Lora's Computer Game Reviews

The Backseat Game Designer: Timescape Journey to Pompeii

This is the addendum to my Journey to Pompeii Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Timescape Journey to Pompeii 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: Pompeii

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 some game designer'll be Googling around late one night, stumble upon my site, and decide to write a game set in a real historical site that HAS logical puzzle-solving. It could happen! Ah, well, a girl can dream, anyway... Here's all the news about Timescape Journey to Pompeii that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

This is the first game I've played in recent memory that I've come away from thinking how glad I was that it was way too short. Because I had fun playing Journey to Pompeii, for all of the four hours or so it took to complete. But at the same time, I know perfectly well that after 20 or 25 hours of this, I would have been ready to claw my eyes out. Not because of what was wrong with the game per se--sure, the crummy dialogue and voice acting got on my nerves, the navigation was a little vertiginous, the pixel hunting and minute scanning for area exits got pretty bad in places. But I've lived with that stuff before, and I'm sure I'll do it again. What would have made Journey to Pompeii unbearable after a few more hours is what it has none of. There's nothing for the player to do (unless you count reloading every time the hapless main character dies, which I don't.) I actually thought the plot was pretty interesting, but the only job of the player as the plot unfolded was to figure out what object to pick up or NPC to go listen to in order to make the next part of the plot happen. This isn't a game, it's one of those scavenger hunts your fourth-grade teacher sent you on at the museum in hopes of getting you to learn something. "Find an object worn by an Egyptian!" "Find a placard about gender roles in the Roman Empire and read it!"

And four to six hours of that is just about my limit, no matter how pretty the graphics are.

Journey to Pompeii Game Advances

Things that Timescape: Journey to Pompeii did right, and that I'd like to see more of:

1) The reconstruction of a real archaeological site into a living city is an excellent concept, one that really succeeds in blurring the lines between adventuring and learning. If this game had been a bit child-friendlier (controls and gameplay that were less frustrating for kids, and puzzles to engage their minds rather than so many monologues to listen to), it could have been a very good teaching tool for social studies.

2) Along those same lines, the virtual encyclopedia that came with the game was very informative and generally well-done. It was a really nice touch to be able to see a picture of the real ruins each room is modeled on--down to faded versions of the frescoes on the walls.

3) In general the graphics of each location were of very high quality. I particularly appreciated the ability to rotate your view in each area (as compared to its similar-themed contemporary, Riddle of the Sphinx, where only a few key locations allowed rotation.)

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Timescape: Journey to Pompeii a 4.5 out of 10 (rating: so-so). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, there are a handful of minor things. The controls could have been smoother and the rate of rotation could have been adjustable. Simply having the characters' mouths move when they're speaking would have headed some NPC confusion off at the pass. Gameplay could have been more innovative--more of an emphasis on figuring out how to persuade Sophia (with an ending wherein she refused to leave if you didn't do a good job) would have made things more dramatic, or it would have been fun to switch back and forth between Adrian and Sophia and solve puzzles as both characters (a la Schizm.) And given the plethora of unpredictable sudden-death scenarios, there should have been a streamlined way to automatically return to the beginning of a challenge whenever you failed one. The "turn back the clock" method used in The Last Express would have been perfect here, or even the simple "you died, try again" method used in a game like Sanitarium. Since the puzzles rely so much on trial and error and several of them are timed and don't even give you the option of saving before undertaking them, making you reload all the time is nothing but an annoyance.

But in order for this to be a really good game, it would have had to offer players some outlet--any outlet--for actual logical thinking. Journey to Pompeii was just one arbitrary implausibility after another, from the bafflingly irrelevant frame about the guy from the early 1900's through the random tasks your character has to complete to the myriad of nonsensical ways he can die. It's impossible to examine objects in this game, and you frequently can't tell what they are just by squinting at them; actions have unpredictable effects, NPC's do things for incoherent reasons, streets change from impassable to passable with no visible cues based solely on how far along you are in the plot. Some quests are never assigned at all, and others have no logical consequences. The whole game is one long string of trial and error. A good adventure game should stimulate an internal narrative that goes something like If I want the water level to rise, I should probably open that valve, but the game says it's stuck. Is there anything around here I could use to oil it with? Less desirable but still mildly brain-exerting is Look, I just found an oil can. I wonder what there is around here that needs lubricating. Journey to Pompeii hits you with internal narratives more like Why can't I click on the door to the marketplace I'm supposed to go into? There must be something else I have to do before I'm allowed to move on. Hey, what's this lumpy squiggle on the ground over here? It has a hotspot on it. I'll click a knife on it. No effect. I'll click a hammer on it. No effect. I'll click an oil can on it. Look, a stranger in a toga just came running over and thanked me for fixing his bathtub. Okay... I bet that marketplace is open now. Oh, wait, a bird just pooped on my head and I'm dead again.

