The Pandora Directive

04 Nov

When we started out with Mean Streets, we wanted a vintage, hard-boiled detective from the 1930s and 1940s. You know, the Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler classic character. But since then, we’ve changed our picture of [our detective] Tex [Murphy]. We want to see some human vulnerability. We don’t want the superhero. Too much of the videogame genre is just these invincible characters. They aren’t real; they don’t have texture; they don’t have any kind of fabric to their personality. It’s not very interesting really, dealing strictly with such a one-dimensional character.

For us, the idea was to make this person seem more real. Whether he’s fumbling around or whatever — okay, let’s give him a talent, but let’s put a few defects in his character. He’s still a good guy, but he screws up a lot and says the wrong thing. He’s really from a different time period. We set it in the future because we wanted to give it the gadgets and get it out of today. So we take this man out of time. The general focus of Tex is this: I’m this guy who’s got these problems, who tries to date women but has a hard time with it, and ends up dating the wrong women. If someone good actually likes Tex, well, he figures there must be something wrong with them.

But now, to take Tex down three different paths… this is very interesting.

— Chris Jones in 1995, speaking about plans for The Pandora Directive

Under a Killing Moon, the first interactive full-motion-video film noir to feature the perpetually down-on-his-luck detective-out-of-time Tex Murphy, didn’t become one of that first tier of mid-1990s adventure games that sold over a million copies, captured mainstream headlines, and fomented widespread belief in a new era of interactive mainstream entertainment. It did become, however, a leading light of the second tier, selling almost half a million copies for its Salt Lake City-based developer and publisher Access Software over the course of the year after its release in late 1994. Such numbers were enough to establish Tex Murphy as something more than just a sideline to Links, Access’s enormously profitable series of golf simulations. Indeed, they made a compelling case for a sequel, especially in light of the fact that the second game ought to cost considerably less to make than the $5 million that had been invested in the first, what with the sequel being able to reuse an impressive game engine whose creation had eaten up a good chunk of that budget. The sequel was officially underway already by the beginning of 1995.

The masterminds of the project were once again Chris Jones and Aaron Conners — the former being the man who had invented the character of Tex Murphy and who still played him onscreen when not moonlighting as Access’s chief financial officer (or vice versa), the latter being the writer who had breathed new life into him for Under a Killing Moon. The sequel was to be an outlier in the novelty-driven world of game development, representing a creative and writerly evolution rather than a technological one. For the fact was that the free-roaming 3D adventuring engine used in Under a Killing Moon was still very nearly unique.

Conners concocted a new script, called The Pandora Directive, that was weightier and just plain bigger than what had come before; it was projected to require about half again as much time to play through. It took place in the same post-apocalyptic future and evinced the same Raymond Chandler-meets-Blade Runner aesthetic, but it also betrayed a marked new source of inspiration: the hit television series The X-Files, whose murky postmodern vision of sinister aliens and labyrinthine government conspiracies was creeping into more and more games during this era. Conners was forthright about its influence in interviews, revealing at the same time something of the endearingly gawky wholesomeness of The Pandora Directive‘s close-knit, largely Mormon developers, which sometimes sat a little awkwardly alongside the subject matter of their games. Watching The X-Files in secret, away from the prying eyes of spouses and children, was about as edgy as this bunch ever got in their personal lives.

Everyone else in the development team is a family man, and X-Files is a little heavy for the kids. So they all ask me to record it. I bring it in and we watch it during lunch. I really like the show. It’s been nice because we watch carefully to see what they do with music and lighting to portray a mood. Their production is closer to what we do than to a cinematic feature — tighter budget, working faster. So we found the show very informative.

If anything, The X-Files‘s influence on The Pandora Directive‘s plot is a little too on-the-nose. Like its television inspiration, the game revolves around the UFO that allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, the wellspring of a thousand overlapping conspiracy theories in both real life and fiction. If the one in the game is ultimately less intricately confounding than its television counterpart, that is only, one senses, because Conners had less space to develop his mythology. It’s all complete nonsense, of course, but The Pandora Directive is hardly the only game to mine escapist fun from the overwrought fever dreams of the conspiracy theorists.

