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The Backseat Game Designer: Journey to the Center of the Earth

This is the addendum to my Journey to the Center of the Earth Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Journey to the Center of the Earth yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the title of some recent hits, read this page, and be inspired to write more graphic adventure games in which the players actually gets to make meaningful choices for the main character (the way CRPG's have been doing for ten years now). Would that ever kick the genre into high gear. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Journey to the Center of the Earth that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Every now and then, you play a game that was so clearly rushed out of beta so quickly that it just makes you wince to play it. Journey to the Center of the Earth was one of those. It had all the potential--an interesting conspiracy plot, compelling gameworld, and ambience of steampunky goodness. It had all the ambition--the willingness to challenge gamers with tough puzzles, the determination to add interactivity to the playing experience with alternate game endings. But at some point, someone in charge of the project obviously uttered the words "Oh well, that'll do," and a game-of-the-year quietly failed to be made. Journey to the Center of the Earth isn't a bad game, but it never achieves its potential, and it's frankly unpleasant to play most of the time. The interface is awful, the puzzles are missing information, it's buggy, the translation is terrible, and the lack of detail or consistency keeps the mysterious lost world and its ominous plot from being any kind of immersive at all.

This isn't a bad game. But it could have been a great one, if anybody had cared enough to insist that it be done right. Nobody did, and so ultimately Ariane's sacrifice--whichever one she chooses to make--is really all in vain.

Journey to the Center of the Earth Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) Journey to the Center of the Earth gets its biggest props from me for allowing the player to make a life-altering decision on behalf of the main character. Graphic adventures, particularly third-person graphic adventures, consistently fail to even entertain this as a possibility, and as this game vividly illustrates, there's absolutely no reason for this faint-heartedness, because adding a critical choice to be made did not actually complicate the gameplay of Journey to the Center of the Earth at all. Somebody had to think up the bifurcating plot in the first place, and then a second ending cutscene had to be drawn and developed, and that was it. No new programming. No heartaches. Other game designers who claim it would be mess up the genre to introduce even the tiniest of decision trees are just plain lazy, and now I can prove it.

2) Ariane's laptop was a truly inspired interface device--simultaneously a plausible way for the game to feed the player information the main character wouldn't necessarily know herself, and a way for the outside world to assert its existence in a non-annoying fashion. In Syberia, I just wanted to electrocute everyone who called Kate on her damn cellphone. But in Journey to the Center of the Earth, the equally trivial emails from Ariane's friends served their purpose of showing life on the surface going on (sometimes in confusing contradiction to other information she was receiving) without ever interrupting me from the plot, simply by virtue of being email. And as for the research capabilities of the laptop, I wished they had been utilized much more within this game itself, and would be thrilled to see something similar in more graphic adventures (particularly mystery adventures.)

3) Most of the pieces of the conspiracy Ariane was working to uncover could actually be figured out by the player from clues that were present in the game. That the motive behind spreading fears of war was obtaining free labor in the diamond mines, for example, was hinted at as far back as the giant village, and several increasingly explicit clues about it could be found as the game progressed. This is a welcome improvement over many adventure games, where mysteries remain mysteries until their solution is exposited by an NPC.

4) I really liked the investigative reporter as protagonist of an adventure game, and the plot importance that placed on the gathering of evidence and taking of pictures. I'd like to see another game expand on this idea, possibly even with the skillful interviewing of NPCs playing a role.

5) Ariane also gets a thumbs-up from me for being a relatively normal-looking woman in relatively normal clothing. I'm so pleased to see how many games have picked up on this trend since I first praised it in The Longest Journey five years ago. Obviously I'm not the only one who was really sick of playing either an overly-large-bosomed action heroine or an overly-large-eyed anime woman-child.

Plot Holes

On a plot level, Journey to the Center of the Earth held up pretty well. The conspiracy made sense, and the plot proceeded in a coherent, logical fashion. Most of my "huh?" moments had to do with the broken English the game was written in (the voice actors spoke English fine, but the lines they were given often made no sense at all or had no relevance to the dialogue of the characters they were supposedly responding to.) So I frequently had no idea why Ariane was making some pointless comment like "Guess that just goes to show!" or "This derrick will allow me to communicate with the next level" (it took me a while to realize that one was just some kind of mistranslation for "allow me access to the next level.") Outside of dialogue confusion, though, the open questions I was left with were:

1) If Wallace was a victim in this conspiracy and Alexander was the one who was trying to frame Ariane (as the photo on his desk suggests,) then why did Wallace's reading list at the library include several books on how to doctor films? Was he suspicious of Alexander and trying to figure out whether Alexander had doctored the films? That doesn't really mesh with his dialogue when he's informed of the truth, but I guess that could have been another translation issue.

