Monday, November 08, 2004

Missing Since January

Once upon a time, there was a game called Majestic which promised to take the gaming world by storm. It was an online game that the creators based on the movie "The Game." It would plunge the player into a dark conspiracy that would be based on your personality, involve fictional and real websites, send you email, talk to you in IM, and even call you on the phone.

I subscribed to it and was massively underwhelmed. The "conspiracy" was lame, the puzzles were too easy, it didn't feel real or convincing, and it all just felt thin. It was like they worked so hard on the mechanism of the game that the actual story was an afterthought. Many other players agreed with me and the game went down in flames, taking with it the dream of a new era in computer games.

Last week, I was browsing the computer store and stumbled across a plain white box in the Adventure section that read "Missing Since January." It looked like the back of a milk carton with two photos on the front. On the back, it explained the premise: two people have been kidnapped, and the kidnapper has sent a CD of puzzles that will lead to their whereabouts. It looked interesting, so I checked out some reviews, and finally bought it.

I am now addicted.

The game opens with a chilling video taken by a handheld camcorder chasing after a screaming woman running through an empty house (or basement?). You immediately recognize her as the missing woman on the box. The woman finally reaches a dead end, faces the camera with horror...and then the video ends.

Missing is very immersive with gothic visuals sprinkled with ancient words and images. The kidnapper (or killer?) nicknamed Phoenix taunts you with text messages throughout the game. As an example, the very first screen just has an open hand next to a knife while the words "Give it to me" flash across the screen. The solution is to drag the knife into the hand, which grasps the knife and the screen fades to black. Try that without feeling a little squeamish.

The puzzles themselves are not that bold or innovative, but the idea that the lives of two people depend on your solving it adds real tension. A simple jigsaw puzzle feels like a race against time.
Each puzzle takes you a step closer, often unlocking video clips taken by the missing reporters. They aren't very bold, but are supposed to be taken by amateurs, and so they feel right. They have a feel of quiet dread knowing where they lead.

Plus, I'm now at a point in the game where I need to search the Internet to find clues. To go on Google, type in the name of a character in the game, and sift across dozens of sites makes it all more real. I found myself wandering websites, all wondering "Is this part of the game or just another site?" When I finally stumbled across a webpage that had the character's photo on it, I couldn't hold back a smile. It takes it beyond just a deadly version of Myst. This is where it succeeds where Majestic failed. Whereas Majestic felt unrealistic and over-the-top, Missing feels only slightly beyond reality. Check out the website of the fictional company that the missing people worked for, SKL

One tip, though: typing in the keywords into the regular Google engine is a lost cause. More often than not, I'll get links to game reviews or guides for Missing. But I discovered the Google search box on the game's website has been tweaked so that it brings the relevant links to the top of the page. I don't know how they did that, but thank goodness...I'd still be struggling if it wasn't for that. Nice job there.

All in all, a very good game. It's a little more frustrating than I would like, but hopefully I'll get through it. And hopefully, Missing sells a million copies and I'll find more games like it.