Adventure Gamers Awards
Adventure Maker is a new adventure gaming engine with growing popularity in the development world. With a plethora of user-friendly features and a cheap licensing fee (only $29 for a distributable copy), it is surprising how few commercial games have been produced with it. Aiming to fill that void, The Arrangement, produced by veteran developer Michael C. Clark, is the first Adventure Maker game to retail commercially. It is currently available through Got Game Entertainment for the budget price of $20.
At its core, The Arrangement resembles first-person adventures such as Sierra’s Lighthouse or Rama games. Despite being significantly less polished than its predecessors, The Arrangement strives valiantly to achieve greatness. Unfortunately, while it is fairly impressive as an independently-developed piece of software, the game itself has little to offer to its intended commercial audience.
The Arrangement begins with a creepy movie sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the game. You see a woman, Annie Sullivan, on her wedding day talking to a mysterious man with a low, menacing voice. They appear to have made some sort of deal (could it be “The Arrangement”?) and the mysterious man tells her to “go and enjoy her life.” Another short sequence shows Annie marrying her husband, Rick Sullivan, before the introduction skips five years into the future and places the gamer into Rick’s shoes. Rick soon returns home from work to find his wife Annie missing and a ringing cell phone in her place. According to the kidnapper, who calls himself “Fortrey,” Annie went away with him willingly. Fortrey offers Rick one chance to see his lawfully-wedded wife again by challenging him with a series of puzzles. The Arrangement follows Rick’s quest to find his wife and figure out the truth behind her kidnapping.
If you are intrigued by this description of the game’s introduction, you’re not alone. The plot of The Arrangement is fairly well-developed for a first-person adventure, especially at the beginning. Most gamers within the first thirty minutes will already have a myriad of questions. Who is Fortrey? Why did Annie leave Rick for a kidnapper? And what is this so-called “Arrangement”? To its credit, the game keeps the tension high regarding these questions for the majority of the game, only falling flat in the final moments. As a gamer you are compelled to find out what the big conspiracy is-- could Rick’s life really have been pre-arranged?
Being strictly mouse-controlled, the interface of The Arrangement is simple. You maneuver through rooms by moving the mouse to the side of the screen until the cursor changes to a directional pointer. The game also incorporates traditional inventory management through a drop-down menu in the upper-left hand side of the screen. Each inventory item has a close-up view, but this feature hardly matters in terms of gameplay, as there is no way to combine or manipulate individual items. The Arrangement is no King’s Quest VII; if you find a coffee cup, there won’t be a seed hidden inside of it. While I appreciated the inclusion of an inventory system, I found it to be a lackluster implementation at best. Most of the items in the game are one-dimensional and serve as little more than simple puzzle components or ways to gain access to locked doors.
The graphics in the game are a series of hits and misses. In particular, the pre-rendered CGI backgrounds are quite beautiful, comparable in style to that of Lighthouse and the original Myst. There are hundreds of these pre-rendered scenes in the game (which is probably why it has such a long 7-minute installation). Given the independent development, I was impressed with the quality of the backgrounds, but at the same time I was disappointed with the quality of the other visuals in the game. Most of the human beings you meet look pretty, well, un-human. Although it is within any artist’s creative vision to develop a unique interpretation of what a person can look like, the androgynous character design in this game really bothered me. When I watched the introduction movie for the first time, I had to do a double-take before I realized that Annie was the bride rather than the groom. In nearly every scene with human characters, the crude character design clashes with the clean, hand-crafted backgrounds.
Most of the animation in the game also leaves something to be desired. Though various fading effects cover the bulk of the work, motion in movie sequences is blocky, resembling amateur stop-motion animation. Also, when speaking to other characters, the mouth movement is puppet-like with very little expression or lip-sync. For a game with such beautiful CGI visuals, the crude animation is simply out of place.
There are also some visual anomalies in the game. Sometimes your mouse will “garble” and a box of floating, disembodied pixels will hang around your cursor until you shake them off. There also some compression artifacts during animated sequences that can be quite jarring. I even encountered several “Script Error” bugs. Although it has been confirmed after writing to Michael Clark that these bugs will have no effect on completing the game, as a reviewer I am uncomfortable ignoring such errors. If you play The Arrangement, remember to save frequently and use different slots. Caution never hurt anyone, especially in the case of script errors.
