June 5, 2014

Tex Murphy And The Tesla Effect

Nope, not the game. The book version, available now from an Amazon near you. (Not Hippolyta.)

What's that weird white papery substance? I remember that from the Before-Kindle.

What’s that weird white papery substance? I remember that from the Before-Kindle.

The hardest reviews to write are the ones you really wish you didn’t have to. Case in point, Tesla Effect, which I actually requested to do because the previous games had taken a deeply unfair hammering in PC Gamer, and wanted the new one to get a fair shake. Unfortunately, that fair shake ended up with disappointment, a score of 58%, and I’m guessing the immediate revocation of my Friends Of Tex card. Not what I wanted.

But when the book came out, I knew I was going to grab it. Why? Curiosity. But also to test a theory…

WARNING: COMPARISONS AND THUS MASSIVE GAME SPOILERS AHEAD

Tesla had such a great opening. The book doesn't show us any of Evil Tex at all.

Tesla had such a great opening. The first half was a genuine joy to play.

The basic complaint most people had about the review was that it didn’t go into much detail about the problems, and while there are reasons for that – word count, spoiler avoidance, and the fact that I knew full well that anything I pointed out would only be held up as nit-picking anyway – fair enough. To be clear, the first half of the game was wonderful. The new engine makes for great exploration, Chandler Avenue has never looked better, the hammy FMV still charmed by shooting far far above its cast and production budget’s capabilities, and above all else, it was great to see Tex again – older but no wiser, and a man out of time both in and out of universe.

But the actual game ended up collapsing into a mess, some of the issues obvious from early on, but all of them striking with a vengeance come Day 5 – a quality slide that began with putting together the laziest set of Elder Puzzles this side of 1996’s Realms of the Haunting, and pretty much went downhill from there… with the exception of a few individual scenes and a well-handled ‘good’ ending that ended on a high for those lucky enough to get it first time (I did not, sadly.) The puzzles went from things like exploring a house for clues to simply scavenger hunting for logs to build a bridge, the villain was laughable, the story was poorly explained nonsense, and the paths that were held up as being a selling point ended up badly hurting the game by causing key plot points to be optional, as well as conceptually making no goddamn sense. Not being based around romances of all things. The Pandora Directive could have Tex choose because he was still… despite three games… largely a blank canvas with a hat on. After Overseer locked in his relationship with Chelsea though, that ship sailed. Had we joined him a few years into his search it would have been fine, I’m not saying he should have held a candle for her forever and ever and ever, but an effective week after the incident at the Golden Pagoda? No. Don’t be ridiculous. (If the pathing had been about anything, it should have been about whether or not he succumbed to the temptation of money and respect as far as his memories and morals were concerned, neither of which ended up being a factor.)

As I said at the time, it wouldn't have hurt so much had the first few hours not been so damn promising.

As I said at the time, it wouldn’t have hurt so much had the first few hours not been so damn promising.

I could go on… believe me, I could go on… as well as citing examples of bad design and poor scripting and stuff that just flat out makes no sense. But here’s the thing. What struck me after playing Tesla Effect was that while some of the puzzle design is simply inexcusable, most of the plot issues seemed to stem from not from bad ideas or bad writing, but the game being weighed down by a single, tragic, but ultimately self-inflicted fatal flaw.

There’s too much stuff in it.

And not just a little too much stuff. Way too much, starting with the fact that Tesla Effect is actually two games crushed together – two parts of a trilogy promised back when Overseer came out, shoved together here in what feels like a desperate bid to get the story told while there’s a chance. Faced with having to decide what to put in, writers Aaron Connors and Chris Jones put in everything, and it kills the game. It’s a million spinning characters and plot points fired at the screen with a machine gun. Tex losing his memory. Tex’s ‘bastard’ persona. Two new potential love interests. Unnecessary connections to Overseer’s story. A historical subplot about past lives and the Romanov family, constantly talked about whether Tex saw the flashbacks or not, in terms of dreams he doesn’t actually get. A doomsday device that does double-duty as a cellphone to the afterlife and bringer of a new future. A (more or less) Tesla cult. A brainwashing cult. Cryogenics. Altered memories. Chelsea’s true identity. Five endings.

