What do the weather, the stock market, leaves, sea coasts and the nervous system all have in common? (Besides all being things which conspire against yours truly.) Give up? Each of these has been studied in an attempt to define and understand the relatively new branch of mathematics/physics known as Chaos Theory. You might remember having heard Chaos Theory mentioned if (when) you saw Jurassic Park. The so-called "Butterfly Effect" in which the flapping of a butterfly's wings can impact the weather has been used in at least two other adventure games. But CHAOS may be the only adventure game ever to fully immerse itself in the deeper mysteries and applications of Chaos Theory. Developed by arts and technology departments at NYU, CHAOS is one of those rare edutainment titles that is actually interesting in its "edu-" and long on "-tainment."
The story starts out fairly simply with some familiar sci-fi touches. You, the generic first-person-perspective-faceless-nameless hero, get a vidphone call from your rich Uncle Prospero. It seems he has a hankering to see his "only living relative." Since the only other message waiting on your answering machine is from a surly collection agent for the Virtual Environment-of-the-Month Club reminding you that you owe them several thousand credits, you have every reason in the world to stay in your uncle's good graces. You, after all, live in a tiny trailer and apparently subsist on leftover pizza. If you want to remain attached to your kneecaps, you'd better hightail it to your uncle's mansion which is "just a short drive up the coast." This short drive takes up the first two-thirds of the game. At each step of the way, your journey is interrupted. You find you must get your uncle's experimental weather control station operational, record a hit song, take a seemingly endless drive up a fractal coastline and assist an eccentric botanist all before you even reach Uncle Prospero's mansion. Once there, your troubles aren't over. You will have to dabble as an immunologist, a neurosurgeon and a stockbroker before you get into your uncle's good graces.
Each of the puzzles and pit stops through the game is related (though sometimes only tangentially) to some aspect or example of Chaos Theory. To help you out, you are provided with a futuristic PDA-cum-vidphone. At the beginning of the game, you are able to download (from an infomercial, no less) a serious but superficial primer on Chaos Theory. More helpful and vastly more entertaining is the journal of his experiments and theories that your uncle uploads to your PDA. Each entry relates to one of the way stations on your trip and provides authentic examples of real world analyses and theories. (You can find a list of the real source materials on the PDA as well.)
Reading the journal is not essential to helping you through most of the game's puzzles. Only one puzzle actually requires a hint from the journal, and that hint is actually pretty obscure and non-intuitive in how it is applied. However, the journal is packed with enough humor that you will want to read it all the way through. (Rand Miller could learn a thing or two from CHAOS.) Most helpful of all are the brief phone calls you receive from Uncle Prospero, who will give you a little nudge sometimes if you seem stuck. These are mixed in with the sarcastic calls he makes when you get too stuck.
And it is possible to get completely stuck in CHAOS. That damn collection agent will show up if you spend too much money in any one spot, ready to electronically drain your entire bank account. If he doesn't get you, it is possible to lose your entire savings in the stock market. It is even possible to blow yourself up early in the game. As with most adventure games, the rule is save often. However, some bugs can develop if you have a lot of saved games, so you are best off using them judiciously and overwriting older saves that you are certain you no longer need.
Being both an edutainment title and a first-person slideshow game, you might expect that puzzling provides the backbone of CHAOS, and you'd be absolutely correct. There is a real mixture of type and quality of puzzling, running the gamut from easy to baffling and poor to sublime. There is a completely non-intuitive and unclued pixel hunt at the start of the game. There is a frustrating maze, made complicated by the poor navigation interface. (More on this later.) The stock market puzzle depends on a combination of twitch reflexes and sheer luck. The first step to successfully recording your hit record is completely unclued and will only be discovered by luck. The drive up the fractal coastline is repetitive in the extreme. And there is the aforementioned application of a clue from Uncle Prospero's journal in a completely nonsensical way that had me gritting my teeth.
