Getting One's Fingers Caught In The Gooey Stuff

By Peter Smith (May, 1999)
I've just started playing Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy after recently playing Dark Side of the Moon and Grim Fandango. Nightlong is two years old, and was initially developed in people's spare time, unlike DSOM and Grim which are very recent commercial efforts. The strange thing is I find Nightlong more pleasant to play than DSOM or Grim. I'm not saying Nightlong is a better game, or has better eye candy, just that it is easier and smoother to play. But shouldn't Grim and DSOM have as good as or a better user interface than Nightlong? They're new, professionally produced games from game developers with other titles under their belts.

This isn't me being a stick-in-the-mud clinging to yesteryear's adventure games. True, my appetite for traditional puzzle adventure games has not been satisfied so I'm quite content to play them. That's why I playedGrim and DSOM as they are the latest (and perhaps last) true puzzle adventures from mainstream commercial game companies. They at least didn't sell out and end up as Quake-style deathmatches with the token how-do-I-jump-over-this-lava-pool problem. The issue is the user interface not the genre. How much does the user interface help you play the game, how much does it hinder you?

Let's go through the basic stuff. How easy is it to move around the game world? Nightlong wins hands down here. Simplistic but clean. Point where you want to go and click. You can right click in many places to move more quickly. DSOM at least still uses the mouse, but getting from interesting place to interesting place involves a lot of laborious navigating. Not to mention having to change the CD every minute because of the way stuff is laid out. Grim forgoes the mouse and makes you use the keyboard to aim Manny in the right direction, and then shoot him forward. Get it wrong and you may even change rooms accidentally. It gets harder if Manny is only a few pixels high and you can't see which way he's facing. Hardest is when Manny is hidden behind other objects (like Glottis) and it's guessing time. This is not easier than using a mouse. No it's not. Keyboard and joystick controlled movement are very relevant for action games. They're over the top for adventure games.

What about finding objects you can interact with? Nightlong is very conventional but it works. It is at times a pure pixel hunt admittedly and you need the on-screen text descriptions to know what the pixels are. DSOM is also conventional but the hotspots are a reasonable size. (As an aside not all the hot spots worked on my system. As I couldn't face trying every inventory item on every screen item, a walkthrough became necessary to finish the game.) Grim has an innovative scheme where you manoeuvre Manny close to an object and he nods if it's interesting. Innovative, but not as precise or easy as using the mouse. If you found manoeuvring Manny as difficult as I did then this is much more difficult than pixel hunting which it was supposed to cure. And you have to manoeuvre him into every nook and cranny to check for hot spots. Here Grim's user interface very definitely got in the way of playing the game.

What about knowing what objects you've picked up? Ideally you should be able to check all your inventory with a couple of clicks or so. I like being able to see all the inventory on one window even if it's a pop-up window which obscures the main display. None of these games did that. Nightlong displays your inventory at the bottom of the screen and you can scroll fairly easily sideways through it. Nightlong also tells you what each item in your inventory actually is, I missed having this convenience in DSOM and Grim. DSOM has a toolbox which you can open to give a scrolling list. Scrolling through this inventory list is a bit of a clickfest. Strangely, given the screen acreage DSOM wastes on a rock backdrop rather than the playing window, you can only see four items at a time. You get plenty of practice scrolling the inventory. Grim doesn't involve combining inventory items so it might plead it doesn't need a similar inventory display. However having picked things up you might want to use them later and the inventory handling in Grim is not adequate. The good news is Grim does have a full screen inventory display unlike Nightlong and DSOM. The bad news is it only shows one item at a time.

What about speed of response? Does it feel like you're wearing gardening gloves? Nightlong performs slickly enough on a Pentium 200 MMX (OK it makes less demands on the hardware.) Grim spends a little time loading up a new location but apart from that was responsive enough. Well apart from the game freezing up in the Blue Casket. The patch didn't fix this for me. DSOM felt underpowered on a 200 MMX. At times I got ghost echoes of the cursor appearing while things were happening. Southpeak's game engine wasn't always keeping up with where the cursor was, i.e. on the inventory I could get the cursor to wrongly highlight if I moved it quickly enough.

What about the minor user interface details which can make or break your day? Here Nightlong does trail the other two games. Nightlong will not offer to save your game if you try to exit, unlike the other games. Nightlong forces to you to restart with CD 1 in the drive even if you've got to CD 3. Nightlong doesn't let you cancel a change of CD, and also exits to the desktop if it has problems reading the disk. I confess I didn't try scratching the CDs for Grim or DSOM to see what happened with them. Nightlong doesn't let you replay cut sequences you missed because someone rang up. On the plus side Nightlong does have subtitles as does Grim but DSOM doesn't.

Where the quality of the user interface (GUI) ends, and the quality of the artwork and writing and design begins is open to debate. I'm not denying the splendour of the dialogue for instance in Grim , but to me that's artistic flair not GUI. Considering just the GUI for the game I would have to say Nightlong is better than Grim and DSOM, with however room for improvement in CD handling and replaying cut sequences.

In summary the easy part of playing Adventure games should be walking around the game world and checking one's pockets. The hard part should be solving the puzzles. Talking about puzzles there is one puzzle in Dark Side of the Moon that still has me puzzled. What do Cepheids have for breakfast?

Copyright © Peter Smith 1999. All rights reserved.