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The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript

Richard Goodness

The Uncanny Valley claims another unwitting victim.

Publisher: Nobilis
Genres: Action/adventure
Display Artist: Elektrogames / Kheops Studio
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everone 10+
Developer: Kheops Studio
US release date: 2006-06-07

You may or may not be familiar with the concept of the Uncanny Valley.

Originally conceived by the Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori in the '70s, the theory states that the more humanlike a robot is, the more we are able to empathize and like it, to identify with it -- up to a point. A robot like C3PO is fine -- we can recognize him as humanlike -- but if the robot becomes too lifelike, it will provoke feelings of disgust and fear. People will focus not on the humanlike aspects of the robot, but on the aspects that are not humanlike: the fact that the eyes seem dead, or that its movement is vaguely off. The theory is often criticized for being merely pseudoscientific, but has been used to explain why people fear monsters such as zombies -- because they're human enough to be recognizable but not humanlike enough to be disturbing -- and shy away from people with physical deformities.

The Uncanny Valley is also invoked often with regard to video games and computer graphics. We are at the point, graphics-wise, where we can create animation that looks very lifelike -- but still not lifelike enough. One of the more famous examples is the contrast between the films The Incredibles and The Polar Express, which came out at around the same time. The Polar Express received a lot of negative attention from critics who found the graphics disturbing, and if you subscribe to a belief in the Valley, it makes sense: the movie stars, after all, Creepy Animated Tom Hanks. The Incredibles features a more cartoony, more stylized set of graphics, and was in turn more lauded. The filmmakers deliberately avoided realism, and therefore were more successful. The point seems to be that since we cannot create exactly realistic-looking characters, we should not strive for that.

Playing through The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript, I felt a sense of unease, a sense of annoyance. Where in most games I am able to accept conventions, I found myself unable to do so. After some thought, I have come up with the reason why: the game falls into the Uncanny Valley, not so much because of its graphics, which are bog-standard and unremarkable, but because of its gameplay. The game strives for mimesis, for a recreation of what it would really be like to be in its world, but it doesn't do it enough. As a result, all sense of illusion and immersion is lost.

Manuscript takes place a couple of years after Da Vinci's death. You play a young man who's a student of a student of Da Vinci, who is charged by a mysterious man to explore Da Vinci's home and find a lost notebook. The mansion -- which is based on a real location that you can go and visit if you're so inclined -- is, of course, full of secrets and puzzles. Get to solving.

Many of the game's puzzles are based on the available technology of the early 1500s, and these puzzles are offbeat enough to be interesting. Obviously there's a strong sense of real-world logic to them: to make ink, for example, you've got to combine powdered charcoal, egg yolk, and water, which as far as I can tell is as close to a simplified ink recipe as one can get. Other puzzles involve making paper, minting gold coins, and the like, and it's strangely satisfying to do these routine tasks. A good videogame should allow us to do things that we cannot in real life, and most of us do not have access to 1500s-era technology. So far, so good.

However, one of the biggest problems with this relies on the game's System. While there are many bowls strewn about the mansion, there's exactly one in which you can mix the ink. This bowl is also not labeled -- clicking on it will not give any indication that this is an ink-bowl. The only way to find out that you are to mix the ink there -- the only way I was able to find it out, at least -- was to click my ink powder on every single bowl I could find until I found one that could accept it. There are dozens of problems like these, actions that you can perform in one and only one location, and no feedback letting you know where it's appropriate. It's a problem that smacks of laziness on the part of the developers. We do not have a nameless, non-speaking hero, we have an actual character with a backstory and everything who is not afraid to talk, and there are several locations in which he comments on an item -- so why not use that to give feedback to the player? If the player tries to make ink in one of the bowls in the dining room, give us a little line to the effect of, "No, that china looks expensive, I don't want to ruin it." If he examines the ink bowl, make a reference to noticing a little bit of black residue on the sides of it. At least give us something.

Manuscript is the most inventory-heavy game I have ever played. Within ten minutes of starting a new game I had about 20 items, and the game gives you enough space to hold exactly 105 items. The game also allows you to organize them according to your preferences (though an auto-sort option would have been appreciated), but still, it's a little much! Even so, my problem with the inventory system is not that you can take too many items, but the fact that you can't take enough.

The game makes some concessions towards reality in this regard. One of the items you need is a knife. You're in a house that's currently inhabited. There's going to be more than one knife to be found. And unlike most adventure games which have only one of each item, you can get a knife in several rooms: in the kitchen, in the dining room, in anywhere you'd expect a knife to be. If you try to pick up a second knife, the character will say, "I don't need another one," which, of course, is true. I'm fine with that. What upsets me is that, while I can click on the knife in the place setting and take it, I can't take the spoon, solely because no puzzle in the game requires it. Were I physically present in this mansion, were I a character in this story, I could pick up and pocket a spoon whether I needed one or not.