The list just never ends, and while that would be seriously impressive if it actually worked, it doesn’t. It’s far too much to pile on a single game, especially one on a Kickstarter budget, and especially when so much of it seems to have been shoe-horned in for no better reason than ‘because’, from hiring Kevin Murphy to quote MST3K lines and not much else to bringing back Richard goddamn Norton to deliver dialogue instead of roundhouse kicks.

Honestly, what’s next, the new Star Wars team hiring Cynthia Rothrock to voice an Ewok?

"Fine, if I'm not in the book, I'll get back to practicing my Ninth Doctor cosplay. Fantastic!"

“Don’t mind me, just practicing my Ninth Doctor cosplay. Fantastic!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely glad that most people seem to have gotten on better with Tesla Effect than I did. That being said, I honestly think that when the honeymoon period has worn off, it’s not going to be looked back on with as much fondness as people are expecting. Look what happened to Overseer.

But here’s the thing. All the big problems? The novel fixes them. And by that, I don’t mean it cleverly handwaves them away, or even that it has no choice but to do so due to the nature of a book versus a game. I mean it takes them and it makes them work, not coincidentally by scrubbing about 90% of the story and locations from after the half-way point specifically, along with most of the fan-baiting details. Big Jim Slade for instance isn’t back as one of the villains. Now, it’s just Dalton and the Translator, paired up as a pragmatist and an idealist respectively, and without the stupid Phantom of the Opera outfit. The Temple of Bullshit at Sesen and most of the brainwashing nonsense tied to it is gone completely, with the Tesla Legacy now a regular building that serves as an office rather that proof that Jesus died in vain. When the conspiracy side takes over, the plans and stakes involved are clearly explained, with Dalton especially far more active about his side in it and less willing to just let Tex stooge around like he and Slade had no choice about in the game – this time, the Translator’s orders to let Tex do his thing result in Dalton nodding politely, going outside, and then beating the shit out of him for information. The end also involves Tex thinking his way out of trouble rather than just lucking into getting a villain stupid enough to go “What, you want to play with my doomsday device? Okay, I’ll just be standing here hoping you don’t do anything to stop me.” Margaret Leonard and the cryonics side of the story are no longer an embarrassing finale and a major plot issue respectively. And while there are mentions of Tex’s past as J.T. Donnelly and the lost Egg that ties him to the Romanov family, they’re primarily hints about a possible sequel, to intrigue rather than get in the way.

I mean… wow. That depressingly long list from before? The novel has an equally long one of fixes.

Sorry, but Taylor wasn't the LaMintz whose affection I wanted to make sure Tex held onto.

Sorry, but Taylor wasn’t the LaMintz whose affection I wanted to make sure Tex held onto.

One of the most important changes involves Taylor, one of the game’s new love interests. In the game, she is just awful – not the actress, she’s fine, but the character. She’s a reporter with a million connections, so of course gets instantly sidelined as nothing but a romance option and barely even appears later on. Even those appearances are just terrible, devoted primarily to – more or less – demanding the instant affection of a man who effectively has concussion, has never met her, and just discovered that his girlfriend has apparently burned to death in his own car as merely the start of a spectacularly shitty day. This does not make for an endearing character.

But the book version? She… she works. She works great, both as a character and as part of the story. She still has a couple of moments where she gets cross at Tex for not biting, but they come from understandable frustration and she spends most of the story working right alongside him to solve the case. They go on a not-date. She chips in with her professional skills. They don’t make a particularly convincing couple, since it’s hard to imagine a woman who fell for Evil Tex still feeling the love for Boy Scout Tex, with Evil Tex’s acts kept even more off screen than they were in the game, but that’s ignorable and not important – there are enough hints to paint a picture. Other romantic interest Ariel meanwhile just keeps it in her pants, where it should have remained, allowing Tex to pine after Chelsea while still developing a friendship that could become more if he chooses to give up the search.

