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The Backseat Game Designer: Secret Files: Tunguska

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

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 designers'll be Googling around and find it inspiring. Or maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Secret Files: Tunguska that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I didn't dislike playing Tunguska. It was a perfectly serviceable point-and-click adventure with a convenient interface and a few decently clever puzzles. The only thing that stood out as really wrong with it was the terrible dialogue writing; everything else was OK. But on the flip side of the coin, there wasn't anything memorable or gripping or anything else better than OK, either. The conspiracy is generic-- at no point did I ever care who was behind anything. There's no suspense. (Nina repeatedly gets caught by various badguys, but only at the most predictable possible times, and it's glaringly obvious she's never in any real danger. The villains just keep catching her and leaving her unguarded in rooms full of useful inventory objects.) None of the characters have anything remotely resembling a personality, so Oleg's betrayal near the end of the game has no emotional impact at all-- he never said or did anything to distinguish himself from an anonymous extra, so how are we supposed to care which side he's working for? Even Nina and Max themselves are thoroughly generic adventurers who never undergo any character development, either individually or as a couple. (Max doesn't even seem to have any basic character motivation, other than thinking the redhead he's spent five minutes conversing with is kinda hot. Idle lust for strangers doesn't usually inspire random scientists to hop on planes to remote military installations in foreign countries, I dunno.)

So, yeah, Tunguska. It was there, it was playable, didn't have any huge problems or anything, but it sure didn't exert itself to hold my interest in any way. And unlike Max, I don't really find staring at Nina's ridiculously tight jeans a motivating force in and of itself.

Plot Holes

The plot of this game really did not hold together all that well. It was hard to tell whether information had been lost in the translation, or whether there really was a lot of hand-waving and unexplained mysteriousness in place of plot resolutions. Here are the major open questions I was left with:

1) Was Detective Kanski a member of the black-robed alien sect? It appears so, since he was wearing one of their amulets when Max found his body near the end. However, if that's so, then what possible reason could he have had for trying to shoot Nina? The black-robed sect were the ones trying to hide Kalenkov from the beginning.

2) Who imprisoned Morangie in the well? This plot development was totally baffling to me. Morangie did not have one of the alien artifacts, so neither Gartuso's people nor the Black Robes should have been interested in him. For some reason he never mentions what he was doing in the well once he is rescued, and Max never asks. A bizarre omission.

3) Why were Gartuso's people using Nina to try to retrieve the alien artifact in the first place? I've been completely unable to think of any reason they would need her help-- she didn't have any information they did not. Oleg was the one who led her to the secret cave in the Himalayas, so obviously they knew exactly where it was; and it was he who gave her the journal with the puzzle solution written in the back, so they didn't need her to provide them with that either. So what gives? She was the only one they thought could retrieve the leather pouch with the key in it from the bottom of the cliff? Really?

4) Who killed Kanski at the end of the game? I would have assumed it was one of Gartuso's hitmen, except that the only reason they would have had for killing him is if Gartuso knew he belonged to the black-robed sect, and Gartuso doesn't know or care about the sect if Nina asks him about it, so that hardly makes sense. Could it have been the FSB retaliating for the sabotage of their train, maybe? As with Morangie's imprisonment, the murder is never mentioned again, and the main characters seem oddly incurious about it.

Secret Files: Tunguska Game Advances

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

1) I really appreciated the ability to switch back and forth between Nina and Max in this game. Sometimes, especially when you're playing a point-and-click adventure game with a lot of less-than-logical inventory puzzles in it, you find yourself at an impasse, with no idea which object you're supposed to click on which hotspot next. Taking a break and switching to the other PC for a while usually gets your mind off it enough that when you come back, you remember to click whatever it was you forgot to click last time. Also, the ability to see the same situation from two different perspectives has a lot of potential as a dramatic tool, though it wasn't used to its fullest potential in this particular game (Max and Nina having no notable differences in personality, and the plot not being set up such that the two of them could have different opinions about it or actually suspect each other.)

