It’s possible that you’ve never heard of the French developer Lexis Numerique. They developed the adventure / puzzle game Missing: Since January (aka In Memoriam) in 2003, and the Adventure Company liked so much that they created a “Game of the Year” edition for it. I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic. I recognized that Missing did some interesting things and had some unique elements, but I pretty much hated its puzzles, and I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.
Now Lexis is back with a new adventure game, The Experiment. The Experiment doesn’t have anything to do with Missing. Instead, it takes place in 1970 on a research tanker. Apparently, at some point in the past, somebody discovered some insect-like creatures called Tyriades located in the “depths of the Earth,” and the tanker -- plus its crew of scientists -- was sent out to investigate. The good news is that the scientists discovered that the Tyriades produce something called hydrogen oxydrin, which has marvelously rejuvenative effects. The bad news is that the hydrogen oxydrin is also poisonous, and maybe the Tyriades are hostile. Then something goes wrong, and almost everyone on board the tanker is killed.
As the game opens up, you find yourself in the security office of the tanker. You can’t move around, but you have access to the tanker’s computer systems, and so you can tap into security cameras, browse through sensitive files, and lock and unlock doors. Then, while watching one of the security camera feeds, you “meet” Lea Nichols, another survivor on the tanker, and the two of you form a team. Lea can move around and do things, but you have to tell her where to go, and you have to give her access to different parts of the ship.
In some ways, this premise is great, just because it’s so different. In most adventures, you’d walk around and explore the tanker yourself, but here you have to use a combination of floor schematics and security cameras to show Lea where to go and what to do. If you unlock a door for her, then she goes through it. If you turn on a light, then she walks to it. If you turn on a machine, then she examines it. Sometimes when you give Lea an “order,” nothing much happens, but other times she finds something or notices something, and you take one step closer to solving a puzzle. There are also times when you encounter robots or machines that you can control, and so you get to be “active” sometimes, too.
Given the nature of the premise, the puzzles aren’t usually that complex, just because there isn’t a lot of variety to what you can do. Most of the puzzles involve bookkeeping of one sort or another. There are all sorts of codes (to unlock doors and machines) and passwords (to unlock files) on the ship, and you have to figure them all out. This means you have to do a lot of reading, decrypting, pattern matching, and things of that nature, which is fine, except that the interface doesn’t give you a lot of help. You have to keep your own notes -- a lot of them -- and you have to do everything by hand.
In fact, the interface as a whole is rather unfriendly. I’m not sure if Lexis Numerique was trying to make it look like a 1970’s interface, or if they just don’t know what they’re doing. For example, most of the information is provided in windows (which is definitely post-1970), but there isn’t any way to arrange the windows so they don’t overlap all over each other, and you’re not allowed to resize most of them (you can only resize the security camera windows, but even there only one of the sizes is useful). And the maps have “helpful” annotations like UD07 and 2P04 instead of “boiler room” and “dispensary,” and so it can be difficult to figure out where you are. Lexis might have realized that the in-game maps were a problem, because they included maps in the manual, but the maps in the manual are so small that you can’t even read them, and so they’re less help than the in-game maps.
Worse, the game just seems to have an overriding sense of sloppiness and implausibility. Lea frequently sounds like she’s playing some alternate version of the game, and her timing is almost always off (she sometimes gives you a series of clues when you reach a puzzle, but she runs through all of her hints in about 60 seconds -- before you even know if you need them or not). And the Tyriades don’t make any sense at all. Supposedly they use smells to communicate, but somehow the scientists were able to figure out their language and their history and their social makeup -- all without the help of a Rosetta Stone. And don’t even ask how everybody on the tanker died.
Usually I don’t have any problem buying the premise of a computer game, but with The Experiment I kept rolling my eyes after every new development, and that made it difficult to forge ahead. Eventually, after some particularly tedious puzzles, including a submarine ride from hell, I finally gave up. I played The Experiment for about 12 hours, which got me somewhere around halfway through, but that was more than enough. By the time I quit I hated Lea with a passion and just wanted her to shut up, and I had no interest in solving any more puzzles or in seeing how the story might play out.
It’s not often that I don’t finish a game that I’m reviewing -- especially with adventure games, since they tend to be short -- but I’m now 0-2 with Lexis Numerique. I appreciate that they try new and different things, but wow, they need to look up words like “fun” and “playable” and figure out how to incorporate them into their games. As it stands now, I wouldn’t recommend The Experiment to anybody.