That's an exaggeration, but not by much. It's frustrating to be arbitrarily forbidden from clicking on a clearly visible open area until the game decides it's the next location you belong in. It's annoying to keep dying and having to reload due to circumstances you couldn't have anticipated (and doubly annoying that most of them are things that should never have been lethal in the first place, like failing to prevent a fistfight between two strangers.) And it's most aggravating of all never to know what anything is or what you're supposed to be doing with it until after you've already accomplished it through trial and error. When a snake is menacing you at one point, there's no way to even tell what it is until after it's bitten you. I thought it was an object I was supposed to be manipulating somehow. In the temple of Isis, you can sneak into the back room, where there are two objects on a table--one of them is a feather that you'll need later, and the other is an urn that will turn out to get you executed if you touch it. Except the only way to know that the feather is a feather is to pick it up (it looks more like a cup,) and the only way to know that the urn isn't also something you need to take in order to win the game is to touch it, die, and reload. The entire game is like this--fumbling around clicking on things randomly until you either succeed or have to reload, because you're never provided with enough information to make logical deductions or even educated guesses. One of the quests in the first chapter, for example, is to convince the painter to give Propidius free paint. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, but this quest is NEVER ASSIGNED. Propidius never even mentions in passing that he can't afford paint, much less asks for any; there's no reason acquiring free paint for him would occur to anyone in or out of character, and you don't even get an unanticipated reward from Propidius for the paint job. Yet you can't complete the chapter without arranging for the free paint.

In order for Journey to Pompeii to be a top-rate game, in other words, it would have needed a serious change of attitude. Exposition that leads players to pursue a certain quest, not exposition that occurs only after players happen upon a quest solution by random chance. Deaths that happen as consequences after players make mistakes, not as tools to force them to back up and try again if they've guessed wrongly. Objects gamers can identify by examining them (either by providing expository text, or simply a close-up view--the graphic quality of this game was certainly high enough to let players recognize a feather or a snake in close-up.) Puzzles they can solve by thinking of a logical solution first, and implementing it second.

I'm still waiting for a historical adventure game to come along that really gets this right--gives me nifty archaeological panoramas in addition to a top-notch adventure game with real puzzles and plot, not instead of them. I'm not even talking about a Myst set in ancient Babylon--it would take a real genius to pull that off, since ancient Babylonians just didn't have those kinds of techno-puzzles lying around. But I'd even be pretty happy with a Syberia set in ancient Babylon.

Looks like I'll have to wait a little longer.

Best Quest: I appreciated the final quest (to sneak Sophia past the guard), simply because it had multiple possible solutions (showing him the one unused inventory object was the obvious one, but I tried beaning him with a rock just on an impulse, and that worked too.)
Lamest Quest: There were a number of frustratingly pointless ones, but the fight with the snake really took the cake. Not only was the reason Locusta wanted a branch never explained--not only was it silly that Adrian couldn't cut a branch off with his knife but needed to break it off with a rock--not only was it impossible to tell what the snake was from the crummy little clump of pixels on the floor--not only could this crazy magic snake catch up to Adrian and kill him even if he sprinted all the way back to Popidius' house and up the freaking STAIRS--not only was using a branch to push the snake a few feet farther away from Adrian a dumb solution if running a football field's length away from it didn't work--but man, using the singing bird on the snake did NOTHING! Nothing at all! Geez, did these guys even have a computer in the late '70's? ;-)
Best Plot Twist: This game was really too short to have any significant plot twists, but I liked what Fructus did with the mule.
Lamest Plot Twist: The very first one, with all the crap about Ishtar and the British archaeologist from the early 1900's or whatever. That entire frame was so stupid and unnecessary, and then they didn't even come back to it in the end.
High Point: Popidius' chillingly dignified speech near the end about staying in his city for good or for ill.
Low Point: Probably when Adrian got hit by a rock the last night. The game had given up any last vestige of even pretending they intended players to use their brains by that point; there is no way to know the rock is coming and avoid it other than being killed by it, reloading, and stepping out of the place you know it landed last time. :P

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