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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Sinking Island Review

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

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 Benoit Sokal will be Googling around one day and my page will inspire him to make lines of dialogue skippable in his next feature. Ah, well, a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about Sinking Island that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I did not enjoy playing The Sinking Island at all. The gameplay was so boring and time-wasting that I was literally gritting my teeth during much of it. There was only one real puzzle in the entire thing, and surprisingly little investigating. Instead there was interrogation, more interrogation, even more interrogation, and a side helping of pixel-hunting. And the interrogation was a PAIN. Lines of dialogue are unskippable, and you have to exhaust really long dialogue trees with ten different characters, so you have to listen to Jack slowly reciting each line ten different times. The characters are located many screens away from each other and new dialogue options sometimes become available with one of them once you have talked to another, so you have to waste an inordinate amount of time running Jack back and forth between them over and over to see whether they have anything new to say yet. Eventually the game decides Jack has gathered enough evidence to prove a point, and then you get to guess which lines of dialogue the game considers important. This is not fun at all-- particularly since there are many incriminating lines of dialogue that either don't show up as options you can choose or are arbitrarily not accepted by the game. (In the very first section of the game, for example, Nolent tells you that he saw Baina push Walter off the cliff immediately upon meeting you, yet this cannot be used as testimony that Baina was present; later in the game when you find Nolent again he eventually utters another line of dialogue stating that he saw Baina there, and you are permitted to use that one.)

So I really didn't enjoy playing The Sinking Island, but on the other hand, I did finish it, and this time it wasn't because one of my kids begged me to keep playing. No, I gritted my teeth and kept soldiering through because I really wanted to know whodunnit, and why, and what was going to happen in the end. So I have to give The Sinking Island props for that-- the story was really interesting, and it kept me paying attention even through a boring and unpleasant playing experience.

Sinking Island Game Advances

Things The Sinking Island did right, which I hope other games will pick up on:

1) I liked the fact that the game recaps your progress as you resume play. It's unfortunate that this was in the form of a slowly scrolling animation-- I never wanted to sit there waiting for it to get to the most recent events. But if such a recap were presented as text you could skim at your own speed, it would have been a great idea. Sometimes I go a few days before picking up a game again, and the reminder of where I was in the investigation could be a very helpful one.

2) The character database, showing the location of each character on the island, was a really convenient idea. It doesn't really make a lot of in-game sense (did Jack have them all microchipped?) but if you're going to have ten characters constantly moving around a large environment with little rhyme or reason and you have to keep carrying information back and forth between them, letting the player know where each of them can be found is really considerate.

3) I liked the mechanism by which you could compare two different objects to see if they matched. This is a really good idea for an investigative game. The clue-reporting mechanism was a nice idea as well, although it was very poorly implemented.

4) I appreciated seeing the effects of the disaster on areas I had previously visited (the cracks, falling plaster, leaky roofs, flooded lobby.) This really helps provide a sense of drama.

Plot Holes

The plot of Sinking Island was generally very good and made sense throughout, but it fell apart a little near the end. Here are the problems and loose ends I was left bothered by;

1) Jack had a gun in his inventory at the end of the game. He's a grizzled police detective, and he knew a murderer was hiding in Lorenzo's office. Why on earth did he not enter that room with his gun drawn, yelling some variant of "Hands up"? It was completely unbelievable to me that he barged in unarmed and was taken by surprise by Marco.

2) Why did Marco suddenly decide to try to leave the rest of the group to die at the end of the game? A big deal had already been made about the fact that in the absence of a will, Marco would be the one to inherit Walter's estate (because he is Walter's son.) So the stated explanation that he wanted to eliminate the other heirs in order to inherit the estate made no sense-- he would have inherited it anyway. And why wouldn't he bring Cristina with him? Had he learned about her tryst with Martin and become angry with her? If so, why wasn't anything ever made of this?

3) Why did Jack clear Baina of crime once he learned Walter had been shot? He still had proof that she had pushed an 80-year-old man's wheelchair off a cliff. It was only random luck that he survived that long enough to be shot by someone else. In any real world scenario, Baina was still guilty of attempted murder.

4) It bothered me a little bit that Walter was rightly condemned by the characters for sexually harassing Baina, but Kolio was given a free pass for making her get engaged to Walter in the first place. On Thursday, Baina was so disgusted about being groped by the old goat that she pushed him off a cliff. Her wedding to him was supposed to have taken place on Friday. This pretty strongly suggests that she was not a willing participant in the marriage. Why was this never mentioned by any of the characters (even Baina's champion Lorenzo), and why does Jack never have the opportunity to question Kolio about it?

5) Lot of plot points left unresolved by the clumsy ending. Most importantly, what happens to Walter's estate? This has been the major thrust of the plot from the beginning, characters have been killed over it, and in the end, we don't even find out who inherits it?

6) This is minor, but I really did not get the subplot about the Americans having a stereotype about Eastern European women being sexually adventurous and promiscuous. Has any other American ever encountered such a stereotype before? If anything, it's usually French women who get typecast as the sexy libertines in American pop culture.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Sinking Island a 4.5 out of 10 (rating: so-so). So, what would have taken this game to the next level?

