Wirehead represents MGM Interactive’s foray into the house that Digital Pictures built. I understand the logic in their thinking. “Movie games” were becoming a buzzword, MGM knows about movies, and they can hire someone else to take care of the game. This logic led them to a partnership with Sega, and probably should have resulted in something better than the final product here. It’s a reasonably well-made picture supporting gameplay that suffers from too many rookie mistakes. Digital Pictures at least understood by now that simple “press this button now” gameplay wasn’t going to cut it anymore. MGMI was about to learn this for themselves.
Wirehead puts you in control of mild-mannered suburban dad Ned Hubbard. Ned’s had an unspecified accident resulting in some kind of unspecified brain damage, and unspecified neuro-specialist Dr. Oja has inserted an unspecified control implant into his brain to assist Ned in some unspecified way. What is explicitly covered is that you are controlling Ned through a remote interface wired into his brain, represented by a hearing aid with an oversized antenna.
The concept seems borrowed heavily from the interaction between Martin Short and Dennis Quaid in Innerspace. In that film, Quaid and a science pod are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into Short’s character, a weakling supermarket clerk. They can communicate with each other through direct interface with Short’s inner ear and optic nerve. Bad guys want the microtechnology Short is now carrying, putting him in over-the-top action movie scenarios like a fish out of water. Short relies on talking to Quaid (and appearing to talk to himself or thin air) as to what to do, while Quaid tells him where to go and when to react.
Those exact ideas and interplay are used in this game. Bad guys want the technology in Ned’s head, and Ned needs help escaping. He’ll come across decision points and you’ll have to make the tough choices for him. Often Ned will even look at the camera and plead with you to tell him what to do. Like Short’s character, he knows he’s ill-equipped to handle these situations and willingly places his life in the hands of your supposedly greater experience, often while perilously standing around and doing nothing until you tell him where to go.
Putting the concept to a game works about as well as can be expected. All conversations are obviously one-sided here. You stay pretty aloof from the entire proceedings, and Ned seems to take your directions as suggestions rather than forced commands. He frequently acts with independence when it’s easier for the plot, and he can never be robotically ordered to put himself into conscious danger. You also never get an explanation as to how you’re able to view the proceedings as a wandering, invisible ghost. But truly, there reaches a point that none of this matters. The game is shot like a movie, and you will either accept that, or you won’t.
The game itself picks up pretty quickly. Ned receives a videocassette from Dr. Oja, warning him that “they” are coming and control of the implant has been given over to “someone watching over you.” Within three minutes of starting, goons are at the door and you have to make Ned’s first decisions. You’re on the run from there and into ever-wilder situations, most of which you never spend enough time in for things to really start to get amusing. Others are just dead-ass boring, like sneaking past every hatchway on a ship or through a forest of boxes on a dock. About forty minutes later, you will have escaped the goons, rescued Dr. Oja, rescued Ned’s family, and worked with Ned’s new reporter friend to expose the bad guys and their devious crimes.
Trouble is, the first decisions are also the point where the game starts to break down. There’s not enough system memory or production time to extend all the branching pathway possibilities, so all but one “correct” decision will lead to instant death. That’s fine, I suppose, if the correct choices make clear, logical sense. They don’t. Here, you have three identical doors of a house. How am I supposed to know Ned will get grabbed if he runs outside? Why should I suspect that there’s a guard in the living room but not in the dining room? Why would a punch work against this guy but not a kick? Why can Ned run outside now that he’s made a full loop through the house, but couldn’t just run out immediately the first time?
Dragon’s Lair would at least flash the direction you were supposed to choose, but most of Wirehead’s correct decisions are random by comparison. Sometimes the correct path is even to put yourself into danger so that you can create an action moment, but you have no foreknowledge of the next event. How will you know that you should let the guy grab Ned because Ned intends to punch him in two moves? He doesn’t tell you. How will you know you’re supposed to pop open the door of an airplane in flight, because Ned’s going to use the inflatable raft as a parachute? That plan is never explained, it just happens. So, you’re forced to run trial and error throughout the entire game.