But Jones and Conners were as eager to experiment with the form of their game as its content. Like the vast majority of adventure games, Under a Killing Moon had draped only a thin skein of player agency over a plot whose broad beats were as fixed as those of any traditional novel or film. You could tinker with the logistical details, in other words — maybe do certain things in a different order from some other player — but the overall arc of the story remained fixed. Conners’s script for The Pandora Directive aimed to change that, at least partially. While your path to unraveling the conspiracy would remain mostly set in stone, you would be able to determine Tex’s moral arc, if you will. If you played him as a paragon of virtue, he might just win true love and find himself on the threshold of an altogether better life by the end of the game. Cut just a few ethical corners here and there, and Tex would finish the game more or less where he’d always been, just about managing to keep his head above water and make ends meet, in a financial and ethical sense. But play him as a complete jerk, and he’d wind up dissipated and alone. Chris Jones on the bad path, which was clearly a challenge for this particular group of people to implement:

It’s a gradual fall. Bit by bit. Bad decision here, another there. As Tex sees it and the surroundings begin to change, he realizes that he blew it. His opportunity’s gone; this other girl is dead because of his mistake. And that darkens the character. So if each step gets you just a little darker, then it’s believable. It starts to have a real texture to it. That’s what we’re trying to do. Tex makes choices, tripping down the dark path, and starts to question himself: “Do I want to save myself? Or maybe this is what I want.” And then eventually you’re trapped. And that’s when it gets very interesting. We start to give Tex some options where the player will say, “Whoa! Can I make this choice?” By the end of the game, he turns into a real cynical bastard. If he chooses to stay on the darker side — each choice is just a shade of gray really, but all those shades of gray add up to a pretty dark character by the time you’re done. Just like in life.

I’m a bit uncomfortable about the way the [dark] path turns out. That was never my vision of what Tex could be. On the other hand, we have this medium which allows you to do such a thing. It is our competitive advantage over movies and television to be able to say to our audience, “Sit in this seat, make different decisions, and see how it turns out.” If we can pull it off with our characterizations and acting… well, now, that’s a very powerful medium. And so I feel like we have a responsibility to do that, to provide these kinds of choices. As I said, as an actor, I feel uncomfortable with this portrayal of Tex. But I feel it would shortchange people who buy the game to say, no, this is Tex, do it my way. If you’re kind of leaning down the dark path, take it and see what happens. You become the character. I’m in your hands.

In addition to the artistic impulse behind it, the more broad-brushed interactivity was intended to allay one of the most notable weaknesses of adventure games as a commercial proposition: the fact that they cost as much or more than other types of games to buy, but, unlike them, were generally interesting to play through only once. Jones and Conners hoped that their players would want to experience their game two or three times, in order to explore the possibility space of Tex’s differing moral arcs.

They implemented a user-selectable difficulty level, another rarity in adventure games, for the same reason. The “Entertainment” level gives access to a hint system; the “Game Players” level removes that, whilst also removing some in-game nudges, adding some red herrings to throw you off the scent, making some of the puzzles more complex, and adding time limits here and there. Again, Jones and Conners imagined that many players would want to go through the story once at Entertainment level, then try to beat the game on Game Players.

But the most obvious way that Access raised the bar over Under a Killing Moon was the cast and crew that they hired for the cinematic cut scenes and dialogs that intersperse your first-person explorations as Tex Murphy. While the first games had employed such Hollywood actors as Margot Kidder, Brian Keith, Russell Means, and even the voice of James Earl Jones as its narrator, it had done so only as an afterthought, once Jones and Conners had already built the spine of their game around local Salt Lake City worthies. This time they chose to invest a good part of the money they had saved from their tools budget into not just “real” actors but a real, professional director.

