First posted on 19 March 2008. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
About the author
Matt Barton is the author of Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, published by A K Peters (2008). The text chronicles the history of computer role-playing games and explores the genre in depth from the perspective of an expert game player. The book is of interest to all fans and developers of role-playing games, adventure games, and interactive fiction.
For more information, visit Dungeons & Desktops.
Lexis Numérique's The Experiment (also known as eXperience112) as is an aptly named game on many levels. On the one hand, The Experiment is about a giant, top-secret experiment gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, the game is an experiment (perhaps even a "gimmick") in gaming interface. Instead of controlling the avatar directly, the player can only guide the character indirectly. The setup has the player in charge of a server network, which controls the cameras, lights, robots, and a few other devices. The avatar speaks directly to the player, giving advice and asking for help. While intriguing in concept, the execution is flawed by sluggish graphics and unresponsive controls. Character movement is too slow (the avatar moves like a zombie), and the real-time camera views suffer from many glitches. The mouse pointer frequently lags and skips, making some of the timed sequences almost unplayable. Overall, though, The Experiment is a curious game that is still worthy of a recommendation, albeit with some reservations.
The story begins on a giant ship that has shipwrecked in some unknown part of the world. The avatar, the beautiful and scantily clad Lea Nichols, awakens in a hospital bed with a drip attached to her arm (similar to the opening in the movie 28 Days Later). Soon, the player learns that the ship has been shipwrecked for quite some time, and apparently Lea has slept in a sort of coma for years—yet has maintained her youth. Supposedly, the ship has once served as a base for a top-secret experiment involving subterranean beings called the tyriades. Somehow, the experiment has gone horribly wrong. The crew is now dead, and Lea is one of only 2 survivors on board. Miraculously, most of the base's security cameras and server networks are still operational. The player is put in charge of these, using the cameras to scan the rooms and direct Lea's attention to various areas by flipping the lights on and off. It is never really explained who the player is supposed to be or how the player has gained control of the system, but these questions are soon forgotten as the player gets enveloped by the story. The player also learns about the other crew members, discovering their passwords, and reading their personal and sensitive files stored on the server. Lea will also eventually meet up with the tyriades, some of whom speak human language; the others can only communicate via a pheromone language that the player must decipher. Unfortunately, there are plenty of plot holes and unanswered questions that still remain by the game's rather abrupt and disappointing ending.
The production values of the game are mostly high, with considerable polish and attention to detail. The environments look grimy and realistic, even if the cameras give everything a somewhat grainy appearance. Lea finds "add-ons" for the cameras which offer abilities such as zoom, sharpness, and brightness, as well as thermal and pheromone detection modes. Some of the cameras are faulty or placed in awkward locations, which generates some horror movie like suspense in a few segments of the game. It is also fun to be able to see what Lea cannot, such as a pair of dogs or the other survivor on the ship. The music is appropriately eerie and surreal, and the ambient sound effects are very effective. Many of the rooms contain blood stains and long eroded corpses—horrific images familiar to players of survival horror games. However, Lea cannot die in this game, so there is no need to worry about being hacked to death by the aliens. The voice acting is not very good; I suspect some problems with the translation from the original French language version. In fact, in the end sequence, it is difficult to discern which of 2 characters are speaking; I think the parts may have been spoken by the same actor failing in trying to sound distinct. Lea has by far the most lines of spoken dialog, but her voice actor opts for a flat delivery that does little to endear her to the player.
Sadly, my personal experience with the gameplay mechanic was less than stellar. Ironically, the game's key strength (the unusual interface) was its greatest weakness. Having the multiple cameras on dramatically reduced the game's frame rate, and the mouse lagged and skipped horribly. The only solution I discovered was to reduce the number of cameras on screen; this only lessened the problem but did not solve it entirely. Then again, I was running it in widescreen resolution, a major advantage in a game with so many multiple windows. Even at the high resolution, I was constantly having windows blocked and had to move them around. The tiny buttons on the windows were very hard to hit with the laggy mouse, and I had to take occasional breaks to keep from losing my temper altogether. I also experienced another interface glitch: the window showing the "collaborators" and their information was lopped off at the bottom. This did not matter in most cases, but it did in one critical puzzle—I needed to read off a password from the bottom row to access the bathyscaph. I wondered how much information I had missed elsewhere by not seeing that bottom row.
Other problems plague the interface, some of which are solvable and others which are not. For instance, players may be unaware of the many resolution modes available in the game. The trick is to use the mouse wheel to scroll up and down within a dropdown menu; only then can all the options be seen. Another concerns the placement of lights, cameras, and doors on the area map. Sometimes the buttons are extremely close together; indeed, in the last scene they are simply too close to be activated, so that it is not obvious to see that some of the icons on the area map can be disabled in order to isolate the door buttons. On the positive side, Lea will frequently give advice and hints, but they are not always applicable or relevant. For instance, Lea may tell the player to check someone's file in the database, even though that person's login or password information is not yet discovered by the player. Unfortunately, the game will continue to advance even if the player does not have all the required information (particularly with Paul Guirnisch's login or password), so it is possible to get to the very end of the game without having all the necessary files.
The problem is that it is difficult to know what areas contain vital information. The player can only turn lights on and off to get Lea's attention, and sometimes this action must be repeated a few times before Lea will respond. In fact, the player will probably get into the habit early on of clicking the lights on and off at least a few times to make sure Lea will not miss anything. What makes matters worse is that Lea will not know to search a certain area until she learns other information; thus, the player must backtrack, turning the lights on and off and dealing with a laggy mouse and zombie like avatar to check for the missing information.
There are not many puzzles in the game. The few true puzzles are mostly cryptograms, though there are also some simple inventory based puzzles and timed sequences. The most vicious of these is a puzzle that has Lea spraying pheromones at tyriades generals. The sequence is timed and involves quite a bit of fast rotating and precision work with the mouse. Given the mouse lag and slow movement, the player may have to repeat this puzzle for hours to get it right. The puzzle is so difficult because if even a single step is missed, Lea must begin again from scratch. There is also a bomb defusing puzzle, but it does not really matter. Even if the bomb goes off, Lea can still win the game—the only penalty is a long pause during the end sequence.
All in all, I enjoyed playing The Experiment despite its flaws. I would have greatly appreciated an option to speed up the avatar, or perhaps have her "zip" to previously visited locations without having to prod her with the lights. I would also have appreciated more in-game hints and feedback, such as a glimmer that would signal where an important item might be located. I would recommend this game most highly to gamers who might be tired of the standard point-and-click adventures and would like to experiment with something radically different—though I might point out that a similar concept was already explored in the 1985 Activision classic game Hacker. Overall, though, the pros outweighed the cons in The Experiment, and I was glad to see the developer pushing the genre in unfamiliar directions.