Replay–Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within

It took me almost 20 years to finish Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.

I first caught wind of the game some time after its release in 1996, when my cousin Matthew had finished it and let me borrow it. This is how I played a lot of games in those days, since my parents were convinced that I was going to “grow out” of playing video games (my dad once said to me, “I stopped smoking when I was 20; when are you going to stop playing video games?”) and only occasionally indulged my habit. Once I had a job and my own spending money, I didn’t need said indulgence, but that was still a couple of years away when I borrowed The Beast Within (its full title is technically The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, but I’ll stick with its abbreviated title here).

The Beast Within tells the continuing story of Gabriel Knight, a bumbling cad of a fiction author who manages to get himself wrapped up in a series of grisly murders in New Orleans in the first game. In the wake of that game’s events, he writes a “novel” about the ordeal which turns into a bestseller, moves to a crumbling castle in Germany owned by his family (which it turns out is a long line of Schattenjägers, or shadow hunters–basically occult detectives) and starts on renovation and a new novel. Soon he gets wrapped up in a new case potentially involving werewolves, and when he writes his partner/research assistant/not-really-love-interest Grace about it, she hops on a plane from New Orleans to Germany to help, despite his halfhearted attempt to keep her out of it. The game alternates chapters between Gabriel, hunting for clues in the present, and Grace, digging into Gabriel’s family history and its connection to the German monarchy to find a connection to the past.

The game's box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within
The game’s box, which gives you an idea of the level of pretentiousness/melodrama contained within

As a teenager, there were a lot of intriguing things about the game, starting with its box art and its six-CD length. The length was a result of filming the game’s cutscenes and interstitials and compressing them (poorly) into full-motion video (FMV), which was still seen as the wave of the future at the time. Actually playing the game was made more tedious by the constant transition to video whenever your characters did just about anything, but it contributed to the feeling of “playing a movie” at the time, and the attention to detail still feels admirable all these years later.

Unfortunately, one side-effect of the aforementioned poor compression is that the video itself now looks like a smeary mess, especially when viewed in “big movie” mode. The smaller movies look crisper, but it’s much more difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, especially when Gabriel or Grace interact with the many small objects you’ll have to find and click on. In the end, I played/watched the game in big movie mode just to get a better sense of what was happening, even with its trade-offs. It may seem weird that 3900MB of video (give or take the game’s other assets, since the game isn’t solely presented as FMV) would look like such a mess, but we take for granted that compressible video is essentially a solved problem in 2015.

It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.
It looks even worse in motion. Trust me.

The other intriguing thing about the game was its Mature rating by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. My teenage mind ran wild creating reasons why the game would have the equivalent of an R rating, and Matthew was coy about what exactly the explicit content entailed, but having finally finished the game, I do think that the game earns its rating, but only in a cheesy B-movie kind of way. There are a few swears, some late-game violence and the kind of implied sex scene you’d see during the height of Production Code Hollywood, but nothing too salacious. Had I gotten to any of that as a teenager, I would’ve likely been disappointed.

But here’s the thing about The Beast Within: if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a point-and-click adventure game, and while walkthroughs existed even when I first borrowed it, they were much more difficult to find than they are today, and I was shackled by a dial-up internet connection that made finding anything on the internet a chore. As a result, I blundered my way through the game’s early chapters (adventure games always start easy and then ramp up in difficulty as you solve the game’s early puzzles), but got severely stuck in the game’s fourth chapter, where you have to do “research” as Grace by clicking on everything you can find at a series of castles and libraries. Then, when you inevitably miss one tiny clickable zone, you have to go back and retrace your steps to find them all before you can progress. I hit a brick wall and put the game aside.

Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be "researched" in chapter four.
Neuschwanstein Castle, the most tedious of the locations that must be “researched” in chapter four.

I returned to it at some point during my later teenage years, because once Matthew was done with games and I “borrowed” them, I tended to not have to give them back unless he wanted to replay them or explicitly remembered that he wanted them back (which was not often). Since I’d played the game’s early chapters already, I fairly quickly made my way back to the game’s tedious fourth chapter and this time managed to find all of the things I was supposed to and progressed to the game’s fifth chapter. Here I hit a fresh brick wall when I discovered that it was possible to die (in hilariously grisly fashion) at the end of the game’s fifth chapter. Once again, I moved on.

