Amazing Media's Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster is a fantastic game, and I'm stunned that it hasn't received more attention from serious GAG fans. Tim Curry's performance as the demented Dr. Frankenstein is wonderful, but that's not all this game has to offer. Great atmosphere, story, black humor, and intuitive puzzles--what more could a GAG fan ask for? I give this one two thumbs up--(and who knows whom those thumbs used to belong to?)
It's really nice to find an old treasure in a bargain bin--a treasure that has been mostly passed over or forgotten by other fans of a genre, even those willing to indulge in a bit of retrogaming. I recently had that experience with a dual-pack I picked up at a used book store. For only $1, I got two Amazing Media games: Frankenstein and Mummy: Tomb of the Pharaoh. While I thought Mummy was a decent game, it really pales in comparison to Frankenstein.
Story and Characters
Like any great GAG, the strength of Frankenstein lies mostly in its excellent story and intriguing characters. Although many games get the first part right, it's rarer to find a GAG that has characters we really enjoy getting to know. The few exceptions are almost always hits--Secret of Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight, Broken Sword, Longest Journey, and so on. However, notice that all of those games are third-person. Most first-person GAGs have few if any characters (Myst, 7th Guest, Rhem, The Crystal Key, Riddle of the Sphinx, Dark Fall). It's a bit hard to say precisely why these games neglect characters; I suppose there are technical challenges as well as artistic decisions at work here. No doubt the gloomy, surreal ambiance of Myst and The Crystal Key would be diminished if the world was more populated. Part of the thrill of these games is the "trapped in a shopping mall after hours" feeling of alienation. I've always wondered what it would be to like to be totally alone in such a place, free to explore and tinker without fear of human intervention (it's one reason I like the movie Dawn of the Dead so much!)
Nevertheless, Amazing Media shows that it doesn't have to be that way. You can have a GAG with several fun and well-developed characters and not lose that surreal, spooky atmosphere. Indeed, great characters can dramatically heighten the effect.
Let's start with Tim Curry. Curry has always impressed me as an actor of almost otherworldly dynamism, a man for whom "over the top" is a signature style. There aren't many actors who could play Dr. Frankenfurter and live to tell the tale. Curry brings true zeal to his role her as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, raising the bar on "mad scientist." Instead of the goofy, cliched hackwork we'd expect from another actor, Curry really gives us a memorable and at times downright hair-raising performance. Furthermore, the script is great, and Curry gets some great lines full of wit and black humor, which he pulls off marvelously. Even the supporting actor (who plays Sara) does a good job. The only cringe-worthy performance is, sadly (and so predictably??) your character, the monster. For some reason, this actor opts for a melodramatic and unbalanced performance, and can't seem to nail down which accent he wants to use. It's really bizarre why so many developers are content with such lackluster performances in this regard--one thinks of games like The Black Mirror and Nibiru.
The story is based on Mary Shelley's famous work. If you haven't read the book, you probably have the wrong idea about the monster as some stupid, lumbering beast. That's not how Shelley spins it--indeed, the monster here is much more true to her story (for instance, the monster is not "Frankenstein," that's the name of the doctor who created him!). In fact, you get to play this game as the monster, and experience the indecision, confusion, and self-loathing described in the novel. The monster in this game is neither evil nor stupid; in fact, you're a former scientist nearly as brilliant as Frankenstein. As the tale unfolds, you learn that you've been accused of murdering your child (Gabriel) and sentenced to hanging by death. Frankenstein has reconstructed you from various parts (including a woman's arm), but even if you manage to escape his castle, you'll be hunted down and killed by the villagers.
The first part of the game involves a nice device--you want to know if you've really been resurrected from death or if this is not some elaborate ploy. You eventually learn about "Energy L" and other bizarre experiments, finally getting to set up your own experiment to test the Doctor's theories. Afterwards, you begin to find evidence incriminating the Doctor and the judge who found you guilty; as the pieces come together, the story gets more suspenseful, with tension slowly building up to a crescendo at the end. There are, in fact, two endings (in addition to the "game over" sequences), but neither one is truly "happy." There is obviously room for a sequel.
Most of the gameplay here is solid. You learn about what's happened (and what's happening) by discovering notes and other clues left by the Doctor and his various cronies.
If there are "warts" in the gameplay, it's navigation and a singular annoyance you face at the beginning. The navigation seems straightforward at first; it's the same "wrap around" technique used in Mummy. You can look all around each "point," and move to the next point by clicking the appropriate "hot spot." The problem is that there are several very difficult mazes in Frankenstein; many more than I expected or felt the game warranted. No doubt these sections were designed to challenge and perhaps extend the playtime, but one maze is any game is sufficient. Naturally, these mazes are rendered more difficult by identical terrain and lack of reference points. You can either take time out to make your own maps or just find one online, which I did. Nevertheless, you'll do quite a bit of backtracking in confusing corridors, and there are many, many locked doors and dead-ends in the huge castle. My thoughts are that the explorable area should have been reduced by about 30%. There's just nothing fun about traipsing all over a boring castle time and time again trying to find that one stupid room.