As any seasoned adventure gamer knows, the strength of a first-person adventure like The Arrangement generally lies in its puzzles. They occur everywhere in the game, almost haphazardly, and are a decent mix of originality and cliché (Right. No one’s heard of “The Puzzle Hall” before…). I particularly liked one of the puzzles that manipulated the layout of a room towards the end of the game. At the same time, some of the puzzles seem a bit fantastic given the semi-realistic setting. Is Rick’s quest real, surreal, both or neither? While certain challenges take place in self-contained Virtual Reality worlds, inventory objects can pass in and out of these seemingly “virtual” worlds. Although it would be easy to label the conflicted variety of puzzles as artistic interpretation, a few of them are definitely out of place, especially a sequence with real-life trivia questions. While the game’s conclusion does what it can to tie some of the nonsensical puzzles together, it is ultimately a poor Band-Aid on what is otherwise hit and miss puzzle design.
The Arrangement took me about ten hours to complete, although I spent at least half of them devoted to the time-honored frustration of pixel-hunting. While the difficulty level of the puzzles is not high, finding the proper items and correct places to click is a pain. Without the benefit of a walkthrough, I frequently stumbled about aimlessly, thumbing my cursor over screens I’d seen hundreds of times. With diagonal movement rarely used, it’s even possible to miss entire rooms. The Arrangement suffers from the classic adventure problem of having too much to look at and too little to interact with. Without a walkthrough, expect a great deal of time pixel-hunting.
One of the few excellent features in The Arrangement has to be its creepy atmosphere. This is due much in part to the amazing score in the game which I fear will be overlooked by critics who are turned away by the graphics or gameplay. Easily better than the majority of budget adventure titles, the background music is listless and haunting, perfectly matching the story’s themes of mystery and loss. Christopher Brendel deserves credit for his amazing work on the score and I hope that he continues to provide music for other adventures. Also, John Bell, the voice actor who plays the antagonistic Fortrey, is easily one of the game’s strongest assets. When you hear Fortrey speak over the cell phone at the beginning of the game, you can tell his character is absolutely mad. Bell’s inflection is spot-on for an adventure game voiceover and makes Fortrey a gruesome pleasure to listen to. Although he can be a little over-the-top, I still loved Bell’s performance and hope he continues to do work for other adventures as well.
The other voice work in The Arrangement is, unfortunately, pretty mediocre. I was particularly dismayed with the voice of Annie Sullivan, who sounds distant and unemotional. With such restrained voice acting, it is difficult to feel the emotional weight of her possible betrayal of her husband. There were even points in some of Annie’s voiceovers where I noticed distinct aural compression in the background, whereas with Mr. Bell’s performances I noticed no distortion at all.
I think it’s interesting to note that better testing and quality assurance could have prevented a lot of these problems from occurring in the first place. The inhibited voice recordings and script errors could have easily been reworked with a few more rounds of QA. For example, as part of trivia puzzle I was asked the following question:
50 – 5 x 2
The correct answer, 40, is not in the multiple choice list of solutions. The in-game answer is 90, effectively ignoring standard mathematics and the Order of Operations. This miniscule error shattered the fourth wall for me and made the game much less enjoyable to play. To put it objectively, with such a plethora of minor errors, The Arrangement exudes a lack of polish that does it more harm than it deserves.
My final issue with the game is perhaps where I felt the most betrayed: the ending. Without spoiling it, I must say that as both a consumer and a lover of quality writing I felt used. The ending uses a certain plot device that has gained notorious status in both film and television for cheapening the plots it frames. I was extremely let down by the ending, which seems to choose an arbitrary deus ex machina over a proper resolution to the questions raised at the beginning of the game. It’s a pity, too, as the majority of the story is rather compelling. It is disappointing to see it all resolved with such an unsatisfying conclusion.
So what is my final impression of The Arrangement? I believe that it would have been an excellent shareware adventure game. At the $20 the game is currently retailing at, I find it hard to justify purchasing for only five or so hours of gameplay. The Arrangement suffers greatly when competing against the quality of adventures produced by larger companies. Although it is possible to overlook the somewhat pre-dated graphics, poor elements in both plot and puzzle design taint what could otherwise have been an excellent game. With its short length and $20 price point, I simply cannot recommend The Arrangement. Hopefully Michael C. Clark will continue to produce adventures, as this title shows lots of potential for more polished releases in the future.