Shortly after I start The Mystery of the Druids, my snarky detective, Brent Halligan, steals money from a bum after putting medicinal ethanol in his bottle. Once the guilt subsided, I put my little moral blunder behind and realized over the next few hours that I was playing a work of art: a rich point-and-click hodgepodge of glitches, gorgeous background graphics, 90’s office gear, and painful blunt puzzles all covered in generous helpings of cheese. Later I was forced to find a patch to fix a breakthrough bug during a simple dialogue. No problem. Nothing would stop me from following the story of Halligan, a horrible little guy in a trench coat, to the bitter end.
In 2001 was The Mystery of the Druids not well received (opens in new tab) through games press (opens in new tab) (although one reviewer complained that the graphics “straight from 1996 (opens in new tab)“. His unjustly smeared image was partially rehabilitated in this one in 2019 now archived piece (opens in new tab)). It is set in a pantheon of forgotten, flawed adventures that were too crazy to live but too weird to die. The appeal of these games is kept alive today thanks to retro enthusiasts and low poly lovers enchanted by one of the most awkward times in video games that have survived the end of full motion video technology and fleeting graphic experiments didn’t endure.
“It’s less about nostalgia and more about the cycle of how they were really made,” says Vohyak, a content creator who runs the popular one Low Poly Depression (opens in new tab) account on Twitter. “They don’t feel like products, more like obscure love projects that have built a cult following.” Vohyak, who has a full-time job in games (and prefers to keep his online persona separate), posts a mix of vaporwave -colored tributes to cult games (opens in new tab)mod videos, old game ads (opens in new tab)memes and trifles (opens in new tab).
He is drawn to games whose idiosyncrasies are a product of their time. For example, Floating Lowry (opens in new tab)as Mystery of the Druids developer Martin Gantefohr (opens in new tab) as one of the game’s most salient flaws, which was basically due to the fact that each scene was a 2D representation of a 3D scene. Running this ancient magic on modern computers resulted in Lowry – Halligan’s shabby colleague – levitating over his seat.
The low-poly, blocky aesthetic of old ’90s games has stayed alive largely thanks to low-res indie horror communities like Haunted PS1. But there’s more to celebrating than just dating visualizations (opens in new tab). “The ’90s was a really awkward and dark time for gaming, and it seemed like everyone was experimenting and trying to do their own thing,” says Vohyak. “A lot of people still don’t realize that Resident Evil was more inspired by Night Trap than Alone in the Dark, and I love introducing people to it.” Night Trap became a cult classic, and not just because it was one of the first FMV games, but because it bridged the gratuitousness of B-movie humor with the themes and writing of adult-oriented adventures. (It’s also just really bad.)
Not content with celebrating ancient games and the unique time bubble they existed in, some modern developers take a page from outdated adventures for their own work. pile of corpses (opens in new tab)a hobbyist developer (opens in new tab) from Minneapolis, spends the weekends working on a point-and-click horror adventure inspired by late ’90s Sierra FMVs (working title is Rust Valley). As a child, his fascination with FMV games increased when his family lived in Singapore for a year. “The only slot machine we had abroad that year was my father’s laptop,” he recalls, describing his first experiences at Sim Lim Square, where my own father took me to watch games as a child. Sim Lim was the one Heart of the CD-ROM piracy of the time (opens in new tab)where you could buy the latest software at a fraction of the price – until the government cracked down on vendors.
“FMV/point-and-click adventures…were the most technically and visually stunning games at the time,” says Corpsepile, who used his online name to separate his development work from his offline life. “As for some of my favorites in this genre, I would say offhand Myst, Riven, Escape From Horrorland, Shivers 1 and 2, and The Journeyman Project games.”
For Corpsepile, this fleeting stretch of pre-rendered scenes and awkwardly interspersed FMV created a unique time capsule. “For me personally, the main attraction is the nostalgia,” he says. “The general mood and time period…reminds me of things like staying up late on a sleepover in a dark room and afraid of a friend, or my father and brother gathered around the laptop trying to solve a mystery.” This Games that were once considered technological marvels are now associated with bugs and bugs in a modern computing context. Put another way, their intriguing imperfections make them windows into the evolution of gaming technology.
