The Facts of the Case
In the halcyon days of PC gaming–say, the ’90s–there was a craze that swept the land far and wide, which promised movie-quality experiences combined with interactive storytelling. It was hard not to see this as the next step forward in gaming immersiveness. This was the advent of full motion video (FMV) gaming, and we all looked forward to each new release with bated breath….
…until it actually happened. What we got, for the most part, was lousy acting, cheap-looking sets, and subpar gameplay. In most cases, the production of the video got all the budget, and the actual, y’know, game was almost an afterthought.
But! Luckily for young me, the detective genre offered more than a few stone-cold classics in this justly forgotten era. Today, we’re looking at what might be my favorite series of all time, involving everyone’s favorite post-nuclear-armageddon private eye, Tex Murphy.
Tex (played with increasing ability by series co-creator Chris Jones) is a traditional noir P.I. stuck in San Francisco after a nuclear war has irradiated most of the country. The war had the dual effects of creating a new subclass of society in the deformed mutant population and reducing most places to what can charitably be described as “rubble.” From his office apartment on Chandler St. (see what they did there?), Tex and his neighborhood buddies (almost all of whom are indelible characters in their own right) will solve mysteries, chat about nearly everything, and engage in some old-fashioned sleuthing.
Which is to say: these games are plot-heavy, story-driven, and are about ⅓ exploration, ⅓ traditional point-and-click/inventory puzzles, and ⅓ conversations.
Tex himself is a hard-luck case with a knack for getting in over his head, tripping over his own feet, and delivering narration and one-liners like it’s what he was born to do. He’s self-deprecating, noble, despicable, earthy, and funny–depending on which responses you choose in conversations to the other characters.
(Side Note: One of the great things about the conversations in these games is that you choose a response, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of Tex’s mouth. It’s a great way of making the laughs land harder and unexpectedly, and it’s easily worth replaying the games just to see all the dialogue play out.)
Danger’s like Jell-O. There’s Always Room for a Little More.
But really, the key to why these games are looked upon more fondly than most other FMV games of the time is that the game itself is solid, underneath all the fancy video clips. You’ll wander Chandler Avenue and its assorted buildings looking for clues, combining things in your inventory, solving puzzles and chatting up the neighborhood. You’ll visit other locations as well, and have conversations with Special Guest Stars, B-List celebrities, and even a few bona fide actors. You’re thinking “So far, so generic PC adventure game,” right?
But the secret sauce here is that, in a deviation from the traditional “click here to move” scheme of other adventure games of the time, moving around in the Tex series switches to a first-person 3D free-roam view. Which means, instead of just looking for the oddly-colored pixel to click in a room, you’ll have to stand up, crawl under desks, open drawers, search in corners and behind potted plants for the oddly-colored pixel to click. Sometimes, you’ll be under the gun and have to deftly avoid laser tripwires, sentry robots, or Men in Black in real time.
I cannot overstate how awesome the first-person detective game was back in the day and how much I still love these games even now. It puts you in the (gum)shoes of Tex and lets YOU do the hunting for clues and objects.
In between roaming whatever location you’re exploring and combining fishing poles with magnets and wire to get the clipboard off the desk from behind a window (look, it’s a mid-’90s adventure game, these things are gonna happen), you’ll happen across the odd puzzle. Some of these are codes, or anagrams, or symbol matching, or logic puzzles, or even a crossword–it’s a startling variety of stuff, and none of them are too mind-bendingly difficult, but they do present a nice way to break up the gameplay here and there.
(Side Note: Yes, there are slider puzzles. No, they still aren’t much fun.)
The Tex Murphy games also let you pick between Gamer and Entertainment play levels–choosing Gamer meant slightly harder (and more) puzzles, and it locked out the (brilliant) in-game help system, which basically was a mix of Infocom’s old Invisiclues hint books and a strategy guide.
(Side Note: Of course, intrepid gamers who didn’t want to admit that they were stuck would save their game, switch to Entertainment mode, look up the hint they needed, then reload their Gamer-mode save.
(Additional Side Note: I… am not a proud man.)
So what you end up with is an astonishingly well built sci-fi atmosphere and world, populated with memorable characters, played alternately for laughs and for dead-serious noir and suspense with strong stories that are driven by you, a down-on-his-luck private eye with little more than a hat, coat, and Certified Dance Instructor certificate to his name.
