Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Psychic Detective (MS-DOS) - Guest Post

This week on Super Adventures, I've dragged mecha-neko back to talk about... whatever this is. Looks a bit like a game, maybe? Or perhaps a direct to video movie? Either way, I hope you enjoy reading about it at least twice as much as he enjoyed playing it.

My next game was going to be a cutesy platformer on the Amiga, but after unsuccessfully fighting my way through VectorMan, I thought we could all do with a change.

Psychic Detective title screen DOS
Developer:Colossal Pictures,
Electronic Arts Studios
|Release Date:30th November 1995|Systems:MS-DOS, 3DO, PlayStation

So instead, I've gone back in time and found a full motion video interactive movie, just for you. You can tell it's an interactive movie! Look, it's got a strip of film! And a CD-ROM!

Okay, you can stop looking now. Seriously, stop. That mess can't be good for your eyes.


I don't think I've seen this logo for "Electronic Arts Studios" before. I wonder what happened to them? I mean Psychic Detective probably happened to them, but let's not be hasty.

You won't be surprised to hear this live-action FMV interactive movie came out on the 3DO, but it's also for MS-DOS and somehow escaped to the PlayStation (where it goes for anything between £50-£120!). I'm playing the MS-DOS version of Psychic Detective since it's more convenient for me, but the 3DO one is the same. The PlayStation version has a lower resolution and removes the ESRB Mature-rated scenes (which I won't be discussing in this post if I'm luckless enough to end up in one).

If you'd like to play along at home, here's some useful information:

You'll have to make a custom copy of your DOSBox configuration and disable the emulated Sound Blaster hardware and enable the Gravis Ultrasound card instead, otherwise the audio will stutter and the game will freeze. Also I found that when the game asks you to select a colour depth, installing the '15-bit colour' assets worked best for smoothest playback.

Oh, by the way, the videos in Psychic Detective are presented with black scanlines to reduce the filesize and CPU load. I've fixed them in my screenshots for mobile browsers and to generally make things easier on your eyes. If you'd like to put the scanlines back, click here.

Got your popcorn ready? Alright, let's go!

Aaaaaaargh! The game begins with a giant close-up of a meowing cat emerging from a swirling vortex! The hell!

"People think if you had psychic powers the world is yours to control. That's a load of crap. If I could predict the future, there'd be a few less dead bodies."

Is that the cat narrating this? I'd like to think so...

ELECTRONIC ARTS and (COLOSSAL) PICTURES present...

A montage of moaning distorted faces, stretching and warping in front of the camera. Why...!?

PSYCHIC DETECTIVE

This sequence goes on for an eternity, and I've combined four different faces into a single picture here for your viewing displeasure. Four at once would've been a little too much even for the nineties. We get the cast credits along the bottom of the screen, but it's hell to read them when they're presenting in pulsing negative colours overlaid on top of the faces.

This vision fades into another vision... we see someone tied to a chair, a cigarette, what is most likely a soft-core sex scene, yelling, shattered crockery, eyebrows with a capital EYEBROWS, a bald man screaming as he runs through a warehouse, and a man with a gun.

There's so much going on, so much yelling and flashing lights. It's like I've tried to watch an entire season of a daytime TV detective show by plugging the VCR directly into my brain.

I've got to say, this is a little less classy than what I expected from the box.

MS-DOS box image from Mobygames, click for big

IN THE ROLE OF ERIC FOX, YOU INVADE THE MINDS OF OTHER CHARACTERS TO GATHER CLUES. USE YOUR PSYCHIC RETROCOGNITIVE POWERS TO GATHER CLUES FROM THE PAST. COMPLEX INTER-WOVEN PLOT NEVER TELLS THE SAME STORY TWICE. ALL NEW INTERACTIVE MOVIE FORMAT: THE MOVIE CLIMAXES WITH THE BLACK DIAMOND PSYCHIC BATTLE. WIN THIS BATTLE, AND WIN ALL. LOSE IT, AND LOSE YOUR MIND.

I'm not big on adventure games as a general rule. Clue-finding, interviewing suspects and general sleuthery don't do it for me, mostly because I'm atrocious at them, but I can see why anyone interested in either psychics or detectives would be drawn to this illustration of a serious, fedora-toting detective lit in neon chiaroscuro. Want to meet him?

