Private Eye

Developer:  Bryron Priess Multimedia
Publisher:  Infogrames
Year Released:  1996

Review by Steve Ramsey (February, 2002)
Much is made, with good reason, of the story in an adventure game. A good story certainly goes a long way, and many gamers will state that it is (almost) everything. Were that true, those same gamers should by their own reasoning proclaim this game as a gem.

"Hello trouble - come on in".
The story in Private Eye fairly sizzles, as a good private detective story should. And with good reason. It is based on a novel called The Little Sister, the 5th novel in the Philip Marlowe series written by one of the giants of the noir-detective genre, Raymond Chandler. Take one smart mouthed sallow eyed PI, mix with liberal helpings of mobsters, murders, booze and blondes, shake until bruised, and there you have it. Although of course it's not that simple, however much the writing of Raymond Chandler might make us believe that it is.

Yet it will probably disappoint most adventure gamers, who will dismiss it as being an interactive comic book, not a game, and with no real puzzles to be solved throughout its viewing. And on one level they would be right.

"That's Browning - the poet, not the gun".
It's true that it doesn't have complicated conundrums, nor do you have to fit the clues together yourself. But in a Raymond Chandler novel you didn't have to do that either. I remember reading an essay in which Chandler said he was more interested in the prose and the style than he was in the nuances of the mystery - everything, I think he said, could be resolved by sending a big man to the door with a gun. It's Marlowe who puts it all together, often connecting pieces of the plot in a contemplative rush. So it is in this game.

When the story is the thing, there is a fine line between moving it along and bogging it down when it comes to the puzzles. Why not let Marlowe do all the brain work, asking the player to involve themselves just often enough to give the plot a nudge or a push in a particular direction?

As such, Private Eye is indeed far more an interactive comic, and if you want a story (not a game) you could always read the real book. However there are no mazes, no timed or musical puzzles, no sliders, and you won't routinely die. You don't have to put out fires with wet fish, or search for the mystical miniscule hot spot. All you need do is dim the lights, crank up the sultry musical score, pour yourself a tumbler of bourbon and soak yourself in the slightly seedy Chandler world.

The animations suit the style of the game. They look downmarket, are Lichtenstein-like in the style of drawings, and are reminiscent of a Dick Tracy cartoon. They are predominantly a series of stills, although camera orientation and perspective change constantly, and there are some fully animated and stop/start sequences. There is some character and lip movement.

"She slapped me again - I think you better kiss me now, she breathed".
Turn off your politically correct button, remind yourself of the genre rules, and you might even find yourself liking Marlowe. Chandler's central detectives were common men, who lived hard and spoke the same way, but they were honourable men. Marlowe prefers to play with a clean deck, but in the end you have to play the hand that you are dealt. Such is life.

The game follows the plot of the book fairly closely, although you can choose to play a version in which the motives and murderers have been changed. It's 1946, and Orfamay Quest, the little sister in the novel's title, is looking for her brother Orrin. Marlowe starts looking, but people keep showing up dead with an ice-pick in their spinal cord. It's a favourite killing technique of Cleveland mobsters, but this is Los Angeles, a supposed world away from the troubled east. It's also Hollywood, and starlets and agents and dreams and has-beens abound.

Much of the dialogue is straight from the written text, and many memorable lines are quoted verbatim. The voice acting, on the whole, fits the characters and is well delivered.

"Open the door honey. This is the night we put garbage out".
You point and click your way around the various locations, moving between them by means of a map to which new locations will be added as you uncover relevant clues. You have a notebook which records where you have been and from which you can replay scenes, and an ever-growing dossier on the persons you have encountered. Inventory items are recorded in your notebook and kept in a cupboard in your office. You don't use them though, other than (perhaps) phone numbers and the like. But what you collect can affect how the story is resolved.

You will watch and listen to the pieces of the plot, and occasionally be asked to make a choice about in which of two ways a particular interaction will go. You will also determine what location to visit next. It may be a house with no one home, in which case you can break and enter if you want. Stay too long though and the police might find you. If they find you too often and they may arrest you, which could well mean your license, and goodbye investigation.

Sporadic phone calls, which you can answer or ignore, will provide both leads and threats. The police or the DA might also want to see you. You can decide whether to see them.

You will discover your fair share of corpses, and make choices about the evidence. Taking and suppressing evidence is a crime, but some things you may well need in order to find Orrin. Just don't let the police catch you. Take your gun with you to the wrong place, and the consequences could be drastic. And if you rub the wrong people the wrong way, who knows what you might find next time you return to your office, closely followed by the police acting on a tip off.

"Go ahead and faint - I'll catch you on the first bounce".
The choices you make will affect the way the story plays out. I tested this by going back to previous saved games and making other choices. Not all choices have as pronounced an effect as others, but subtle and not so subtle differences were present. As well, things such as whether I had my gun or not, or had removed evidence or left it all there, affected how the same choice played out, let alone the alternative choice.

This all leads to a multitude of endings. Not all are successful from Marlowe's point of view. Some left him with questions unanswered and an unsatisfied taste in his mouth - the case was over (for one reason or another) but there were pieces that didn't fit. Others affected him more directly - I got him killed, framed for murder, charged with suppressing evidence, and had his license revoked. I also got him sued by a movie star, but also a date with a movie star, the latter being part of the "right" ending. I have yet to play the alternative plot.

The story can get a bit disjointed, more noticeably when more information has been uncovered. Marlowe will often sit nursing a drink in his office, pondering what he knows. Depending upon the order in which you do things, he may well indicate that he needs to learn a piece of information that he in fact already knows. On occasion he also referred to some evidence he had found at a particular scene, when as far as I was aware he hadn't found anything of the sort in the search I had conducted. The fact that the story is the strength made these gaps and jumps more obvious.

On more mundane matters, Private Eye installs in a flash, and required no more tweaking to get it running than changing the screen resolution and colours on my P3 800Mhz. There are no subtitles and no menu options, other than to choose either the original or alternative plot. Its requirements are modest, and its running problem free. It lasts about 3 hours.

"I'd been drinking - Chanel No 5, and kisses...
...and the pale glow of lovely legs, and the mocking invitation in deep blue eyes. Innocent things like that".
This is not a game in the traditional sense, and it has its flaws. But if you like a good hard boiled detective story, and great writing - be it in book form, on the TV or movie screen, a play or some other medium - you may well enjoy this short outing as much as I did. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 3.1 or higher
PC with 486DX/66MHz or higher
2 MB disc space
SVGA graphics (256 colours)
640 x 480 resolution