Innovation in the video game industry has always produced mixed results for the people who attempt it. Some developers look at past hits, pick out a flaw, and then create a refined product that they pass off as innovation. Others ask what they could do that would be different, what people haven’t seen yet in a video game, or what hasn’t been achieved successfully yet. But to implement those kinds of innovations you have to explore new territory. You have to invent something new. And without fail, the games that take such risks are taken out back and beaten with a shovel for it. Crackpot’s Insecticide dared to do something new, and even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still fun.
Interactive fiction and Third-Person games have always had a weird relationship with each other. Say what you will about interactive fiction’s linearity, but the power of having a player obsess over dialogue, text, and items is fairly impressive in terms of story potential. At the same time, with the exception of Quest for Glory, combat in these kinds of experiences is generally terrible. Whether it’s Rise of the Dragon‘s two combat levels or King’s Quest VI‘s 5 minute ‘sit and watch’ duel, there just isn’t an easy way to have fighting in interactive fiction.
On the other hand, it’s tough to get a player to think about their inventory or consistently pay attention to the setting in a Third-Person game. The boomerang in Zelda is just that, a boomerang. You use it when you see the sign telling you to use it, you attack with it when you need it, and yet it’s not the same level of depth in terms of experience either; a puzzle in a Third-Person game relies mostly on trial and error, while a puzzle in interactive fiction relies on you thinking about the plot, characters, and setting.
Insecticide is a game that attempts to merge these experiences, and it attempts to do so on the Nintendo DS. You’re introduced to the action sequences immediately, as your character chases down an arms dealer who is a suspect in a major bombing case. The adventure portions kick in as you inspect crime scenes and interview suspects. Both are kept up in roughly even balance and both are necessary to really create a paced crime experience.
Where the game gets hit with the shovel is that it tried to make the action sequences involve something besides tapping ‘Shoot’ or ‘Dodge’ all the time. It actually has the crazy idea of making you think. The designers do shit the bed a little bit, because they don’t explain themselves very well in the opening tutorial, but after reading the interview with director Mike Levine at IGN one realizes that the action sections were intended to be played from a variety of input perspectives. There are sections where you use the stylus to make long shots on enemies. There are sections where you auto-target and strafe bullets. There are jumping puzzles where the D-pad works best, and there are tight rope sections where the stylus is the best input method. The innovation behind this is the rather brazen idea that an action portion of a game should involve experimentation and thought rather than use of the same tactics over and over.
This is, needless to say, proposing something back-asswards to the video game community. It’s just that once you switch the game to stylus mode and actually explore all of the combat portions with an open mind, there’s a way around every single one. You’ll die countless times fighting the shotgun toting bugs in the early levels. Even so, if you pull away far enough, you can use the stylus to shoot your pistol at them while you’re still safely out of range. When you’re fighting the robo-bugs they’re almost always obscured by some part of the level. So you need the lock-on strategy and dodging their slow but deadly blasts.
My favorite action puzzle in the game was when the robo-bugs are dug down into trenches. To beat one of the bugs you have to land a mine directly inside the hole, but because the target you’re locking onto keeps moving up and down, the shot is never quite right. I got killed by those things so many times I was about to give the game a 4 and get on with my day. But out of sheer curiosity and brain bending, I tried throwing the mines without locking on. I beat the level in about 5 minutes. It is difficult for me to believe the reviewers who claim the game is unplayable and clunky when such issues can be resolved so easily.
The adventure portions of the game maintain this same blend by keeping each interactive fiction section self-contained. The items don’t carry over, the objectives tend to all be resolved in a single section, and their minimal nature means that they can often still be solved with trial and error. What the sequences do maintain is that the solutions aren’t obvious and as a result you still have to talk to the characters around you. Multiple times. With changing dialogue. The fact that the player is still reading this while they gather clues and solve puzzles means that it’s achieving that strength of interactive fiction: deeper player engagement. You get to know the protagonist, you get to know the villains, and most of all you get to know the story.
So what’s it all about? Insecticide is a children’s film noir. It’s kind of odd to think that a genre about lust and dark confining cities would make for a good children’s gaming experience, but Insecticide uses a couple of clever foils to circumvent those elements. You play Detective Lisszt throughout the game but the narrative is told from the perspective of your partner, Roachy. All of the hopeless femme fatale drama is left to him while your character goes about solving crime scenes and chasing down thugs. The dialogue is snappy, filled with bug innuendos, and thanks to the interactive fiction elements they add a great deal to the experience. The most interesting element of the plot is the fact that humans have become subservient to insects. The world is so toxic and polluted that humans can only exist in haz-mat suits and they now live on the fringes of society. Taking on the trappings of social commentary, the humans are always depicted as greedy, rude, and backstabbing. As the plot becomes more tangled and twisted, so does the depiction of humans become more biting from your own insect perspective.
Make no mistake, the game’s not perfect. The game should allow one to strafe in stylus mode without locking on and the game design of forcing you to use special powers in otherwise impossible combat situations is pretty rough in spots. As Levine opines in the interview with IGN, however, the goal was to have a movie-like pace of talking and combine that with action sequences. How else are you really going to nail the experience of being a cop except by mixing two styles of game? How good of a story is it ever going to be if you don’t have interactive fiction elements? The only way for the medium of video games to progress is for developers like Crackpot and games like Insecticide to push it into new territory. It is a shame that the traditional reward for this in video games is a shovel to the face.