2) One great interface feature in Secret Files: Tunguska that I'd love to see more of in graphic adventures is the "Search Scene" button, which makes all hotspots visible when you click on it. I find pixel-hunting a generally dull exercise, particularly in games with very detailed graphics that depict dozens of non-existent objects in the background of each screen. I wish I had a button to opt out of this chore all the time.

3) Another interface feature which deserves a shout-out is the ability to skip lines of dialogue and animation with the escape key and jump immediately to the next screen by double-clicking the exit. These sensible features are thankfully not unique to Tunguska-- they SHOULD be standard in any modern graphic adventure-- but sadly, I have played several games recently where you either have to sit there waiting for pointless animations to conclude or watch your character slowly jog across each and every inch of screen space before you're allowed to move on. Tunguska gets props from me for not falling prey to this ignoble trend.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Secret Files: Tunguska a 5.5 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Unfortunately, nothing very easy to implement. The interface is already high-quality and the game mechanics, though hardly groundbreaking, would serve any graphic adventure game capably. The problems with Secret Files: Tunguska are too fundamental for any kind of quick fix: the plot is dull, the characters are two-dimensional at best, there's no suspense and the dialogue stinks. I suppose Tunguska could have been slightly improved just by cutting out all the incredibly forced and inane jokes about sex and feces. (We're not even talking about anything witty or erotic here: we're talking about a stranger on a train deciding to tell Nina all about his constipation for no reason on earth, or Max making stoned fratboy comments like "Ohhhhhh... a BED. Too bad Nina isn't here!" upon looking around a bedroom. Isn't Max supposed to be an adult professional? Does he get this stupidly horny EVERY time he sees a bed, or a couch, or a fireplace?) But to really improve itself, Tunguska would have needed better writing at a much deeper level. Nina and Max would both have needed genuine personalities, and their feelings towards each other would have needed to actually evolve as the game went on. Nina would have needed to actually bond with Oleg over the course of the game, so that his betrayal could come as something of a shock. Some sort of actual plot twist, like Nina and Max discovering information in the course of their separate investigations that implicated each other, would have helped. So would faster pacing and the addition of a few suspenseful moments (cutscenes of Nina narrowly evading danger with no help from the player don't really qualify.)

Unfortunately, this leaves me without particularly high hopes for Secret Files 2 (due out next year.) The good news is, Nina and Max have been successfully established as a competent MacGyver-esque adventuring team in a paranormal world, which makes for any number of theoretically interesting premises. But in the absence of any indication that their creators know how to do character development, plot a story arc, or make a villain menacing, it's hard to see how a second installment in the series is going to be any more compelling than the first. It's easier to hold out hope that a game designer might fix a crappy interface than that they might provide memorable characters and a story you can sink your teeth into if they didn't seem to make it a priority previously. I've been wrong in such predictions before, though, and I hope I will be this time.

Best Puzzle: Turning the lights off on the train's safe was a nice logic puzzle.
Lamest Puzzle: There were a handful of fairly stinky inventory puzzles, including two that actually appeared to be homages to the inventory puzzles I gave Lamest Puzzle awards to from Syberia and The Longest Journey (a complicated machine that starts working for no apparent reason when you stick an egg into it, and a quest to give an authority figure diarrhea.) Why one would want to pay homage to the STUPIDEST puzzles from outstanding games I couldn't even begin to imagine.
Best Plot Twist: The only one that wasn't intensely predictable was the black-robed cultists getting off the plane behind Max; that did surprise me.
Lamest Plot Twist: The villains knocking Nina unconscious in a remote cave in China, then flying her to their secret base in Antarctica to execute her, and THEN forgetting about the execution plan because they couldn't get the water running, so that she could escape and explore their secret base. I expect a certain amount of stupidity out of megalomaniac mind-controlling archvillains, but that's just getting silly right there.
High Point: Truly, there was nothing in the writing of this game that stood out for me in any way. Most of it did not suck, but there was nothing in it that was memorable or evocative for me at all.
Low Point: Having to listen to Sergei talk was particularly painful. Those lines would have been bad enough without the horrible voice acting to go along with it.

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