Experience 112: Puzzle vs. Experience

Recently, there have been some interesting developments in the adventure genre. I believe they are signs of a upcoming (or ongoing) evolution of this genre, which might revive the adventure game or even redefine what we consider a game. One of the new, interesting adventures is called Experience 112 (The Experiment in America, I believe). It is by the French studio Lexis Numérique.

The beginning of the game is the best part. You might want to check out the demo.

Experience 112 feels quite like a nice, shiny French Bande Dessinée: looks good (sometimes), maybe a bit shallow, amazingly clichéd but then some surprising details which will make it just different enough for you to remember it. Today I would like to summarize some of my observations, point out some flaws and talk about what I think are some important lessons.

Experience 112 is a bit like a mixture of Uplink and Alone in the Dark. You control a surveillance system of a ship and you have access to video streams of various cameras. You can use them to observe and communicate with a young woman who finds herself alone on this ship. Together you find out how she got there and what happened with the ship.

The most prominent feature of the game is the interface. Instead of interacting directly with the main character you use a number of tools and software applications of the surveillance system. For example, you guide you character through the ship by turning lights on and off. The woman will walk to the light you just switched on and will automatically interact with interesting objects.

You have some control of every camera. You can pan it and zoom onto details. You can also turn on night vision and you even have a infra-red sensor. All of those features are gradually unlocked through the game. Those camera controls alone offer already some interesting possibilities. At some points you have to say “yes” or “no” by nodding or shaking your camera, which is a very simple and effective way of implementing gesture-based controls into a game.

This is how sometimes your screen look like. Looks boring. Sounds boring. Overwhelmingly interesting.

You have also access to the intranet of the ship. You find out passwords which you can use to log on into people’s accounts and read their files and e-mails. Although it doesn’t sound very exciting it is a very addictive part of the game. There are 21 different accounts and each has two levels of security. So there are 42 passwords to figure out. You can find some passwords using the cameras. However, most of them are found within the files and e-mails of other people. It turns out that the group of scientists living on the ship had lots of intrigues and relationships going on and they were gossiping a lot about each other. Going through all that information, searching for clues and passwords, is a unique experience. I guess producing it was fairly cheap and it pulls you right into the story much stronger then the expensive rendered cut-scenes of the game. There are also some nice twists where you hear bad things about a person and then log into this person’s account to see everything from their perspective. I have already written how that kind of change of perspective can be a powerful tool, especially suitable for games.

Being very experimental, Experience 112 is somewhat unpolished. The mentioned intranet is very exciting but there is not too much possibility for interaction here. Games like Uplink have already shown how much you can do with this kind of gameplay element: decrypting files, repairing files, hacking passwords, logging on trough alternative routes etc. All that is missing in Experience 112. On the other hand, the information you have access to is much more richer the in Uplink, where the focus is more on the technical aspect of computer hacking. One problem with that much information is that it can be very tedious to go through all that text. I think using audiologs like in Doom 3 would make it possible to continue playing the game while doing the research. There are some audio and video files on the intranet but they are very rare.

Red means cold, blue means warm. Things like that make Tufte cry.

One almost criminal flaw of the intranet is the poor information design of some diagrams. Late in the game, you have to use some tables and diagrams from the intranet to solve some of the puzzles. I have not come across even one which was not flawed. In order not to spoil too much I will present only one: a table where you have to find out a code for the status of the weather. One part of that code is a two-digit number which stands for a certain temperature and whether it is falling or rising. Horizontally you have the temperature – this is fine. Vertically, you have symbols for: falling, slowly, falling, stable, slowly rising and rising. Note particularly bad the colors for the symbols are chosen. Falling temperature is coded red while rising temperature is coded blue. This little detail is incredibly frustrating. It took me a while to figure that one out. And it is not the only one. If one of the major skills you require from the player is the interpretation of large quantities of information, information design should be top-priority.

To switch a camera, first click on a window and then click a red square on the map. Back in the real world your brain works exactly the other way around.

And while we are at it: if you simulate a fully functional surveillance system, interface design should be a priority too. The buttons for controlling the cameras are painstrikingly small, windows can’t be resized seamlessly. What you do most is switching between cameras as your character is moving trough the ship. This isn’t solved very well. You have to click on a camera window to activate it and then click on the icon of the camera you want to switch that window to. The interface works against you way of thinking. When switching cameras, the new camera is you locus of attention. You want to FIRST select the camera and THEN select where you want the image to be shown.

Akira cargo elevators. You’ve got to be kidding me. They were cliché already in Half-Life.