Too bad. Here he is. This dweeb is you, Eric Fox, a.k.a. 'The Psychic Flash', played by Kevin Breznahan.

"There I was, doing what I do best. The old 'freak of nature' routine. Called myself 'The Psychic Flash'. Hey, the old folks loved it. Me, I got fast easy cash, and the occasional green groupie."

He makes a living by doing a psychic act in a nightclub. Unlike most sleazebags, he's actually got the skills to go with his cheap glitzy stage act.

It's kinda strange to see a psychic whose secret past is... that he doesn't have a secret past, he's just a guy who's psychic!

"Your grandfather gave this to you on his deathbed. Very moving for you. Very boring for us."

He sees a woman in the crowd...

"Her name was Laina Pozok. She looked like an angel, but she sent me to Hell. With one shove, she sent my whole world spinning out of control. She showed me how to transmit my psychic self into the consciousness of others, to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, the real mind pirate stuff. Naturally, there was a price."

With one glance she begins to prise open his mind...

Are we going to see this effect every time we get the psychic out? Because, well, just look!

Eric stands there dumbfounded, assaulted by visions of agony, gunshots, mysteries, this bald guy screaming,

and that damned cat again?

Later, in the dressing room, we hear her story:

Laina's father has just killed himself, and she believes her sister is in danger. She wants Eric to accompany her to a family gathering and sense if anyone's keeping any secrets. Eric refuses at first, but a friendly envelope full of money changes his mind.

Eric's in such a slimy mood that despite this woman coming to him for help with her father's recent suspicious suicide, and her family potentially being in mortal peril, he decides it's the right moment to try to get into her bed. There's even sinister freakin' music in the background. Maybe we're watching the bad guy?

Forget the script for a sec. Take a good look at this scene. Filming in front of a pair of mirrors without getting the camera, the microphones or any of the lights from the set captured in the shot? That's worthy of respect.

Eric starts giving her the old leg rub... and she goes along with it!? Either she's taking Eric for the idiot he is, or... no, I think that's right.

He takes on the case, and kisses her hand - touching her bracelet and getting a sinister vision of it being forged by... some guy.

A sinister vision of a bracelet being forged by some guy.

Eric seems to know what it's about though.

"What's 'black diamond'?"

"Just a game... just a silly old Russian game."

Mhm. The plot thickens and we haven't even started yet!

I expect this is a neat demonstration for how Eric will be using his retrocognitive powers throughout the game. And if he deliberately kissed Laina's hand so he could touch her bracelet, then Eric might be cleverer than he looks.

And, honestly, it wouldn't be difficult to be cleverer than he looks.

We cut to outside of a big fancy house, where Laina shows Eric the balcony which her father jumped from. I thought that happened, you know, yesterday or something, but apparently today is the perfect time and place for a family occasion.

Wailing guitars right out of 80s TV pour out of the speakers, and in we go.

We're led around the house by Laina, and introduced to her sister.

"That's my sister, Monica."
"Cute."
"Very cute. And weak, and gullible."

Eric asks "Who's the plastic dress?", and Laina gives the least convincing attempt at not knowing and suggests it's my job to find out.

I'm still not exactly sure what I'm doing - is this still the intro or what? I'm not controlling Eric here: things are just transpiring as they please. The swirly border has reappeared around the edge of the screen, no doubt taking a huge load off the poor CD-ROM and the CPU. This same border started to appear during the intro, so I think it represents Eric's psychic senses. Up in the top middle, we get the looks-absolutely-nothing-like-Eric face of Eric beaming down at us.

Two little faces have poked up around the edge of the screen: 'Monica' and 'Sylvia'! I don't have a mouse cursor, so I don't know if I'm supposed to click on them or... hey, wait, wait up! I haven't made a decision yet! Crikey, you've got to be on the ball in this game. Too more faces have shown up, 'Moki' and 'Chad'. Let's try activating 'Chad'!

"Not now, you moron!"

Uh, oops! Is he talking to me? Or Chad? Am I Chad? And is that Moki?

