Oh, the golden age of point-and-click games.
Little known fact about Soldant: I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic since I was a small child. It was probably my mother or grandmother who told me the story of the doomed ocean liner, I don’t recall which, but since then I’ve always been fascinated by the myth and the facts surrounding that ill-fated maiden voyage. The Titanic captures our imagination because it was a floating sample of the western world at the time – the rich with their opulent staterooms and first class cabins, with the poor down below, huddling in their (still quite decent for the time) shared cabins dreaming of a better tomorrow. And it all went to a watery grave below the North Atlantic. Tales of husbands leaving wives as they watched the lifeboats leave the boat, facing death with stoicism. Impersonating women or grabbing a stray child to get into a lifeboat, Captain Smith going down with the ship, Murdoch and his pistol… there are many myths and legends surrounding that magnificent ship, but the part that got me was the perfect storm of conditions that led to the ‘unsinkable’ ship heading straight for the bottom. Pride goes before a fall, but sometimes nature just holds all the cards and you lose as soon as you start to play. Imagine the terror of being trapped below decks with the water rising, getting lost in the maze of corridors, knowing that death was inevitable if you didn’t get out. And now the entire thing lies rusting on the ocean floor. Traces of its former glory are still there, but by and large the Titanic is a rusted corpse, a relic of a world that would be torn apart by war just a short time later.
Is any of this relevant? Yes, yes it is – because in this episode of The Best Game You’ve Never Played, we’re looking at Titanic: Adventure out of Time. I actually meant to post this in 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, but I guess I forgot. No matter! Titanic: AOT is a point and click adventure game set on the ship. Produced by Cyberflix back in 1996, the game’s development history is somewhat interesting. Cyberflix created 3D renderings of many parts of the ship, based on original plans and photographs. It took them two years to map out a large chunk of the ship, trying to get it as faithful as possible while allowing for a little bit of dramatic license. In fact, their work was so good that some of their 3D models were actually used in contemporary documentaries, and occasionally show up even today. If you’ve ever seen a 3D rendering of the interior of the Titanic, chances are it actually came from this team. Their work extended beyond simple floor plans and expanded into recreating items that would have actually been on the ship – the chairs, tables, light fixtures, the whole lot is based on the real thing. Of course actual photographics from inside the ship before it sank are pretty rare, so it might not be 100% accurate, but it’s awfully close. Cyberflix, probably realising that this faithful recreation would attract simple tourists, actually added a tourist mode that lets you freely wander the ship, although for the vast majority of the game there’s no time limit and much of the ship is freely accessible.
The game itself uses the DreamFactory Engine, which is a little bit of an oddity. Everything is pre-rendered, but it uses smooth transitions when moving and looking around, instead of just jumping you between locations. It features quite a bit of animation and the colours were excellent for that time period. What wasn’t quite so good were the actor scenes. Instead of using full motion video, the engine uses some sort of weird system that only animates bits and pieces of an actor. Images stay still save for any part that has to animate (like the mouth) while actors have a few full-body actions, which seem jerky and unnatural. It breaks the immersion a little bit. The trade-off though is that the quality of the actors is much, much higher than full motion video. They’re sharp and detailed (for the time), while FMVs suffered from extensive compression.
So what’s the story? Spoilers, you have been warned! It actually starts in the future, during World War 2. You are a disgraced British secret agent. You’re sitting in your crappy apartment during the London Blitz, out of money and pretty much everything else for that matter. You’re living the regrets of the ‘Titanic mission’ – you failed the task assigned to you back then, which basically ended your career. Then a bomb explodes and you’re somehow sent back to the past, the night of the sinking, to fix the past. Your mission is to meet with Miss Penelope Pringle, your contact on the ship, and discover what this suspicious German called Colonel Zietel is doing on the Titanic. He appears to have stolen a copy of the Rubaiyat, and you’re on the ship to get it back. He also seems to be involved with some guy called Sasha Barbicon, and intends to exchange the book for a rare painting. Sasha is using a stowaway called Vlad, who is Serbian, to manage the trade. Zeitel is travelling with a young man called Willie, who starts to meet with you for various chats (and fencing duels).
You initially have to break into the wireless room to intercept coded telegrams, leading you to find out where the book and painting are hidden. The painting, it turns out, is actually concealing secret war plans, which is what Colonel Zietel really wants. Meanwhile, Sasha’s in possession of a stolen necklace, which he intends to give to Vlad (along with the Rubaiyat) so that he can finance the Black Hand – a Serbian terrorist group. It also transpires that Willie is really a Russian spy working for the Czar, and has in his possession a notebook containing the names of many Communist revolution leaders plotting to overthrow the Czar. Sounds convoluted, right? Well, it gets worse – there are a bunch of other subplots that you can get involved in too, though I won’t go into too much detail. The point of the whole story is that you can change history by subverting these plans. In a ‘perfect’ playthrough, with you recovering the necklace, notebook, Rubaiyat, and the painting, the two World Wars never occur and the Russian Communist Revolution never happens.
If you’re not up on your world history, let me explain. The Black Hand were a real Serbian group who, in real life, assassinated Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which is considered one of the major triggers for World War 1. Hence by depriving them of their income (which is fictional) you stop them from ever succeeding. The painting is actually painted by Adolf Hitler (who was actually interested in art), and since it was on the Titanic it goes on to sell a fortune, stopping him from ever going batshit insane and starting World War 2. The notebook contained the name of many Bolshevik leaders who would start the Russian Revolution to overthrow the Czar, so by giving the notebook to the Czar, the leaders are executed and it never happens.
For much of the game, there’s no particular urgency to get things done, although there are certain trigger points when some actions are completed that progress the plot. There are multiple endings depending on how successful you are, and it is possible to get killed during the game. For example, your first objective is to recover the stolen book. It’s hidden in a boiler room, near a control for a coal chute. If you attempt to pick up the book and leave with it, Vlad stops you and kills you. If you don’t pick up the book, Vlad collects it and you have to find some other way to get it back. The solution is to actually move it to another coal chute… which apparently confuses Vlad and he doesn’t find it, allowing you to go back and retrieve it later on. This is one of the issues with the game – although by and large it avoids ‘weird puzzle shit’ logic (to quote Homestuck), it still occasionally succumbs to it. Solutions that seem silly (often because they’re so simple) are usually correct. Some parts are just frustrating and involve carefully looking for the right thing to click on. There are also a few annoying action sequences which aren’t done very well – they just break the flow of the game and are sort of frustrating.
The game starts to kick into overdrive in the final act though – in this part, the timer finally kicks in right after the ship hits and iceberg. You now have to recover all the items, as well as find a way off the ship. Up until this point the clock is little more than a decoration and time only passes at set points in the game. Now you need to quickly navigate the ship to sort everything out while it starts heading down to its watery grave. It’s a bit exciting but also a tiny bit frustrating at the same time, particularly since navigating the ship can be a chore at times. It’s not always clear if you can move into an area or not, and sometimes paths that look like they should be open actually can’t be accessed.
That aside though, it’s still a remarkably good game. The ship is incredible and quite detailed. The character actors won’t win any awards for acting, but by and large they’re actually quite competent. There’s nothing really jarring, besides a few forced lines and faked accents – it’s not cringeworthy, but it’s not top class either. The storyline is a bit of a mess but it’s actually quite interesting and matches well with the time period. It’s super-spy stuff, and a tiny bit doomsday-ridiculous, but it at least fits in with the history of the time period and feels like something that’s far-fetched, but plausible.
The best part? You can play the game right here. At least for the moment until someone shuts it down.