# Calling the Shots
"Point-and-click adventures" are a dead genre, and having played a recent throwback in the form of *Deponia*, it's not hard to see why. The graphics may be prettier and the sound better, but this pretty game still falls prey to the same flaws - getting stuck on a single puzzle blocks you, and the most effective way to progress is to see what you can click on at every stage and then click on it whenever you can. It's a blind process that robs the player of any agency (and this is actually a general problem with a certain kind of puzzle game IMO; I've experienced the same thing with Antichamber, and heard friends complain bitterly of *Zelda*'s Water Temple), and reveals the fact that despite the ability to wander anywhere, these games are actually utterly linear in their progression.
With the brilliant *Flower of Evil* inspiring in me a new affection for rotoscoping, I turned my hand to *The Last Express*. This was an end of an era game, the last gasp of a medium that was coming to an end, as ambitious as it is tragic. It tries hard to fix the problems of the genre, with a relaxed mechanic that encourages you to smell the beautifully recreated 1910s roses, a replay mechanism that means failure puts you back at the point where you last made a wrong decision. And it uses all this not to provide a set of puzzles for the player to solve, but to tell a story, with these richly realized characters and a plot that's at once personal and world-changing. It's a level of ambition that's all too often absent, even in those games that manage this kind of narrative structure (e.g. the beautiful *Chrono Trigger*).
But paradoxically, every innovation or improvement only serves to emphasise *The Last Express*' inadequacy. The story wants badly to be a visual novel - and it feels like it almost made it, that with a little more bravery in pushing the envolope the form could have arrived then, decades before it became known in the west. I said earlier that failure returns you to your wrong decision - but all too often it's your *indecision* that mattered, your failure to do whatever was necessary to advance the plot. It's meant to involve the player - but the cost in frustration is too high as you repeatedly replay, looking for somethinrg, anything that means you are sent back ten minutes later and therefore were moving in the right direction, as bad as clicking everywhere only more cumbersome.
If the player's decisions were limited to actual decisions - and there are, or could be, some truly intense ones in *The Last Express*, as the player weighs the needs of righteous Serbian rebels and Russian firebrands against those of the Russian aristocracy, and decides whether to make an ally or enemy of an Austrian violinist who knows a little too much... this could be a visual novel like no other. Even the mighty *Fate/Stay Night* limited its attention to a self-contained magical war, near enough irrelevant to nonmages. *Koihime Musou* may technically tackle important real-life history, but its presentational approach seems designed to discourage the player from thinking too hard. If one could take a major historical event and offer the opportunity to explore it with genuine agency and major moral consequences, how much further could we go than even the best of movies and traditional videogames?
As it stands, *The Last Express* remains a work of great beauty. But it's undeniably flawed, requiring perseverance on the player's part to reach the most intricate parts of its spiralling plot. But then again, what good thing ever came easily?
comments powered by Disqus