Oh hey! That's me! I mean, Eric! Hi, me!

WHOA.

Does that mean they filmed this scene from the first person perspective of every person in the room? Hell, there's no possible way to fake that. They'd have to have done it over and over for each person. Look how many faces there are around the edge of the screen! Amazing! If only I was warping into people when they were saying anything comprehensible or interesting.

After meeting me, I'm forced back into Eric and made to listen to Chad mumble garbage about his mother country, before he says I could use a gift and tries to sell me a watch, and then a brooch, then a board game, and then...

Sorry, Chad. I'm Monica now.

"Monica, focus! Max wants to make you an offer. Mirage Quest would like to handle your father's collection. His research, his papers. Max Mirage will personally help you categorise."

The ladies are deep in a sinister conversation... I wonder what her late father was collecting! Let's hear more!

Or... maybe we won't because an old woman has started shouting in the middle of the room because Chad's trying to mess with her favourite board game. Alright.

Hey. HEY! On the stairs! Whatcha think you're doing? Eric's running off without me! Bloody hell! I'd better be me again before he gets into any trouble.

Up the stairs I bump into Laina again, and have another go of scrying on her bracelet.

I'm rewarded with a confusing montage of a bearded dude hiding outside the window and receiving stolen tins of beans.

All these flashes are accompanied by clicking, screeching, choral singing, the works. As a metaphor for the mental strain of psychic talent, it's very convincing.

Another wail from the guitar as Eric makes his way up the stairs. I've lost all my floating faces so I'm stuck inside myself for now.

"Felt like a good time to get acquainted with Dad. What worked in the Puka Room was bound to work around here. The house had seen better days. Better days, worse days, it was just starting to give a big wet kiss to the rotten days. And there was stuff all around keeping secrets. I wanted to find more."

Alright, time for some real investigation. Maybe now the game will take a breath and let me look around some. Oh, nope, Eric's on a mission. He's approached a bureau and I've got the hotspot 'Window'. Well we know there was a stranger at the window, so let's do it to it!

Some flashes are more enlightening than others. This is one of the lesser enlightening ones.

"I must ask you to go."

Oops. I must have been scrying too loud, Chad's come to tell me off. Damn. There was so much stuff in that desk, too. How was I to know I picked the wrong thing? Was there a specific order I should have activated the hotspots in? Maybe I can come back later.

Eric automatically tries to turn the situation around, making conversation with Chad to get any information he can before he leaves.

"Your uncle was a big noise. A real player in the old country."
"Paranormal espionage. That's all I'm allowed to say."

Man, I wish I was doing any of this. Any of this... anything. It's all just happening to me, rather than me causing anything.

Eric turns to leave, but I get the 'Chad' face appearing at the side of the screen. Cool. If he's going to assume I was snooping in here for some evidence, then if there is any he's going to dispose of it himself. If I'm hiding inside his head, I'll know exactly where he puts it! My first real feat of Psychic Detection!

While Eric sods off to wherever he's sodding off to, Chad starts rummaging through the bureau himself. There's an envelope full of money, newspapers, photographs, loads of files and a huge ringbound notebook of intriguing lab notes.

But then Sylvia comes in, so I might as well be her for a moment. (Man, another scene filmed from multiple points of view!)

WHUPS. Sorry Chad, looks like your number's up.

Wait, what? Who the fuck are you? Now I'm being screamed at by an old woman.

"It's Chad, ya?! Ah, you had your chance! How do we make you STRONG?"
"How do we make you SANE? Jesus!"

Eric rushes over to the study, and finds that the scene is exactly how he saw it through Sylvia's eyes. Which shouldn't be a surprise since he's seen himself in real time twice so far, so, uh...

I've got three possible things to inspect: the knife, Chad's hand, and an inkblot test sheet that fell out of the notebook.

I inspect... none of them because by the time I got the cursor to appear at the bottom of the screen, the 80's guitars and descending snares had come back and Eric decides to just plain run for it.

"It didn't take a genius to play it out. I was coming down, she was going up. The door prize was a hunk of blood pudding. From the Puka Lounge to Multiple Stab Wound City, courtesy of my libido. I made a mental note: from now on, only do brunch with these people."

