Strange. Ask your mild-mannered janitor/word scribbler here if he liked interactive movies and the answer would be a definite, thrusting and penetrative “NO!”. And yet, and yet, this column has already been home to glowing commentary on both Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within and The 7th Guest.
And now it's also going to be filled with effusive, bubbly words about another one, namely Under a Killing Moon. One of the most infamous games of the 1990s, it followed on from one of our previously discussed games, The 7th Guest, by really exploiting the new capacities of CD-ROMs, coming on no fewer than four of the sods.
It was also incredibly taxing on our poor old double digit megahertz machines. The system requirements of a 386 at 25 MHz doesn't sound threatening now, but back in 1994 it was a very high absolute minimum spec. It was really crying out for a 486 to run properly and if you had the money to afford a quality system, it was very impressive. If you didn't, it made you yearn to upgrade.
Few games do this nowadays, due to developers not pushing boundaries too much because of console hardware remaining the same for so long, but back in the 90s, big name releases like this or Wing Commander 3 were real promotional tools for hardware manufacturers.
As for the game itself, it's a gumshoe noir adventure starring, interestingly, the guy who created it. Chris Jones was the main man behind the design of the game and he played the lead role of Tex Murphy, the beleaguered and downtrodden private eye who gets embroiled in a case involving a missing statuette.
Playing out like a traditional adventure, you'd move Tex around the various locations, finding objects and interrogating or just plain talking to characters inhabiting the game world, which was a crumbling radioactive post-World War III San Francisco. It's a grim place, the streets littered with rubbish and most of the buildings out of us. A large number of people have been disfigured or mutated by radiation, causing tension between the norms and the mutants.
Of course, even a token glance at the screenshots will tell you it's anything but a traditional adventure game. For a start, it's mostly played from a first-person 3D perspective, with complete freedom to look and move around the room at will. It's important that you can, because you often have to scour locations for hidden clues.
When conversations take place, the camera shifts out of first-person view and into a third-person one where you can see that the characters are all digitised and filmed and that sort of thing. Some of them you might even recognise, too. Margot Kidder was Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman, for example, and Brian Keith was in The Parent Trap in 1961. Russell Means was in Last of the Mohicans and Natural Born Killers, while there's no real need to tell you what James Earl Jones was in.
It's quite tough, often requiring some detailed scrutiny of the now very low resolution environments, and it's perfectly possible to die later on, so watch out for that. It's very well written and you'll become very attached to the bumbling loser that is Tex Murphy, played excellently by Jones.
On a side note, it's actually curious to read elsewhere that people seem to hate the acting, even Jones's. They couldn't be more wrong. Perhaps your correspondent is being a little too forgiving because it's a game he enjoyed way back when, but it's difficult to imagine someone genuinely disliking the acting.
Under a Killing Moon's most inspired design choice was not to overload the game with media moments or to make the way you play it a slave to the video. Also, there's a fantastic hint system that requires you to purchase hints using in-game points that you've earned by solving puzzles earlier. It's bizarre that nobody has used this system since (to my knowledge).
While it isn't necessarily remembered as fondly as the likes of Monkey Island or certain Sierra titles, it's easy to forget just how ground breaking this was back in 1994. It pioneered techniques that people still can't do properly – just look at some of the absolutely shitty adventures that attempt to go first-person nowadays – and genuinely pushed people into upgrading their machines in order to play it in all its glory.
It still stands up as an adventure to this day, with snappy dialogue, a lovable lead character and two more games of very similar quality following it that you'll instantly want to play after finishing this one.
You can get it over on the glorious GOG.com along with its two sequels (and non-first person prequels too). Enjoy!