The Experiment (Amazon, Mighty Ape) comes from Lexis Numérique, a French developer. The name of the game (used for the US, Aussie, and NZ release) is oddly generic, and I wonder why it was chosen — especially since the original name was “eXperience112”, which has a much more interesting sound to it.
The game itself is essentially an adventure game; it’s inherently story-driven, shown from a third-person perspective, and is predominantly about solving environmental puzzles and exploring your surroundings. But there’s an interesting twist: you are not in direct control of the main character.
Things start out simply enough, with a nice opening cinematic setting up the basic environment (a seemingly abandoned and overgrown tanker on the shore, out in the middle of nowhere) and introducing the main character, Lea Nichols, lying asleep on a small bunk-style bed. As you watch, she wakes and expresses confusion about how she got there. She reads a letter left beside the bed and then stands. At this point you might normally expect to “gain control” and have her waiting for instructions of some kind. But no, she turns and addresses the camera, then wanders out of frame.
It’s at this point that you realise that “you” are not the main character in this story — instead you’re an unknown person in the security office, with access to the security cameras and networked systems on the tanker, but without any means of directly communicating with Lea (the cameras don’t have speakers). After a bit more exposition you’re introduced to your primary means of influencing what Lea does — switching lights on and off to draw her attention.
This is basically your interface to the game world. You have a floor-plan style map showing you where all the cameras and lights are, and can open up to three camera windows to view the world around Lea and follow what she is doing. In addition to this, you have access to the networked files and email of the crew members — at least once you’ve discovered what their passwords are. This setup lends a peculiar sense of realism to the game; after all, you’re sitting in front of a computer and operating a mouse and keyboard, and playing as a character who is (presumably) sitting in front of a computer and operating a mouse and keyboard.
This sense of realism is held up by some lovingly-crafted touches in the game. A great deal of the files and email you uncover are simple bickering or random commentary not really related to the task at hand; sometimes Lea gets an idea and runs off to carry it out (while refusing to be side-tracked, even if you might know better); and when you load a saved game Lea responds appropriately (for example, something along the lines of “I’ve been alone for a day! Why haven’t you been answering!”). The world itself is gritty and pretty much what you’d expect for an abandoned tanker; much of it is overgrown, there is flooding in places, and some of the cameras are either broken or dislodged, making it hard sometimes to get a look at things. (The camera upgrades you get during the course of the game let you compensate for some of these, letting even areas you’ve visited before show you something new.)
Where the realism falls a little flat is the way that you are kept strictly isolated; after all, you’d imagine that if you’ve got access to the network and mail system that you’d at least be able to send mail to people or to modify files. Lea herself has occasional access to the computer system (she writes documents and objectives for you to read later), so it seems a little odd that you can’t write back. (Understandable as a game limitation, of course.) It’s also just a little too convenient that the former inhabitants of the tanker have a game of finding out each others’ passwords; thereby leaving them lying around for you to find.
So, the general gameplay involves you leading Lea around by turning lights and gadgets on and off around her, looking around the world using the security cameras to try to find clues or decide where next to lead her, and perusing the network files and email to discover passwords, hints for what to do, and for security codes to unlock doors. This is definitely not a game for the twitchy action players; Lea’s movement speed is fairly slow, which can get a little frustrating when traversing large areas, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for or where you should be going, or if you’ve realised you forgot to get Lea to pick something up. You also often need to babysit her movement; she’ll happily move towards any flashing light in her line of sight (usually), but often the lights are positioned such that she can only see a small set of them nearby her, forcing you to flash them in a sequence.
The initial sections of the game have you exploring the tanker itself, trying to locate ingredients for some medicine to help Lea out (since she’s feeling a bit weak — although it’s never really explained why she seems to get restored by the drug, not weakened like many of the test subjects; nor why one of the staff is apparently used to being exposed to something that’s supposedly still highly experimental), and after that moving on to work out exactly what has been going on there, and what happened to everybody. This is, I think, the strongest part of the game. It’s a neat little mystery, the scenery is wonderful, and it all plays out quite well. There is a fair amount of going back and forth, though, and at times it’s easy to get stuck if you haven’t noticed something in one of the rooms. (Here the placement of the lights both helps and hinders gameplay and realism; since there’s usually a light nearby anything of interest, you can scrape through most areas by simply flashing every light you come across and waiting to see if Lea notices anything nearby. This doesn’t always work, though, since Lea will sometimes miss things the first time. Added realism, I guess.) There are a few problems — there’s a puzzle you decode to get someone’s password, but their actual password is different; fortunately it’s not hard to guess. Also you’re shown two different variations on another person’s username, but their actual username is a third variant. These mostly seem like translation issues (remember, it was originally a French game).
