The player takes the role of an independent investigator sifting through photographs and documents in an attempt to locate the captured world leaders. Information is divided clearly under sections likes "documents" and "dossiers," and can be accessed at any time. When the player believes they have a lead, they can direct a field agent to investigate a specific person or location.
As was typical with games of this era, a number of physical props (" feelies
") were included, the most important of which was an actual audio cassette with case-related recordings and clues on it.
On June 6th, 1996, U.S. President Robert Matton invites the leaders of ten major countries to a secret summit on world terrorism at a royal castle in Lichtenstein. During the meeting, three helicopters using correct identification codes enter the castle's airspace and fire upon the ground security crew. Under the cover of a nerve gas, armed men exit the helicopters, capture the VIPs, and re-board the helicopters to escape over the border. Radar loses their track somewhere over the Adriatic Sea.
No group takes responsibility for the attack, but a list of impossible ransom demands soon arrives anonymously, along with photos of Matton in captivity, and statements from some of the captives. These audio recordings, along with suspicious communications traffic from the area of the kidnapping are complied onto a cassette tape, and included with the evidence.
The game takes place entirely through the "S.I.S" interface, replicating an access terminal to the government database allocated to the investigation. Players are even required to set up an account on the database and log in at the start of each gameplay session. The game silently updates the player's profile with their progress in real-time, so actions cannot be undone. Players are thus encouraged to run the game off a copy of the floppy disc instead of the original.
The interface is divided into sections for Dossiers, Documents, and Photographs. Appropriate information related to the case is filed in each category. Documents and photographs are simply listed out, but dossiers can be searched by criteria such as name, organization, or physical features. Photographs can be viewed with informative captions, and the player can also zoom into them and search for fine details. Two side sections of the database are a listing of sections on the included audio cassette, and a "special access" section. This section will unlock top secret memos using passwords found during the investigation.
Players cannot leave the confines of the S.I.S., and instead will direct field agents to interact with the game world. The player has eight agents at their disposal, and orders them through the Communications section of the interface. The player must manually type in extremely specific targets for the agent to investigate - generally either in a "city, country" or "last name, first name" format. Agents usually perform a passive investigation of the target. The player can also send similar (or identical) targets to the State Department in the same Communications section. The State Department will conduct a more official investigation, searching, arresting or interrogating subjects as needed.
The final section is Cryptographics. Throughout the game, agents will discover documents with coded messages. The player can retype these into various tools in the cryptographics section and attempt to decode them. Codes are simple transpositions, replacing one letter with another a consistent number down the alphabet (called the "Enigma Machine" in the game), or filling a consistent number of spaces between letters with junk characters. Cryptographics runs these basic algorithms on whatever is typed in the input field, with no guarantee of results.
Also in the Cryptographics section is a Morse code decoder. This is used with the audio cassette packaged with the game. The player is expected to listen to Morse code "intercepted" during transmission, or surreptitiously tapped out by one of the captives. The Morse code section is intended to assist with decoding, by allowing the player to use the right shift key as a telegraph switch.
One very important note is that the player must wait one real-time hour to get a reply from any of their agents. The player must leave the game running for an hour, with no time shortcuts available, for every response. Part of this can be mitigated by staggering all eight agents, but it will still require a fair amount of sitting around and waiting. Likewise, the player can send the text codes (not the Morse codes) to another agency to analyze. These take four hours to return a reply.
Ending the Game
In keeping with the alternate-reality theme, there is no actual ending contained within the game. Players were expected to compile their findings into a "prosecutorial summary," with guidance for formatting and specific questions to answer laid out in an included document. Players would then mail this summary directly to the developer and await a response.
As Cosmi no longer exists as a developer, The President is Missing
is essentially unbeatable from a modern viewpoint. Clues and threads dead-end at the point they are unraveled, meaning that guilty parties cannot be found or interrogated, specific aspects cannot be directly investigated, and no amount of evidence against a suspect can be presented to elicit a confession. All of this information is designed to be complied into the summary and mailed to Cosmi, not confirmed within the game. The game itself merely acts as a database for the story to be told, and conclusions to be drawn.
Because the game itself contains no conclusions, it is equally impossible to write a walkthrough, or offer a definitive solution guide. Enthusiasts have offered their best guess
, but without developer confirmation, such speculation is the closest ending the game now has.
Differences Between Versions
The PC and Commodore 64 versions are basically text adventures, with simple menus driven by arrow and function keys. Photos in these versions have outrageously exaggerated details to make up for a lack of resolution. The Amiga and Atari ST versions are improved graphically, and use a more point-and-click oriented interface. Functions are essentially identical across all versions, though the Amiga includes the ability to type, store, and retrieve your own case notes within the game.
Small details, such as the spelling of a suspect's name or the numerical order of an address, also change between the major versions. It is unclear if these are mistakes revised in later releases, or introduced in the newer versions.