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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Physicus Review

This is the addendum to my Physicus Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Physicus 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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The Backseat Game Designer: Physicus

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, maybe some game designer'll be Googling around and be inspired to write a great physics-based sci-fi game with an actual plot. Ah, well a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Physicus that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

As graphic adventures go, Physicus isn't much more than serviceable. It's a bland, unmemorable Myst clone, has no appreciable plot, and is very short (it took me less than 10 hours of play to solve, and a good chunk of that was spent reading the in-game encyclopedia with my children). If not for the physics, the main thing I'd be praising Physicus for right now was its total lack of bugginess. But the basic concept of this game wooed me even though nothing else in it really did. Adventure game puzzles based on real-world physics, which actually teach something as they entertain! Merely for designing their game around this terrific concept, Physicus has earned a trip out of the slush pile from me. This was hardly one of the more compelling computer adventure games I've ever played, but it WAS the most compelling piece of educational software I've seen, and the interactive physics encyclopedia was worth the price of this game alone. I will probably be buying my children the sequel, Chemicus, next time a birthday rolls around.

Easter Eggs

There is one easter egg in Physicus. In the police station, when you are looking at the bookshelf (the one you where find the clue to entering Torteloni's house), there is one other hotspot on the screen. It's the small black dot at the bottom of one of the other books. Click on it to see a book of mugshots of all the programming team, with a list of the alleged crimes of each. Very classic. :-)

Plot Holes

How could a game with such a minimalist plot have holes in it? Perhaps the problem is in the translation (this was originally a German release, and though the level of translation in general seems very high, English adaptations of foreign games are notorious for leaving out important details during the backstory). Or perhaps it's just that the plot was such a low priority to the game designers that they didn't bother asking anyone "Does this make sense?" Before going anywhere with the game you have to suspend your disbelief enough to accept the sci-fi premise that a meteor striking a planet could cause the planet to stop rotating (unlikely but I was willing to buy it,) and that shooting an apartment-building-sized rock into outer space would create enough kickback to change the planet's rotation and make the planet habitable again (pretty ridiculous really). Even if you accept that premise, though, there are still some unanswered questions:

1) What planet is this? The in-game tutorial suggests it's Earth, but the gameworld and its architecture are alien and the culture (in which everyone routinely carries on their daily life by way of reciting physics equations and properties at each other) has nothing to do with Earth. It's possible this might be some alternate Earth of the distant future, but then you're left wondering why the machines, though bizarre-looking, are all so low-tech. I could never figure out where this entire game was supposed to be taking place; I wasn't even sure if the planetary model near the end of the game was supposed to be suggesting that the planet had three moons, or that the phases of its one moon were being tracked in three different positions.

2) When and how was this planet evacuated? There is still a pot of water boiling on one of the stoves. Now a pot of water will finish boiling away in a couple of hours, no more (I know this through absent-mindedness and sad experience), so did everyone leave just as my character was arriving? This is difficult to believe. And where did they go? The entire planet is uninhabitable, yet the people apparently evacuated in... wooden sailing ships? How?

3) The side of the world this island is on is supposedly too hot for human habitation any longer; in fact, it is too hot for the scientist who built this machine to stay even a day or two longer to finish the job. This means it must be MUCH hotter than 120 degrees Fahrenheit and probably closer to 150. I am willing to believe that I as the main character have some science-fiction technology that allows me to survive on this planet when other humans cannot (I arrived in a space ship, after all.) However: A) why is there a bucket of ice sitting on top of the submarine,--how could it possibly not have melted already?; B) why are insects and plants still in perfectly good health?; and C) why are there no signs of the physical devastation that you'd expect this huge shift in temperature to wreak (structures collapsing as the building materials all expand in the heat, objects falling apart as glue melts, debris all along the coasts from changes in the tides, etc.)?

Physicus Game Advances

Things I hope other game designers will learn from Physicus:

1) I cannot stress enough what a breath of fresh air it was to see a game that acknowledges the relevance of science to science fiction. A puzzle based on a starship engineer needing to know how to figure out which resistor to use is more than educational, it's realistic. I'm tired of science fiction games in which the hero just has to need to know which end of the blaster points away from him. A kid who wishes he were a Star Trek or Star Wars character or real-life astronaut should by rights be a kid with an encourageable interest in math and science, because they're relevant to his fantasies. I really applaud Physicus for showing kids the practical uses of physics in a fun setting--and I wish more games, for kids or adults, would take this attitude.

2) In fact, it was extremely refreshing that most of the puzzles and contraptions were physically plausible in the first place. Graphic adventure games in general really try my patience by forcing me to suspend my disbelief and accept that actions should have nonsensical effects (such as the puzzle from Syberia where, I am not making this up, putting a bird's egg into a metal cup causes a music box that has been broken for years to begin playing music again.) What a relief it is to encounter a game in which placing a weight at the end of a compound pulley causes the heavier weight at the other end to go up--something that would actually happen if you tried it in real life.

