Paul's Really Late Reviews #1: The Space Bar

For several years now, I've had a growing pile of commercial adventure game CDs sitting next to my computer. For one reason or another, I haven't gotten around to playing them, but when the millennium turned, I decided I was going to change all that. I'm playing through them now, and for each one I play, I'm hoping to write a review. These reviews won't be aimed at helping people decide whether or not to buy the games -- they're mostly out of print now, so the point is pretty moot. (Although many of them could no doubt be obtained through eBay or bargain bins.) Instead, I want these "Really Late Reviews" to be meditations on what works and what doesn't in graphical adventure games, as illustrated by the successes and failures of each work under scrutiny.

The game on top of the pile was The Space Bar, Steve Meretzky's first post-Legend foray into graphical adventures. Meretzky has a good name among text adventure enthusiasts like me for having written landmark Infocom games like Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging. I wasn't as fond of his later works for Legend Entertainment, the Spellcasting series, because what clever writing and puzzles they did contain were submerged in a sea of juvenile, sexist humor, but they were commercial hits and plenty of people enjoyed them. After he left Legend, he founded a company called Boffo Games, Inc., and created The Space Bar, a large adventure game that was to be Boffo's flagship product. Despite good reviews, the game sunk, and so did Boffo. Maybe this postmortem will provide a little perspective on just where TSB went wrong.

The game puts you in the role of Alias Node, a human detective on the seedy world of Armpit VI, investigating a robbery and murder whose culprit has been traced to a dive called The Thirsty Tentacle. The bar, like the rest of the galaxy, is populated by aliens of various races, but very few other humans. Your job is to interview these aliens, looking for clues about the identity of the killer, and using your special ability of "Empathy Telepathy" to enter their memories and guide those flashbacks to discover vital bits of information. In effect, these flashbacks serve as mini-adventure games in themselves, and the bulk of TSB is spent navigating the memories of various aliens, with occasional excursions back into the Thirsty Tentacle to meet other aliens and, finally, to catch the criminal.

The aliens are definitely the best part of the game, springing as they did from the imagination of Ron Cobb, the same guy who designed the eye-popping oddities that populate the Star Wars cantina scene. Copious background information on each alien species enlivens the game, and deepens the experience of otherness that permeates the flashbacks. Visually, too, the game does a terrific job with the aliens, and here we see one of the great strengths of graphical games. Text is wonderful for evoking interior worlds, but for the presentation of bizarre shapes and structures, it's hard to beat good graphics. For example, a text game might tell you that Sraffans have hourglass-shaped pupils, but it would be hard put to present the labyrinthine network of veins surrounding the pupil, or to take your perspective inside those eyeballs as the flashback begins. TSB uses graphics in some clever ways throughout the game, including a freaky perspective from within the compound eyes of an insectoid race.

So The Space Bar is clever, and visually engaging. It also has its fair share of funny moments, thanks to Meretzky, who's much funnier when he's not aiming at 13-year-olds. Unfortunately, fun as it is to look at, it's often not much fun to play. In struggling through the game, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the problems of translating text-game writing experience to the creation of graphical games, and wondering if TSB's many flaws stemmed from those problems.

Take, for example, the game's interface. If you don't have a parser and prompt, something must obviously take their place, and in this case it was the standard 360-degree panning worldview (with a bit of up/down axis as well), augmented by a multi-purpose onscreen device called the PDA, a combination map, inventory, system command portal, voice-mail receptor, and information storehouse. The idea of the PDA is a sensible one, but its implementation in TSB was extremely clumsy. Rather than occupying a stable portion of the screen, it rises up to half-obscure the main window whenever you click on it, spending the rest of its time half-visible, with half its features unavailable. One of the most important of these unavailable features is the voice-mail indicator, which blinks when Alias receives a message. Because the light is obscured from view except when the PDA is fully visible, you end up receiving messages and not knowing it for dozens of turns, until the little voice inside your PDA says "Have you noticed your message light is blinking?" Why no I hadn't, probably because I CAN'T SEE IT! It's silly that the blinking light is hidden, but even the hidden light is a better solution than the one the game adopts occasionally, which is to have the PDA suddenly rise up and stop all action as a message comes in and is played.

When this happens (and it's usually at the worst times), the player has to wait for the game to speak its message before continuing on with any actions, and therein lies another significant difference between graphical and text adventures. Text adventures print all their output, which takes pretty much no time at all. Graphical adventures have voice-acting, which means that to receive the dialogue, the player has to wait as long as it takes for that dialogue to be spoken... every single time. The voice acting in TSB is excellent, so it's a pleasure to hear the dialogue in real time when you're hearing it initially, but when you already know what's going to be said, even the best voice acting can become tedious indeed. TSB often provides the option of hitting Esc to halt these sequences, but all too often Esc doesn't have an effect, and you're left drumming your fingers while a phrase plays for the tenth time. Even worse, when realtime voices are overlaid on turn-based gaming, the resulting timing confusion can turn an extremely simple puzzle into a maddeningly difficult one. For example, in one of the flashbacks, you're waiting for your name to be called before you can leave a particular room. However, there are about 10 voice phrases that play before that happens, each of which is around 30-45 seconds long. The phrases play one per turn, so if you perform actions which advance the turn counter (examining things, inventory management, etc.) and space them less than 30 seconds apart, the phrases pile up and play one after the other. When this happens, you'll hear your name called, and try to leave the room, but the turn when you were supposed to do that has long passed, so the game goes on to say "Oh, too bad you didn't leave the room -- you lose" as you're frantically clicking away. Doctors recommend against this sort of game design, as it leads to many cases of heads embedded in monitors.

