When good games go bad

Bloody hell I’m annoyed. I’m trying to play the BBC’s CDX game, now it’s available outside the UK (already talked about the iniquities of geographic discrimination, so I won’t go on), and of course it’s wonderful. I’ve got some friends who were involved in making it, so don’t just take my word for it: Jay Is Games and Joystiq thought pretty highly of it as well, and generally I think it’s an amazing example of what you can do with some clever and imaginative staff who are prepared to work as hard as I know people in the BBC work.

But I’m playing it for the third time, and not because I got stuck, but because the game broke. I’m not talking about my broadband connection. I mean the flow of it, the sequence of post-it notes on a wall somewhere at White City, that’s the part that’s broken.

I spent getting on for an hour trying to call Liz, using the buttons on the phone, trying the presets, remembering that she said she was in New York and adding 00 1 to the number I had from the answer message. Nothing: two different error messages (example of the attention to detail the previous reviewers mention), very authentic, but I can’t get through. Turns out that if I restart, and go to the phone first, there’s a whole sequence involving the character writing the number down and assigning it to a preset, which you can then use. But I hadn’t done that. I’d gone to see what the books on the shelf were, which sealed my fate: no game for you, bookworm.

Restarting, and playing the game in the order of one of the walkthroughs I found, also means that when the character looks at the envelope with his till-then-unknown address on it, he talks about it and remembers it, whereas previously I’d just written it down. What’s so broken about this is that the information I’ve got in each case is no different. It’s just that in one sequence it gets acknowledged, while in the other it stays in my head, where I’m unable to get it into the game because some idiot didn’t properly look at the all decision trees they were creating.

The reason I call this is broken is because it removes the illusion that I am the character, it breaks the magic circle, it brings my reader’s disbelief crashing down from where it had previously been suspended perfectly. Revealing information only after certain actions have been completed is one thing: saying that the same information is different depending on when you read it, without giving the player any indication that they’ve clicked themselves into a corner, is the kind of elementary design error that was being worked out when 64K was plenty of room for an adventure game. Don’t let the player ruin the game without letting them know. Preferably before they do. It’s not complicated.

Of course, by the time I got to the stage where Firefox blocking a popup from the game meant I wasn’t going to hear the phonecall I’d been waiting for and would have to restart yet again, I was pretty sanguine about the whole thing and hardly threw my laptop any distance at all. It speaks volumes for the quality of the writing, the standard of the implementation and the general aura of intrigue the game exudes that I’m willing to go back again and again to a game that seems frustrating for all the wrong reasons.

Strange as it might sound, this post ought to be taken as a recommendation for the game. It really is brilliantly done, exactly the sort of thing that the BBC ought to be producing, and maybe is the kind of thing only the BBC could do. I know that the couple of people I know involved with it have said they’re really proud of it, which, given the standard of their usual work, is properly saying something. It’s ARG-y without being nerdy (there are flickr and typepad accounts set up as plot devices), and it shows the benefit of getting people who know how to make decent television involved with interactive storytelling.

But if anything else goes wrong for me, I’m making sure everyone knows who Zed Khan really is.

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