(I won’t spoil how the book resolves that, but it’s different to any of the game endings.)

What happened? It’s not simply that the novel is better, it’s night and day. Officially, the game is based on the novel rather than the other way around, though I suspect that being based on an outline/early draft is more likely, but if so then the game really dropped the ball. It’s fascinating how much better told this version is.

No, no, go home. I'm sorry, I refuse to accept you as my nemesis.

No, no, go home. I’m sorry, I refuse to accept you as my nemesis.

What of the actual book on its own merits though? As with the game, it’d be a hard one to recommend to non-fans of the series, but that’s fine, it’s not written for them anyway. Much as Tex can only really aspire to be Marlowe, so do the books have to dream of Chandler’s heights as well as the avenue that bears his name. The prose is pacey and never lets itself get bogged down in details or rehashing plot points for the sake of it – Connors regularly twists things to take advantage of the format, like Tex’s encounter with Elijah Witt’s betowelled niece in Pandora, and allowing him a more hands-on way of dealing with Dalton in this one. It can occasionally get odd when he doesn’t, Tex stumbling into a blatant capital-P Puzzle rather than simply having to deal with something using his wits, but those moments are rare and kind of in the spirit of things for the intended audience anyway. Tonally, it’s much more consistent than the game, with fewer outright jokes and puns, a few more double-entendres, and the occasional clunky pop-culture reference that may or may not still be relevant by 2050 but probably won’t be. (Though should at least age better than when The Pandora Directive novel name-dropped President Dole).

While Pandora did it more heavily, the relationship between Tex and Louie is also a highlight. In the game, they’re friends, but that lasts about one conversation before Louie just becomes another list of interrogation suspects. Here, the two actually get to hang out and show their connection, with Louie willing to put him up for the night and putting up with him during the day (technically, reverse that, but never mind) and generally show off the heart of gold we don’t usually get to see. These moments are really nice touches, even if the conflict over Taylor is quickly brushed to one side and never really spoken of again. Of the other Chandler folk, Rook gets a bit more page time too, though largely just his conversations with Tex relocated to the Brew And Stew, as does Clint. Mojo and Holly barely appear. Archie, the Nights Templar and the guy in the Electronics Store aren’t in it at all, at a cost of exactly nothing. There also isn’t a single mention of Mike And Ike’s Not Funny Running Joke. Hurrah for that.

"Hello, we're the people who should have been on every path, not just the Ariel one. Sigh."

“Hello, I’m a flashback whose absence may confuse you. Sorry.”

In terms of production, the book is a print-on-demand job from Amazon Createspace. What follows aren’t really criticisms, because standard POD rules apply, just a heads-up on what you’ll get if you order a physical copy – a very shiny cover that will take endless copies of fingerprints and start curling up in a hurry (actually the best option, Createspace’s matte covers are bloody awful and to be avoided at all costs), a very high price to cover both the printing of the book and a royalty, and bright white, cheap paper stock. My copy, as with the others I’ve seen from Createspace – not least my mother’s short-story collection – is pretty well glued into the spine, though I wouldn’t expect it to last forever and ever. The text inside is a little small and cramped together for my tastes, and uncomfortable when there are a lot of italics, but is essentially fine – and it does keep the page count down.

Basically, if you’ve seen a POD book, you know what it’s going to look like, and if you haven’t, well, this is what they do. Just know that, and I speak purely in technical terms here, you’re getting a printed book rather than a published book, and economics mean that they’ll never be as nice as a standard paper/hardback.

It's an expensive book at £10, another reason it's going to be for fans only.