The official resumé which Access’s press releases provided for Adrian Carr, the man chosen for the latter role, was written on a curve typical of interactive movies, treating the five episodes he had directed of the cheesy children’s show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, his most prominent American credit to date, like others might a prestigious feature film. “He has directed, written, and/or edited work in almost every genre, from features to documentaries, television drama to commercials,” Access wrote breathlessly. All kidding aside, Carr really was an experienced journeyman, who had directed two low-budget features in his native Australia and edited a number of films for Hollywood. He had never seriously played a computer game in his life, but that didn’t strike Jones and Conners as a major problem; they were confident that they had a handle on that side of the house. Carr was brought in not least because professional actors of the sort that he’d seen before on television or movie screens tended to intimidate Chris Jones, who’d directed Under a Killing Moon himself. He “didn’t know how to handle them exactly,” allowed Conners.

Whatever the initial impulse behind it, it proved to be a very smart move. Adrian Carr may not have been the film industry’s ideal of an auteur, but he was more than capable of giving The Pandora Directive a distinctive look that wasn’t just an artifact of the technology behind the production — a look which, once again, stemmed principally from The X-Files, from that television show’s way of portraying its shadowy conspiracies using an equally shadowy visual aesthetic. Carr:

We started lighting darker, and putting in Venetian blinds and shadows and reflections to create texture. And the poor people who render the backgrounds moaned, “But it’s so dark!” And I’d say, “But it’s a movie!”

This has been one of my contributions, I guess. The technicians have been learning about mood. Like when Tex comes home and the room is only lit from outside, or there’s just one lamp on — see, guys, the murkiness is actually good, it creates a certain texture for the mood that we want.

Gordon Fitzpatrick (Kevin McCarthy) and Tex Murphy (Chris Jones).

The cast as a whole remained a mixture of amateurs and professionals; those returning characters that had been played by locals in the previous game were still played by them in this one. Among these was Tex Murphy himself, played by Chris Jones, the man whom everyone agreed really was Tex in some existential sense; he probably wasn’t much of an actor in the abstract, probably would have been a disaster in any other role, but he was just perfect for this one. Likewise, Tex’s longtime crush Chelsee Bando and the other misfits that surround his office on Chandler Avenue all came back to make up for in enthusiasm what they lacked in acting-school credentials.

Chelsee Bando (Suzanne Barnes) is literally the girl next door; she runs a newspaper stand just outside of Tex’s office and apartment.

On the other hand, none of the professional actors make a return appearance. (I must admit that I sorely miss the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones.) The cast instead includes Tanya Roberts, who was one of Charlie’s Angels (in the show’s last season only), a Bond girl, and a Playboy centerfold during the earlier, more successful years of her career; here she plays Regan Madsen, the sultry femme fatale who may just be able to make Tex forget his unrequited love for Chelsee. Also present is Kevin McCarthy, who had been a Hollywood perennial with his name in every casting director’s Rolodex for almost half a century by the time this game was made, with his role in the 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers standing out as the one real star turn on his voluminous resumé; here he plays Dr. Gordon Fitzpatrick, the former Roswell scientist who draws Tex into the case. And then there’s John Agar, who first captured international headlines back in 1945, when he married the seventeen-year-old former child star Shirley Temple. He never got quite that much attention again, but he did put together another long and fruitful career as a Hollywood supporting player; he appears here as Thomas Malloy, another would-be Roswell whistleblower.

Tex Murphy and Regan Madsen (Tanya Roberts).

But the Pandora Directive actor that absolutely everyone remembers is Barry Corbin, in the role of Jackson Cross, the government heavy who is prepared to shut down any and all investigations into the goings-on at Roswell by any and all means necessary. Whereas McCarthy and Agar built careers out of being handsome but not overly memorable presences on the screen — a quality which served them well in their multitude of supporting roles, in which they were expected to be competent enough to fulfill their character’s purpose but never so brilliant as to overshadow the real stars — Corbin was and is a character actor of a different, delightfully idiosyncratic type, with a look, voice, and affect so singular that millions of viewers who have never learned his name nevertheless recognize him as soon as he appears on their screen: “Oh, it’s that guy again…” At the time of The Pandora Directive, he was just coming off his most longstanding and, to my mind anyway, defining role: that of the former astronaut Maurice Minnifield, town patriarch of Cicely, Alaska, in the weird and beautiful television show Northern Exposure. In Corbin’s capable hands, Maurice became a living interrogation of red-blooded American manhood of the stoic John Wayne stripe, neglecting neither its nobility nor its toxicity, its comedy nor its pathos.