Both Vohyak and Corpsepile like glitches because they’re reminiscent of the people behind the game. For Corpsepile, the experimental nature of ’90s games, especially FMV games, went hand-in-hand with the awkward, cheesy dialogue and sense of humor. For Rust Valley, he plans to grab random friends with no acting experience and throw them into the Crucible and mess around with restoring glitches and design decisions that usually stem from old engineering limitations. “Like a lot of games that have a larger user interface so they can compress the videos to a smaller resolution,” he says as an example, “or hard audio cuts in the audio files to save storage space. It’s really fun for me to pick out those details and recreate them because other people who remember those games always seem to notice them too.”
Of course, the ’90s wasn’t the end of these charming little adventure abominations – fragments of burgeoning 3D design and spasmodic bugs carry on well into the 2000s like persistent memories of a decaying empire. I recently spent a painful amount of time messing around with Indiana Jones and the Imperial Tomb, a 2003 LucasArts experiment that’s a lot more fun than it should be. Even later games like the 2013 crime thriller Face Noir (opens in new tab)which had a terribly written storyline (and one of the most racist portrayals of a Chinese person I’ve ever seen), had some of the prettiest background graphics and silliest glitches in a point-and-click since…well, Mystery of the Druids.
I firmly believe that silly games are God’s favorite children, not only because they offer glimpses of a time of remarkably experimental engineering choices, but because playing them is an act for posterity. There’s a whole generation of flawed, beautifully dated worlds ripe for rediscovery – if you’re willing to put in a little work to bring them forward in the 21st century. For those who are curious, here are a few suggestions on where to start.
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle Made of Flesh (1996)
The Phantasmagoria sequel is by far the better game (sorry Adrienne loyalists) when it comes to vibes. It has everything you could want from an ultra-grown mid-’90s FMV — a relatively unhinged relationship with the modern office, hilariously unfunny portrayals of mental health, the corniest jokes, a completely milky toasty white protagonist who doesn’t have the deserves half of the interesting things that happen for him and an incredible final act filled with some of the best computer art Sierra has ever produced.
Here’s one that was actually a decent hit at the time of its release – a unique space adventure written by celebrated sci-fi/fantasy authors Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold. There’s a nice clash here between the cartoon graphics and pseudo-3D models that’s simultaneously dated and adorable. Did I mention that the protagonist, Korda, is voiced by a very demure Ron Perlman? My favorite moment was realizing that the magical sandals I traded in at a retailer were actually unbranded Birkenstocks.
Zork Grand Inquisitor (1997)
Some might swear by Zork Nemesis (boo), but Zork Grand Inquisitor is where it’s at. Gameplay is simple (and the 360-degree camera, first implemented in Nemesis, is much better calibrated not to induce nausea), it’s silly, it’s fun, and it’s designed by Margaret Stohl, who’s arguably one of the most incredible stock portfolios in business. (She wrote Dune 2000, a few Command & Conquers, Destiny 2 and the Beautiful Creatures YA novel series). The mix of pre-rendered graphics and FMV, topped off with outstanding performances from the entire cast, make this the most charming Zork game in my book.
The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime (1997)
A lot of people have fond memories of the original Journeyman Project series (with good reason), but the Pegasus Prime Remake (opens in new tab) is only for masochists. It’s clunky, it’s a pain to complete even the smallest of tasks, and all the interfaces in the game are amazing relics from a time when UIs actually had personality. Does the screen freeze for no reason? Yes. Did it put me off? no Some of the solutions and small key elements are hatefully not obvious, but the suffering is part of the experience.
It’s hard not to mention Harvester, which made a splash with depictions of gore and violence unprecedented in video games – a deliberate part of author Gilbert P. Austin’s meta-commentary on violence in fiction. While many Harvester throwbacks fall into pink hyperbole, it’s a little different to revisit them in the context of the 2020s. It’s extremely insistent, it can get downright gross, and showcases a range of clumsy, insulting ’90s humor that Austin wanted to employ — with mixed results — during a time of bead-clasping video game panic. If you want to see what all the fuss was about, then Harvester is an ideal historical artifact. It’s not for everyone either.
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