Adventures in Storytelling: The Detail, Grail to the Thief
Just as gamers come in all different shapes, sizes, interests and abilities, so do developers and the games they create. From a gritty, graphic novel-style detective mystery to a lighthearted audio-only text romp through King Arthur's England, no two games more clearly demonstrate just how different interactive storytelling experiences can be than The Detail and Grail to the Thief. Neither game has much in the way of puzzles, each placing the focus squarely on their respective stories, but the way they're told couldn't be any further apart. The devil is in the details.
Finnish developer Rival Games has arrived on the adventure scene with no shortage of ambition. They claim the episodic series they are creating is nothing less than a “new form of entertainment,” aiming to take the dramatic execution of the best television serials and marry it with a graphic novel style of choice-based adventure design. And just in case you had any trouble connecting the dots as to the audacity of their boast, the marketing materials for The Detail spell it right out: This game is “where Telltale’s The Walking Dead meets HBO’s The Wire.” It doesn’t get much grander than that—merging a modern genre-defining adventure game with the storytelling chops of possibly the greatest modern TV drama? How can you go wrong?
On the first front—the emotionally charged, morally ambiguous police drama storytelling of The Wire—the first episode, bleakly subtitled Where the Dead Lie, is moderately successful. The game pulls no punches right off the bat, beginning with a police raid on the apartment of a sexual predator and the subsequent violent confrontation. This sequence introduces us to the first of two main characters: aging, hard-boiled detective Reggie Moore, who owes his personality (and his receding hairline look) to Dennis Franz’s immortal Detective Andy Sipowicz.
After Detective Moore and his partner investigate the scene of an apparent mugging that has gone horribly wrong, the game transitions to the perspective of the other player-character. Joe Miller is a former crook who is attempting to turn his life around and raise a young daughter, but is continually forced back into “the life” by the police to utilize his skills and contacts to assist in investigations.
The dialogue can be pretty hammy, with the relentless cynicism and authority-griping of the twice-divorced Detective Moore being lifted straight out of mainstream 1980s cop dramas. It’s not exactly the grey ambiguity that made shows like The Wire or The Shield so consistently emotionally wrenching, but it’s competently written and ends with a brutally noir-ish cliffhanger as the events of the episode converge on Joe Miller’s personal life.
The half of the equation that really doesn’t live up to the advance billing is the comparisons to The Walking Dead, because The Detail generally fails to offer meaningful narrative choices. In fact, I feel like I’m straining to even classify this as a choice-based adventure. Within the episode’s 90-minute playtime, there are some clearly Telltale-inspired moments of decision-making within confrontations, but the actual story branches are not natural. When the story does split in a potentially meaningful way, the overly simplistic interface offers not much more than a two-option pop-up menu. One example late in the game involves clicking one of two doors to decide which bad guy you’ll follow in pursuit. This is not exactly a subtle, morally dubious choice; it’s more a coin-flip—and ultimately a useless one at that, as the game itself chose to go down the opposite stair from what I clicked on anyway.
In the few exploration scenes between lengthy cutscenes and dialogue sequences, The Detail functions as a traditional point-and-click—albeit with zero inventory interaction or puzzles. The character-switching has no real impact on the gameplay, but as Detective Moore there are a couple moments of minor detective work when your character has gathered enough information from evidence to draw conclusions as to how to proceed. These require almost no mental exertion other than being careful to click all available hotspots, however. In fact, though it is built on a familiar screen-to-screen adventure engine, Where the Dead Lie uses its traditional adventure scenes primarily as a bridge between its comic-stylized cutscenes, which are clearly the focus point.
The desire to create a “graphic novel style” experience extends to the technical decisions as well. The game features no voice acting at all, nor any real sound effects. Instead, many effects are represented by over-sized verbal representations such as “CRACK!” in true retro comic style. The atmospheric music score is one of the game’s strong points, but the lack of voice acting is jarring in a game where the emotion of the dialogue is so essential.
The frequent close-ups and cutscenes make use of a very strange and disjointed animation style. Multiple scenes are drawn in stark black and white silhouettes that use large sprites sliding across the screen as “animation.” This is a reasonable low-budget solution that places the emphasis on dialogue and story, but other graphical elements are mediocre at best. Though there are some interesting visual effects using rain and shadows, the hand-painted backgrounds are bland and seem to be deliberately drawn in a muddy, less detailed style. In the exploration scenes, the walking animation is really awful, as the characters often seem to slide across the screen much faster than their walking legs should be taking them.
An aesthetic that emphasizes storytelling and dialogue isn’t a bad idea in itself, but Where the Dead Lie unfortunately doesn’t have the dialogue depth so far to transcend cop-and-bad-guy clichés. Really it couldn’t accurately be described as an adventure in any case—its strict adherence to a single narrative thread, with minor short-term deviations along the way and a style that feels more like a distantly read Choose Your Own Adventure book than an organic player-controlled story, make this more accurately categorized as interactive fiction than a real game. The Detail is a story with some potential, but quite a bit of polish will be necessary in future installments to reach the heights of either of its stated influences.