Give Barry Corbin a great script, and he’ll knock the delivery out of the park (to choose a sports metaphor of which Maurice Minnifield would approve).

Although The Pandora Directive didn’t give Corbin an opportunity to embody a character of such well-nigh Shakespearean dimensions, it did give him a chance to have some fun. For unlike Maurice Minnifield, Jackson Cross is exactly what he appears to be on the surface: a villain’s villain of the first order. Corbin delighted in chewing up the scenery and spitting it in the face of the hapless Chris Jones — a.k.a, Tex Murphy. Jones, revealing that he wasn’t completely over his inferiority complex when it came to professional actors even after giving up the director’s job:

It’s already a little intimidating to work with people who are just consummate professionals. Then the first scene we shot together, Tex was supposed to be grilled by Barry’s character, Jackson Cross. I’m sitting in this chair, and he just came up and scared the hell out of me. Really, he looked through me and I just melted. Fortunately, that’s what my character was supposed to do. I truly felt like I was going to die if I didn’t answer him right. It was frightening.

The Pandora Directive couldn’t offer Corbin writing on the level of Northern Exposure at its best, but he clearly had fun with it anyway.

The Pandora Directive was released with high hopes all around on July 31, 1996, about 21 months after Under a Killing Moon. It shipped on no fewer than six CDs, two more than its predecessor, a fairly accurate gauge of its additional scope and playing time.

Alas, its arrival coincided with the year of reckoning for the interactive movie as a viable commercial proposition. Despite the improved production values and the prominent placement of Barry Corbin’s unmistakable mug on the box, The Pandora Directive sold only about a third as many copies as Under a Killing Moon. Instead of pointing the way toward a new generation of interactive mainstream entertainment, it was doomed to go down in media history as an oddball artifact that could only have been created within a tiny window of time in the mid-1990s. Much like Jane Jensen in the case of The Beast Within, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners were afforded exactly one opportunity in their careers to make an interactive movie on such a scale and with such unfettered freedom as this, before the realities of a changing games industry sharply limited their options once again.

Small wonder, then, that both still speak of The Pandora Directive in wistful tones today. Developed in an atmosphere of overweening optimism, it is and will probably always remain The One for them, the game that came closest to realizing their dreams for the medium, having been created at a time when a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood still seemed like a real possibility, glittering and beckoning just over the far horizon.

And how well does The Pandora Directive stand up today, divorced from its intended role as a lodestar for this future of media that never came to be? Pretty darn well for such an undeniable period piece, I would say, with only a few reservations. If I could only choose one of them, I think I would be forced to go with Under a Killing Moon over this game, just because The Pandora Directive can occasionally feel a bit smothered under the weight of its makers’ ambitions, at the expense of some of its predecessor’s campy fun. That said, it’s most definitely a close-run thing; this game too has a lot to recommend it.

Certainly there’s more than a whiff of camp about it as well. As the video clip just above amply attests, not even the talented actors in the cast were taking their roles overly seriously. In fact, just like Under a Killing Moon, this game leaves me in a bit of a pickle as a critic. I’ve dinged quite a few other games on this site for “lacking the courage of their convictions,” as I’ve tended to put it, for using comedy as a crutch, a fallback position when they can’t sustain their drama for reasons of acting, writing, or technology — or, most commonly, all three. I can’t in good faith absolve The Pandora Directive of that sin, any more than I can Under a Killing Moon. And yet it doesn’t irritate me here like it usually does. I think this is because there’s such a likeability to these Tex Murphy games. They positively radiate creative joy and generosity; one never doubts for a moment that they were made by nice people. And niceness is, as I’ve also written from time to time on this site, a very undervalued quality, in art as in life. The Tex Murphy games are just good company, the kind you’re happy to invite into your home. Playing them is like watching a piece of community theater put on by your favorite neighbors. You want them to succeed so badly that you end up willing them over the rough patches with the power of your imagination.