When reviewing a adventure game you have to comment on the story. In this case, the beginning is great but just like Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) it gets buried under layers of clichés and plot holes. In this game, the sheer number of that layers is impressive. I’ll list just some without giving anything away. If you are sensitive to spoilers don’t read it but I assure you, the story is not worth it and most of it you could also figure out by reading the text on the back of the package:

  • A substance which can be dangerous to people but also can give super-powers and create mutations.
  • Secret experiments on PSI-abled people.
  • Alien-like, insectoid creatures.
  • Underground facility, harboring a door to a different dimension (accessible trough a Akira-like cargo Elevator).
  • A conspiracy involving an ancient, secret cult.
  • In an alternative timeline.
  • A robot renegade cop.

Ok, the last one I made up. As you can see they did managed to fit almost every mystery-cliché into the game. I think only mysterious government guys in black suits are missing. Even without them, the result is pretty much chaotic and boring. In fact, while researching the files in the intranet, I found myself just quickly scanning trough the plot-sensitive information and focusing on the relationship e-mails. So the game is reminiscent of the movie Sunshine: the exposition where you learn about the crew and how they interact turns out to be the most exciting part. As soon as the space-zombies appear, you start yawing. In fact, I think the story in Experience 112 would be much more interesting if … NOTHING HAPPENED with the ship. If it was just a normal naval accident.

However, some kudos are due for the consequently pacifist subtexts. Your main character absolutely refuses to use any weapons (”I’m a scientist!”). There are also hardy any specifically violent situations where weapons would seem appropriate. Also, in one of the final sequences of the game (SPOILER!) your have to beat a kind of boss not by using violence but by communicating with him with an improvised and complicated communication device. I think it is a great and refreshing finale. A great example for a game where peaceful means of conflict solving are rewarded and expected.

But one of the things which bug me most about Experience 112 is how shallow the interaction is. I remember adventures games like Day of the Tentacle where you found yourself in an environment brimming full with objects and possibilities of interaction. Each screen hat dozens of little details you could look at, use, take, open, pull, push – whatever the SCUMM interface allowed. All that is gone in Experience 112. Your character does everything automatically. You can’t click specifically on things. There is no inventory. Most of the items she picks up are keys anyways. Those keys are automatically used where appropriate. There are almost no item-puzzles and if they are, they are totally obvious – the solution always spelled out by the character (”Maybe I could…”). Other puzzles are extremely specialized – they work only only in a specific moment and involve the control of some kind of a robot or other automatic device. They aren’t even about solving a puzzle: they are more like mini-games. In fact, you have to hardly ever THINK in Experience 112. Most of it happens automatically, you just click your way from camera to camera, watching the character do her thing. The most thinking is done in the intranet part but even there, it is more about writing down passwords then actually solving puzzles. Yes you can pan and zoom the camera but all of that is hardy ever used. Although full of stuff and equipment, the ship you find yourself in is amazingly empty. Everything is just dead decoration.

Back in the days, you could pick up a dozen different items it that kind of room. Now we are down to one. No wonder developing games got so expensive.

Is this bad? I’m not sure. The experience (pun intended) is different. It is not a game where you strain you brain to overcome some obstacles. It is much more about the atmosphere of the locations, exploring the environment, watching things etc. In that way, it is somewhat reminiscent of Endless Ocean. The character even walks very slowly so you have all the time in the world to read through e-mails or play with the cameras. Although I am skeptical if shallow interaction is necessary for that kind of experience, I think it is a new and interesting way of thinking about what a game can be. And I believe it is worth exploring further. What do you think?

I did enjoy Experience 112, even though it had so many mistakes and even though it is so unpolished. It is hard to hate a game which does such a great effort to try new and radical things and even manages to stay true to a valuable pacifist ideal on a market where every other game is about shooting things.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Experience 112: Puzzle vs. Experience”

  1. A.L.

    Just to correct your memory: “Sunshine” has only one Zombie, who isn’t really a Zombie, and is actually a good film – if you can tolerate or decode the garbled, confusing parts at the end. It’s a brainy, quasi-religious SciFi movie WITHOUT aliens or supernatural elements, showing off our sun’s terrifying power and beauty, exploring the big questions of life, the universe and everything. Anything sporting Brian Cox as scientific advisor can’t be that bad. ;)

    “Experience 112″ has been residing on my shelf for the last for years because at the time, my adventure gamers’ rig wasn’t powerful enough to handle it comfortably. I remember it had a rather steep learning curve at the beginning, especially if you’re not playing in your native language – which isn’t a problem with most other games.


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