A mile and a half off the San Francisco coast, the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island pulses through the fog. This is still true today, even though the famously escape-proof federal prison shut down in 1963. Also known as The Rock, Alcatraz is an iconic landmark open to tourists who can explore the abandoned penitentiary and its surrounding grounds with far more freedom than the inmates who once lived within its walls—and now, thanks to German developer Daedalic and Bay Area-based Irresponsible Games, adventure gamers can make the trip, too.
Set on Alcatraz Island and San Francisco beyond, 1954: Alcatraz follows convicted felon Joe’s attempt to escape while his beatnik wife Christine makes plans to skip town to Mexico. It’s an imaginative premise—certainly one we haven’t seen before in an adventure game—and it’s clear that local designer Gene Mocsy has carefully researched the setting and time period for authenticity. After my meeting with Mocsy at last year’s Game Developer’s Conference, this is a game I really wanted to like, but unfortunately there are too many flaws and unrealized opportunities holding it back.
We learn during the opening credits that a botched armored truck heist, followed by an attempt to escape the medium-security Leavenworth, landed Joe on The Rock. This credits sequence is the first tip-off to 1954: Alcatraz’s disappointing production values: rather than a cinematic or even a sequence of stills consistent with the game’s colorful cartoon art style, it’s presented in a series of freehand black-and-white sketches so sloppy I mistook them for placeholder art. The jarring style makes the underlying events hard to understand and gives a poor first impression. Fortunately this art style doesn’t appear again in the game, which makes me wonder if more ambitious plans for the opening were scrapped at some point during development.
The game begins in Joe’s cell on the day of his wife’s monthly visit. A quick tutorial acquaints us with the controls—basic point-and-click, with the inventory accessed with the mouse wheel or by moving the cursor to the left of the screen. After a quick look around the cell Joe is summoned to roll call, where he quickly makes his intentions known to the old-timer in line behind him: he has to get off this rock.
Graphically, 1954: Alcatraz meshes 3D characters with 2D backgrounds, with underwhelming results. The cartoon style is reminiscent of Runaway and many of the exterior locations have breathtaking use of color—especially real locations like the Alcatraz ferry pier at sunset and the Golden Gate Bridge at night. Some interiors are cluttered and fun to poke around in, like Christine’s messy apartment. Others, such as a police interrogation room, are much simpler, though at least there the lighting and camera angle puts a noir spin on a relatively minimalist space. Taking the noir influence even further, a “1954 Mode” accessible from the settings menu applies a sepia-toned filter over the graphics—totally unnecessary, but a fun option. Hotspots are easily identified by pressing the space bar (which proves handy, since some are quite small or slightly off to the side of the items they represent), and though these are not ridiculously abundant, the game generally provides a handful of areas to look at or interact with per screen.
While the background art has a cohesive style that made me feel like I’d entered a particular world, the 3D characters are all over the place: clunky, inconsistent, and awkwardly animated. The stylish, cinch-waisted Christine is all out of proportion with her oafish husband Joe, who lumbers around like he has rocks in his shoes. For the most part, the women are consistently curvy and cute, while the male characters are awkward with huge heads or hands and slow, painful walk animations. The characters don’t look like they belong in the same world depicted by the backgrounds, which doesn’t directly impact the story or gameplay but may make it difficult to lose yourself in the world. At least they're all capably voice acted—some performances better than others, but none so off-base as to be too distracting.
Both Joe and Christine are playable characters, and once she appears in a few scenes, you can switch between them whenever you want by selecting the character’s portrait on the inventory screen. Because Joe’s locked up and Christine uses up her monthly visit in the first five minutes, they act independently for most of the game, with only a few late puzzles involving communication through a liaison. I liked this structure—from a storytelling standpoint, knowing they’re so close and yet so far from each other amplifies the isolation of their situations; and practically it means you can change characters if a puzzle has you stuck.
Each protagonist has an ultimate goal to work toward: Joe wants to escape, and Christine needs to get the mob, which is looking for the money Joe made off with in the heist, off her back. This set-up is good as a starting point, but sadly the story doesn’t develop. Joe’s situation never goes from being a pipe dream to a matter of life or death—he seems to want to escape from prison simply because when you’re a convict in Alcatraz, you want to escape from prison. Likewise, Christine is dodging a gangster who says he’ll kill her in a month if she doesn’t pay up, but even after multiple repetitions of this fact I didn’t feel her fear or a true sense of urgency driving her actions. (The month-long timeframe is irrelevant, since the entire game takes place over a day or two—why not raise the stakes by having the mob threaten to kill her by Friday?) 1954: Alcatraz is approximately six hours long and the whole time you’re plodding along at the same pace, basically running errands around Alcatraz and San Francisco. There are a couple of turning points that, looking back, I think were supposed to heighten the drama, but at the time didn’t feel that way. Instead it’s all even-keeled, played in the same leisurely key and tempo.
In the mid-1950s, San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood was at the center of an artistic renaissance and home to beat writers and bohemian artists including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This is Christine’s playground, with a quick-travel map offering up a number of authentic locations like the Saints Peter and Paul Church, Washington Square Park, a Chinatown restaurant, a mafia-fronted nightclub modeled after the iconic Bimbo’s 365 Club, a bookstore reminiscent of North Beach’s City Lights, and the pier from which ferries run to and from Alcatraz. Christine has about ten main locations and a few one-offs to bounce around as you solve the puzzles in her portion of the game. Even though you only encounter the same few characters over and over, this reimagined San Francisco does feel animated and populated, with only the generic, Godfather-like mobsters seeming out of place.
Alcatraz is necessarily smaller and less diverse. When Joe gains special privileges allowing him to move around the grounds accompanied by a guard, the area opens up somewhat with a map of the island displaying places he can visit. But they’re still very samey, as you would expect in a prison—the institutional mess hall looks much like the institutional chapel and the institutional machine shop and the institutional laundry. The supporting characters are interchangeable prisoners dressed in the same blue uniforms. (Two exceptions, a transgender prisoner and a guard’s boozy wife, give the Alcatraz scenes some badly needed variety, but their involvement is minimal.) This homogeny is dictated by Joe’s situation, and it does provide a telling contrast to Christine’s colorful lifestyle, but it also makes the Alcatraz portions… well, kinda boring. One fellow prisoner does have a grudge against Joe—all along, he’s pretty clearly The Bad Guy—but the rest of the inmates peacefully coexist, standing around waiting for Joe to pump them for information. More focus on these people and more complex relationships between them and Joe could have been fascinating (think an interactive The Shawshank Redemption), but as it stands—with Joe’s story singularly focused on his escape and few believable obstacles tossed in his way—1954: Alcatraz is more like a CliffsNotes version of a prison escape story than the real deal.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of 1954: Alcatraz
Posted by Palemaze on May 8, 2014
Classic P&C in all its valour, but story is disaster
Just finished this game and I must say it was over a month of coming back and forth to it. Story is just a simple disaster. It hits everything - black/white couples, gay merriages, sailors shagging in San Francisco parks, priests and prisons and link to...