Reviewed: August 15, 2004
Released: June 24, 2004
Once every ten years the planets achieve a celestial perfection and somewhere on the planet a game developer creates something truly original. This year the developer is Lexis Numérique and the game is Missing: Since January. If you think the title is cryptic just wait until you get your hands on this ultimate brain-teaser that mixes puzzles and story with a totally unique and immersive online quality that puts you right into the game.
I hate to even use the word “game” here, as Missing is more of a simulation or an experience, almost like one of those dinner theaters or mystery weekend adventures where you become part of the story. The premise is simple. You play as “you”, not some onscreen avatar or mega-hero wielding a shotgun. One day you receive a CD (the game disc) in the mail from a news agency. On this disc is encrypted information about the abduction of two reporters, Jack Lorski and Karen Gijman, who were investigating a string of serial murders.
From the moment you insert that black disc you are thrust into a psychological thriller that preys upon your subconscious through audio and visual stimuli, and a diabolical plot that will have you squirming in your seat from start to bone-chilling finish.
Missing comes on two discs; the first installs all of the components that will simulate a lot of the online aspects of this game. The second disc (the black one) is the one you insert to access the twisted dementia of psycho-killer, “The Phoenix”. As his cryptic words Teletype across the screen you are greeted with three introductory “tests” or puzzles that you must solve to prove you are worthy to proceed. As you solve each puzzle you are given video snippets and access to new areas of the CD, each offering new clues and additional areas with more puzzles to solve.
The first order of business is to register. While Missing does require access to the Internet and an email account it is not an “online game”. You choose a login and an email address and a password will be mailed to you. This was where I encountered my first and only problem with the game. I wanted to use my standard email program, Outlook, but no matter what I tried I could not get the game to email anything to my work, home, or even some custom email accounts created specifically for the game. I also had no luck using Outlook Express. Ultimately, I created a new email using Yahoo (Hotmail or any other web-based email seems to work with no problems as well) and I had my password in about 45 seconds. Time to find me a killer…
It would have been so easy for Missing to fall into the same old clichéd gameplay of puzzle after endless puzzle, and while the game does feature numerous conundrums that will have your brain smoking, every answer you need is buried somewhere within the game or the vast wealth of knowledge at your disposal on the Internet.
Yes, in this game you actually get to surf the web searching for clues and exchange emails with virtual characters that will guide and assist you. One of the earliest puzzles has you seeking a password hidden on a giant picture on a website. You only get to view a very small section of that picture through a Shockwave window so you have to scroll around searching for the hidden clue. Remember the photo-search scene in Blade Runner?
You also get emails from characters within the game that seem so real you’ll want to add them to your address book. My first contact game from a girl who was attending Indiana University (PA) and had designed a really cool website dealing with Salem and witches. There are hundreds of sites like this being used, some created just for this game as well as many real web locations that are being used to hide clues for the various puzzles.
The puzzles range from simple password discoveries to mini arcade games where little insect creatures are restoring a piece of worn newspaper and you have to click and kill other larger insect-like creatures that are trying to kill the ones helping you. You also get to manipulate video, either by using an analyzer to search for clues or rearrange and reassemble clips to restore a complete video sequence.
Some of the puzzles are deceptively simple. A veteran of the entire Myst series I probably look too hard to find a solution, as was the case with one of the first puzzles where I was prompted to simply “enter the password”. I was given a blank box that accepted up to ten letters and the word CORPUS appeared above the box. I immediately scoured the Internet looking for any possible words that typically follow “Corpus” and started trying them all. This effort was made no less easy by the fact that the puzzle had also scrambled my keyboard so each key entered a different letter. Suffice to say I spent nearly an hour over-thinking this puzzle before the fiendishly simple solution revealed itself.
As you play the game you will continuously get new emails; about 50 in all by the time the game is over, and while many offer excellent clues, others will give you complete solutions, so you need to be a bit careful. Most emails are triggered by in-game events and really give you the illusion that you are working with a team of investigators. Even the SKL Network website is totally convincing and I have to wonder how many people have actually applied for jobs in their employment section.