The archetypal Access Software story for me involves a Pandora Directive character named Archie Ellis, a hapless young UFO researcher who, in the original draft of the script, stepped where he didn’t belong and got himself killed in grisly fashion by Jackson Cross. Barry Corbin “just dominates that scene,” said Aaron Conners later. “It was like we let this evil essence into the studio.” Everyone was shocked by what had been unleashed: “The mood on the set was just so oppressive.” So, Conner scurried off to doctor the script, to give the player some way to save poor little Archie, feeling as he did that what he had just witnessed was simply too “traumatic” to leave an inevitability. You can call this an abject failure on his part to stick to his dramatic guns, but it’s hard to dislike him or his game for it, any more than you can, say, make yourself dislike Steve Meretzky for bringing the lovable little robot Floyd back to life at the end of Planetfall, thereby undercutting what had been the most compelling demonstration to date of the power of games to move as well as entertain their players.

I won’t belabor the finer points of The Pandora Directive‘s gameplay and interface here because they don’t depart at all from Under a Killing Moon. The first-person 3D exploration, which lets you move freely about a space, looking up and down and peering into and over things, remains as welcome as ever; I would love it if more adventure games had been done in this style. And once again there are a bevy of set-piece puzzles to solve, from piecing torn-up notes back together to manipulating alien mechanisms. Nothing ever outstays its welcome. On the contrary, The Pandora Directive does a consistently great job of switching things up: cut scenes yield to explorations, set-piece visual puzzles yield to dialog menus. There are even action elements here, especially if you choose the Game Player mode; your furtive wanderings through the long-abandoned Roswell complex itself, dodging the malevolent alien entity who now lives here, are genuinely frightening. This 3D space and one or two others are far bigger than anything we saw in the last game, just as the puzzle chains have gotten longer and knottier. And yet there’s still nothing unfair in this game, even in Game Player mode; it’s eminently soluble if you pay attention to the details and apply yourself, and contains no hidden dead ends. Say it with me one more time: the folks who made this game were just too nice to mistreat their players in the way of so many other adventure games.

Exploring Tex’s bedroom in first-person 3D. His choice of wall art is… interesting.

I would like to write a few more words about the game’s one big formal innovation, letting the player determine Tex’s moral arc. Jones and Conners deserve a measure of credit for even attempting such a thing in the face of technological restrictions that militated emphatically against it. Live-action video clips filled a huge amount of space and cost a lot of money to produce, such that to offer a game with branching paths, thus leaving a good chunk of the content on the CDs unseen by many players, must have cut Chris Jones’s accountant’s heart to the quick. Points for effort, then.

As tends to the be the case with many such experiments, however, I’m not sure how much it truly adds to the player’s final experience. One of the big problems here is the vagueness of the dialog choices you’re given. Rather than showing you exactly what Tex will say, the menus offer options like “insensitive but cheerful” or “pretend nothing’s wrong,” which are open to quite a range of overlapping interpretations. In not making Tex’s next line of dialog explicit, the designers were trying to solve another problem, that of the inherent anticlimax of clicking on a sentence and then listening to Tex dutifully parrot it back. Unfortunately, though, the two solutions conflict with one another. Far too often, you click an option thinking it means one thing, only to realize that Tex has taken it in a completely different way. This doesn’t have to happen very often before the vision of Tex the game is depicting has diverged in a big way from the one you’re trying to inhabit, making the whole exercise rather moot if not actively frustrating.

Aaron Conners himself admitted that “95 percent of the people who play will end up on the B path,” meaning the one where Tex doesn’t prove himself to be a paragon of virtue and thus doesn’t get his lady love Chelsee — not yet, anyway — but doesn’t fall into a complete moral abyss either. And indeed, this was the ending I saw after trying to play as a reasonably standup guy. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t succeed in saving poor Archie either.) Predictably enough, the Internet was filled within days of the game’s release with precise instructions on how to hack your way through the thicket of dialog choices to arrive at the best ending (or the worst one, for that matter). All of which is well and good — fans gotta fan, after all — but is nevertheless the polar opposite of the organic experience that Jones and Conners intended. Why bother adding stuff that only 5 percent of your players will see without reading the necessary choices from a walkthrough? The whole thing strikes me as an example — thankfully, a rare one — of Jones and Conners rather outsmarting themselves, delivering a feature which sounded better in interviews about the amazing potential of interactive movies than it works in practice.

