The adventure game genre is often noted for how refined it is compared to other more philistine genres. XPLORA 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World is an extreme example of this comparison. In 1993, interactive multimedia came into prominence, and the ever innovative Peter Gabriel decided to get involved and experiment with this medium. Collaborating with Brilliant Media under his own label Real World Records, the title was released for Macintosh in 1993, Windows in 1994, and CD-i in 1995. The avant-garde effort was well received by both fans and critics. Typical of Gabriel, the game is at times bizarre and feels like a purchase from a modern art museum store instead of a computer or record store. Rather than giving you a quest (or even a story), this is the kind of game meant to played with more than played (or explored, as the game itself calls it), which is a double-edged sword. Despite its age, the talent and care invested in its production is evident, and it looks younger than it is.
Gabriel was in the band Genesis before going onto a solo career. However, gamers might remember him most for the songs he had composed for Uru: Ages beyond Myst and Myst IV: Revelation. Gabriel was always prone to strange stage theatrics, and this carried over into his music videos in the 1980s. By the 1990s, little of his artistic style had changed.
XPLORA 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World is largely a companion to his 1992 album Us, but is still its own work, containing information about Gabriel himself, his record label and its artists, other projects, world music (making the disc particularly exotic), and much more. The game box is large and glossy, with an intriguingly bizarre image of Gabriel on its cover, and includes a bound paperback booklet (with its own ISBN) containing articles about the artists and musicians in the game, Gabriel's live tour, and various ideas. The collection is both enlightening and an interesting snapshot of 1990s multiculturalism and technology.
The game runs strictly in 640x480 pixels, and the resolution cannot be adjusted manually. The video quality is unsurprisingly bad, and the audio samples are in mono with a background hiss. Not only is the engine outdated, it is virtually nonexistent.
As the production value remains substantial and unique, the game does not feel dated. The graphic design is polished and professional, and the interface is seemingly treated as a canvas. Unfortunately, this also makes the gameplay more static than dynamic, as some parts of the screens move but most parts are largely stationary. There are various gaming elements added such as scavenger hunts, puzzles, and toys that set it apart from a purely informational encyclopedia. The game design is reminiscent of modern web design, which is prodigious considering it predates the widespread popularity of the internet. Navigation is handled at the top of the screen. An icon on the left leads back to the home page, and other icons further to the right showing different tiers as you navigate downwards, like breadcrumbs used in a website.
The main gameplay element is to fill a suitcase with objects hidden throughout the game. You are not told exactly what is to be done with it, let alone what to look for, so you must discover them through trial and error, unsurprisingly. In it go pieces of art, odd and ends, and items required to access some areas. However, because the pages are just bitmap images, collecting an item does not remove it, causing frequent disappointment when scanning for new items. There are some puzzles and games spread throughout. For instance, there is a tic-tac-toe mini-game played with snails and silverware hidden within Digging in the Dirt, but even if you know about it, it is triggered only by clicking a random event that appears for a few seconds. You have no way to know when this will happen, but you must visit the page several times to see it. There is also a game where you are a producer and match musicians with help from the illustrious Brian Eno, yet it is more about figuring out which box to click, like any puzzle.
In this sense, the game absolutely plays like an adventure, but not in the good way. You stumble through hoping for some triggers to eventually work through dumb luck. It may be fun to explore the game for a while, but it is frustrating to backtrack constantly, and there is no way of knowing what is going to happen when. It is also too tempting to just cheat by browsing directly for the media files on the disc, reducing any incentive to finish the game in order to unlock all the hidden media.
The game is often just to be played with, though. In the world music area, you can pretend to play various exotic instruments by clicking on them to play short sound clips of notes or beats. It is rudimentary, but still a novelty. There is also an interactive video tour of Real World Studios that feels clunky yet modern (Apple QuickTime VR had not yet been developed at the time). You can find a simplified mixing board there that lets you remix the song Digging in the Dirt. The sound is muddy, yet instrument tracks can be heard in isolation nowhere else but here. There are many other exclusive materials, such as featurettes, songs, and more.
The game also has Gabriel, of course. A frequent complaint of Full Motion Video games is how awkward or inept the acting is. Fortunately not much acting is involved here, as most people in the game are just being interviewed. Gabriel speak to you often, though, and more than gets by with natural candor. He explains the main screens of the game, sometimes gives hints, and if you are idle for a while, he will try to encourage you to move your mouse. Far from being narcissistic, there is much more from other artists and musicians. For each song on the Us album, there are interpretative artworks created by artists commissioned by Gabriel, several of which are interactive. A catalog of Real World Records' albums at the time also has biographical information on the artists included.
Aside from being a historical artifact, XPLORA 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World is still a fun title if you are into the music or the art. However, if you are not a fan, your boredom is guaranteed. There is also a sequel, called Peter Gabriel: Eve: Music and Art Adventure, which has more traditional gameplay elements and puzzles. Fans will love this, yet if you are not familiar, making his secret world your own may still be good for more than just an introduction.
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