The 90’s were something of a golden age for the Graphic Point-and-Click Adventure.
From the likes of Revolution Software’s Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword to LucasArts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and The Curse of Monkey Island, many who grew up playing these narrative-heavy, puzzle-solving games look back on this era fondly.
Indeed, reflecting on such an era makes one lament how relatively unpopular the genre is nowadays. There are many theories surrounding the genre’s downfall – the rise of DOOM and the fast-paced action game was more fun and more instantly rewarding than the slow-paced, puzzle-solving brain-scratchers that were Point-and-Clicks, some say.
Or, perhaps, the genre simply suffered from overexposure – after all, a ton of Adventure Games were released during the 90’s and many were predictable and samey in their game mechanics (point cursor here, collect an item, combine with this item, talk to character here) that the genre merely became stale.
Heck, a great deal of Point-and-Click adventures used LucasArts’ SCUMM engine in their games so maybe it’s no wonder if that was the case.
Past Blast: Discworld Noir
Thus, when Discworld Noir was released in 1999, it’s no surprise the game fell under the radar for most people. It was at this point that far more fast-paced and insta-rewarding 3D polygonal platform and shooting games were ruling the gaming roost on such platforms as the PC and Sony PlayStation.
In addition, the publisher was folding just as the game was being released, meaning it received little to no promotion. This is a shame – because many missed out on what is arguably one of the funniest and inventive narrative-driven video games in existence.
Based on the late author Terry Pratchett’s comical fantasy universe, The Discworld, Discworld Noir mixed traditional character archetypes and themes from 1930’s film noir with Pratchett’s strange and humorous world to create a unique take on both of these things respectively.
Add to the mix gameplay based around a notebook and clues (and smells – more on that later) as well as the occasional object puzzle and you got yourself a success – if not the most obvious one.
The game’s story centres around the adventures of the Discworld’s first and only Private Detective, Lewton (a seeming nod to famous 1940’s film producer, Val Lewton) who, in traditional Noir fashion, has a fateful meeting with a femme fatale, Carlotta von Uberwald.
Asking Lewton to investigate the disappearance of her lover, Mundy, this sets the fledgeling Private Eye on a long case that will take him all over Ankh-Morpork, the Disc’s greatest city, in a plot that thickens by the hour.
In fact, it would be accurate to say that, out of the three Discworld video games developed by Perfect Entertainment, it is the most in-depth and engaging in terms of its narrative, with a few plot twists and interesting characters along the way that keep things fresh and interesting.
Whereas the original Discworld and its sequel, Discworld II: Missing Presumed…!? reflected the quirky and light-hearted tone of Pratchett’s earlier work with obvious fantasy parodies and even nods towards the absurdities of game design, Discworld Noir captures the relatively mature tone of Pratchett’s later work, especially from the ‘Watch’ novels.
Gone are the two-dimensional, zany cartoon visuals of the first two games – in their place are realistic 3D pre-rendered graphics that create a darker atmosphere. Indeed, the whole game takes place during night.
This is a different Discworld game, for sure – but it’s in these differences that the game truly shines.
The crux of the gameplay revolves around visiting locations from the game’s overworld map (the city of Ankh-Morpork which appears in most of the novels), interacting with characters in these locations and asking them questions to proceed the case.
The player asks these questions through a simple menu of dialogue choices but more frequently through the use of Lewton’s notebook. When Lewton hears important information or potential leads, he will automatically note it down in his notebook.
The presentation of the notebook is satisfying, with players able to freely flick through the pages and choose a subject to grill the character with by simply clicking it. Often, the path forward is illuminated by thinking about what subjects to ask the character about and in what order.
Part of the way into the game, Lewton obtains the ability to switch into a werewolf and out again at will – this allows him to track different scents and smells that can help with his investigations.
This, again, adds another dynamic to the gameplay, encouraging the player to use their brains and think about the various tools in their arsenal that can be used to crack a puzzle or situation.
It makes that moment when you do figure out a puzzle all the more satisfying. Where traditional object puzzles are concerned, many players will find relief in that they are relatively sparse, particularly in regards to the previous two games which were notorious for their overuse of this mechanic.
The presentation in Discworld Noir is visually impressive, and especially so given this is a video game released in 1999. From the music (the main theme of which employs old-style sombre saxophones) to the dark brooding setting, the game beautifully exudes the atmosphere of 1940’s film Noir.
Like with many games of its era, it utilises pre-rendered backgrounds for its various locations and characters, giving it a significant edge which wouldn’t have been achieved had the developers decided to use 3D polygonal graphics.
In fact, the only 3D polygonal character in the game is Lewton himself. Admittedly, some of the pre-rendered character animations can look a bit robotic and unnatural sometimes – and especially so, compared to the exuberance of today’s graphical technology.
Regardless, it works and doesn’t detract from the game. What does help is the game’s high-quality voice acting – which is even more impressive when you realise that four actors are providing the voices to over seventy different characters.
The stars include Irish comedian Rob Brydon (who masterfully provides Lewton’s ‘hard-boiled dialogue’ among other voices), Kate Robbins, Robert Llewellyn and Nigel Planer.
All four of these extraordinary talents are experienced UK comedy actors and it shows. The delivery of the dialogue is great, the voices varied and wonderfully executed and the comedic timing is on point.
Each character is uniquely brought to life and, with a game that revolves around character and dialogue, it’s good that they got that right.
But ultimately, Perfect Entertainment got a lot of things right with Discworld Noir.
It’s one of those rare gems that will not only appeal to a niche audience (fans of Terry Pratchett) but also to those who enjoy adventures games in general – particularly if you like your fantasy with a twist.
The fact that the game flew underneath the radar during the time of its release is simply criminal. It’s so unique in its premise – mixing Pratchettean comedic fantasy with film Noir themes – and its plot so deep and engaging that it is undoubtedly worth playing today.
While players have experienced considerable difficulty making the game work on newer versions of Windows, you can find a workable solution on lead game designer Chris Bateman’s blog. Trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.