This week, I decided to finish the game once and for all. It’s now available on GOG.com, and it’s telling that the compressed download is only 2.4GB. Rose-tinted glasses quickly caught up to reality when I realized just how macroblocked the video looks to 2015 eyes. Nonetheless, I was going to finish this stupid game once and for all. I remembered a lot of the game’s early puzzles, and breezed through a majority of the game’s first couple of chapters with no problem at all. I even kind of reflexively remembered one of the game’s more bizarre puzzles from the third chapter involving a woodpecker clock and a locked door (if you’ve ever replayed an adventure game, you probably know this feeling of “I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, but it seems right for some reason”). I even made it all the way through the dreaded tedium of the fourth chapter… and then the game locked up.

For a few minutes, I frantically clicked everywhere on the screen, alt-tabbed out of and back into the game, and did everything I could think of to make it progress forward. Nothing. Even worse, I hadn’t saved the game since midway through chapter 3, so I had a lot of re-re-replaying to do. I eventually resigned myself to my fate, restarting the game and saving obsessively from there on out. I ran into one other show-stopping lockup, but other than that it was smooth sailing from there. The game just hates me and wanted to throw one more curveball before allowing me to finally complete it.

And complete it I did! I leaned on a walkthrough pretty heavily for the game’s last couple of chapters, but I did so more in the interest of time than anything. Especially once I lost a chapter-and-a-half’s worth of progress, I was determined to just plow through to the end. I started skipping a lot of the interstitial videos, though I did watch every bit of the game’s main plot, including a bizarre but surprisingly-well-staged opera scene near the end of the game’s final chapter. The endgame is the only time when I really, truly needed the walkthrough, because the game’s final task is timed and involves a mix of timed navigation and puzzle solving that I just wasn’t going to solve on my own.

Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.
Wander around a bit. Get shot for no reason. Rinse, repeat until you figure it out. Or consult a walkthrough.

The game’s ending was relatively satisfying, but after all the time I’d invested in fits and spurts over the past two decades, it felt pretty abrupt. I read later that the game was supposed to be eight chapters instead of the final game’s six, and that budget constraints caused some last-minute cutting that made the game’s final chapter or so feel rushed. I briefly entertained the idea of moving on to the series’ third game, Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, but then I read this description of one of the game’s early puzzles, and decided against it for now.

Replay: Interstate ’76–Completion

(Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, but just now got around to making the screenshots for it. I am still kinda terrible at blogging)

Shortly after my last post, I hit a brick wall. I had previously decided to play I’76 on the game’s middle difficulty, Champ, after breezing through the first couple of missions. I am also a glutton for punishment and am known to play games on harder-than-optimal difficulties for the greater sense of accomplishment and to prolong the experience artificially. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I honestly get more enjoyment out of finally getting through a tough section of a game. But that’s the topic of another post entirely.

The point is, Scene (the game’s name for the single player campaign’s missions) 7 was kicking my ass. I read through a little bit of strategy for the game as a whole and the mission itself, and remembered that one of the game’s great keys (which you can totally ignore) is a sidearm mechanic where you can pick off a car that’s in the red by aiming your .45 out the side window of your car. If done right, it can drastically diminish the amount of time and ammo spent on each opponent, and once the mission’s over, you’re more likely to get undamaged loot to add to your own car, because you didn’t literally blow every car up to complete the prior mission.

The dreaded cops who stalled out my progress for so long
The dreaded cops who stalled out my progress for so long

One thing I had never even messed with before was my car’s armor and chassis distribution. After many deaths at the hands of Scene 6, I finally made it through by armoring up as much as possible and killing enough of my corrupt cop opponents in a short enough time to limp through their removed roadblock. I also had to regularly shut off my engine to avoid the radar lock of a helicopter overhead.

I’m spending so much time describing this one mission because it’s honestly where I spent a pretty good chunk of my total time with the game. None of the game’s other missions provided nearly the level of challenge this one did, thanks to its leap in difficulty coupled with my own poor strategy in the first few scenes resulting in less capable gear than I otherwise could’ve had. Once I made it through that, things were pretty smooth sailing to the conclusion, despite the fact that I was less than halfway through the game at that point.

A mid-to-late game escort mission. Once again, I'm impressed how much the lighting changes the overall feel of the mission
A mid-to-late game escort mission. Once again, I’m impressed how much the lighting changes the overall feel of the mission

The game’s developers tried to vary the mission structure as much as possible, providing a number of different escort missions, protect-this-building objectives, and even a brief (and kind of silly) stealth scenario, but generally the goal was to shoot the other cars without getting blown up myself. There are a couple of mazes and a few light puzzles (like a water tower that blows up into a ramp to jump over the wall of an otherwise impregnable fortress) as well, but I think when all was said and done I spent maybe 5 hours with the single player campaign. If this were still 1997, I could hop online and blow up the cars of some strangers, but as it is, I’m kind of sad it’s over already.

