Missing: Since January (or the vastly better title “In Memoriam” in Europe) is a clever alternate reality game that I enjoyed the hell out of when it was released. Why revisit it now? Well, I was mostly curious as to whether it still worked. See, Missing is a game that relies on sending you emails to your actual external inbox and directing you to purpose-built websites, so one day, it’s going to stop functioning. This makes its greatest feature its greatest weakness, and puts an invisible time limit on anyone who might be interested in checking it out. Luckily, impressively, astoundingly, some eight years later, it’s all still running as of this writing. But that means we should probably get a move on before its servers grind to a halt.
Missing’s premise is that a journalist, Jack Lorski, has vanished, along with a sidekick, Karen Gijman, who was helping him with his latest story. Weeks after his disappearance, a CD is sent to his TV station with suggestions that the sender has kidnapped them both. The CD is encrypted, and contains tiered layers of puzzles that must be completed, in order, to access whatever lies at the center. The CD’s creator, who dubs himself “The Phoenix,” promises solving it will lead to the whereabouts of Jack and Karen. From this point, I think you’re expected to use a little creative imagination as to how this CD that defies all computer experts somehow ends up in your hands, but the point is, it’s all up to you to crack the disc’s secrets and find the missing duo before it’s too late.
There’s a secondary plot going on here as well. The Phoenix has taken the video documentary Jack was shooting and cut it up into sections that get doled out as rewards for beating puzzles. You’ll learn that Jack had come across an old Super 8mm film that seems to have accidentally captured a ruthless assassination. Jack has set out to find the victim, the motive, and what happened to the unlucky cameraman (who was also Karen’s father, hence her involvement). For initially unclear reasons, The Phoenix wants you to pick up where Jack has left off, and many of his puzzles are based around rediscovering Jack’s clues and completing his investigation.
Alternate reality talk aside, these videos help give both extra purpose and extra incentive to solving all these puzzles. Frequent live action clips (all shot handheld on location across Europe) tell a story that not only keeps you curious, but keeps you wondering as to why it attracted The Phoenix and how it factors in. Meanwhile, you get the sense that The Phoenix is clearly using the CD to preach – much like John Doe in Seven – and archaic symbols, a string of murder victims, and fictitious secret orders start to factor into the later puzzles. That’s right, there’s even a Da Vinci Code angle going on here. It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but the pacing doesn’t make it feel that way. In fact, it gives an excellent spread of reasons to keep going through the often-stumbling gameplay.
There’s basically two types of challenges in Missing. The first are various kinds of Flash-based minigames with creepy art and scratchy sound effects. These are rather pointless affairs, limited by both technology and ideas. You’ll guide a ball on a string through increasingly thinner mazes without hitting the walls. You’ll try to corral a series of totally uncooperative dots into one central point. There are frequent “assemble the torn-up picture/puzzle” challenges. There are a few that work on leading insects around, and many that overly complicate inputting a name or number instead of simply letting you type it in. One particularly daft one forces you to use pills to manipulate a bug into running on treadmills that count up to the correct date.
You will HAVE to complete these to proceed, and best I can tell, there’s no way to cheat. This is a problem, because a lot of them are unconditional pains in the ass. The overhead shooter clone and the one where you have to drag a knife through undulating “intestines” without cutting the walls both took me – literally – hundreds of tries. I just about gave up on both, which would have meant giving up on the game entirely. Walkthroughs won’t help you with the skill-based challenges, and while you can back out of a frustrating minigame and try another, you usually have lost all progress when you return. Making matters worse, these minigames often have different levels of increasing challenge, so that one you particularly hate probably still has two or three harder versions to go.
In contrast, the second type of challenge is where the game shines. I’ll call these “investigations.” Here, you’re given a set of clues and are expected to use Internet resources to solve the puzzle. As an early example, the game presents you with three photos you must assemble. The photos are of a Greek island that’s five letters long. This is all you have to go on, and are turned loose to find the solution any way you can. In my case, one of the photos showed a distinct fountain. A Google Image search for “Greek island fountain” eventually showed a Flikr photo of that fountain – a different angle, but it matched up. From that, I got the name of the square. A search for the name of the square turned up the name of the island. A search for the name of the island gave me the Greek name, which solved the puzzle.
Getting to the solutions of these investigations is completely free-form, which makes them brilliant. Since they’re based in reality, you could use anything from physical books in the library, to whatever ends up being the Google of the future, because the answers will never change. That Flickr album wasn’t part of the game – wasn’t even around when the game was made – it was just someone’s vacation photos, but it still led to the solution. I was actually able to use Wikipedia for a few of the solutions (which was barely going when the game was developed in 2003) which should give you an idea of how open-ended these are. They really make you feel like you’ve discovered something – solved something – not just figured out the pre-programmed steps an adventure game designer expected you to take.
