[4 June 2014]
It’s all about style. When you build a game on the foundation of a tried and true formula like the point-and-click adventure game, the only way of differentiating it from what has gone before is the style to which the game is hip to. In this respect at least, 1954: Alcatraz knows where it’s at.
Joe is doing time on the Rock for robbing an armored truck and escaping Leavenworth. He says the money burned in the explosion that took the truck, but everyone suspects otherwise. Meanwhile, on the outside, both the cops and Joe’s former partner, who is now mob affiliated, are putting the screws on Joe’s wife Christine. You’ll play as both of them as you try to orchestrate a prison break. Joe needs to plan a way out of the slammer, and Christine needs to find the cash and ready the getaway.
Other than playing the dual characters, 1954: Alcatraz creates something else in the form out of their relationship dynamics. Their trust in each other starts out shaky at best. Marriage can be difficult at the best of times, and it doesn’t help that Joe forgot to mention that he was planning this heist in the first place. Depending on their choices this all could lead to a happy reunion and a clean getaway or to a noir-style tragedy. There are several choices throughout the game that allow the two to express their trust and faithfulness in and to each other. Or at least that seems to be the idea. However, this narrative thread is really not of any central importance to the plot.
The truth is that there’s not a whole lot that makes 1954: Alcatraz stand out from all the squares marching to same rhythm of dullsville. You are the local kleptomaniac and have to give things to people to get what you want. The characters that hang about and who you deal with are the only blue notes in the otherwise stagnate system. These poets, artists, degenerates, and outsiders express the wilder elements of society yearning to be free of the pinstripe heel threatening to descend. However, they are not going to be destroyed by madness, but by sameness. What’s a little larceny, B&E, gay and interracial marriage (all illegal in the US in 1954) between Beats.
But once that well has run dry, these more interesting characters fade into the background like so much scenery. They aren’t even given the dignity to burn out. Poor form, man. But poor form also exists in the puzzle design, requiring crisscrossing the city and prison over and over searching for the right set of circumstances that the game wants you to submit to. In the end, entering and leaving the same locations turn Beats into squares. They lose their personality. It doesn’t help that a number of solutions don’t even make any sense. How can a telephone electrocute a guard? Or why are all the excruciating steps necessary to take to get a woman that I’ve known for years to admit she is a forger? The more interesting instances of convincing a new gallery owner that my friend is the new “it” artist or getting Sutter and his lover back together after a spat become few and far between.
The main draw of 1954: Alcatraz is in expressing the essence of the counterculture of the 50s. I feel it. I really do. We don’t get to see this time period much in media. It gets lost between World War II and the rise of the hippies. Here we get to see drugs and free love assimilated into urban culture instead of in the promise of a communion with nature. The Beats are who they are and the biggest crime of a game trying to portray them is in turning them into squares. They are the educated types ekeing a living out of the underbelly of society. They have a voice—at least until they run out of words.
The tone is ripe and its style sings, but it can’t last. The slog of the form brings it all down, though, man. As with Joe and Christine, the honeymoon is over and now comes the work. And sometimes it ain’t worth the effort. You dig?