationship.
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