Throw in better-than-average acting (mostly), great musical scores, interesting puzzles and often-hilarious conversations, and it’s a recipe for a good time for any fan of adventure games or detective games.
Mean Streets/Martian Memorandum
The first two titles in the as-yet-to-be-a-series, Mean Streets and to a lesser extent Martian Memorandum, were groundbreaking games. Although mostly traditional 2D point-and-click adventure game, several scenes switched to action sequences where you’d have to duck bullets and fire back at the baddies, or pilot your speeder to the next location on a map that looked like a fractal display of an origami museum. Additionally, the games featured RealSound(™), which digitized the actors’ voices over their photos in the game (without needing a sound card, no less). This lent a certain authenticity to the conversations in the game and was a nice touch. Still, these days, both games are kind of clunky and pretty skippable
I’m Just a Humble P.I. Trying to Save the World as We Know It
And here’s where FMV enters the picture. The first of these, titled Under a Killing Moon, is the place to start these days. Aided by such luminaries as James Earl Jones providing the voice of–who else?–The Big P.I. in the Sky, Brian Keith (yes, that’s right, THE Hardcastle of Hardcastle & McCormick fame!) shows up as The Colonel, Tex’s old P.I. mentor. Margot Kidder is also here, playing… well, we’re not sure who Margot Kidder is playing here. It’s entirely possible she’s playing herself. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not sure an insane, murderous bartender on the moon is necessarily a stretch for her.
UAKM has Tex stumble onto a doomsday cult, a shapeshifting serial killer, and a conspiracy to cleanse the planet of everyone who’s… um… not a bad guy, I guess. Along the way, he pines after the neighborhood news vendor, pisses off the local pawnbroker, and combines some inventory items.
Under a Killing Moon is our first FMV introduction to Tex, Chandler Avenue, and the general motif of all his adventures to come. Jones is getting comfortable with the Tex character, and there’s still a roughness around the edges in the production quality and design. Still, the trademark Tex humor is here; it starts fairly broad and gets sharper as the series progresses, but there are still a few genuine laughs, and Jones is so earnest and charming in the role that you can’t help but just shrug and play along. I can still hear the saxophone and bass noir riff that plays to open each chapter in my head every now and then.
Also, there’s a dude with an elephant trunk for a nose. His name is Beek. I am not kidding.
Traditional P.I. Breakfast: Bourbon and Cigarettes
The Tex Murphy series continues with what is arguably one of the greatest adventure games of all time–detective genre or no–in The Pandora Directive. The production values took a quantum leap forward from UAKM, the plot is tighter, and the guest actors here are way more committed than their predecessors–Barry Corbin plays an NSA honcho, Tanya Roberts is the femme fatale, and Kevin McCarthy (he of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and UHF fame) is the mysterious client. The plot revolves around Area 51, alien autopsies, and the Mayans.
(Side Note: Back in 1996, those plot elements were enough to be mysterious and puzzling. Nowadays, it’s nothing you can’t find on any given episode of whatever’s on the increasingly inaptly named History Channel.)
(Additional Side Note: In The Pandora Directive, the NSA has changed its name to the National Surveillance Agency. Ha! Ha! Such kidders they were back in 1996!)
Jones is clearly more comfortable in front of the camera here, and his Tex feels even more lived-in and world-weary than before while still maintaining the humor and edge that’s so essential to the private eye archetype. The puzzles, the world, and the depth of conversation are all bigger here than in UAKM, and the result is a satisfying detective story that hits all the right buttons from a story, game, and immersion perspective.
Even better, this time, they incorporated multiple endings into the game–behind the scenes, based on choices and conversation options you chose, the game kept a tally of what kind of person Tex was being. The end result was one of nine(!) different endings that could land Tex in the arms of his beloved Chelsee or on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
The Pandora Directive is rightfully hailed as one of the shining examples of FMV and adventure games in general, and it is not to be missed.
Next Verse, Same as the First!
The next game in the series, Overseer, was something of a letdown, although nothing was likely to quite match the heights of Pandora Directive. The plot was recycled–characters and all–from Mean Streets, and in addition to this, Overseer was a bitch to get up and running, mainly because of the horrible, very bad, no-good DVD-ROM codec that it shipped with.