Then again, the caveat and saving grace which ought to be attached to my complaints is that none of it really matters all that much when all is said and done; the B ending that most of us will see is arguably the truest to the spirit of the Tex Murphy character anyway. And today, of course, you can pick and choose in the dialogs in whatever way feels best to you, then go hunt down the alternate endings on YouTube if you like.

It may sound strange to say in relation to a game about sinister government conspiracies, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but playing The Pandora Directive today feels like taking a trip back to a less troubled time. It’s just about the most 1990s thing ever, thanks not only to its passé use of video clips of real actors but to its X-Files-derived visual aesthetic, its subject matter (oh, for a time when the most popular conspiracy theories were harmless fantasies about aliens!), and even the presence of Barry Corbin, featured player in one of the decade’s iconic television programs. So, go play it, I say; go revel in its Mormon niceness. The post-millennial real world, more complicated and vexing than a thousand Roswell conspiracy theories, will still be here waiting for you when you return.

(Sources: the book The Pandora Directive: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; Computer Gaming World of March 1996 and December 1996; Retro Gamer 160. Online sources include the now-defunct Unofficial Tex Murphy Web Site and a documentary film put out by Chris Jones and Aaron Conners in recent years.

The Pandora Directive is available from as a digital purchase.)


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25 Responses to The Pandora Directive

  1. Infinitron

    November 4, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    My problem with The Pandora Directive is that it’s *so* inspired by The X-Files that it feels like the game actually takes place in the 1990s. There’s very little use of the game’s post-nuclear future setting, as there was in Under A Killing Moon.

  2. Sean

    November 4, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    This: “Mighty Morphine Power Rangers” should probably be Morphin, not Morphine. That would be a different show entirely.

  3. David

    November 4, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    ” Mighty Morphine Power Rangers” should be ” Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” or perhaps “Morphin'”

    The Power Rangers may be cheesy, but they weren’t drug dealers. ;)

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 4, 2022 at 6:18 pm

      :) Thanks!

  4. Aula

    November 4, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    “first-person 3D otherwise existed only in the form of action-oriented shooters and static, node-based, pre-rendered Myst clones.”

    Not quite true. Ultima Underworld and its sequel, Legends of Valour, and Betrayal at Krondor were among the first CRPGs with free-moving first-person 3D, and there were more of them by the time The Pandora Directive came out.

    • Sarah Walker

      November 4, 2022 at 7:29 pm

      UAKM/TPD were’t even alone in being first-person 3D adventure games by this point – Gremlin’s Normality was an early 1996 point-and-clicker using a Doom-style engine.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 4, 2022 at 8:23 pm

      True. Thanks!

  5. Marco

    November 4, 2022 at 11:04 pm

    What was it about mid-90’s adventure games and Mayan labyrinths? Pandora Directive, Dust, Buried in Time and I’m sure others have very similar sections on that theme.

    Seriously though, Pandora Directive’s real strength is its length. You absolutely get your money’s worth working through it even once, and then there’s all the replay value from the different paths. As you say, that aspect sounded a bit better in theory than it is in practice: to get on the best path you have to follow a very specific set of options in your first conversation with Chelsee, which you couldn’t guess and there’s no undoing.

    My main issue with the game is that although the puzzles are satisfying to beat on an individual basis, they are implausibly abstract mathematical teasers that don’t follow from the plot. Additionally, the time limits to get maximum points are absolutely ridiculous, e.g. there’s a gradient-based jigsaw where they give you 3 minutes, and both times I went through the game it took me about 53 minutes. (They set much more sensible time limits in Overseer.)