Balancing this out are some really interesting and fun puzzles. Once I had successfully navigated my way through the forest maze, I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle of what to do with all the pieces of paper I had found littering the forest floor. Recording songs at the radio station was fun even on the failed attempts. And the repetition of the long drive up the coast was broken up by some outrageous humor at each of the identical gas stations (manned by identical attendants) along the way.
Humor, in fact, plays a big part in CHAOS. Before you ever start playing the game, the manual itself will have you laughing. Ostensibly written by a temp worker at Harper-Collins who accidentally destroyed the original manual, the booklet manages to give you the basic facts you need couched in a baffled missive from someone who can barely operate a letter-opener, much less a computer. Consider these Dos and Don'ts from the manual:
DO face the monitor. Blind playing brings bad luck.
DON'T try to "open" the monitor or the computer in order to "touch" the characters in the game. When I attempted this, I received a nasty electrical shock.
DO remember to save your game often. You never know what might happen in the world of CHAOS. Or in the real world for that matter.
DON'T call your mother right after oral surgery. They give you that Sodium Pentothal stuff and you might say something you'll regret later. Take my word for it.
DO find a comfortable mouse-handling position. I kept bumping my elbow on the arm of my chair.
DON'T play this game at home, unless you absolutely have to. Play it at work, where at least you're getting paid to goof off.
The laughs continue once you actually start playing CHAOS. From the cliché-greasy collection agent to the smarmy DJ at KAOS Radio (where "YOU make the hits") to Uncle Prospero himself, every single character you encounter will make you laugh. The acting is usually over-the-top parody, played for laughs and played well. The gas station attendant is particularly hilarious, delighting in shattering the "fourth wall" by asking whether you are "clicking on me out of hostility or friendship" and suggesting that you should be out enjoying a real sea coast instead of "sitting in a dark room staring at a computer screen." I know that humor is a relative and personal thing. What one person finds funny will leave the next person cold. (I still wonder in stupefaction at the success of Alf.) But CHAOS struck all the right chords with me, tickling my funny bone through the entire game.
Like many "Myst-clones" of its time, CHAOS comes off on the short end of the comparison graphically. The pre-rendered 640x480 resolution graphics often show a fair amount of pixelation or lack of detail. As with most any game that has the feature, this pixelation turns into real blurriness during the sliding transitions from node to node. The inset FMV sequences of the real-life actors, however, are sharp and seamless. Overall, the graphics are fair if a bit dated by modern standards. They don't completely suck, but they sure aren't anything that will stand out in your memory years (or even weeks) down the road.
Perhaps the worst problem with the graphical presentation of CHAOS is the navigation interface. Movement is accomplished with the cursor in traditional point-and-click style. When you roll the cursor over most of the screen, it is a circle with an X through it. It becomes a hand when you roll over something with which you can interact. Moving the cursor to the edge (but not the very edge) of the screen will change it to an arrow if you can move that direction. Besides the four standard directions of left, forward, right and turn around, there are times when you can also move diagonally to one of the four corners of the screen. Finding these diagonal-movement hotspots can be frustrating, as they tend to be pretty tiny. Further frustrating your efforts to navigate is the fact that the result of moving a particular direction is not intuitive. A click forward may move you five feet or twenty feet, and it may have you moving around curves or turning left or right during the movement. These features combine sometimes to make just getting from Point A to Point B a puzzle in itself, and will have you tearing your hair out in the forest maze.
Overall, CHAOS is a mixed bag. The originality and variety of puzzles (not a crate in sight) is a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by cookie-cutter games. With comedic adventure games a dying-to-dead sub-genre, gamers who like laughs in their games should consider this one a must-play. And it shines as an edutainment title, not forcing the player to sift through the educational content, but making that material interesting and fun to read for that player who chooses to do so. But these positives are accompanied by some dated and lackluster graphics, occasionally obscure, unclued or illogical puzzle solutions, and a truly terrible navigation interface. The result is a flawed but rare gem well worth a try.
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