In Memoriam (a.k.a. Missing: Since January) Download (2003 Adventure Game)

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Missing is a graphic adventure that invites players into the mind of a serial killer. The game's story begins with Jack Lorski, a journalist who had been investigating a series of gruesome murders but who has recently disappeared. The only useful trace of the missing man is a CD-ROM delivered to his employers, containing footage captured during his recent investigation. Charged with finding the lost journalist -- or at least figuring out what has happened to him -- the player begins to conduct a criminal investigation through the virtual crime scenes on the enigmatic CD-ROM.

Soon it is realized that an insane serial killer, calling himself "The Phoenix," is the source of the strange software. This killer is likely involved with Lorski's disappearance, as well as the crimes he had been investigating. But only by entering the killer's mind, through the grisly CD-ROM, can players hope to discover the methods to his madness and bring him to justice. Reminiscent of the short-lived (but bravely innovative) online game Majestic, Missing blurs the line between fiction and reality by featuring real-world websites mixed with the game's fictitious links, and even sending in-character e-mails directly to a home address the player supplies.

In Memoriam is simply the most bizarrely original game I have ever played. It is so novel in its design and gameplay that some gamers won't even classify it as an adventure game. For instance, some people insist that Myst isn't a "true adventure" because while there is a story (though you have to read the books in Atrus's library to discover it) there is no plot to guide your explorations. Much the same can be said of In Memoriam as well... except there is no exploration either. The lack of a recognizable plot, exploration and character interaction may lead some players to classify In Memoriam as a "puzzle game." I would disagree. Rather, I would say that the game defies classification, but would be enjoyed by fans of either genre. Or hated by both.

The story (or backstory, if you prefer) is quite involved. Investigative journalist Jack Lorski works for Internet media producers SKL Network. By happenstance, Jack purchased an old Super-8 camera that still had film in it at a garage ("car boot") sale. When developed, the film turned out to be vacation footage of a young family. The final scene on the film shows two men executing a third man with a bullet in the back of the head atop a distant and anonymous cliff. The hapless photographer must have just wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. He turns to flee when the killers notice him, and the film ends with his running away. Intrigued by this, Jack digs around and discovers that the camera belonged to a Dutchman who disappeared in Greece in 1975. He apparently never returned to where his family was sunning on the beach while he was off shooting the scenery. Jack hunts up Karen Gijman, the unlucky vacationer's daughter (whom we see as a child in the home movie) and together they set out to try to unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance/murder almost 30 years ago. But in an ironic twist of fate, Jack and Karen themselves vanish during their investigations. Eventually, SKL Network receives a CD-ROM from someone calling himself "Phoenix." On the disc, Phoenix claims to have abducted Jack and Karen. He also purports to be a serial killer who has been responsible for numerous murders all across Europe. The CD is a mélange of bizarre images, esoterica and puzzles. When they can't make any sense of it, SKL turns copies of the CD over to a few trusted investigators (you are only one of them) to decipher in the hopes of finding and rescuing the two victims. It is this, the actual CD-ROM from the killer, that is supposedly in your drive when you are playing In Memoriam.

The killer's creation is a psychotic cat-and-mouse game with you, offering hints to his motives for his killing spree and clues to help you follow the path of the murders he has committed in the form of myriad mini-games. Some games are arcade-like in nature while others are straightforward (if completely fresh and innovative) puzzles. Many force you to do research on the Internet through a variety of independent websites as well as many created specifically for In Memoriam. (More on this later.) When you successfully solve a puzzle/game, you are frequently rewarded with an excerpt from a video log of his investigations that Jack kept. (I was amazed at the quality of these videos. They are movie quality on a CD-ROM. This is the cutting edge of Macromedia Director.) Occasionally, your reward will be one of Phoenix's own camcorder clips. (As he sensed Jack and Karen closing in on him, he became the hunter as well as the hunted.) Phoenix's CD is a nightmarish compilation. In style and theme it borrows from such works as Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, The Cell, Blair Witch Project and Ringus/The Ring, then reinvents what it has borrowed to provide a truly fascinating and disturbing look into the mind of a serial killer. Hyperkinetic images accompany the games, and the games themselves are often horrifying in their nature. (One where you must guide a scalpel blade through a churning intestinal tract without causing any internal damage will stick with me for a loooong time, as will reassembling from edited clips the ditty Karen moans to herself during her imprisonment.) Twisted, discordant sounds and music provide a soundtrack for this nightmare realm. Lights flash and bizarreness flickers by too quickly for you to quite grasp. If ever there was a game that needs to put the epilepsy warning in giant bold print, this is it!