The cops are all over the scene, which means...

Eric and Laina get to sit outside in the car just fine without being questioned or anything? What?

My first day as a psychic detective certainly went down the toilet fast, huh? All I discovered was that somebody was stealing beans, and that Max Mirage was interested in the late father's collection. Chad was looking through the files but got knifed, and now Sylvia, who I know nothing about, has stolen the notebook.

Believe it or not, I must've been in the right place at the right time - Laina's impressed I managed to witness the murder and see the theft of the notebook, and Eric suggests that Chad was going to sell it to the bald guy (the one who called us a moron) before he got stabbed by Sylvia.

"Eric, you're better than I could have hoped for."

His fucking face.

I'd like to reiterate that there's no interface in this game other than the faces. I don't have a notebook of my own, no list of clues or questions. In fact, so far I've had absolutely no control over Eric's actions whatsoever. I have to assume that while I'm not in his body, he somehow mimics the actions of a normal person (seems like quite a feat for Eric if you ask me).

Whoa, whoa, what's that you got there, Laina? An item? I'm great with items. BOOM.

Ah hell. Well, I asked for it. The producers are getting their money's worth out of this face morphing software.

Eric flips out after seeing this bloke screaming in a vision from Laina's keys, thinking that she's been torturing him, and she tries dismiss it as nothing and runs away.

Ha! Nobody slowly drives away from The Psychic Flash! Eric, 'Follow Laina'!

I was so surprised I had the option to do something, I had to take it. I wonder if I could have simply... not done that?

Well here we are at her house. She didn't do anything to stop me, and led me over to the guy from the vision, helpless and catatonic in a chair. I scrye on her bracelet again and get a whole bunch more visions: more yelling guys, that fellow with the beans again.

"My God, it's like you're drowning. Shh, it's okay."

Apparently having Eric indiscriminately dismantling her past is somehow soothing to her. I can go deeper, and get myself a feature-length version of the vision.

People... the bearded beans thief laughing at a cage of dead rats. The screaming moustache guy from the vision in the car is here sitting on the left, and some other guy, and they're playing mahjongg together? Is that Monica? Or Sylvia shouting? I can't tell the characters apart through the filters and the fades and the moany ghosts down my earhole. She's clearly yelling something, but it's totally incomprehensible to me.

All this was evidently really painful for the moustache guy (watching the vision didn't do me personally any favours either), and the only way to revive him is through the reuniting the four tins of beans shown on the table in the last scene. We know the beard has two of them, but lucky for us Laina has one as well, and it's Eric's job to psychically locate the rest. Somehow!

"I just hope you're ready."

Ready to...

Insert Disc 2! This is a three disc game and I've only been playing for fifteen minutes! I'm going to be done with the game before I've even started!

More screaming. Damn it, what's with all the bloody screaming in this game. We get the exact same morphing faces and screaming cat from the beginning of the game, with an extra special guest star the form of... the guy from Time Trax threatening to stub out a cigarette in some kid's eye?

Back in the game, our patient is having a panic attack and Eric's mental interface has gone all colourful. I guess he's having a psychic mega-moment from the stress of it all - I've got new options all over the place!

I can read Laina's bloody psyche AGAIN, or visit sister Monica, the murderess Sylvia, the old woman who screamed at me, the bald guy who was working with Chad or some random guy named Max. I suppose I really ought to be helping Laina settle the man having an epileptic fit right in front of me, but I don't see an option for that.

I think Max was the guy who wanted to buy the late father's collection, so let's see what he's up to. He's got a goatee, he's gotta be the bad guy. Pow!

My enhanced psychic powers hurl me miles away, to where Max is having lunch with Moki. Hey, it's you again! How're you doing... guy?

"There's a little hotshot inside my head."
"Eric Fox."
"That name means nothing to me. He's leaving fingerprints all over my mind."

That's eerie.

"I'm going to squash you like a sowbug."

As eerie as it is being noticed invading someone's head, Max, you are threatening a spoon.

