June 6th, 1996 – A daring military raid on a secret U.N. meeting in Liechtenstein results in the kidnapping of ten of the most influential world leaders. No group takes responsibility, but a list of impossible demands is anonymously delivered, along with taped statements from some of the captive heads of state. The political implications are obvious, and full military solutions are plotted against the “usual suspects,” without proof of who was actually involved. A swift investigation becomes increasingly imperative. You play as an independent government inspector authorized by the highest powers to track down the hostages, their captors, and any accomplices before the situation erupts into a shooting war.
It’s billed as an adventure game, but it’s really more fair to call it an “investigation simulator.” You control everything from a menu-driven interface that allows access to databases, records, photographic evidence, and agents to do the actual field work. You’re expected to reconstruct a linear sequence of events following the planning and execution of the operation to the current location of the hostages. All of this is to be assembled in a prosecutorial summary where a judge will determine if you have compiled enough information to act upon.
Sounds pretty neat, no? It’s a great concept and a clever way to make a mystery interactive. The entire game is mostly a non-linear sandbox. The authors have determined the chain of events, which has then spawned logical evidence contained within the game, which you sort through realistically. You can send agents to investigate people or locations. You can send the State Department to do a more aggressive, official version of the same (like arresting and searching). You’re given access to in-game dossiers on key players, formalized reports from the abduction scene and on relevant suspects, in-game photographs you can zoom into for details, and in-box “feelies;” the most famous of which is a physical audio cassette with assorted clues and statements on it. Outside of the obvious limitations of a computer game, this is one of the few detective games where I actually felt I was discovering details on my own, instead of following a designer’s linear plan.
Mechanically, the game’s simple to work with. You have a central menu that branches off into a limited set of straightforward and useful sub-options. There’s a dossier section that you can search by a few options like name, location, and group affiliation. There’s a report section housing related lists and documents. There’s a communications section where you send names for your agents to act upon and read their subsequent reports. There’s a photograph section where you can view full-screen digitized snapshots and zoom in on details. Nearly all the important evidence can be analyzed completely in-game.
It is admittedly held back a bit by being a late 80’s floppy disk title – your dossier portfolio is pretty small, the only sounds are PC speaker tones, and photos are blurry with outrageously oversized details (like watches) to compensate – but it still works pretty well. I was a little disappointed that storage limitations mean just about every person or report available is connected to the case, but you can just assume that there’s a division of analysts upstream filtering the relevant files for you.
But there’s a problem. A few in fact, but most of which stem from the same central issue. The game has no end. The game itself basically acts as a giant database for you to poke through and pull answers from. It doesn’t actively tell a story, rather, it passively provides the seeds for one. Since it doesn’t tell a story, there’s no arc or finale contained inside the game itself. Instead, you were supposed to write out your detailed solution and mail it in to the developer. In fitting with the alternate reality style of the game, I presume you would get the results of the “trial” based on your evidence, and likely a certificate of completion or a secret agent decoder ring.
From a modern perspective, the company’s out of business (actually, Cosmi’s restructured to focus on productivity software) and there’s no solution on the Internet. Don’t expect one to show up, either. From about two weeks of research and unreturned emails, I feel relatively comfortable in saying that everyone in a position to write up and post a solution on GameFAQs is not going to do it. You’ll now only be able to finish the game to your satisfaction, not to any independent standard [Edit: Here is the only ongoing discussion there seems to be.] But even imagining I was playing it when released, I’d be reluctant to mail anything in, since the game gives you so few clues that you’re on the right track. Leads basically dead-end at the point that you’re supposed to have solved that part of the crime. Or, to put it simply, you’ll get evidence, but no confession.
Here’s an actual example from the game: Three helicopters were used in the attack on the conference. I was able to track one irrefutably. That helicopter was on record as being requisitioned by a certain officer. I have orders from that officer diverting said helicopter to the known staging location. I ordered him brought in for questioning, and his statement is that all equipment was accounted for at all times. But that’s his only statement. That’s all the information it looks like I can get to his involvement. I feel like I’m supposed to include him in the summary, but he’s certainly not admitting guilt, and I have no “smoking gun” to his direct involvement.
Meanwhile, I can’t send agents to investigate supporting locations or people – if it wasn’t specifically programmed, they don’t acknowledge those orders. It seems that many crucial locations, that would be worth checking out in any real-life investigation, are somehow outside the scope of the game. I have boxes marked with a company’s logo in photographs of the staging area, I have evidence linking directly to one of their vessels, but I can’t question any member of that company or visit any of their locations? C’mon. These kinds of frustrations keep popping up throughout the game. I have a arms dealer linked to the crime, but he denies everything despite my evidence. I have the names of the three pilots, but they can’t be found to arrest. I can only assume that you’re supposed to write all this in your letter to the developer, and they are indeed part of the game’s valid solution, but again, it’s all evidence without confessions or assurances.