However, as wonderfully as it is presented, the format of "play a mini-game or solve a puzzle, see a video clip" eventually gets repetitive. The designers have provided a wholly original (well, mostly original... nobody actually played EA's Majestic, right?) way of breaking things up by letting you (forcing you) to browse the Internet from within the game. An internal link from the main menu will take you to SKL Network's home page. From there, you can use SKL's Google search bar to browse the Web, access AltaVista's Babel Fish for translations, or even open a modified version of Wordpad for making notes. In Memoriam's designers have brilliantly created many of their own websites to provide clues to the game's puzzles as well as culling references from sites that already exist. Some of the puzzles will require figuring out exactly what search terms to use to find the critical site. Hunting through sites about Tuscan farms or Istanbul's Hagia Sophia church can provide a pleasant and informative diversion from Phoenix's nightmare world.

The other unique and fascinating way that In Memoriam breaks up the gameplay pattern is by providing you with actual real-time e-mail. I mentioned earlier that you are only one of the investigators SKL hired. Early on in the game, you get an e-mail from your "partner," introducing herself and offering to collaborate with you. As the game progresses, you not only receive more correspondence from her, but also from SKL itself, other investigators, and even a "profiler" who offers insights into Phoenix's twisted mind. These e-mails come to your actual e-mail server, and can be accessed either directly through your server or through your computer's Outlook Express (or whatever software you use).... all without ever leaving the game or using the old alt-tab to switch tasks. At one point, frustrated by a particular puzzle, I tried sending an e-mail to one of these fictional partners, and I got back a response that addressed my question! I now suspect that that e-mail was triggered by my progress in the game and not by my sending my own e-mail, but at the time it was quite startling. From that point on, I e-mailed several of the game's fictional characters, and only one came back with a mailer daemon as undeliverable. I have no idea how the geniuses at Lexis Numérique pulled this off, but it provided a real-time sense of fun and urgency that was otherwise missing in In Memoriam. All told, I received more than fifty of these e-mails. By the end of the game, when you are closing in on discovering Phoenix's whereabouts and letting the police know where (or if) they can find Jack and Karen, the e-mails are flying and there is a real sense of tension as your team coordinates a final assault/rescue. In fact, I got several time-delayed e-mails over the next few days after I finished playing! The fact that you don't really have to send the e-mails necessary to prompt any of the replies takes away from some of this fun, and in the sequel (and yes, there may well be a sequel) the designers should look at allowing more interactivity with your real-time e-mail buddies.

But again, this in-game e-mail innovation has a downside. Or I should say downsides, as they seem to be all tied together. Because it accesses real e-mail servers, each installation of In Memoriam must be registered at the beginning of play, and each registration with a unique e-mail account. In order to prevent flooding your server with e-mails from the game (which are triggered by in-game actions) there are also no save game slots. Once you are done with something, you are done, period. The game constantly saves your progress during play. When you leave the game, it once again saves automatically. The end result is that if you hit a glitch in the game which cannot be worked around (I did. About ¾ through the game I encountered a Macromedia Director script error which would not let me progress and restarting the game simply brought me back to the page with the script error) you must start a whole new game from scratch using a different e-mail address. This also effectively limits replay value, since not everybody has numerous e-mail accounts or is willing to create one just to play a game. (Note: The second time, the game ran smooth as silk. I don't know what caused the original error, which occurred in the PHU puzzle, and while there is a patch available, I didn't know it at the time.)

Much has been said about how Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is the most important adventure game in years (or maybe ever) because of how it rethinks gameplay and provides real innovations. All I can say is that BS3 has its work cut out for it if it wants to be more original and innovative than In Memoriam. UbiSoft and Lexis Numérique have definitely raised the bar. This may well be the much-ballyhooed future of adventure gaming.

I said at the beginning of this review that this was the most difficult review I have written. I know already that many people will hate this game because of its lack of exploration, characters and interactive "playable" plot as well as its heavy preponderance of puzzles. Even many who love puzzle-heavy games may have problems with the arcade-style bits, including both a Pac-Man type game and a kind of combination of Space Invaders and Zaxxon as two of the final mini-games. Anybody who prefers only one specific "style" of adventure game is likely to be turned off because the types of games are so incredibly varied. Add to that the inability to save multiple games and the potential disaster of a game glitch and a critic could find much to hate about In Memoriam.

This was, without a doubt, the most original, bizarre, varied adventure title I have ever played. It not only pushes the envelope of what a game can be and do, it reinvents the envelope. It combines puzzles and games of varying difficulty levels from Nancy Drew to Rama in a fresh, fascinating and seamless mix. Whether I was searching the web for information about murders in Genoa or maneuvering blocks through a maze with rubber bands or setting dolls on fire to play with the remains I was being fully entertained. The acting in the videos was adequate if not outstanding, and the voice-over by Jack in his video log (which strangely didn't match his voice the few times you heard him speak on camera) was believable if not inspired. The e-mails from your teammates (many of them in comically-yet-all-too-authentic mangled English) were a fun and interesting addition, in at least a couple of instances even allowing you to get a hint of the correspondent's personality. The graphics are all top-notch and the sound effects (and sound puzzles) are terrific, successfully managing to heighten the atmosphere and really get under your skin.


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