Throughout the entire game you will have the uneasy feeling that you are a mere puppet and The Phoenix is pulling your strings. He will taunt you throughout, even when he is offering minor assistance, and when this killer starts to exchange email with you directly near the end of the game you will certainly be feeling like Clarice closing in on Hannibal.
Missing is a visual masterpiece that uses both QuickTime and Shockwave technology to deliver some sinister graphics. While this makes for a great game, I have to wonder if a serial killer would have the skills to code something like this simply to taunt the police and press.
There is nearly an hour of video and the quality is superb while maintaining that home movie flavor. The opening sequence of an unseen assailant chasing a woman through a maze of hallways using a nightvision mode is unsettling and reminded me a bit of the Blair Witch Project. As you solve puzzles The Phoenix will reward you with additional footage of Jack and Karen that will lead you to the ultimate conclusion.
The puzzles and non-video portions of the game are all colorful and exquisitely beautiful with sinister designs. One menu has a swirling mass of blue vaporous material with circles moving about. Clicking on each circle transitions you to a new area of the CD with more puzzles. Other screens have geometric designs and religious symbolism that heighten the general creepiness of the experience.
Rather than recreate it’s own web and email interface the game simply uses the software already on your computer. This not only personalizes the game, it gives you the freedom to explore the entire web for clues rather than just simulating the “surfing” experience within the confines of the story and puzzles.
The game runs at a fixed resolution but it also takes up the entire screen, so if you have your Windows resolution set really high you will have a lot of black space around the borders. Since you will be switching to your email and web browser it would have been nice to have an option to run the game in a window. Eventually, you will get a small button added to your interface that gives you access to previous video clips, and external links to your email and web browser. You can move this button and sliding menu bar anywhere you like.
The audio presentation is excellent and fits the dark atmosphere of the game and the visuals. The music is more atmospheric than score, even though actual instruments are creating the backdrop. The sound effects are perfectly matched to the graphics and some even have a supernatural flair to them. The demonic chanting on some screens persists, even with you task-switch out to your web browser.
The speech is also perfectly delivered, but not in such a way that you ever think for a moment that actors are playing these parts. You really believe these are personal movies of Jack and Karen. Some of the narration plays out like a journal or diary, and you can easily get caught up in the entire voyeuristic experience. Combined with the graphics, Missing is a psychological feast for your senses.
Missing is only $20 and that is almost a bigger crime than the one you will be solving in the game. I easily had more fun, excitement, and pride of achievement in completing this title than I normally do in most of the $30-50 games I play. Admittedly, the game is a mystery and once solved there is no reason to ever replay it, so it is a one-hit wonder, but oh, what a ride you shall have.
Depending on how good you are at puzzles and how caught-up you get in the mystery, Missing will keep you busy for several days or perhaps a week of casual gaming. As I mentioned earlier, I lost about an hour of game time to a puzzle that was so simple many will solve it in thirty seconds. Some of the game length will be based on your own personal knowledge. If you have some background in Greek then you might be able to skip some research that others would have to do. Expect anywhere from 15-25 hours to crack this case.
Missing: Since January is so innovative it almost seems that the designers are testing the waters for a new genre of games. Sure, we have puzzle games galore, often wrapped up in the disguise of an “adventure game”. Missing doesn’t pretend to be anything that it is not. The puzzles that are part of this game are designed as tests to prove your worth to do “battle” with The Phoenix in cyberspace.
There will be times when you feel you are actually “at work” and that’s not a bad thing, but merely proof that the game is achieving that level of immersion the designers wanted. When you hear that incoming message being delivered to your inbox, or when you visit that new web link for the very first time you’ll start getting a subconscious twinge of excitement, and that is when you feel like you are a member of the C.S.I. team or an investigative reporter working late in the research library, and that is when this game really works.