And we're back. Moki was blackmailing Max with something, but we didn't get to see what it was before I was kicked out. I'm back in the room with Laina, except I have three new options for... uh... 'Aggression', 'Affection' and 'Submission'. Jesus, Eric, what's wrong with you?

I don't get a chance to pick any of them before Eric's mind apparently melts, and I'm trapped in a rolling sequence where some guy pinching his nipples stumbles in (much to the distress of Laina) the guy from the end of the intro appears out of nowhere with a gun, and Eric flops down onto the ground and blacks out.

Uh oh.

"You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney."
"Fine, lock me in my cell. You sure as hell couldn't keep me in my body."

Eric doesn't say that out loud, by the way. That's his monologue. He does that now that he's a psychic detective.

"What were ya doin' in the house?"
"Where'd you get the knife?"
"Like to carve turkey?"
"Sure, hey Happy Christmas."

"I know who did it. It was that chick, Sylvia. She killed him over a notebook. I mean, can you believe that? I was..."

"... was what?"

Whoops. That's it for Eric.

Alright. I'm being led to my cell. One eye on the border and...

Ding!

I'm in Lt. Griggs. We get some nice scenes of Griggs and his partner walking through the station, getting yelled at by a desk staff, and then he goes outside, and...

Whoosh!

"C'mon, c'moooon. Jesus, yak yak yak! Asswipe! Some of us are working! Can we do the speed limit, please? Excuse me? Hello?"

I'm a courier! I have absolutely no control over where he's going and have no way to communicate with him. Even if Eric had another magic moment, I doubt 'Aggression', 'Affection' or 'Submission' would be any use here.

"He drove like a Type-A wired on coffee and stressed to the max. A deeply disturbed head, but psychic detectives can't be choosy. He cursed the world, cut off everybody and had this false chipper voice for customers."

"Alrighty, just sign right there on the dipsy-doodle."

Forget Max and Moki, I think this guy is definitely the main bad guy. Nobody good says words like 'dipsy-doodle'.

Right, uh, I kinda am actually stuck being driven around. I warped into a bum, and then another bum, who then... threatened me, I think?

"You just watch the show, devil boy. If you ever find me, you owe me."

I'm going to go back a step here.

There's no menu in Psychic Detective: no scene select, no chapters, no subtitles, which is a real bother for me, trying to make out what people are saying through the muffled sound. You get one save slot, called a 'Bookmark', and you can only load the Bookmark by quitting the game and starting again, changing discs and all that madness. When you start the game you're given a choice between starting a 'N'ew game and resuming from the 'B'ookmark, and whoever decided to put those options on adjacent keyboard keys was taking the mickey.

I've restarted from the police scene, and I'm going to see if I can get anywhere else from the Courier's perspective. Talk about a ruddy deus ex machina: the courier almost runs over Laina of all people, and she's a valid target for a head-hop.

Zort.

"Eric, I'm sorry. You wouldn't wake up. And Sergei was dead and then this man came in and stole the collector. I had to run. And I do not have the money for you, and I do not want to face the police. I'm sorry. Forgive me. Do not leave me, Eric, please! There is one collector left, somewhere. Papa is hiding it. We have to be first."

Hey, how do you even know I'm there?

Also, I've said it before but I really admire the flawless execution of scenes with mirrors in this game. The dressing room at the start, Max talking to his spoon in the restaurant and now this. Laina is talking to Eric through a reflection in a window, and part-way through, the camera turns 100 degrees to the right to focus on a 'Skateboard Kid' for a few seconds, then pans back. There's no goofs with equipment showing in the frame at all. It's incredible.

I can jump to the Skateboard Kid if I feel like abandoning Laina and trading my psychic detective career for extreme sports.

"Oh, Eric. You found me. You've touched me in the special place, you know I love it. I can tell you anything. If only I could hear you ask."
"Yeah, like when the hell are you going to bail me out?"

She goes on and on and on about the first guy she slept with, and I'm starting to see how poor mustachioed Sergei ended up catatonic. I'm tempted to go back into my cell.

"You are like a pig, drowning in the water. Trying to swim and swim but ripping your own throat with sharp hooves."
"I love that old-world folklore."
"QUIET."

