The Psychotron

Posted by Dan Mace.
First posted on 01 December 2006. Last updated on 27 July 2010.
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The Psychotron
A CIA agent who is in charge of Russian acquisitions has gone missing.
The Psychotron
You must recover evidence left by the CIA plane inside the barn.
The Psychotron
Playing poker with the Mafia may get you in trouble!

The Psychotron is an adventure game developed in an era when the Multimedia PC standard has just begun to emerge as a marketable gaming platform. Full Motion Video (FMV) is all the rage, taking full advantage of the massive storage provided by the then new CD-ROM technology. Unfortunately, the eventual demise of FMV in games leaves in its wakes many titles that ultimately fail to deliver the enhanced interactivity promised with this technology. The Psychotron is such a title in this failed experiment.

The game begins with a mini movie where you are introduced to the President of the USA and the director of the FBI. You have been given the job to recover a stolen military device known as the Psychotronic Generator. Russia, in desperate need to alleviate the government's cash-crunch, has sold in secret to the USA this device that is formerly a product of research in Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) conducted by the USSR. The Psychotronic Generator, when used, displays past events that have happened in the area where the device is activated. Your initial investigation leads you to search through the offices in the CIA headquarter. You then interview shady suspects and face off against villainous rogues and organized criminals including the mafia. In the end, you must uncover the secrets behind the stolen device and foil the mastermind's evil plan for mass mind control.

The Psychotron, marketed as an "Interactive Mystery Movie", employs a multitude of media for its storytelling. It features more than an hour of video for Windows and dozens of computer generated 3-D animated sequences. Unfortunately, the FMV is not full screen in size (even though the viewing area can be enlarged to full screen) and the quality of the playback is very poor. The videos are used to play back character responses when interviewing witnesses or interrogating suspects. The computer graphics are not much better. Model resolution is low and animation is choppy. The original music score is MIDI based but gets very redundant after only a few minutes of play. Fortunately, there is a button to turn off the background music. The acting, done by professional actors, is surprisingly decent. In fact, some of the casts are really funny (either intentionally or unintentionally). A particular humorous scene is at the barn where Jim tells his tale in bed after having a plane crashed into the barn while he is still inside. He then tells you that he cannot read or write in a comedic southern accent!

The game is playable in both DOS and Windows. The use of Windows based platform, a rarity back at the time when the game is first released and DOS is the dominant operating system, aims to ease installation by using standardized operating environment for quick set-up and play. A glance at the installation instruction quickly brings back memories of agony from the need to properly configure config.sys and autoexec.bat in DOS in order to avoid memory issues (such as SMARTDRV) that may cause the screen to "freeze" up or an error to display on the screen during play. Fine tuning the system to comply with the multimedia system requirements of the game can get complicated in the era populated by only 486 systems and single speed CD-ROM drives. The game requires a minimum of 4 MB of memory, which is a premium system requirement at a time when memory modules for the computer are very expensive.

The gameplay in The Psychotron is from a first person perspective. When you step into each CIA office, a panoramic view of the office is shown before the camera stops. Hotspots are identified by way of a question mark in place of the mouse pointer. There are very few hotspots to investigate in each area and even the combination to the safe is easy to find. For interviews, you are given multiple choices of questions to ask, after which responses are acted out in the video. In most cases, the acting is comical and is likely meant to be done that way. The video sequences (no subtitles) are fun to watch and can be replayed by asking different questions and yielding different responses. The direction in which the game proceeds in part depends on the questions you ask. Incorrect choices can lead to dire consequences. An example is the poker game against a trio of Mafia criminals, in which a wrong remark or an incorrect bet can lead to instant death. The game limits the number of rounds when you can interact and proceeds onward regardless whether or not the necessary information has been obtained. Thus, it is possible to reach a dead end (so-called "resurrection" fallacy) because certain clues have been missed (for example, generator codes). Points are awarded according to how well you do. Your score is always visible at the bottom right corner of the game screen, so you can see how well you are doing by the amount in increases after each action. An unique scoring routine allows you to optionally match skills with 2 or 4 players to participate together in a single game. Only the player with the highest score at the end can play the final scene (though you can use an external media player to watch all the video clips by directly playing them from the CD). This is not a difficult game. The game can be easily finished in a few hours in a single sitting.

The Psychotron is a classic example of a game that has fallen victim to the early era of Multimedia PC in which the immature technology has prevented the game from delivering the interactive experience it promises. On the other hand, if you can temporarily suspend your high expectation of such technology and play the game at face value, The Psychotron can be a surprisingly fun distraction with its campy acting, character stereotypes, and retro looking graphics. Ultimately, The Pyschotron is a failed experiment by the developer to deliver a novel interactive gaming experience in a new medium that has yet matured in the early 1990s.

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