The star power here is Michael York, who does an admirable job, but with few surprises in the story and technical glitches that would sometimes crash you outright back to your desktop, Overseer felt like a bit of a step back. The biggest issue for me was that, because the game plays this as Tex’s “origin story”–most of the whole thing is told as a flashback–it’s a younger, more clean-cut and polite Tex Murphy, not the ill-mannered ne’er-do-well we’ve come to know and love, except for the present-day bookend cutscenes.
And frankly, I don’t need to know how Tex became the guy he was at the beginning of UAKM. You had me at “hard-boiled private eye,” with all of its associated shorthand and context. I want to see if and how he grows from there, not how he got there, you know? It seems like there are fewer puzzles, conversations, and outright detective work here, too.
That said, the video is the cleanest of the series, and some of the best locations in the series are in this game, including an old Anasazi village and a billionaire’s mansion. Not a bad game by any means, but in some respects the most disappointing.
Hangovers Are Just Nostalgia for Last Night’s Whiskey
Most recently, thanks to a funded Kickstarter (full disclosure: yes, I contributed to said Kickstarter) we got, against all odds, a new Tex adventure earlier this year with The Tesla Effect. It picks up with a good hook–Tex is kind of a dick now, and has been for the last few years, but we don’t know why–and then, before we get to find out why, he gets hit in the head and promptly restored back to his old self with a bad case of amnesia, leading him on a quest to find out what exactly the hell’s been going on these past years while we’ve been away.
It’s a good conceit for bridging the years since Overseer, and the story is passable (if it goes a little sideways at the end, well…that’s kind of par for the course for a lot of game stories, unfortunately). A lot of the old characters and actors are back, too, which is nice.
And that’s what it is…nice. It’s nice to see everyone back in their place, it’s nice to have Jones back as Tex, delivering his trademark smirks, and it’s nice to have that heady mix of free-roam and adventure puzzles back again.
Unfortunately, it never really manages to transcend sheer nostalgia. The puzzles are downright scarce, the world seems smaller, and the pacing of the whole thing is just off, with Chandler Avenue feeling weirdly deserted and claustrophobic. A latter section of the game is a series of puzzles that take place entirely in the last location, which feels like it takes forever to get through.
More importantly, whereas earlier games managed to maintain a good mix of exploring, conversations, and puzzles, here it’s more a situation where you’ll have a metric ton of conversations for what seems like a million years before you’ll even sniff a puzzle. Then out of nowhere you’ll be dumped inside Puzzle Central, with no conversations with anyone until you’ve solved them all.
The locations are weirdly confining, too, and there’s no sense of this being a living, breathing world the way that the earlier games were.
But nostalgia is a sucker’s bet anyway, and I’m glad I played Tesla Effect for the sheer joy of seeing Tex again (and my beloved FMV sequences). In this day and age, the fact that we got another Tex game is a minor miracle, and fans of the series will still want to play this just to see the gang (mostly) back together. Luckily, at least multiple endings are still possible, though I haven’t been able to bring myself to replay key bits to see what they are.
What’s It All Mean, Kid?
At its best, the Tex Murphy series married hard-boiled noir, science fiction, and comedy together in a stew of traditional adventure gaming and a refreshingly immersive atmosphere. The full motion video lent gravitas and narrative to the wild stories and made the characters feel like real people you were interacting with. The first-person free movement heightened the immersion by elevating computer detecting from “clicking” to “moving around and clicking,” which did a lot more than you’d think for making me feel like a digital gumshoe.
4 of 5 rumpled trenchcoats for Under a Killing Moon, mainly for the game mechanics, world-building, and one-liners. Also, a Margot Kidder performance that should have made someone call the authorities. Start here if you’re the least bit interested in the series, as it’ll make the impact of the next game that much bigger. Speaking of which, 5 of 5 hip flasks for The Pandora Directive, about which I’ll only keep gushing, so really, you should just go play it now if you’ve never done so, and I may in fact be reinstalling it as I write this. From there, you can linger over 3 of 5 broken dreams for Overseer, which admittedly plays better these days thanks to a patched modern day version AND a general time-lost familiarity with its predecessor, Mean Streets. Finally, if you’ve come this far, then you’ll want to at least throw a glance towards The Tesla Effect’s 2 of 5 dangerous dames, just to see how our hero ends up.
Where to Get It: All the Tex Murphy games are available on GOG.com, for highly reasonable prices (you can usually get UAKM, Pandora, and Overseer for collectively less than ten bucks), and they all work just fine on modern PCs. Tesla Effect is also available on Steam.