2) Why is Adam hiding out in a back room of Heracles' shop? More to the point, why isn't it a topic of conversation with Heracles once you discover him there? And since Adam has the eggs Heracles needs and is obviously able to travel in and out of the city, why does Heracles go to the bother of asking Ariane to fetch them for him?

3) The seals puzzle makes no sense. It says to start "as the sun rises," which ought to mean the east. Yet the tiles need to start in the upper left-hand corner (northwest by compass.) ?

4) What was all that dynamite doing in the mining car? Ariane exclaimed that the conspirators were trying to destroy the mine's transportation system to incite a revolt. But why on earth would they do that?!? The conspirators didn't want a revolt, they wanted the miners to cooperate and mine diamonds for them!

5) The entire subplot about the miners' revolt seems to have been only partially developed in the first place. There were interesting clues identifying two miners as rebels, and a telegram identifying a time that the revolt would begin. Yet there was nothing you could do about this. You can't ask Amalia about her telegram, ask Amalia or Firmin about each other, tell Angus anything, show anyone the telegram. Some investigative reporter. :P The whole thing is just dropped like a rock.

6) Most of the chores you're asked to perform in the giant village are rather pointless, but the part that makes no sense at all is the giants' total lack of interest once Ariane has revealed the impending genocide of their town. Even Jahine Dubra, the only resident with much of a pulse, acts like she's doing Ariane a favor by telling her how to avert the disaster, rather than being concerned enough to leave her sick elephant's bedside for a few minutes to solve the problem. The fisherman giant is so apathetic about it all that he won't even give Ariane an object she needs unless she completes a menial task for him first. It was impossible to suspend my disbelief during this anticlimactic sequence.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Journey to the Center of the Earth a 5.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Better game development, first and foremost. I'm not sure whether this game was originally written in French, Ukrainian or Russian, but the quality of the translation was unacceptably poor. It's not clear whether the dialogue was hideously badly written in the first place or just got mangled in the translation, but either way, it was an embarrassment, and either a half-decent screenwriter or a capable translator, preferably both, should have been hired for a few days. They should also have invested in better beta-testing. This game shipped with a puzzle that is so broken it can only be solved by working straight from a walkthrough, or else solving it through lengthy trial and error and then RELOADING to enter the correct solution. That's right, it would be impossible to solve this game from start to finish without cheating. How exactly did THAT get past the playtesters? There WERE playtesters, weren't there?

The interface still had a lot of kinks to be worked out, too. There was a special cursor letting you know where screen exits were, but it only worked about 80% of the time, which is in some ways worse than having no exit cursor at all. One two separate occasions I, a veteran gamer, actually got stuck and frustrated and resorted to a walkthrough, only to find that the 'problem' was that I hadn't noticed an exit because the movement cursor was broken. Ariane's gloves pop off for no reason and the camera angles shift disorientingly whenever she moves. There are no movement shortcuts, so you spend a lot of time watching her jog slowly around familiar areas. When Ariane needs water, there is one tiny hotspot in the river about the size of her hand from which she is allowed to fetch some. When she needs sand, there is one little patch of sand in one corner of an immense beach from which she is allowed to collect some.

But the most serious gameplay issue by far is the near-total lack of any feedback about anything in the entire game. You see a weird-looking object, and clicking on it either gives you no information at all or a useless comment like "Things are getting complicated." Only when you happen to click on the object with the correct inventory item do you even learn what the object was in the first place. This makes it impossible to solve most of the inventory puzzles through actual deduction, only through simple trial and error. Worst of all, the game sometimes gives you misleading comments like "I must have forgotten something" or "I don't have enough information" when, in fact, those are not the sticking points at all. I wasted a lot of time going back to the previous area to search for whatever it was I'd forgotten and scouring Askiam for more information, when in fact the only reason the objects wouldn't work was that I hadn't clicked on them with the correct inventory object. There's nothing fun about squinting at a handful of poorly-drawn pebbles on your gamescreen and trying to guess what they're supposed to be because the game won't let you examine them. There's nothing fun about clicking every item in your inventory randomly on a mollusk until one of them eventually causes it to produce the magic lens you need and you have no idea why. Journey to the Center of the Earth would have been improved if clicking on the pebbles had caused Ariane to state "They're small mushrooms," at which point it would have occurred to me to use my knife on them. (Or if clicking the laptop would have caused it to analyze the mushrooms, to the same effect.) It would have been a better game if clicking on the telephone had caused Ariane to say "If I call Bares Mohul, he'll recognize my voice," so that I could have known what problem I was supposed to be trying to solve in the first place. It would have been a better game if there had been some reason, any reason, presented within the game that might have led you to expect that mammoth hair might have something to do with the magic lens production of mollusks. A puzzle with no clues and no logical mechanism is not a puzzle. It's just a chore. And even a well-designed game doesn't have the spare room for any more pointless chores.