The most glaring thing, and one of the easiest to fix, would have been streamlining the interface to waste less of the player's time. Players should ALWAYS be able to skip a line of dialogue or animation by using the escape key. Double-clicking an exit should cause an automatic screen transition; we shouldn't have to wait to watch the main character slowly ascend the stairs first. A clickable automap for areas the player has already visited would have been even better, and would have been very easy to implement in this game (since all the important areas were already named and nothing ever happened in transit anyway.) It should always be possible to name savegames, so that the player can easily find them again. The interface tutorial needs to be optional (so that players could skip it if they were starting the game over again.)

Next best would have been eliminating the interludes for Jack to eat lunch and talk on the telephone with his wife. These interludes are excruciatingly boring, serve no purpose at all, and should not have been included even if it were possible to skip the animations. In fact, these interruptions are even more frustrating and annoying than the ones in Syberia, because the actually interrupt what the player is trying to do and deposit Jack in a different location. I had one investigation in the library interrupted, only to be teleported down to the dining room for lunch, and then have to make my way back up 20 flights to continue what I was doing in the library. (While I'm at it, the aggravation of having to get off the elevator at the 18th floor and walk several screens over to ride a different elevator up to a higher level is a pointless additional poke in the eye, as are the non-functioning elevators.)

Those two fixes alone would have turned this aggravating game into an enjoyable one. But there are a few more substantive problems The Sinking Island would have to address in order to be a truly good game. Chief among them is the ending. The final cutscene is bad to the point of insulting the intelligence-- not only does it have none of the soaring artistry of the Syberia cutscenes from six years previous, but there is no resolution to anything from the plot! Instead, Jack simply summarizes all the previous events of the game, and then it abruptly ends. Wait! What about Walter's estate? Did his grandchildren inherit it? What happened to Baina? What about the love triangles that were brought up and so abruptly dropped? Did anything that happened in this entire game have any effect on anyone at all? C'mon, Mr. Sokal, this was a really interesting plot-- couldn't you even be bothered to finish it?

And then there's the interactivity problem, of course. Most graphic adventure games suffer from gameplay that is too linear and pre-ordained, and The Sinking Island is no exception. Adding more flexibility to the plot, even in minor matters, would have made this a more exciting game. For instance, there are several things that are completely optional in The Sinking Island (such as solving the bookcase puzzle or finding the hidden chapel.) It would be nice if succeeding at extra tasks like these changed the outcome of the game in some way. As it is, it makes no difference whether Jack ignores the chapel, finds the chapel but keeps the marriage certificate to himself, or finds the chapel and gives the marriage certificate to Kolio. This decision should have made a huge difference-- if Walter legally married Baina before her death then she would stand to inherit his fortune, and otherwise, Sonia and Billy would. Instead of ignoring this situation and refusing to specify what became of the inheritance, the game could have offered two possible endings depending on the player's choices. Or, if two versions of the ending cutscene would have been too much work to record, a creative alternate path to the same ending could have been used-- such as Baina finally asserting herself by ripping up the certificate, for example, thus still resulting in the ending where Sonia and Billy get the money after all. In either case, the player's choices would have an effect upon the plot, which is a tremendously fulfilling thing. As it is, even the interminable interrogations have no effect-- Marco still tries to flee regardless of whether Jack has bluntly confronted him with all the evidence against him or carefully pretended not to suspect him. How nice it would have been for all the time we invested in conversing with these people to change their behavior somehow!

Finally, The Sinking Island would have been better if it had included the kind of breathtaking cinematic cutscenes Syberia did. There were no cutscenes in The Sinking Island besides the intro and outro videos, and those were forgettable and awful, respectively. There are few games out there that have the kind of compelling movie sequences Syberia did, but I did hope that Sokal might be able to aspire to the same kind of magic in this game. He didn't, and since there was no interactivity, puzzle-solving, or pleasant interface in The Sinking Island to compensate for it, it turned out to be disappointingly unremarkable.

Best Quest: Tracking down Simbi Laktar. I actually guessed that it might just be his ID card that was hidden in the dumpster rather than his dead body, but I admit to a certain trepidation as I opened it!
Lamest Quest: The final mandate was a disaster. We were supposed to provide "one or more irrefutable pieces of evidence of Marco's guilt." Yet there was no way to introduce the most important proof of all-- the stolen ID card with Marco's fingerprint on it. It's also impossible to introduce the incriminating evidence about the condom (which proved Marco's alibi was a lie.) Instead, the solution required redundant objects like the bottle of flax oil (even though the clue with the gloves had already been successfully compared to the flax oil) and pointless ones like Marco's airplane tickets, which don't prove anything at all.
Best Puzzle: There was only one puzzle in this game, the one to open the secret cabinets outside the library. It was a decent puzzle-- there was no real clue in the game as to what you were supposed to be doing with it, but since the correctly pulled books would stay in place while wrongly pulled books were not, that was enough of a hint for me to figure out what to do.
Lamest Puzzle: The bookshelf one was the only puzzle. Placing the statuettes in the right place really doesn't qualify (since the solution was handed to the character on a piece of paper before he started.)
Best Plot Twist: The revelation that the tower was sinking into the ocean. This lent a gloomy sort of urgency to the investigation.
Lamest Plot Twist: The ending, where the subtly sinister Marco suddenly turned into a psychotic madman for no apparent reason.
High Point: Probably descending the stairs to see the lobby flooded in water the first time. That was nicely atmospheric.
Low Point: Being jerked right out of the middle of investigating a new area in the library and forced to watch Jack eat a sandwich, AGAIN, then having to cross a dozen screens and use two elevators just to get back to where I was in the first place.

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