During this first section the game performed really well, too (at least on my machine). I played through most of this section with all three cameras open at medium size, which basically comfortably fills the screen. Unfortunately with the wider and more varied environments in the later sections of the game, things started chugging a bit and I often had to go back to only two camera views in order to keep up the frame rate. This was complicated a bit by the game’s desire to auto-open a third camera window occasionally to follow Lea’s movement, although this is an option you can disable if you want to. (And it sometimes picked the weirdest cameras to use, too.)
Once you get into the bowels of the ship, things start getting a bit harder to swallow — you get sent on an utterly pointless fetch quest; the super-top-secret security door you need to open clearly displays the sequence you need to use to open it (although that’s fortunate since it demands pixel-perfect accuracy in the solution); and there’s quite a bit of pixel-hunting involved in your search for a spark plug to repower a room.
After that, you make your way out of the ship and into the caverns below. At this point Lea picks up a portable camera and mounts it on her shoulder — and it’s hard not to think “why the #!@% didn’t she do that before?”, especially since she mounted another portable camera to a robot very early on.
This last section of the game is definitely the weakest. As I mentioned before, with the wider and more diverse (and quite beautiful) areas, frame rates start to drop off significantly with three cameras open, so I often had to limit myself to just the shoulder-cam and one other camera. The whole thing with the underground civilisation of native-but-alien beings seems a bit far-fetched, along with the forced use of the pheromone pack as a little mini-game for communication with them.
Which leads me to the most evil part of the game: the trial sequence, where you have to rotate the camera around and respond to rapid-fire “questions” with clicks on the pheromone pack. There are several things that let this sequence down. The first is that the whole thing is timed, so if you don’t respond fast enough then you have to start over. The next is that if you start over, you start over right at the very beginning of the sequence. The camera handles a bit awkwardly here, making it sometimes hard to line up properly and always hard to work out what you need to do next. It’s basically forces you to fail a few times just so you learn the sequence sufficiently in order to be able to complete it fast enough. The realism is compromised because despite supposedly being a trial for Lea’s life you somehow have infinite do-overs (even without reloading the game), and the explanations for why it’s even happening seem a bit weak. But the real unforgivable sin here is that sometimes when you click on the button to send the pheromone it clears out the pheromone slots without actually sending anything, forcing you to do it again and again in a big hurry, hoping to get one out before you run out of time.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, once you finally beat that puzzle (really more of an arcade sequence in some ways) you go straight into another time-sensitive puzzle, without a chance to save in between. (Fortunately the game does auto-save in between, so it’s not a total loss. And you are allowed to fail the next puzzle without significant consequences, it just changes some of the plot points a bit.)
Your own character’s premise is also harder to believe in this area; despite being in a cavern deep beneath the ocean, there are still plenty of cameras and lights for you to play with (not as many as there were in the tanker, but still…). And you’re still linked to the same network that the tanker is on (presumably you haven’t moved this whole time). Now, this isn’t completely unbelievable, since after all the tanker’s personnel have been exploring down here, but it remains a bit of a stretch.
After a bit more wandering through (again, quite beautiful) scenery, Lea eventually reaches another big puzzle; this has a bit of a silly solution but it’s reasonably clear what you need to do. And then apparently that was the final puzzle — the closing cinematic appears, and it’s basically the moral equivalent of “and then I woke up”. The ending seems completely contrary to where the story had been building up to, and leaves the game basically without any sort of climax or resolution, which is quite sad.
Given the abrupt ending and the noticeable lack of polish on the final sections (and the missing items in the last few “extras” sections), I suspect that the developer ran out of funding, or the publisher forced an early shipping deadline. Either way it’s a disappointing end to what started out as a quite fascinating and different game.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t regret buying the game; I loved playing it, and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing Myst-like games. But it does have more than its share of flaws.
Well, there you go. My first long-form game review/summary/whatever, instead of cramming several games into one post. If anyone’s still awake after all that (and still cares): Better? Worse?