I do not normally point out this problem in other adventure games, because normally, I don't need to. With most games, which have a much smaller inventory, I am able to accept the convention that I am only able to take useful items and that I don't need to worry about things that are not clickable. Here, however, Manuscript pretends that it's a living world, that it's a mansion in which you can take anything -- when you go into a room and leave with a good 20 inventory items, you certainly get the impression that you could take anything, and the fact that you can't is frustrating. In your typical adventure game room, which features maybe three takeable items and a dozen or two fixed items, the takeable items stand out. Here, there seem to be more takeable items than fixed items, and we focus on the fixed items. A fixed item is not a condition of real life. There are reasons -- something's nailed down, or social convention prevents us from touching an expensive knickknack -- that we are unable to touch or take certain items. Here, there is no reason other than "the game won't let me" as to why I cannot take the spoon in the dining room. The game doesn't even give us a lame "I don't need that" which I might even have accepted. It simply blocks the hotspot.

The game treats some locations similarly, but in a slightly more sophisticated way. Games are either episodic -- you're in a series of rooms, and when you complete them you get another series -- or structured as concentric circles, where more and more rooms open up as the game progresses. Since you're exploring one mansion for the duration of the game, it's logical that Manuscript is of the second type. To give access to the entire map would be daunting and overwhelming, and the game handles the slow reveal pretty well. In the beginning, it's night, so it's too dark to explore the grounds; the owner of the house is asleep, so you can't visit her apartment, and you're looking for one specific room, so you really ought to go there as quickly as possible. Other areas are either opened up by puzzle-solving -- you've got to cross a bridge to get to a couple of areas across a river, for example -- or simply wait for the game to progress, as it becomes morning and you can see the grounds, or the servant opens up a room to clean. It's mostly natural, and it's one of the areas that you can shake off as convention.

One thing I absolutely cannot shake off is the way a certain subset of puzzles are handled. As I've said, many of the puzzles involve Da Vinci-era technology, which is fine, and well-integrated into the world. Several other puzzles involve fiddling with weird machines, which I can even get behind -- while I doubt that Da Vinci actually made the intricate puzzle locks that you have to solve, I can ignore that -- the game sets Da Vinci up as this mystical genius who could build anything, and I am playing an adventure game, so I'm not too worried about it. What bothers me the most, what takes me out of the game the most, are the journal puzzles.

Every so often throughout the game you find a journal page penned by Da Vinci himself. Some of them simply contain clues, but some contain a puzzle. One of the first puzzles in the game involves finding a journal page which features a picture of a clock and several gears. The goal of the puzzle is to click and drag the gears around to work the clock properly. We are dealing, in essence, with a magical piece of paper that one can manipulate the elements of. It's obviously not a viable technology, and for the life of me I can't figure that it's even supposed to represent the act of creating a physical object. As far as the game is concerned, we have a magical sheet of paper. I can deal with the fact that Da Vinci has created all these wonderful machines, but this is forcing me to suspend my disbelief a little too much, and destroying any mimesis the game may be attempting.

The developers have a very selective sense of mimesis, one which I find to be strange a lot of the time. In the places where they break it, such as in making almost every item takeable, it hurts the game, and when they choose to keep it, it hurts it even more. There are small items all around the mansion: a handful of coal, or flour, or a couple of grains of wheat. You use many of these items multiple times -- for example, the coal is used to start several fires. Each time you use the coal, it is considered to be gone and disappears from the inventory; the next time you need to start a fire, you need to traipse to the basement and find the coal bin again. It's tedious--no one enjoys walking from one end of a game map to the other. It gets even worse with items like blank sheets of paper, of which you need several. Each time you wish to make a sheet of paper, you need to gather the materials and put them together, meaning that you need to visit several different locations each time. Here's an area that I would have loved for them to break mimesis. When one gets a small item, the game ought to assume that we know where to get coal, or how to make paper, and just give us an unlimited supply. At least the game does make a bit of a concession -- if you just don't plain feel like making another sheet of paper, you can buy one from the game's groundskeeper -- that is, if you feel like going through the steps it takes to make gold coins.

The game does have some good ideas, the aforementioned real-world nature of the puzzles being one, and the ability to bypass a couple of difficult or tedious puzzles being another. Manuscript also makes some attempt at nonlinearity and multiple puzzle solutions. The game comes equipped with a "conscience meter", and several puzzles have both "good" and "bad" solutions, which alter your conscience meter appropriately. One objective is to get into the mansion owner's apartments; you can do this either by being extremely charming ("good"), or by drugging her tea ("bad"). The game claims that if you do too many "good" actions, you'll be too moral to do "evil" ones, and vice versa; oddly enough, it gives you the option to change your meter -- the points you get for completing puzzles can be spent adjusting the scale from good to bad. Effectively, this renders the concept moot.

The Secrets of DaVinci: The Forbidden Manuscript is certainly not a bad game, it's just not a great one. It's that awful entity known as a mediocre game. The game makes too many concessions towards mimesis in certain areas and not enough in others. It tries to make the wrong areas too realistic and doesn't spend its time beefing up the areas that need to be more real. It falls headfirst into the Uncanny Valley. It tries so hard to create a world that we can get lost in -- a genuinely interesting world in concept -- that we end up getting distracted by the areas that are not realistic. Just as a CG artist must try hard to avoid falling in by creating too-realistic-but-at-the-same-time-not-realistic-enough figures, game designers must balance their desire to create a realistic simulation with the need to create a game that's fun to play.


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