Ahead of it's time: Under a Killing Moon
Adventure games, despite the deceased status everyone seems so keen on attributing it, have found a new lease on life in the form of various DS games looking for a use for the stylus besides ear scratcher and thanks to the re-birth of Sam and Max on Steam. This, of course, opens the floodgates for us old timers to wax poetically to the unwashed ruffians who are just discovering the genre via phoenix wright about It's history.
It seems, though, that the same players and faces keep popping into the conversations when discussing the adventure game. Any number of SCUMM games by Lucasarts and the Sierra brand text based adventures, especially those created by the talented roberta williams, are usually the opening shots in these strolls down memory lane. Maniac Mansion and Full Throttle have been discussed ad nauseum along side the parade of King's Quest games, with a mention shouted to our affable Leisure Suit Larry if the discussion allows for divergences.
Now, I'm not saying that these games are undeserving of the discussion, on the contrary I believe that there is a very good reason that these games are always, always, always discussed when talking about the adventure genre. These games are classics and most, in their times, were sizable hits for the companies, meaning they were played by large masses. Due to the glut of adventure titles, however, it always saddens me that a few key favorites are ignored or forgotten in favor of the umpteenth discussion about how Myst was the death of the genre.
Under A Killing Moon was one of the first games my family had purchased for our brand new, full VGA Packard Bell PC (our first windows machine, following on the heels of a monochrome dos box) and was the first game I had ever played off of a cd rom. It was not my first adventure game, that honor goes to Kings Quest 4: The perils or Rosella (played on said monochrome Dos Box...and dammit even I couldn't go a whole article without mentioning one of those games!)
I played most of the larry games through copies friends had passed along to us and even played a pre-cursor to Trauma Center know as Life and Death, where I could never get past performing an appendectomy without killing my patient. But when I booted up that first CD of UAKM, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The game was the third installment in the Tex murphy series, following the exploits of a hard boiled detective in a futuristic San Francisco. Tex himself plays out like a living, breathing anachronism, the definition of a man out of his own time. Like all great detective stories this one starts out with a simple case of robbery and slowly piles on the clues to give us a truly staggering plot involving a group bent on mass genocide. It follows the form set down by greats like Hammet and Chandler to a tee, which coincidentally lends itself perfectly to being translated in the form of a video games. Just as the stakes grow higher for our hapless detective, the levels and puzzles grow in complexity.
The story itself plays out in FMV sequences which are probably the singles shining example of where they are not a horrible idea. In fact, the FMV sequences still stand up today in terms of both production values and acting. This is due in large part to the work of Chris Jones, acting in the titular role as well as being co-creator and writer for the series. The dialog is witty and well thought out, feeling more like a novel or a movie than usual. Having Margot Kidder and James Earl Jones in the cast doesn't hurt either.
The entire script is just a great piece of work that spins it's own post apocalyptic universe populated with memorable characters and events. To this day, because of a character named Beak Nariz, I will always remember that nariz is Spanish for nose (especially usefull since I was in junior high at the time)
The adventuring sections are handled in an interesting manner that tried to reconcile 3D environments and gameplay that was native to a 2D space. You would move around in full 3D using the mouse, and when you hit the space bar it would toggle to the “adventure game” screen we were used to (inventory, parser, etc...) making you immobile while you used the mouse to search the area. The best way to think of it is as a Proto-Hotel Dusk, but with FMV instead of sketchy character art.
Searching was made less tedious than normal for a few reasons, the foremost being that no matter what was in an environment you would be able to click on it and get a smart ass comment from Tex, with few being reused as the game went on. Another reason for the lack of frustration with the adventuring elements was that the game made it a priority to make sure that you could not get permenantly stuck. There was no way of advancing past an obscure piece of background only to need it hours later to complete the game. Instead the designers made it so that you could not clear blocks of the game without finding certain things in that same block of gameplay, so it almost plays as if there are levels. It was one of the few glorious exceptions in an adventure game where you could say with absolute confidence “the answer is here, I just need to find it.”
The puzzles themselves were also blessedly well thought out without having to resort to most of the tired adventure game annoyances like the pixel hunt. Most puzzles were either actual puzzles, word puzzles or just clever riddles. My mother and father also played the game, and we would sometimes trade info if we were particularly stuck. Between the three of us there was not one puzzle that we couldn't figure out on our own, usually with the other two saying “oh, I should have thought of that.”
On top of all this, the conversation system was light years ahead, using vauge multiple choice options that would only hint at the actual dialog Tex would speak. In this way it is very much like the lauded conversation system in the recent release Mass Effect.
Unfortunately, it was a game ahead of it's time, and the ancient 3D texturing couldn't compete with the static drawn beauty of adventure games like Myst or hang with the excitement of the coming wave of FPS'. Which is really unfortunate, since this is a game that had two great sequels (one of which has an awesome Richie Havens song written especially for the end credits) and deserves new installments. Here's hoping that someone finally gets around to making the moie version that was pitched with Punky Brewster attached to star...or, er... maybe not. Anyhow, for now find an old copy (and an old pc since the old quicktime movie codecs do not play well with modern emulation on xp) or just play Hotel Dusk and rename your character Tex.