    • Aula

      November 5, 2022 at 10:15 am

      “What was it about mid-90’s adventure games and Mayan labyrinths?”

      That’s actually easy to explain. In the 1990s there were a lot of crackpots claiming that the Mayan calendar “predicted” the end of the world in 2012, and The X-Files (among other things) did a lot to bring this idea into mainstream popular culture. Naturally this made many game makers to drop Mayan things into their games, and if you’re going to have your adventure game include an ancient Mayan temple, then obviously you’ll put a maze in it.

      • Derek

        November 5, 2022 at 7:11 pm

        I’m not so sure. The 2012 phenomenon (as Wikipedia dubs it) was bandied about somewhat in the 1990s, but I think it only really gathered steam in the 2000s. The X-Files, which was surely the single biggest popularizer of the idea, only brought up the Maya calendar in its series finale in 2002, and the only adventure game I know of that involves the 2012 phenomenon and the Maya is The Omega Stone, from 2003.

        Instead, I think it’s a combination of a couple of factors. The technology in the mid-1990s allowed people to explore locations in a visual medium as was never possible before, and exploring ancient ruins is a cool thing to do. So games were often set in the ruins of premodern societies that have some exotic cachet with the general public. Ancient Egypt is the most obvious one—in 1996 alone, at least three adventure games were partially or entirely set in Egypt—but the Maya probably take second place.

        Second, the ancient astronaut hypothesis, which made a major splash in the 1970s, posited that various societies around the world (ones that seem exotic to Western audiences) had some connection with aliens. A particular Maya sarcophagus was one of the favorite pieces of “evidence” used by the hypothesis’ biggest evangelist, Erich von Däniken, so the general idea that the Maya might have some extraterrestrial connection was well established by the 1990s. That’s the context for the appearance of the Maya in Timelapse and, judging by the Wikipedia plot summary, in The Pandora Directive as well; it’s the context for the appearance of a nonspecific Mesoamerican site in Drowned God; and it’s probably the reason why The X-Files eventually connected the Maya calendar with alien invasion.

        (I don’t know why Dust is relevant here, as the labyrinth in that case is supposed to have been built by a fictitious Puebloan society and not the Maya. I think that one is more of an offshoot of the “mystical Native Americans” trope that was big in the 1990s and was mostly applied to native peoples within the territory of the United States. Pueblo peoples only show up in one other game from this period, Timelapse, which supports my point about some societies having more cachet than others.)

        • Ross

          November 7, 2022 at 1:48 pm

          Ancient Aliens make for cool sci fi stories and video games where you get to combine “cool ancient temple” with “cool sci fi lasers”, but von Danikenism has that whole unfortunate aspect where a lot of it comes down to white people saying “People who weren’t white achieved wonders which outclass anything Europe produced until millennia later? That can’t possibly be right. Must be aliens.”

        • Marco

          November 9, 2022 at 1:40 pm

          You’re right the one in Dust isn’t Mayan – I lumped it in because structurally it’s similar to the others – roughly, they all give you a central table with markings to decipher and then doors north, south, east and west, which lead to separate challenges that you complete in your chosen order.

        • Ahmet Elginöz

          November 12, 2022 at 10:37 pm

          “exploring ancient ruins is a cool thing to do.”
          Also it is a cheap thing to do from cpu/gpu side. Reflaction is expensive, so you have stones and dust, viewing distance is expensive, so you have corners and turns which makes lighting easier too. 20 years ago I was writing a thesis on technological aspects defining architectural styles in videogames which I had to leave unfinished due to technical problems on my university’s registry database which is very ironic 8tself.

  6. Alex

    November 5, 2022 at 6:31 am

    Because of your enthustiatic article of “Under a Killing Moon”, I was so friggin´ close to buy it cheap on GOG, but then resisted. Well, since this article says the same things, I definitely will give these games a try on the next sale. I never played a FMV-Adventure before as they never appealed to me, but these games look like they would interest me. On an sidenote, Tex Murphy was somewhat known on the german market. My favourite game magazine gave him a mention, so I´m familiar to this name since the 90s.

