By Gene Emery
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Reuters)
Three years ago, Electronic Arts combined phone messages, e-mail, faxes, streaming video, Web sites and AOL Instant Messenger to create a conspiracy game known as “Majestic.”
It was intriguing. It was ambitious. It was unique. But for a variety of reasons, it didn’t last.
Now Lexis Numerique has scaled down the concept to create “Missing: Since January,” which also tries to give players a sense that they’re solving a real-life mystery.
There are no faxes, phone calls or AOL messages.
But “Missing: Since January,” which was released in Europe about six months ago as “In Memoriam” and is distributed in North America by the Adventure Co., does give you a sense that you’re communicating on the Internet with a disturbed computer genius.
You’ll have to do some real-life exploration of the Web to get the solutions to several puzzles. And to help you in your quest, you will receive e-mail, purportedly from a television production company and people who are trying to find a missing reporter and his girlfriend.
You can sample the plot on the Web site for the fictional production company (http://www.skl-network.com). There you’ll see information about 40-year-old reporter Jack Lorski, read some stories he was working on, and inspect his desk as he left it when he disappeared with Karen Gijman, a 32-year-old independent illustrator.
The $20 game comes with a black CD-ROM that, according to the story, was sent to the network by someone who calls himself (or herself) “The Phoenix” and claims to be holding Lorski and Gijman hostage.
Obviously the Phoenix knows his way around computers. Once you load up the disk, he begins communicating with you, taunting you and, quite literally, playing with you.
He keeps unveiling a series of puzzles and mini-games that must be solved in order to get more information about the Lorski case. Some are pretty rudimentary, requiring nothing more than clicking on objects that dart around the screen. Some are pretty challenging. Some are very disturbing. (“Missing” is rated for mature audiences.)
One puzzle includes a movie showing the girlfriend’s face underwater. She’s struggling. Someone is obviously trying to drown her.
In fact, the whole game radiates the aura of a disturbed mind, with haunting, unsettling sound effects that will make you want to keep the lights on if you play at night.
Some challenges involve real detective work, using a combination of real Web sites and those created just for the game.
In one case, you must search the Internet to find the identities of six men shown in an old photograph. Fortunately, the names are so unusual that a search engine like Google quickly tracks down the picture.
Another puzzle requires players to piece together portions of film showing an assassination. You’ll also have to find the name of a girl with the tattoo of a snake on her belly.
The more puzzles you solve, the more the Phoenix reveals.
You learn that the reporter had stumbled onto an old Super 8 mm movie camera. The film, once developed, shows two men carrying out a murder. The owner of the camera was apparently killed when the murderers spotted him.
Lorski had become obsessed with finding out where the pictures were taken, who was murdered, and who the killers were.
As you progress through the game, you see video footage taken by Lorski and Gijman, who has her own link to the case.
If you get stuck, you won’t be alone in your quest. E-mails sent to you from the ersatz production company and other people supposedly trying to help you find the missing couple will give you hints or tell you where to find tools to help analyze the evidence.
“Majestic” failed because it was an open-ended subscription-based game where signing up was so complicated that nine out of 10 players who started to register never completed the process. And the streaming video could be very choppy.
“Missing: Since January” is a one-shot, self-contained game where signing up consists of choosing a log-in name and giving your e-mail address. The game instantly mails you a password, and you’re ready to play.
And because all the videos are on a CD-ROM, they run smoothly.
Whether “Missing” succeeds in North America will depend on how many computer owners would rather solve mysteries and puzzles than pick up animated guns and blast everything in sight.