Unfortunately, some of these investigations (especially the ones concerning victims or non-historical figures) have their solutions on fictitious websites created specifically for the game. These can be anything from the personal diary of one of the victims, to the website of a book collecting organization. You’re still looking for names and leads, but as these are all part of the overall game, eventually these sites will go offline when support is finally pulled. Clearly, these fake personalities will not have the multiple possible solution paths like the stuff based on real life. While you can get the solutions from walkthroughs when this happens, it doesn’t offer the same thrill of discovery.
The email system is another critical part. You must provide a valid email at the start of the game, and will then receive updates from your “team” triggered at various points. Most of these emails are extra story bits or optional hints, but a few are crucial to solving puzzles. You’ll have tools sent to you that you must “download,” or have a key piece of information forwarded on by someone else on your team studying the same screen. The email server is on a delay, though that delay always seemed a bit more exaggerated than intended. You’ll need to be prepared to stop playing for a few days until the email arrives – but this is the kind of game where you’re intended to stop and mull over some of these puzzles anyway. Booting it up at 3 A.M. because you just had an idea is all part of the experience.
Again, you could probably scrape by with a good walkthrough when the servers go down, but the bigger issue is you have to have a valid email to even begin the game. The first email will contain a password used to enter the CD every time. The password cannot be changed, and any of my attempts to change it in the .cfg file invalidated that user. There doesn’t appear to be an easy way to bypass the email server should it ever go offline.
I should also note that the game uses QuickTime 6 and the Shockwave Player. Windows 7 64-bit wasn’t having any of this, and only a laptop running XP would play ball. It’s another point that’s going to make this harder to play in the future. Also, the final puzzle takes place on a website outside of the CD. If it goes down, you literally won’t be able to finish the game, or learn the fates of Jack and Karen.
The alternate reality connections also have plot holes you could poke a stick through. For one, Jack’s narration is always in past tense. How does this work when he’s allegedly shooting the documentary live? It’s also exceptionally well-edited for something still being shot in the field- did The Phoenix get him to help put it together? You can also get a touch too clever for your own good – this is designed to be a Hollywood-style simulation of an investigation, and not something for the pros. Even something as easy as a WHOIS search for The Phoenix’s custom website gives the precise IP and Lexis Numérique as the registered owner. Call INTERPOL, the case is solved.
It’s got good production values for a game made entirely in Flash. Each of the games has a jumbled, shadowed background that gives the sense of The Phoenix’s cobbled journals and fractured thoughts. You may wonder why he spent so much time on the design qualities of his CD, but that’s explained by him referring to this as his “Great Work.” Audio is scratchy and creepy, but also smartly used in some puzzles and clues for others. I especially like how beats got layered on as you positioned pieces correctly, or little “clicks” let you know when you had moved something correctly into place. The movies look great and benefit from the location shoots. If you want a video tour of Europe, you’ll get it here. There’s also some impressive work with integrating video into some of the Flash puzzles – stuff I didn’t even think the platform could support.
In summary, first, serious props to UbiSoft for keeping all the various servers running. It’s a level of support that I frankly wasn’t expecting this long after the game’s release, and I’m legitimately impressed (unless the server’s in a basement somewhere, and they just forgot). That said, I’m having a tough time deciding if I can really recommend this. Some of the puzzles are exceptional, but some of the minigames are shit. We could also debate the merits of how seriously it can be taken, and if getting actual emails from characters is immersive or just naff.
Still, when the investigation challenges click, it’s an unparalleled experience. The “alternate reality” setup isn’t just a gimmick – it makes these puzzles possible, and they work surprisingly well. They are smartly crafted, and weave actual landmarks and historical figures seamlessly into the game’s fiction. Solving some of these investigation puzzles was the most fun, and most satisfaction, I’ve personally had playing any adventure game. Unfortunately, the skill minigames are always a chore – some much more than others – and I guarantee a lot of people are not going to put up with them no matter how much fun they’re having with the investigations. And finally, the clock is ticking until the hosting on all those websites expires – so if you’re the least bit interested, it may be best to pick it up cheap and give it a try.
Final note – I have created a zip file of a freshly-authorized user at the start of the game. You should be able to swap this into a new install and play the game even if the server can’t be contacted in the future. You’ll need to follow a walkthrough for parts, but at least you’ll have the option.
Great idea for an adventure game. Well-researched connections with real history and occultism make for some brilliant free-form puzzles to solve. Good production values.
Annoying to Hair-Yankingly-Annoying minigames that offer pointless skill challenges and can’t be skipped. Not made to last – tied to fake websites, a login system, and emails sent from characters; all existing outside the game. Frankly, an outright miracle it’s still functioning today.