  7. Metz O'Magic

    November 5, 2022 at 11:42 am

    About time you reviewed this one, though I respect you are following a certain chronology. It’s a toss-up whether this one or Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned is my favourite adventure game of all time. I guess I just like a good, lengthy, totally unpredictable yarn.

    I was one of the walkthrough writers you mentioned; it was one of the first walkthroughs I wrote, way back in 1997. Because of the vagueness of the way the dialogue choices were presented, as you alluded to, I had to save the game just before every dialogue so I could figure out by trial and error how to get the player to all 7 paths/endings. As I recall, the ‘mildest’ ending on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams path was the hardest one to get to because Tex had to start off being a nasty, selfish twit but then redeem himself just enough near the end to get to that ending.

    You’ve almost induced me to pluck it off the shelf and play it again. In the 2000’s you had to use a tool like VDMSound to get it to run at a decent pace, but now that processors are so fast you can use DOSBox.

  8. Leo Vellés

    November 7, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    Jimmy, I refresh the pague and now the mobile version isn’t working. This happened once some months ago. Hope You can fix it

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 7, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      I was fixing some of the formatting problems on the mobile version (which I really, really need to learn to look at more often than once a year or so). It should be good to go again now.

      • Leo Vellés

        November 7, 2022 at 2:54 pm

        It si fixes in this article, but Digital Antiquarian’s main page doesn’t load the mobile version

  9. Leo Vellés

    November 7, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Correction: the main page works, but the Mastodon, for example, doesnt

  10. Leo Vellés

    November 7, 2022 at 2:59 pm

    Sorry to be so annoying, but checking again on the main page and it doesn’t load the mobile version. Maybe it’s My phone, idk

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 7, 2022 at 4:41 pm

      Sorry. I think it should be okay now. This caching plug-in will be the death of me…

      • Leo Vellés

        November 8, 2022 at 10:38 am

        Working perfect now!

  11. Steve Thompson

    December 7, 2022 at 10:29 am

    The documentary on YouTube is very nice and even has some shots of Bruce Carver, the founder of Access Software. I knew him and a few other immediate family members.

    Yes, they were Mormons who were very nice and their humor can be cheesy. They like green Jello and they call Mac & Cheese “Yellow Death.”

    If you click on the “Access”‘ tag link at the bottom of this article, it will take you to a couple other articles about Access Software, specifically about Bruce and Roger Carver. Another one is about, Leaderboard for the Commodore 64, a game that changed the world of simulated computer golfing which was later renamed LINKS.

    I did see part of the development of Bruce’s first C64 game Neutral Zone. It felt like I was with ‘gods’ of video game programmers. It was the best of times. (There was no worst of times back then.)

    As mentioned above, remember to also use the link provided at the end of the article ‘documentary film.’ Please watch it. It is very well done and even shows Bruce Carver at work! That was stunning to me since I haven’t seen him since the early 1980s. (He died very suddenly a few years back of cancer.)

    Thanks for this great site and all your good work, Jimmy Maher. I wish you and everyone a very Merry Christmas.

    • Brian Bagnall

      December 23, 2022 at 3:40 pm

      Anything by Bruce Carver was something you looked forward to back in the 80s. He infused his games with so much refinement and perfection. Things like shadows under the jet in Raid Over Moscow, smooth character animations, and actual voices. Those elements were mind blowing back then. The only game of his I didn’t really care for was Neutral Zone and that was his first published game.

      • Steve Thompson

        December 29, 2022 at 4:04 am

        Neutral Zone became more of a novelty type game that was similar to an early “demo.” It showed off the graphics and sound of the C64, but in the style of a simple arcade game.

        The game was released very early in the life of the C64 so it was new eye-candy at the time. But, it wasn’t a very good game. It just looked and sounded cool. He showed it to me when it was about halfway finished. It was hypnotic. But, the best was yet to come.

        I always recommend Heavy Metal for the C64 because it’s a game not many have heard about that Bruce and his crew designed. It’s a true masterpiece with multiple stages similar to Raid Over Moscow and Beach Head.


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