Escaping Into Cartoon Worlds

Can adults enjoy computer games, or are they the domain of kids?

Don’t kid yourself—playing computer games can be a lot of fun. Even for adults.

In recent years, the images on screen have evolved far beyond the simple graphics of Pac-Man; to play one of the newer generation games is almost like being immersed in an interactive cartoon. And, like watching cartoons, playing these games can be addictive.

If you’re a typical adult, you grew up watching cartoons, from Porky and Bugs to Elroy and Judy to Shaggy and Scooby. Face it: You always wanted to climb into your TV and get in on the action, right?

So why haven’t these CD-ROM games leaped over whatever barrier it is that separates them from other, more successful leisure software—compact discs, DVDs or videos?

The game industry is still trying to figure that one out. Game publishers are still looking for that particular “gateway” item to convert the masses—or at least a lot of people who would never describe themselves as “gamer geeks"—into mainlining mouse jockeys.

Industry pundits are anticipating that Black & White (Lionhead Studios/Electronic Arts), a new CD-ROM title from game designer Peter Molyneux, might be the one that finally does the trick.

In its favor, Black & White has an easy point-and-click interface. It avoids using the complex multi-key commands that make games like the Tomb Raider series such maddening—and carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing—experiences for people who aren’t used to playing games.

Its cartoonish cuteness, which looks like a Merrie Melodies version of Lord of the Rings, has a warm and inviting quality, and the English accents are a nice touch.

And, like the J.R.R. Tolkien epic, Black & White has a moral dimension. This, of course, makes the game more socially acceptable than “first-person shooters” such as Duke Nukem or Half-Life, which often get blamed whenever a disturbed teenager shows up for class packing an arsenal. Throughout the game a player must choose between good and evil; with each choice, the tenor of the game evolves.

The premise of Black & White is simple: You are God, lord of your own lush, green, Shire-like island domain. You can rule through benevolence or fear. You can zoom all the way out and see the entire island, or zoom in close enough to observe the faces of your villagers.

You begin by saving a child from drowning, and then you meet your two advisers—a cartoon angel and a demon—who together guide you through the game’s learning curve. After you help the villagers finish building a temple, you complete a few missions. In one, you can rescue a distraught woman’s sick brother, or drop a boulder on her and dump her body in his face.

Then you choose and train a creature—a cow, a chimpanzee or a tiger; you can trade for other animals later in the game. You lead your creature/assistant back to your temple and train it by stroking it or slapping it around. You also can change your creature’s character by attaching it to one of three leashes—learning, aggression or compassion.

Unfortunately, the creatures have a mind of their own—they defecate all over their pen in front of the temple, they eat villagers without provocation, they toss them around like footballs.

And the villagers themselves require way too much divine intervention and management. You can pick them up, put them down in a field or forest, or on a beach, and they’ll begin farming, chopping trees or fishing. Put them down near the village altar and they’ll start breeding like rabbits. But you must remain vigilant: Miss seeing your creature throwing turds into the village granary and you’ll have a hard time figuring out why your villagers are crawling around on all fours, vomiting and dying.

Herein lies the problem: One basic difference between game-playing kids and their grown-up counterparts is that kids will rise to a challenge, even one that takes a lot of time and energy to resolve. Adults, confronted with a game whose programmed story line accelerates out of control, will walk away. Coming home to a computer game whose artificial intelligence clobbers you over the head is not the kind of restorative vegging out that adults crave after a hard day on the job.

Why do you think mind-numbingly vapid TV shows are so popular?

To Black & White’s credit, part of its game play involves solving puzzles—finding singing stones around the island and lining them up in ascending tones, for example. While managing villagers through five island civilizations and their resultant religious wars seems to be the game’s objective, these tasks are also tied to the clock. Not so with the puzzles.

This is most likely why the Myst series of CD-ROM games—Myst, Riven and the just-released Myst III: Exile—have done so well, especially with non-gamer geeks. You can play them as long as you like, go to the kitchen, make a sandwich, come back and you won’t have a population explosion or a creature grown fat from eating villagers on your hands.

Rand and Robyn Miller, two brothers, created Myst while working out of a garage-like office in Spokane, Washington. It was released by their Cyan Studio through software publisher Brøderbund in 1983; while Myst looks positively Hanna-Barbera-ish when compared to their subsequent, more elaborately designed games, it was a huge hit.

It’s not difficult to see why. Myst may look surreal, but it moves at a pace that’s closer to golf than NASCAR. Anyone can play it, too: You click on where you want to go on the screen, then click to interact with various objects—turning knobs and gears, opening books and doors, et cetera.

Myst and its 1997 follow-up, Riven, are part of an elaborate story line involving a man named Atrus (played, in short filmed sections, by Rand Miller), who created various “ages” accessed by linking books. In Myst, you wake up on a deserted island and explore its library, observatory and other buildings, piecing together various clues and solving puzzles that help you access three other ages (islands), where you retrieve pages that will help you free Atrus’ evil sons, Sirrus and Achenar, from the books in the library that imprison them. There’s something about an exiled race of men called the D’ni (rhymes with “funny") at the end.

Riven takes place on five islands, four of them connected by a rail system that carries small, mag-lev cabs. Again, the task is solving puzzles, which here are united by a common theme that must be grasped to progress. The story line teams Atrus and his wife, Catherine, in a quest to save a rebel tribe called the Moiety from the clutches of Atrus’ evil father, Gehn. It sounds cheesy, but the photograph-like visuals are stunning, and the structures and devices you interact with are artfully archaic in 23 Envelope designs Brazil sort of way.

Myst III: Exile (Presto Studios/Ubi Soft) is even more beautiful than Riven. You begin with Atrus in his library at Tomahna. Suddenly a man named Saavedro, who looks like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz after a week-long meth binge, shows up, sets the place on fire, takes Atrus’ new linking book and disappears, dropping another linking book. You pick it up and zap to a volcano island called J’nanin, where you solve puzzles that take you to other islands: a Mars-like place called Voltaic, a surreal amusement park called Amateria and an amazing giant inward-growing tree with a forest inside called Edanna. The islands were designed by Atrus to teach Sirrus and Achenar the principles of energy, dynamic force and nature.

When you get the three islands’ clues and take them back to J’nanin, you can link to Narayan, where you meet up with Saavedro, portrayed in a horrible scenery-chewing performance by Brad Dourif. It seems Sirrus and Achenar incited a civil war with Saavedro’s people and left him trapped for 20 years on Narayan, and he’s one pissed-off puppy. If you don’t play it right, he takes a hammer to your head.

It’s the only real violence in Exile, which—like Myst and Riven—is remarkably non-violent. For the most part, they’re really nice, albeit sometimes boring, places where an adult can go unwind after work.

I’m kinda looking forward to Half-Life: Blue Shift, personally.