The agent interface is a little frustrating as well. You can send agents or the State Department after anyone with no repercussions, so you can use them freely and not worry about causing a diplomatic incident. But this results in an obvious disconnect between what you are expecting them to do (like arrest someone) and what they actually come back with. You can’t dictate the questions your agents will ask, or the purpose of their visit. You give them a name, and that action “unlocks” their unchanging report. Going back to my example, the Army officer is clearly lying about the helicopters, but I can’t arrest him. I can’t question him again and confront him with my specific clues. You’ll have a fair amount of evidence, but you won’t know if you’re right. That directly affects the value of playing the game, especially today.
Second, the game has a number of barriers to actually completing it. In an attempt to be more realistic, the game draws on a diverse range of sleuthing talents. You’ll have to be able to crack basic cryptography, pick details out of low-res photos, and figure out Morse code to be able to make progress. Morse is the big one – you have a neat ability to use the shift key as a telegraph key, and the game will auto-interpret your dits and dahs into translated letters. In theory, you won’t have to know Morse code to continue. You’ll pop the tape in your Walkman and tap out the code with the shift key. But this is high-level (fast) Morse played off the audio tape, and I quickly found I have no ear for it whatsoever. Even enlisting some experts didn’t fully help, as one recording is of a hostage tapping code on a table, with the results not irrefutably clear. It’s a bit of a different problem than not being able to figure out a standard puzzle, because it requires skills and information not contained within the game.
Third, and the real deal-killer, is the intense amount of time the game takes to play at all. In another attempt to be realistic, you have to wait hours for reports from your agents – real-time hours. I counted about one hour for each message. You could argue that this is already shortening the time it takes to send an agent to Bern and report back, but it still begs an obvious question: What are you supposed to do with those hours? Toward the beginning you have more leads to track and photos to search, so it’s not a big deal. After those first few hours, you can’t progress until your agent reports the next clue back, which takes a entire hour of sitting in front of a frozen computer menu. Well, not exactly frozen, as you’ll get a useless message every five minutes from a small loop of cheeky internal memos, with a shrill PC speaker wail announcing their arrival. Every five minutes.
I eventually had to just queue things up, go to work, and read through the message stack when I returned. Or as Static likes to point out, I had to play another game to fill the time. Perhaps I simply expect to much, but I assume that the game I’m currently playing will be enough game for that moment in time. Then there’s Langley. As an alternative to cracking codes yourself, you can send them to the CIA for automated decrypting. Memos make it clear that you’re supposed to use the local tools first, and go to this only as a last resort. To punish you for requesting help, it takes four hours to get a reply. Four hours. Half a fucking work day. And while the agents will only act on valid persons or locations, Langley will accept anything in the input bar and take the full time to tell you it didn’t decode legibly.
Let’s look at some numbers here. The game clock runs above the menu and tracks how long you’ve been on the case. According to that, I’ve been playing the game for 40 hours over the last two weeks. I would guess that only 8-10 of those were actually spent in front of the screen and working on the case. So that’s a 30-hour waiting simulator, and I still haven’t solved everything. Made progress, sure, but there are still plenty of loose ends. Meanwhile, the Internet’s message boards house tales of people who’ve played this for 10 to 15 years and still haven’t found the President. I think that securely shifts the difficulty into the realm of farce.
Any one of these issues could probably be forgivable considering that, despite being faced with all of them, I still desperately want to finish the game. But together, they do make quite the juggernaut. I really was enjoying the game at the beginning, but once I hit the obscure middle, and it became pretty clear that I was never going to see a solution unless I got some outside help, then it quickly started looking grim. Sticking with it for another week simply confirmed that I had spent 40 hours of life I was never going to get back. Even assuming it was 1988 and you could get an answer to your letter, the game requires so much of a time investment that it’s almost not worth it.
I’ll open this up as Static did for Reelect JFK (and for which we did receive a lot of helpful emails). If you have any information that can help toward solving the case and/or creating a solution to post on the Internet, please send it on and I’ll update the review accordingly. As it stands now, this is a pretty involved mystery, with a functional setup to unravel it. It arguably demands too much; certainly in time investment, and probably in the varied skills it requires. The real-time waiting for field reports is particularly rough, and will alone limit the appeal to hardcore investigators only. The DOS version is also considerably less flashy and polished than its Atari ST or Amiga counterparts, but still perfectly playable. Check it out if you’re interested, but don’t expect to solve the case, and don’t expect to ever know if you’ve actually solved the case correctly.
Pretty damn immersive, and engaging enough to make you want to crack the case.
You’ll have to bring a varied range of skills to the table or risk getting totally stuck. Entire game is just a clue database for an external solution. Real-time waiting is as dull as it sounds.