The making of a successful adventure game includes all the same rudimentary aspects of just about any other type of game – environment, play style, interface – with a heavy emphasis on story. Because of the plodding physical movement through a fabricated world and the grilling thought needed to pass some of the very cerebral puzzles, players can get lost in the slow pace. Story is key – the thicker it is, the better, and if it’s presented correctly it can strike its own unique note amongst the chorus of adventure titles already out there.
On the surface, it’s a game that’s disguised as a package you receive from a publishing company, enlisting your sleuthing abilities to help crack the code on a mysterious CD that’s been found. This CD turns up after their star photographic journalist, Jack Lorski, disappears along with his investigative companion, Karen Gijman. Unique in its approach to player involvement, Missing proceeds to engage the player’s resourcefulness and intuition, forcing them to crack the CD’s code in order to save the lives of Jack and Karen, using the practical methodologies of a detective.
It’s so easy to get lost in the regular process of the game. This has to be the most powerful tool at Missing’s disposal; it’s a cryptic, challenging CD that contains the explanations for the disappearances, and more than you’d probably ever want to know about the kidnapper who names himself “The Phoenix”. The entire story revolves around a super 8 home video that Jack had come across, showing images of someone’s Greek vacation and, inadvertently, a murder on the beach. In between the puzzles, brief glimpses of Jack’s movie documentary are shown, and play out, bit by bit, the pursuit of an explanation for the super 8 movie and its subjects. By doing this, the player learns a little more each time about what happened to Jack and Karen, and that the story contains more dark and dangerous corners than it started with.
Ambiguity shows its face in other places of Missing, and not to the advantage of the game’s construction. Because of the widespread use of the internet to find clues (which invariably lead to other clues) or outright solutions, some directives can become a bit obscure, or even transparent. Missing does its best to help you along, either in the form of an email or even gentle chiding from the Phoenix himself, but there will be many moments of consternation and loss of momentum that take away from Missing when that next step isn’t clearly, or even partially, spelled out. This may be the one thing that Missing holds in common with its genre cousins.
It would have been folly to support a gripping story such as Missing portrays with actors that had no presence, and there are no stuttering, melodramatic, cardboard casting-couch rejects here. Jack and Karen, along with the many incidental characters shown in the film shorts, do an excellent job of keeping it real. The quality here actually encourages progress to the next clip, just to see exactly how good game and voice actors should be earning their pay, in-game or on-screen.
No matter what angle I come at Missing: Since January, I always come back impressed. It could be that it’s found a way to involve me in what’s transpiring, while eschewing the obvious elements that would remind me I’m just playing a game. Digging through the fake web sites in order to find clues I can use on real web sites takes a gentle charm, especially for someone who bludgeons their way through most real-life and game-related problems, like I do.
Charming is not, however, an encompassing word I’d use to describe Missing. Vivid. Frightening. Dire. These are much better terms for such an engrossing play experience. I would highly recommend this if you’re into grim thrillers, or the odd variation on adventure game constructs. It’s as compelling as it is morbid and innovative.