With much ado, Laina eventually gets around to bailing me out, and she decides that it's time to visit the old woman from the start again. Hey, there's that board game. Good job Chad died before he could sell it otherwise if it rained we'd be totally stuck for anything to do. This board represents my struggle against... whoever I'm against. I don't think I figured out who that is yet.

I'm more concerned about that missing fourth tin of beans. Apparently it was in a pawn shop the whole time, hidden there by the old woman! Laina goes in, picks it up, and gives it to me. I thought something was going to happen, some kind of conflict or decision, but nope.

Disc 3! It's time to end this! Whatever this is!

Eric's slightly more in control of his beans-related powers this time. He automatically gets a vision showing how Max (the guy who I've never met) has kidnapped Monica (the younger sister of Laina I think, who I've also never met), and is ignoring the advances of evil sister Sylvia. They're at Max's headquarters, waiting for me to bring them the fourth collector. So off we go.

At Max's headquarters, the border options are coming thick and fast now that Eric's mind is bubbling on beans. It's a real dexterity challenge to move the cursor across to an option and figure out what the heck you're supposed to do out of what you can do, instead of doing something like accidentally casting 'Affection' on the boss thug.

Eric makes a complete and utter fool of himself trying to first seduce the evil sister, and then defend himself against this very angry guy who's clearly furious he didn't get more screen time outside of the intro.

Whatever I picked, I picked wrong, and Eric's knocked to the floor and safely de-beansed.

"The old man only cared about results: total neurolytic paralysis. But how do you destroy someone, mentally? You take their fears, and traumas, and nightmares and turn them up. Full volume. A hideous marching band at the back of the brain. All very amusing with rabbits and mice and half-dead soldiers, but two people who know what's happening, two talented people? It's really a most fascinating game. You have your thoughts, I have mine, and winner takes all."

We finally meet Max. Max is so ham, he's the whole pig. He even goes 'Muhahahaha'. He strides around his sinister room, filled with sinister portraits of himself with a sinister expression, and activates his completed quartet of psychic beans: the two from the start, one from Laina's house and the one Eric just dropped. With each tin erect upon its square, the psychic array is complete, and Max challenges Eric to the ultimate psychic battle.

And what form does this epic battle take?

If you'd said "Well, it's a 90's full-motion-video adventure game for MS-DOS with weird special effects, so it's going to be a bloody cryptic board game.", congratulations!

OHHHHH. It's that board game. You know, considering everybody and their screaming cat seemed to own a set, if somebody had taught Eric how to play the damned thing, then maybe I'd stand a better chance of winning it.

There were eight pieces to choose from: Moki, some guy, Monica I think, somebody else, a cigarette, a skull, a doll and an idol. I got to pick my four pieces first, so I chose all the people and let Max have the knick-knacks.

"Damn it, boy. You gave me crap!"

Alright. That's a promising start.

I -think- I've got this figured out. It's my turn, and I can pick any one of my blue cubes and move it any distance left or right. I have to defeat all of Max's red cubes by landing on them capturing them. Each piece represents a concept, and if my concept is stronger than Max's concept, I capture his piece.

"What are you now? A lump of clay? A pebble without a cause?"
"I'm your nightmare!"
"You don't know my nightmare! You can't find it can you?"

Each turn we get these psychic clips of Eric and Max attempting to intimidate one another by forcing them to relieve scenes from their past. They're full of negative colours, chroma-keyed overlays, abstract shapes, flames, the works.

"Look at you! Just another roadkill on the boulevard of broken dreams."
"Jesus...! Get a writer!"

Eric sounds so genuinely offended and shocked by Max's dialogue.

"Maximum Max, Maximum Obedience!"
"Maximum Bite Me!"

Have I done it?

This looks like the face of a man who's starred in an FMV adventure game and lived to talk about it.

Bad guy Max snaps out of his trance and starts gawping at all the posters of himself and gibbering, and it seems that Eric's reduced his mental age to that of a three year old. Which is... heroic of him... I guess?

We won!

Eric saves the girl, shows her the visions of the truth he's gathered over the course of the game, and they share a big heroic finale kiss.