The other "wart" concerns the inventory system. You can't actually carry any objects until you find a bag, which you don't find until fairly late in the game. Naturally, when you do find it, you'll need to do quite a bit of backtracking to collect all those items. It's no biggie, but I don't understand why the developers didn't place this key item in an earlier location.
The game also suffers from rigid linearity at times. I got stuck a few times and simply had no idea what to do, only to learn on a hint site that I had to arbitrarily visit a location to trigger the next event. Thankfully, there are only one or two such moments.
Nevertheless, Amazing Media got more things right than wrong in this game. There are plenty of clues concerning the puzzles, and the mazes are confusing but not fiendish. I don't care for mazes, but I suppose there are folks who do and will enjoy them in this game.
The graphics are excellent and mostly photorealistic, conveying the atmosphere of the novel quite well. I also enjoyed working with all of the late-18th century scientific devices, like Tesla coils and other machinery. Sound effects are adequate, but the music is a bit sparser than I would like. In a few sequences (such as a wine rack maze), it got quite repetitive, and I could ever hear an annoying gap each time the sample repeated.
I also think more could've been done with the monster's body. Only at the beginning of the game do you get to see your two arms; one male, one female. It's quite a spooky and bizarre effect, and should have been used more--i.e., the videos could've shown your hands working as you operated machinery and the like. Unfortunately, we never see the monster at all (aside from his arms in the opening scene).
I might add a brief note here concerning running this game on XP. What worked for me was uninstalling Quicktime and using the older version included on the CD. I also found that reducing the resolution on my monitor to 800 by 600 helped, as did running the game in 640 by 480 compatibility mode. It's a slight pain, but the game never crashed.
Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster is a solid and highly memorable GAG that deserves more recognition than it has received. The storyline, characters, and puzzles are excellent, and what I consider faults (too many mazes and difficult navigation) others might see as strengths. I was thoroughly hooked after a few minutes of playing, especially once I realized that I was going to be treated by a dazzling performance by Tim Curry.
I really think Amazing Media demonstrated the real potential of full-motion video into the familiar Myst-style interface. The full-motion video bits are worked into the game itself (rather than long segments of non-activity), and are brief but convincing. More importantly, Curry really gets into his performance, and his obvious pleasure (glee?) in what he's doing is contagious. Get this game if you can--you won't be disappointed.
Nice review! It's funny you mention tooling around in a shopping mall after hours. Besides various movies that have done that, the hit "Dead Rising" from Capcom for the Xbox 360 makes a game of it, allowing the third person protagonist (the player) to tool about in a mall and make use of just about any item he sees, be it in the mall proper (plants) or in the individual stores (clothing, etc.). As we get more and more horsepower in our hard, it will be interesting to see how more games exploit this "playground" type of option. It would certainly blow the world of GAGs open if that type of environmental interaction were allowed. Imagine if the player could make clever use of just about anything in the environment to solve puzzles a wide variety of ways. There would have to be logic behind each item (a la The Sims) and some heavy duty interaction programming, but I bet it could be done...
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
I've often thought about that myself. One of the most common complaints that get made about GAGs (or text adventures, for that matter) is that there is often only one way to solve a puzzle. I can't remember how many times I've been playing a GAG and needed to cut something, but I can't use a knife but must find a pair of scissors or some such. It often makes no sense at all. I'm sure it's this kind of thing that turns so many people off the genre.
On the other hand, allowing multiple solutions might be more difficult to program than it seems. It might lead to the "exponential branching" problem, and quickly get out of control. For instance, if you could just shoot locks open instead of bothering with the combination or keys, you might not have enough bullets to kill the ogre. Thus, you'd need more than one way to handle that, perhaps evading him, but then you'd never hear his dying message about the secret location of the treasure and so on. I'm just being silly here, but I hope the idea is getting across.
Still, I don't see any reason why developers can't be sensible and at least avoid obvious problems like the scissors/knife thing. Surely, a few alternatives aren't too much to ask, particularly if they don't involve a major twist in the narrative. At the very least, the game ought to give a good reason when it won't let you do something obvious. Donald Norman does an awesome job of explaining this stuff in his book "Design of Everyday Things." The design of a game suggests ways to deal with problems, and it isn't fair if the developer suddenly asks you to solve a problem in some new and counter-intuitive way (unless that's the point, of course). I'll never forget a moment in Myst IV where you have to hold the mouse button down and sweep the mouse in a certain pattern. You're never asked to do this before or after, and I didn't even know the program was capable of recognizing that kind of input. There's a similar moment in Rhem. I think in these cases a text ought to display along the lines of, "HOLD BUTTON DOWN TO..." just to make it clear what you're able to do there.