Grail to the Thief
Video games of all types have a few denominators common across all genres. They all tell some form of a story, however tenuous, and typically do so by way of graphical representations, sound cues, and gameplay input by the player in response to the game’s changing conditions. Born out of a desire to provide access to the interactive medium to a demographic that is typically excluded from it – those with visual impairments – Grail to the Thief resembles a digital “Choose Your Own Adventure” book rather than a game as we traditionally know it. It’s a noble cause, but not all of its shortcomings are acceptable just because of the market segment it’s appealing to.
Grail to the Thief is the first chapter in a proposed longer tale about professional thief and low-life Hank Krang, who has managed to get a hold of a TEDI (Time Excursion Digital Interface), a talking time machine. True to form, his first impulse is to use it for his own ill intentions, and so he takes quick jaunts through time to procure famous (and valuable) historic artifacts, starting with the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.
TEDI takes on the role of unwitting accomplice, and his commentary on Hank’s actions is at all times dripping with sarcasm and contempt for Hank’s actions. I suppose Hank is meant to be the comic center of this tale – the bungling burglar who succeeds despite himself – though it is hard to truly root for him. His exploits are not only unfunny, but he lacks that all-important lovable quality that should shine through from time to time. Instead, he’s just plain unfriendly.
From the moment you boot it up, the entire game is narrated for you, including the main menu and the post-game credit sequence! With the press of a key, the story audio, action choices, or both can be repeated aloud at will. The actors bringing the cast of characters to life, while not great, are certainly passable, and atmospheric sound effects like crowds buzzing in the marketplace, doors opening, and the crunch of gravel underfoot help make the world feel a little more real. Unfortunately, the narrator, in an effort to be as neutral as possible when presenting players with choices, sounds horribly forced and robotic. Musical accompaniment only makes brief appearances, generally whenever a location or action calls for it (like when performing a jester’s dance for the king).
I tried turning off the accompanying on-screen text a few times while playing to make the game a purely aural experience, as originally intended. Ironically, this game designed for the visually challenged wouldn’t let me play for long without any visual cues whatsoever; once text was turned off, I was able to choose my next action to proceed one screen further, but would get no response when attempting to make another choice on the following screen, unless I either toggled the text on and off again, or simply left it on altogether. This must be a glitch rather than a design decision, but it’s imperative that it be corrected quickly.
With a bare-bones graphical interface even for those with full vision, gameplay is reduced to listening to a few moments of story narration, at the end of which you’ll be presented with options like: (1) examine room, (2) strike the king, (3) rescue maiden, or (4) bark like a dog. You choose an option by pressing its corresponding number key or right-clicking on it, and thus the story unfolds. Without an actual inventory system, the “puzzles” unfold in a more straightforward manner: If I got myself into a situation where a specific item was necessary to proceed but I hadn’t yet acquired it, I was given the option to go elsewhere for the time being. Then I could simply come back later with the item in question, which would be used automatically. The game did a good job keeping track of things I’d already done, and never gave me erroneous choices when I revisited locations I’d been to before. (Completed areas are closed off and can no longer be navigated to after leaving them.)
That all sounds reasonable, but a narrated story with frequent expositional forks in the road can be judged solely on the appeal of its plot, and how well it moves past the realm of “book on tape” and into “interactive experience”. This is where Grail to the Thief loses credibility as an actual “game”.
The story itself is based on an entertaining premise, being that of a time-traveling bandit who robs the Who’s Who of historia of their most prized artifacts and possessions. Its execution, however, is somewhat flawed. You are quickly introduced to the king, who seems to have very few suspicions about your interest in the Grail; in fact, he runs down a short checklist of requirements one must meet to even lay eyes on his treasure. One and all, these feats consist of standard fare such as “slay a menacing beast”, “rescue a child in danger”, and “help a damsel in distress”. Ticking down this list actually comprises the entirety of the game’s objectives. Simplifying things even further, there are only four or five actual locations to visit in Camelot to complete your quests, with no room built in for side missions, added content, or even simple exploration and background.
I breezed through the game a second time after completing it once (the initial run-through took less than an hour), and my second playthrough confirmed what I started suspecting during the first: there is no way to fail in this brief tale, and the story plays out the same regardless of the decisions you make or the order in which you complete objectives. The story is very linear and is designed to lead Hank and TEDI on a direct course to the Holy Grail. Only once did it seem like I had any input over where to go and what to do to complete the quest. However, even this was false advertising, as all available paths have to be completed in order to finish the game, and they play out the same way each time you progress through them.
Just for fun, the second time through I purposely picked all the “bad” choices offered to me: insult the king, pick fights, tell everyone of my plans to steal the Grail, and just generally act like a jackass. The result was no different, other than perhaps some slightly altered lines of dialog. I couldn’t do wrong even when I tried, and I accomplished all my goals despite my best efforts to fail miserably. The illusion of actually choosing my own path through this adventure had well and truly gone up in smoke.
In that respect, even as an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure, Grail to the Thief would clock in as subpar. With no consequences or ways to fail, there are many better options available out there. Considering that it is meant for an impaired audience, the bare-bones presentation can certainly be overlooked, but the brevity of the whole experience, the unlikable protagonist, and a faulty implementation that forced me to have text displayed on-screen at all times would still give me too much pause to recommend this title with any enthusiasm. It’s commendable that adventures are now being made for the blind, but the search for the Holy Grail of audio games doesn’t end here.