And in the background the murderess Sylvia grabs the dazed Max, steals the damn beans we've been spending the entire game tracking down that give the user incredible psychic powers enough to take over the entire country, and our heroes have a little chuckle about the whole thing and watch them go, rendering the whole adventure completely bloody meaningless.

THE END.

And that's Psychic Detective. I didn't understand a word of it. I'm glad I saved the day, but I don't feel as if I've really accomplished anything. The only time I had control of things was during the board game, and you had exactly as much information as I did about what was happening.

These are all fourteen endings you can get in the game. A not very subtle clue that you're supposed to replay the game to find out all the answers. Or any answer.

Did I... what?

Just when I thought I couldn't possibly get any more confused, the game throws this at me.

And then exits to the DOS prompt.

Thirty-five minutes, that's how long Psychic Detective lasts.

CONCLUSION

You know, I think I kinda liked it? I might only be saying that because I won, but that always helps a lot.

Did you notice how many puzzles there were in the game? How many safes labelled with hieroglyphics I had to open, or how many hours I spent rearranging books on bookshelves so the authors' names spelled out a Latin phrase? An adventure game without puzzles. It's a novel concept, but I am so much not complaining. I don't think you can die in Psychic Detective, at least not before Black Diamond, so regardless of the psychic misadventures you force Eric through, you'll always get to see a complete story.

There's absolutely no doubt that it was almost all nonsense from start to finish, but, having gotten to the ending, my brain is so fascinated by how little sense everything made that my mental sieve is tossing the events back and forth trying to retroactively construct a coherent story from the thing I just watched. I don't expect a lot of sympathy for moaning that a game called '*blank* Detective' had a mystery in it. I just thought I'd have done better at figuring it out, or that the game wouldn't end until I had.

After reaching 'The Healing' and jotting down some notes about my playthrough, I did the least sensible thing possible...

...and played it again.

"People think if you had psychic powers the world is yours to control. That's a load of crap. If I could predict the future, there'd be a few less dead bodies."

This scene right at the start before the title appears? You get this same set of faces every time Eric touches a 'psychic collector' - that's those things that look like tins of beans. If the monologuing Eric is somehow touching a collector at the start of the game, maybe he's sending his own consciousness back in time to help him figure things out for the next playthrough, so he can finally predict the future and make there be "a few less dead bodies."

But he isn't. Eric's knowledge doesn't carry through from playthrough to playthrough, so you can't confront people with accusations before they happen, or deviate from Eric's routes through the various scenes. It's sort of like a ride, or a lightgun game without the shooting. You've got to focus Eric's perceptions on the correct items and people throughout the game in order to find out the information you need to get the ending you want. If you miss an opportunity, there's no going back.

When you complete a 'story', the game tries to give you a clue as to something you may have missed, but a clue like 'Who does the secret room belong to?' is meaningless if you never saw the secret room, and frustrating if you sort-of know where the secret room might be, but you only get a five second window in your thirty-five minute playthrough to activate the correct sequence of tiny, unrelated icons that might allow Eric to drive into it later in the game.

The first playthrough through Psychic Detective is thirty-five minutes. And so are all the rest, because you can't skip dialogue. Hands up everyone who skips dialogues in games, especially on the second playthrough! Alright, everybody with your hands down: you're liars.

You might be wondering whatever happened to the concept of the interactive movie: did some secret agency successfully manage to quarantine this type of game in the nineties, never to harm the human race again? Well, listen to this description of Psychic Detective and tell me what you think:
This game is a series of linear dialogue scenes with minimal action, where you can very infrequently take choices that might help you glean more information about a confusing plot that ties together multiple characters in a story involving supernatural powers, treachery and murder. Your choices can influence the other characters in the story, making them like you more or less depending on whether you assist, hinder or suspect them. Taking certain choices precludes others, so multiple playthroughs are required to discover the full story, though you will have to revisit many common scenes several times as the different routes overlap. Only when all the characters' stories have been revealed are you able to finally consciously pursue a route where all the mysteries are laid bare and the story can conclude thoroughly.
To me, that sounds like the Zero Escape series (Wikipedia link): Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward; and Zero Time Dilemma.

