Ben Jordan, this is your life!

September 7, 2007

A few years back, those of us who were lucky enough to stumble upon the adventure gaming studio (AGS) scene were first introduced to Ben Jordan, and things have never really been the same since. Though there are a number of strong series of games that have been made in AGS, such as Yahtzee’s Trilby games and the Apprentice series, as well as some multi-game collaborative efforts, many AGS games are the efforts of neophyte designers, and are never completed, much less developed further. Thus, the fact that the Ben Jordan’s creator, Grundislav, has continued to create new adventures is both a feat of considerable endurance and a remarkable treat for anyone who likes games.

To commemorate this achievement, and the release of the latest chapter in the series, “Scourge of the of the Sea People,” herein is a brief review and retrospective of the “Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator” series.

Case 1: In Search of the Skunk-Ape” introduces us to Ben Jordan, a plucky young international-relations major who has decided to follow his dream of becoming a paranormal investigator. Against all odds, and without the aid of a web-marketing campaign, Ben manages quickly to land his first case. Tasked with solving a series of brutal murders in the Florida Everglades, Ben is soon in pursuit of the killer, and/or the mysterious skunk-ape.

The game is pretty fun and easy to play from the beginning. When Ben arrives on the scene, his progress is stymied less by a lack of evidence than by the fact that most of the park rangers and visitors around him are either actively disdainful of his work, or simply too scared by rumors of the skunk-ape to do anything.

Attaining their assistance, whether intentionally or otherwise, results in some interesting dialogue trees (which are somewhat linear), as well as some simple but fun inventory puzzles. Thankfully, these puzzles avoid the MacGuyver-like solutions often found in other adventure games, wherein puzzles are solved by improbable combinations of items in your character’s inventory (e.g. combine chewing gum with widget and battery and vibrator to create speedometer), and mesh well with the storyline.

The graphics, however, are a mixed bag. Some of the environments contain a fair amount of detail, and others look a lot like pictures of the Everglades which have been painted over/photoshop filtered. While either of these would work well on their own, together they are a little jarring, and a few screens simply don’t meet the quality of either style. By contrast, the characters are well animated, although their portraits when speaking leave something to be desired. Much of this is remedied by the newfangled “deluxe” edition, which refines the graphics (particularly the character portraits!) and adds some estimable voice-acting, save for the narration that corresponds to opening the main map, the repetition of which shall continue to haunt my dreams.

Overall, the game succeeds because it exudes care. Included with the game is an excerpt from “The Paranormal Investigator’s Handbook,” a real-life version of the volume that launched Ben toward his new career. Apart from providing hints to a number of puzzles, the handbook gives you the impression that Ben’s investigation isn’t so much a collection of tasks for you to solve, but a story taking place in a well-thought out world, which you are lucky enough to peek into, however briefly.

Ben returns in “Case 2: The Lost Galleon of the Salton Sea,” which takes him to the Southwest, in search of a missing treasure hunter. As opposed to real-life investigations of the paranormal, more than meets the eye is afoot, and it will take more than take-out food and arduous stake-outs to figure it out. A little longer than the first game, the puzzles remain simple but fun, and the character interactions continue to be quite entertaining, particularly during an encounter in a mega-chain coffee shop. While the graphics aren’t improved in technical quality (perhaps because of the omnipresence of Earth tones in the real Southwest), they are a little more consistent than those of the previous outing, and are kind of charming in their own right.

When Ben jets across the Atlantic for “Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm,” the series really begins to come into its own. Tasked with solving another series of murders that is plaguing a small Scottish town, Ben must decide if he can give credence to the rampant rumors of witchcraft surrounding the deaths. Unlike the previous games, however, the third case begins to add a real human element to the game.

Apart from including a larger cast of characters, interactions with other people in “Smailholm” are no longer confined to “I will help you, but first I need a cup of coffee/demonstrate you’re on to something” kinds of exchanges. Instead, Ben finds that he must navigate many different agendas that are afoot in the town, perhaps the most colorful of which is that of Percival Quentin Jones, a brusque English detective who sees Ben as more of an obstacle than as a fellow investigator.

This emphasis on character development continues in “Case 4: Horror at Number 50,” in which Ben joins a group of other investigators trying to sleuth out a long-standing haunting in the middle of Berkeley Square, London. This iteration of the story has much improved graphics and character scripting, which really helps to illustrate how the different investigators all have colorful personalities of their own. So too, the puzzles fit extremely well with the setting.

Despite the fact that the setting bears no small resemblance to the film “The Haunting” (whether this was intentional or not), unlike the film, “Horror at Number 50” is actually scary. Altogether, the improved art and atmospheric sound manages to make the house truly foreboding, even if Ben isn’t (really) in constant danger.

“Case 5: Land of the Rising Dead” follows Ben and two friends from his previous case as they head to Japan in order to investigate a series of zombie-linked crimes. Taking place in and around Osaka, the grants the player considerable freedom in following different leads on the case. Indeed, the sheer span of the locations in the game, combined with another improvement in graphics, really signal the departure of the series from enthusiastic home-brew creation to “professional” quality game; Grundislav (Francisco Gonzalez) might not charge for his games, but it’s clear that he has the experience and vision to make games that rank with the best of them. A truly classic mistaken-identity puzzle midway through the game feels like it might’ve come straight out of a mid-90’s LucasArts adventure, and a fantastic game show sequence; truly, a great moment in gaming; justifies playing through the entire series on its merits alone.  Although a few internet grumblers have taken issue with the plot, the game has a great pace between tense, dramatic moments and more cerebral puzzles.

So where does “Case 6: Scourge of the Sea People” fit into all of this? Somewhat shorter and more linear than the last adventure (although your play-through may vary), “Scourge” maintains its strong graphics and clever dialogue. The puzzles are light but remain interesting, and the non-principle characters are quite interesting, if a little more static than in the previous two games. Two encounters that stand out particularly are a drinking contest with a pair of ouzo-swilling muscle-men, and an illuminating dinner-time conversation with Oxford Professor Quincy Sandbourne, the author of the “Paranormal Investigator’s Handbook,” who will surely be played by Richard Attenborough in the film version.

Although the most recent case in the series ultimately feels less like a stand-alone game and more like a link in the storyline than the previous entry, it remains great fun, and a worthwhile chapter in Ben’s paranormal bildungsroman. And for those that can’t wait, Grundislav has set up a developer’s diary to cover more Ben Jordan adventures that are on the way.  If you haven’t already played the Ben Jordan games (they’re free!), you are missing out, both on a fun, engrossing story, and on a unique view of a game developer’s progress as an artist. •

With only one or two more cases to go, Ben Jordan and friends continue to rock, rock on.

One Response to “Ben Jordan, this is your life!”

  1. […] August 28, 2008 Summertime is the dry season for professional games developers, as the easy cash and consumerism of the holiday season is more fertile for sales.  While this makes good business sense, for me, it never really made practical sense.  After all, summer is the time when people actually have time to relax and enjoy the games.  Thankfully, indie developers have made the best of that free time, and we’re at the tail end of a great season for indie game releases, appropriately closing with the release Grundislav’s seventh, penultimate chapter of the Ben Jordan series. […]

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