3) As a parent, I appreciated the educational focus of this game in general. I enjoy playing computer games together with my kids, and when they're able to come away from the experience having learned something, it's an added bonus. More importantly, Physicus has proved that adding educational components to a game doesn't have to slow it down or make it annoying. A puzzle based on operating a pulley correctly is just as challenging and interesting as a puzzle based on arranging shapes in the proper random order, and a kid actually LEARNS something from the pulley.

4) Whoever wrote the in-game physics tutorials is a genius. That is probably the best piece of straight educational software I have ever seen, with interactive displays teaching everything from Newton's laws of motions to the dynamics of electrical circuits. Any kid trying to bone up on science for an exam or standardized test would benefit from these tutorials.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Physicus a 5.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, there were a number of minor interface issues that could have been improved, of course. Inventory management, in particular, is slow and tedious, with an annoying drag-and-drop interface and a time-wasting "scanning" animation each time you pick up or put down an object. Movement is awkward too--in particular, you should never find yourself in a situation where you have to take one step forwards and then two steps backwards to turn around, simply because the "turn around" cursor isn't available on all screens. The arrows for left, right and down exits don't always appear in intuitive places (i.e. the extreme margin of the screen), either.

But there were two more serious failings of this game, and fixing either one would have rocketed it up my recommendations list. First, too many of the puzzles in Physicus are artificial and pointless. The worst ones rely on your parroting scientific equations or values for use as a code, rather than for meaningful scientific purposes. What is the point of asking a player to determine the speed of sound through iron, simply to use that number as a password? This repeated silliness actually undermines the game's message that physics is practically useful, not just something to memorize for a test. It's also totally ludicrous in terms of the plot. Why would your friend, the scientist desperately working to activate his device in time to save the world, waste everyone's time quizzing you with irrelevant physics problems before letting you use his device? At one point he actually leaves you a note that says "My friend, the password to my observatory is the specific density of chlorine." Now why the @$%!#!! would this guy make me look that up in a science textbook rather than just telling me "the password is 3.214"? The entire planet has evacuated, there is no one left but me; does he think some stowaway thief with amazing powers of heat resistance yet very poor research skills is going to intercept his letter to me somehow? The puzzles with an actual, practical raison d'etre--figuring out how to manipulate the levers on an alien forge so that you can use it to smelt something, deducing which resistor to use to power an elevator correctly, realizing that turning a millstone must be siphoning power away from a wind generator--are brilliant. The ones that have a physical solution but make no sense in the gameworld (such as a 18-kilogram weight attached to a pulley behind a house so that you can only enter if you have a 6-kg counterweight--who would EVER use this as a lock?) are off-putting but still interesting. The ones that have no physical solution at all and simply want you to type in the answers as if they were password protection are so bad they truly detract from the game.

The second real failing of Physicus is that, well, it's kind of boring. There is no plot, really; there's a premise, which is no better than mediocre, and then that's it. Nothing happens in the course of this game, nothing surprises or engages a player. In Myst, as you travel from world to world, you learn more about the two brothers that have been trapped in books and must eventually use what you've learned to make a decision: free them or not? That drew players in (by the millions, in fact). Other good graphic adventure games have included characters whose fate you find yourself concerned with, plot twists that startle or even scare you, a gameworld that truly evokes the feel of a lost civilization, and/or choices you can make that will affect the gameplay. Physicus offers none of these. There's nothing at all in this game to distract you from the fact that you're solving a sequence of puzzles and producing a series of passwords in the one set order that will work, and at the end, you will be rewarded by a little movie. There's nothing in this game that engages your imagination, your emotions, or even your curiosity. If Physicus had done any of these things-- if it had been a game of Myst or Syberia caliber that also offered real physics puzzles (especially of the contraption manipulation type rather than the stupid passwords,) this would have been a truly awe-inspiring game. As it is, it's still a decent first step. Let's hope more games decide to build on what Physicus has started.

Best Puzzle: There were a few good ones, but I was especially fond of the one where the green numbers in the photographs were invisible until you changed the red light for a green one.
Lamest Puzzle: The password whose clue was a picture of a soundwave going through a metal rod. Now how did the police department know that iron was going to happen to be the only metal listed in the textbook you were going to have to be carrying with you when you arrived several days after they wrote that file? And why would they write this cryptic note in their internal files anyway, instead of just WRITING DOWN THE DAMN PASSWORD?
Best Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists. (It only just barely had a plot at all.)
Lamest Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists.
High Point: When my five-year-old son yelled out "Look mom, a resistor! Now we can complete the circuit!"
Low Point: Entering the optometrist's office, seeing an object I needed under a pane of glass, and being unable to smash the glass with the hammer from my inventory; instead, I needed to use the hammer to break a wall in the well so I could find a key that would let me open a gate behind which was a puzzle I could solve to acquire a tuning fork I could use to shatter the glass. About as utterly mindless a run-around as you could possibly get.

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