It’s an expensive book at £10, though the Kindle version is just £6

Should you check it out? If you’re a fan, yes, definitely – I think it’s worth checking out purely out of interest, though probably on Kindle rather than in print. It’s not simply the Tesla Effect story written down on paper, it’s the story as it should have been told, backed up with a little visualisation help from the bits of the game and the familiar faces that Tex Murphy fans have grown to know and love. I may have had to whip the game harder than I expected or wanted, but as I said, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see him get another one. Far from it. My frustrations all come from wanting Tex to as good as he can be, and reading the book only makes it more confusing that he wasn’t. On the plus side, it’s proof that whatever happened behind the scenes or whatever might be said publicly, there’s no way the issues weren’t noticed, and hopefully opportunity and lessons learned will allow for at least one more case that can hit Pandora’s highs. (Give or take Roswell and that ****ing Mayan temple, obviously.)

In short, just point me to the next Kickstarter. I definitely have some cash to chip in.

Buy The Book (Affiliate Link): Amazon.com ~ Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Game (Affiliate Link): Get it from GOG.COM

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  1. Fomorian says:

    I’m still having a hard time believing that the game ended up being overall a disappointment. It’s good to hear that it’s possible to experience what was meant to be the actual Tesla Effect instead of a combination of two big games.

    I haven’t played it, mind you – I read your article because before I finish the three Kentucky Route Zero acts, Dark Souls 2 and Overseer (to my unending shame I still haven’t played this installment as well), I’ll forget whatever spoilers ended up here.

    I also wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t use a review of a book to troll e-book loyalists – physical copies of books are OBVIOUSLY better.

  2. Richard says:

    It’s really bizarre. You hit Day 5 and it just utterly deflates in every single way. Until then it’s a bit fan-service heavy in terms of both bringing back characters and throwing in references (the most tenuous being that Archie Ellis now lives across the road with a shop called Three Cards To Midnight and Jackson Cross’ NSA ID is just lying on the street outside his new shop to trigger a flashback) but okay because the honeymoon phase is propping it up and it has both a celebratory and victory lap element to it. But then… pffffffffft. Like a disappointed soufflé.

  3. zaldar says:

    If you have never played a game of this…I have never heard of it before the tesla effect will the book make any sense? Should I read old game faqs before I get this if I do..?

  4. Richard says:

    Wouldn’t recommend it. Much like the game, it assumes both knowledge and fondness of the characters and story so far. (Just as a basic starting point, a character you’ve never heard of having changed personality for seven years doesn’t really mean a whole lot.)

  5. Caliburn says:

    Hi zaldar, Tesla Effect does make some attempt to bring newcomers up to speed, but probably the best place to start with the Tex Murphy series is either Under a Killing Moon or The Pandora Directive. Those games are available to buy on GOG.com

    If you prefer to read, there are also book versions of Killing Moon and Pandora, though they’re out of print, and there are e-book versions floating around.

  6. Richard says:

    He’s also re-releasing them with some tweaks and extra bits.

  7. zaldar says:

    Are the books or the games being rereleased?

  8. Richard says:

    The games are all available here. By far the best starting point is The Pandora Directive. Under A Killing Moon is super-goofy (interesting to see after the others, especially to see how they advanced, but wouldn’t recommend it as your first game), and Mean Streets/Martian Memorandum pretty crappy by modern standards. Play Pandora, go on to Overseer, then Tesla.

  9. Caliburn says:

    Just want to update for zaldar or anyone else who sees this page in the future:

    Besides the Tesla Effect novel on Amazon and all the Tex Murphy games on GOG, Richard also mentioned that Aaron Conners would be re-releasing his novelizations of Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive. That was the first I’d heard of it, but unsurprisingly it turns out Richard was quite correct.

    The three books (UAKM, Pandora, and Tesla Effect) can now be bought from Aaron Conners’ website, and you can even get them signed:
    http://www.aaronconners.net/

  10. Richard says:

    Yep. And there’s another book due by the end of the year which is set before Tesla Effect, with Connors working on a final Tex story that may or may not become a game, but will end his adventures.

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