Ah well, maybe next time. The game designers are working on another Verne-inspired graphic adventure game now, called 80 Days. If they spend a little more elbow grease on that game before kicking it out the door, maybe it can bring on the steampunk in the truly compelling kind of way that Journey to the Center of the Earth fell short of. I just hope they call me for help beta-testing the darn thing. :-D

Best Puzzle: I guess the one about finding the heavier or lighter ball with a minimum number of weighings. It's a classic, and the in-game mechanism made no sense, but at least it had a logical solution and functioned properly.
Lamest Puzzle: Regrettably, the Floating Garden puzzle. It's too bad, because the soundwave concept was innovative, but this puzzle is simply broken--there is no way to discern which totem combinations will result in each sound, and it's impossible to reset the puzzle, so even if you did use the soundwave patterns on the alley posts to correctly predict which sounds to make in which order, the only solution to this puzzle would be trying each pair of totems randomly, writing down the noises each one makes, and then reloading your game to do them in the right order. That's inexcusable gamewriting, and the fact that it took about 20 clicks and a lot of jogging across pointless extra screens to use each pair of totems made the whole exercise that much worse. And it's baffling why there was no information on soundwave patterns available in Ariane's laptop. You actually had to quit the game and log onto the real Internet to look them up. What a pointless extra annoyance.
Best Plot Twist: The war being a fabrication. Played off against the emails about North Korea and China that Ariane kept receiving, I was primed to believe there really was a war going on and Ariane had been temporally displaced somehow; uncovering the truth that there was not was unexpected and journalistically satisfying. The villain being Alexander instead of Wallace caught me off guard as well.
Lamest Plot Twist: Ariane confronting Alexander in the University. First, of course, it's frustrating because you have no input into the conversation--even though most gamers with a few brain cells might think it would be a good idea to lie to Alexander or bluff him or tell him anything at all besides "I know all your secrets, and I'm going to make them all public!", there's no way to even try. (You might think it would occur to Ariane to tell Bares that she'd caught Alexander making poison to wipe out his tribe with while he's standing right there, too.) But more importantly, why on earth doesn't Alexander kill Ariane here? He's a genocidal megalomaniac, she has the proof of his crimes, and tells him she's going to expose him. So he--tosses her into prison, without even frisking her and taking away her dynamite first? What kind of idiotic archvillain IS this guy, anyway? Either he should have tried to kill her and failed (perhaps with Ariane escaping through a teleportation device to his brother's prison), or he should have threatened to kill her and she could have responded with something that made him think it was important to keep her alive. It's just a senseless plot device otherwise.
High Point: Discovering the doctored movie of Ariane sabotaging the machine. I immediately recognized the surveillance photos of Ariane that Wallace had used to make it from, and it was an electric moment.
Low Point: The giant village. For some reason everyone in the entire village needs Ariane to go run the most pointless and trivial of errands for them, along ridiculously circuitous paths, talking to all of the giants over and over again until new errands to run finally pop up in their dialogue menus. And to add insult to injury, the giants were incredibly annoying to spend even five minutes talking to, much less the hour or two they demand. They were like some horrible New Age caricature of noble savage stereotypes from eight or nine different cultures: you've got your Native American giant, your Polynesian giant, your African tribal giant, your druidy Ancient European giant... and they're all so mystic and wise that they kneel on the ground in tattered clothing all day long dispensing mysterious wisdom in slow, broken English and telling strangers that they sense powerful spirits in them. They all came out sounding like Fezzik from The Princess Bride, stoned out of his mind. This village made me miss the contrived emptiness of Riven.

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