That means Psychic Detective isn't an adventure game at all: Psychic Detective is a visual novel! But a visual novel where consequence rarely seems to logically follow on from choice and you don't have the ability to jump to specific points in time or skip repeated dialogue doesn't make a satisfying game. If you can't understand, predict or control the story, then how can you feel good about the resolution? If you can't explore it easily, you're going to get frustrated. That is, if you don't just accept your first single short shambles of a playthrough as 'the plot' and move onto something else.

I played through the game one time taking absolutely no decisions whatsoever. It's a perfectly valid strategy, not that the game ever suggests it. It results in a story more about Eric trying to figure things out through talking to people rather than Ghost Trick-ing on them, but sadly the plot still has Eric using his powers automatically on occasion, and there's no way out of confronting Max at the end, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a powers-less playthrough. Staying in Eric's body has a number of advantages, in that if something happens on screen, you have the ability to intervene since you're physically there, and since you're not splicing into and out of scenes with other characters, there's no possibility of you entering a conversation at the wrong time and believing Eric's learned a valuable clue when in reality he hasn't. That happens a hell of a lot - one character asks you to spy on another at one point, and it took ten attempts before I found that it doesn't work unless you stay put and listen to all the instructions and then begin the task at the very last moment.

On my subsequent playthroughs, various characters appeared at certain points for reasons I didn't understand. Sometimes Laina will help you out of the prison, sometimes it's Moki. Sometimes you'll have time to go to the house and visit the old woman, sometimes you won't. I'm surprised and awed by the number of variations that were filmed of each scene, but without a map of the story I simply can't follow it and I wouldn't think anyone else can either.

A suitably motivated individual could try to make their own map of the causes and consequences throughout the game, and to the game's credit that map would be pretty huge, but it would fall down at the last moment since the showdown at the end, the unavoidable Black Diamond psychic battle, is random, which in turn makes the conclusion of the game random.

"Not all the games make sense."

When you get to Black Diamond, the collection of pieces you're given isn't the same every time. It partially depends on what you've seen and done during the game, and Eric's relationships with the characters, but other elements are random. You just have to infer all this, unless you've triggered a specific scene where some partial explanations are given.

On my Eric-only playthrough, I managed to get a really good ending. Then I reloaded the battle and I got the ending above where Eric and Moki have been psychically reduced to imbeciles in an asylum. On a third attempt, a mindless Eric and Laina are playing cards and giggling while Madame T. begs for death.

IN CLOSING

SHAFT.

You're damn right.


Thanks for reading all of those words! If you want to leave a comment about Psychic Detective or the article you have just experienced, the comment box below is certain to meet all your needs. You could also glance over at that clue on the left and take a guess at what the next game will be.

8 comments:

  1. You might be wondering whatever happened to the concept of the interactive movie

    It's called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and the hipsters love it.

    USE YOUR PSYCHIC RETROCOGNITIVE POWERS TO GATHER CLUES FROM THE PAST

    So... Eric has psychic powers and uses them to... do what the normal police do without them. Good job, Eric. (sarcastic thumbs up)

    The next game is Full Throttle, I think.

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    1. I've heard of BM Bandersnatch, but I haven't watched it. If it requires a stable internet connection and I can't just download the thing, then I'll have to live without it.

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    2. Also I have played a little bit of the Multipath Movie TM 'Cyberswine', but (unless my memory is faulty) the makers somehow managed to make a rendered animal-buddy-cop interactive movie into something dull to watch. :(

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    3. Full Throttle is definitely the next game.

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    4. I haven't watched Bandersnatch either; I was a bit put off by everyone going "OMG it's such a cool and original idea" when I lived through the CD-ROM era and knew it wasn't.

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  2. Have you ever done Burn:Cycle? That was another interactive movie - a kind of even-lower-budget Max Headroom for the CDi and later PC. The soundtrack was okay but I remember the box art vividly, because it was always on sale in second-hand shops.

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    1. I haven't played Burn:Cycle, no! :D I thought it was a CDI exclusive, but I've just read that it was on Windows as well, I'll have to keep an eye out for it when I'm able.

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    2. I remember quite enjoying Burn: Cycle but I haven't played it since about 1996 so I have no idea if it holds up. Probably not.

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