 

Before and after of the water tower/ramp. The first time I tried to use it I flipped over and had to restart the mission
Before and after of the water tower/ramp. The first time I tried to use it I flipped over and had to restart the mission

I should take a minute to talk about the game’s music. Though the funk soundtrack that accompanies every mission can feel a little dissonant sometimes, for the most part it adds to the late-70s atmosphere of the game. One track in particular has a pretty perfect “shit just got real and you need to fix it immediately” urgency to it, and it’s no surprise that the game’s final cutscene uses it to good effect. I actually had trouble getting the soundtrack to play during the game’s missions, so I manually queued up each mp3 (originally Redbook audio that could be played in any CD player) and set it to loop before I started each new scene. I put a couple of hours into trying to get it to work properly, and the expansion that comes with GOG.com’s downloadable version of the game works as intended, but for whatever reason, I had to settle for a workaround in order to get the complete experience.

Overall, I’m glad that I took the time to get it running (more-or-less) properly, because it brought back some good memories. I can picture being downstairs in my parents’ den, upstairs at my friend Bret’s, and in my cousin Matthew’s kitchen, all locations of computers where I originally played the game. Certain songs and line readings in particular brought me back to a time when afternoons and weekends were for video games, my parents’ disdain be damned.

Replay: Interstate ’76–A Shaky Beginning

Interstate ’76 was first released in early 1997. I played the demo around the same time, and somehow managed to get my hands on the full game shortly thereafter. As I mentioned before, I played a whole lot of demos as a teenager, but somehow in this case there wasn’t a significant gap between “played demo” and “acquired full game”.

Something about the game’s 70’s funk aesthetic struck a chord with me. The soundtrack was awesome, the voice acting solid and the plot surprisingly involved for a car combat game built on the MechWarrior 2 engine. I played through it at least twice, once at home and again at a neighbor’s (his family’s computer was much faster than mine and so played the game at a better framerate). I think I played through some or all of it again at a cousin’s, actually.

The game was not particularly complicated, but it had a good hook of blowing cars up, salvaging them for nicer parts between missions, and putting those parts to use before acquiring even nicer stuff. By the end of the game, the humble V6 you started with has given way to a V10, .30 cal machine guns have been replaced by 30mm cannons, and so on. Since you’re acquiring everything from the husks of your former enemies’ cars, they are perpetually more powerful than you, but that’s kind of how vehicular combat games work.

One time, I was playing the game at home after school, and suddenly the game’s protagonist, Groove Champion, reacted to my taking a beating in the car by deadpanning “ohhhh shit.” My Dad heard, and assumed it was me that had swore, and grunted out my name in that disappointed way that only a father is capable of. I insisted it wasn’t me, but he didn’t believe me for a second. I didn’t get in trouble for it, but I was a little annoyed that he thought I’d so casually swear at a stupid video game. I didn’t, and still don’t, swear in front of my parents.

I decided to replay the game because I had fond memories of it and I wanted to see how it held up in terms of the experience. Also, it was the first thing I thought of. Either way, I created a lot of extra work for myself. While the game was easily found on Good Old Games (GOG.com), it was essentially broken out of its virtual box. Some Googling for workarounds led me in the right direction, but after a few hours of effort, the frame rate of the game was still too high, causing the physics to break and resulting in an unplayable mess.

After a couple more hours, I finally found a simple solution that effectively solved the problem: forcing VSync and limiting it to 30Hz, hard-capping the game’s framerate via nVidia Control Panel. The whole experience reminded me of the way things used to be before video standards and Steam, though I do wonder if trying to play today’s games in another 15 years will yield a similar experience. I also did some shortcut modifying to get a Glide wrapper working (and tried some third party solutions with little success), which really changes the look of the game.

I’ll have to see how things shake out, but so far having Glide support is the most interesting thing I’ve done since I started this experiment. The game’s software mode is perfectly passable as far as gaming engines of its vintage go, but with 3d acceleration, the lighting adds a certain amount of subtext to every mission. The second mission in particular is much more striking with its as-intended sunset setting, as opposed to a slightly darker brown terrain with slightly darker blue skybox in the software engine (click for bigger):

i76

Now that the game is working properly, I’ve sped (pun vaguely intended) through the first third of the game, and once again finding myself remembering some of the game’s more memorable lines and scenarios, just like with Half-Life. Hopefully I’ll power through the rest in the next week or so and have another write-up ready when I’m done with it.

Any suggestions on what I should play next? It has to be something I’ve already played before, but I would consider playing the full version of a game I’d previously demoed, which opens up my options significantly.