I was going to be the last true holdout; the only person on Earth to never get a cell phone. There was just no point. The only people I'd give the number to are those who already know I don't want to hear from them while I'm standing in line at the bank, driving through traffic, or eating at a restaurant, let alone trying to get some work done. Sure, I realize it has some "emergency use" value, but knowing my luck (read: foresight), my phone would run out of power right when I needed it, so it's not worth the 642 months of paid minutes needed to reach that momentous occasion. So why bother? I mean, it's not like they make games for phones or anything...
Or so I thought -- but yes they do. In fact, some pretty darn good ones, I was told, and adventure games to boot. This dawning realization had trouble written all over it. The more I thought about it, the more I heard the siren call of mobile gaming (or maybe that was the "Flight of the Bumblebee" ringtone).
Fast forward (really, REALLY fast) through much sheepish, crow-eating backpedalling, and I was dutifully armed with a XXXX (product placement pending) cell phone with a spiffy graphic display. But where to find games? Mobile phone titles aren't physical products like other types of games, so the standard store browsing and web surfing just weren't going to cut it. Fortunately, I didn't have far to look, as one of the better current storytelling developers has already established itself in the world of mobile gaming.
German studio House of Tales, better known for its full-length PC adventures The Mystery of the Druids and The Moment of Silence, offers four Java-compatible mobile adventure games, available for purchase directly from their website. Developed in collaboration with elkware GmbH, who supplied the graphics, House of Tales wrote and designed these games almost two years ago, promising to provide "the growing ranks of games enthusiasts who love stories with the ultimate in mobile entertainment fun." When I read this, I knew I'd struck paydirt, as that description definitely sounded like me (the "game enthusiast who loves stories", not the "growing rank", I mean). Still, while I didn't doubt the pedigree behind the claim, I couldn't shake my skepticism of the cell phone as an effective adventure game platform. Even at its best, would the "ultimate in mobile entertainment fun" be enough? That I was about to put to the test.
Deciding which game should provide my inaugural phone experience was more difficult than I thought. Would I explore outer space in the futuristic science fiction thriller The Black Hole, travel the world to unravel the ancient mystery of crop circles in Secret of the Lost Link, amuse myself with a light-hearted romp in The Paper Menace, or investigate murder and mystery with Mulder and Scully in The X-Files: The Deserter? Ahh, who was I kidding... I intended to play them all!
Priced affordably at 4.99 Euros (approximately $6.50 U.S.) per game, each title weighs in at less than 64k of memory, making them accessible to a wide range of phones, all conveniently listed on the site's product pages. For anyone worried that their aging, brick-sized phone might not have what it takes to run the games at full capacity, rest assured that various ports have been scaled down in graphics and, in rare cases, some gameplay elements to accommodate even older models. However, many current phones should be able to run the complete versions easily. A fairly basic rule of thumb is, if your phone is small enough to lose repeatedly, it's new enough to play the House of Tales titles.
Ordering and installing couldn't be easier, as once you've selected the proper phone type online, an sms (text message) is sent with a link to download the game. The whole process is painless and virtually foolproof (and I should know, being the poster child for mobile technology ignorance). Providing your phone supports GPRS data transfer, you'll be good to go before you know it. And I mean "to go" literally -- hey, they don't call it mobile gaming for nothing!
Before moving on to the specifics of each title, I'll offer an overview of their shared characteristics. The stories are radically different from game to game, but the interface, format, and gameplay are almost identical in each. The screen is divided in half (top and bottom) between graphic display and text area. There is no cursor, as all tasks are completely menu-driven through a set of icons located between the two areas, which are navigated through your touch pad's directional button(s). These menus include Look, Use, Take, Walk, Talk, and Inventory, and are context sensitive, so you'll only be able to access the commands you can use at any given time. While this may sound like it oversimplifies gameplay, really it's an effective streamlining process, eliminating the repetitive "try everything on everything" philosophy that plagues larger games. There is typically enough to try in any given scene so that you won't feel cheated by the limitations (unless tedious busywork is your idea of a good time, of course). The menus can be a little tricky to maneuver through, as cell phones aren't exactly the most conducive devices for a lot of button mashing (even the gentle "mashing" of an adventure), but this is a minor inconvenience that you'll quickly adjust to after the smallest of learning curves. All in all, the interface is lean, practical, and completely intuitive.
The graphic display may be what attracts the most attention, but really it's the least relevant part of the game -- which is good, because by current standards, even in the mobile market, the graphics are undeniably dated. While certainly clean and pleasant enough to look at, the first-person images are really no more functional than they are visually impressive (which is to say "not very"). The graphics are essentially window dressing; a supplement to break the monotony of pure text. Except for a very few instances (mostly involving real-time events onscreen that you can't miss anyway), you won't be scouring the screen for visual clues, as you'll be spending the vast majority of your time reading descriptions and dialogue, and negotiating the various menus. In many ways, these games remind me of older PC titles like Legend Entertainment's Eric the Unready and the Gateway series, which helped bridge the gap between text games and full graphic adventures years ago. And you know what? It still works, and in some ways is preferable to the tech-heavy but charm-lite reality of graphically superior games. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words are often far more engaging, even if a few too many are spelled wrong along the way. The longer I played, the less I remembered to look at the visual image at all, as it was the story compelling me, and the menus driving my experience.
Wait... small correction on what I said above. The least relevant part of this game series is the audio component. In fact, the less said about sound the better. The rare, sporadic effects are fine, but you won't want to be in public when the introductory music starts up. Fortunately, it doesn't last long, but you may still find yourself running for the "sound off" option before those around you start sounding off on you. As there is no spoken dialogue in any of the games, you really won't be missing much.
Gameplay itself consists of traditional genre elements: exploring anywhere from 20-25 locations, searching for clues, chatting up anyone who will give you the time of day, and of course, pocketing anything that isn't immobile. At any one time, you may have four or five locations available, but overall progress is fairly linear, which (wisely) helps keep the narrative focused. Puzzles are largely inventory-based, and sometimes surprisingly deep, requiring multiple items and combinations to succeed. More importantly, these puzzles are logical and organic challenges, feeling integral to the story rather than arbitrary progress obstacles. And make no mistake, these games are all about story. Would you expect anything else from a developer named House of Tales? Clocking in at roughly two hours of playtime per title, the restrictions of the platform mean that the games aren't nearly as comprehensive as their PC counterparts, but with lively plots and smart writing, each of these mobile adventures packs a whopping amount of story into a small package. So let's at last take a closer look at the individual stories and game details.Continued on the next page...