Another sin of sound design which TSB commits over and over is having background noises drown out crucial information. For example, there's a scene where you're performing your actions while a thunderstorm rages in the background. In a text adventure, the scene would look like this:

   The water sounds funny -- there might be something behind it.

   KER-POW! Deafening thunder shakes the ground where you stand. 
In The Space Bar, you click on the "Examine Waterfall" icon, and what you hear is the flashback character's voice: "The water sounds funny. There mi-- KER-POW! --it." Then the sound you hear is yourself growling, as you realize that the game has stupidly and randomly allowed a background sound to prevent you from learning information that, as the character, you should theoretically already know. In other words, an actual sound has obscured a symbolic sound, the latter of which is only meant to represent the character's interior dialogue. This happens over and over again, in several flashbacks, and each time it does, you have to repeat the action and hope you get lucky enough to hear the information you're supposed to have.

That same thunderstorm flashback also features another one of TSB's biggest gaffes: the realtime puzzle. There's a chase sequence in this flashback in which you have to make the correct series of clicks and rotations, in an extremely limited period of time, and if you don't the flashback ends unsuccessfully. Maddeningly enough, this is exactly the time when your PDA chooses to rise up and halt all action until it finishes playing the incoming message. Because restoring from a failed flashback is blindingly dull [you have to listen to the failure message in real time, then get past the transition animation, then trigger the flashback again, then another transition animation, then the beginning-of-flashback animation, and only then can you restore your game], the punishment for failure is quite steep. Add to this the fact that the processor load in that flashback makes cursor movement jerky, and panning unreliable, and you have one annoying roadblock. Now, I'm not of the school of thought that believes adventure games should never ever have realtime action portions, though I do believe it's a bad idea to throw one arcade sequence into an otherwise traditional adventure game (which is exactly what The Space Bar does.) I enjoy both adventure gaming and twitch gaming, and don't mind seeing the two mixed, but they have to be done well -- if I fail, I want it to be because of slow reflexes, not a slow processor. My P-166 seems pretty pokey these days, but in 1997, when The Space Bar came out, it was well above the game's minimum requirements. Still, I gritted my teeth through many attempts at this puzzle before finally, gratefully getting past it. In a text adventure, that realtime puzzle would probably still be annoying, but because the processor demands of text are minimal, the computer's speed would very likely not be the bottleneck that impedes completion of the puzzle.

Another side effect of the increased complexity of sounds, images, and animations in a graphical adventure game is their increased size and consequent separation onto multiple disks. The Space Bar comes on three CDs, two of which contain flashback material and the other one of which contains all the sequences within the bar itself. As a result, every time a flashback begins or ends, you have to switch CDs. I needn't point out that a text adventure is highly unlikely to fill more than one CD and therefore to require such constant switching, but I will note that the drudgery of such switches imposes unnatural limits on both design and playing. Because I was trying to minimize CD switching, I stayed within each flashback and tried to solve them in their entirety one at a time, instead of hopping from one to the next anytime I got stuck, as I probably would have in a text game. In effect, the disk switching became another of the game's many resource management problems, but one of its least enjoyable. The best of these puzzles take advantage of the potential of graphics to easily demonstrate spatial relationships, and end up achieving effects that would be extremely difficult in a text game. The worst of them work through the game's regular interface, and the presence of graphics and sound slows down the solving process to no real benefit. Elements that slow the process of solving a puzzle by means of arbitrary and pointless delays make that puzzle much less fun. Text has an advantage here, because its elements very rarely cause time delays.

Another advantage of text is its ability to clearly separate objects. For instance, in one of the game's flashbacks, you stand before a house. There's a boat locker in front of the house, from which you must obtain a vital object. The problem is that the locker blends in a bit with the house itself, and both the house and the locker are clickable objects. Consequently, you can click on several features of the house, all of which the game will process as the house itself. The only exception to this is the locker, but when the windows, the roof, the chimney, and the pipes are all called "House", why would a player think that the little brown square representing the locker is anything but another unimplemented house feature? What's more, you can get irretrievably stuck in the flashback and not know why -- I had to look at a walkthrough, and when I did I said, "What locker?" In a text adventure, this simply wouldn't be an issue, because objects don't overlap:

   Beside the House
   Be it ever so humble, this is your home. The roof, windows, chimney, 
   and pipes may all be a bit ramshackle, but they're all yours. 

   There is a boat locker in front of the house.
There's no chance you could miss the boat locker (as I did playing TSB), because the interface never obscures it.

Reading through this review, I'm worried that it sounds like I'm railing against graphic adventures in general, and arguing that text is always better. I hope it doesn't sound like that, because I don't believe that. For one thing, The Space Bar has several problems that are equally possible in text adventures (an extremely irritating maze, several bugs, one of which almost kept me from finishing the game.) For another, I don't think that superiority and inferiority enter into the equation at all -- I just think that text adventures and graphic adventures are distinctly different forms, kind of like (to employ a tired analogy) novels and films. The skill sets required to create each of them overlap a bit, but not nearly as much as you might guess. Playing The Space Bar felt reminiscent of watching a film directed by a really good novelist who knows very little about moviemaking. You can see what was intended, and if you look harder, you can see why for the most part it all falls horribly flat.

Really Late Reviews #1: The Space Bar / Paul O'Brian / obrian at / Revised April 2006
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