The only way to win is to keep a pad of paper nearby and grow a list of successful moves. It truly cannot be done any other way. I tried a few times to play a reactionary game, but the lack of “clues” gives you nothing to react to. I just had to pick a door, fast. The game allows you nine mistakes (tracked as battery power) before your game is over, and I used up every one before I was even out of the first house. Still, even if you find yourself willing to write out a move list (I counted 94 moves to win), the entire gameplay is still just pressing a button to continue the video. I know many people for whom this will be an automatic deal-killer, and that’s fine. This is a boring way to make a game.
MGMI’s money make this one of the more visually impressive FMV games – they spent the cash on locations and you won’t see hammy greenscreen work here. The game’s primary draw is in seeing Ned suffer through increasingly improbable situations. He’ll go from being trapped in an airplane, to shooting down river rapids, to brawling in an old west town, all within minutes and with connections as tenuous as the plot itself. I believe the comedy is supposed to scale along with the danger, but this never quite happens. First, pratfalls usually only come with mistakes. If you want to see Ned fly face first into some garbage cans, you have to fuck up. The results of these incorrect decisions aren’t very funny either – usually the people chasing Ned just catch up with him and shove him in the back of a car. It’s hardly worth repeated “Game Over”s to see.
Second, Steve Witting as Ned doesn’t do much for me. He’s got the look of an everyday suburban Joe down, and he looks appropriately harried in the action sequences, but I never found him particularly likeable. Part of this stems from the “fuck you” looks he keeps throwing at the camera. He’s supposed to be expressively commenting on your choice, like when you tell him to hop on a little girl’s bike to escape. I think an “I can’t believe this is happening!” look is more in order, but no, Witting’s glances are overtly hostile. Now I chalk this up to bad directing, but the result is a Ned who doesn’t seem particularly grateful or loveably bumbling. It also doesn’t help that you know next to nothing about his character. You don’t even know why he has the damn implant, making it hard to feel anything for the guy. Ned’s just a stock character in peril you move around, who gets pissed at you if you pick the shell without the ball under it.
The supporting cast won’t be much help either. Dr. Oja is a kind enough gentleman, but he never explains the backstory like you would expect. He mostly gives a lot of “That implant is very important! You can’t let them have it!” kind of lines. You never spend enough time with the goons to get any performance from them, with the exception of an expert hitwoman named Heels. Spikes shoot out of her stilletos like some kind of SPECTRE wannabe, but she’s menacing enough. Still, you really only see her long enough to run.
Leah Lail plays the reporter companion you pick up about a third of the way through the game. She shadows you for the rest trying to protect you long enough to get a story out of the deal. She’s mostly standard baggage that squeals in the middle of car chases, or acts as a sounding board for Ned’s ideas and concerns. She also tries to distract two guards off your family by seducing them from the next room. She’s clearly not into it, taking off her suit jacket and wiggling her shoulders a little bit. In the world of Wirehead, a woman appearing out of nowhere and doing a dance invocative of the Truffle Shuffle is apparently enough to eagerly distract two New York tough guys from their guard duty.
Ye Olde Sega CD video quality stumbles its way through another production, and there’s not much else I can say about it. The game manages a large group of varied locations, and the video gets them all across coherently. However, the lack of available colors comes across heavily with the number of outdoor scenes in natural light, resulting in a lot of large, blocky color areas without detail. The compression doesn’t do well on high speed car chases either, of which there are plenty. I would still call the overall result passable. Similar story with sound. What you get is clear, though a lot of dubbing and looped sound effects have been used. Lip sync is not always on, and stock effects are fairly obvious, but nothing that impedes the story.
Wirehead doesn’t look gorgeous, but nothing technical seriously gets in the way of telling the story. The problem is with its design. It’s a cheesy family film broken up frequently (sometimes with as little as two seconds between decision points) by a simple game of Memory. There are some inventive scenarios and some nice-looking gags, but the shoestring budget quickly betrays itself. It doesn’t cost much to drive two cars around in the mountains for a “car chase,” or have two actors run around already-built, secluded buildings in natural light. True, you’ll get a real-live explosion or two, and the final car chase includes some mayhem, but the result of all these everyday, natural, cheap locations is that there’s no part of the film that’s absolutely worth seeing. Even less of it is worth the effort required to track moves and make it to the end. Asks too much and gives too little in return.
Wide variety of places and encounters. Passable video and audio. Movie shot like a movie, and not limited to security monitors or first-person action.
Pressing a button every few seconds isn’t much of a game. Low-budget indie action isn’t much of a film.