I have a weird relationship with adventure games. I should like them. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I believe that video games can tell compelling stories. And, for the most part, the best (or at least best-regarded) stories in games have been told in adventure games. The Longest Journey. The Walking Dead. Grim Fandango. And so on.
There’s only one problem: many adventure games are incredibly unpleasant to actually play. Because games are supposed to have gameplay of some sort, adventure games are saddled with the idea that they have to be challenging. Instead of just allowing the player to experience the story, these games throw up tedious minigames or, worse, unintuitive puzzles.
Recently I played through the remastered version of Grim Fandango and found myself aghast at the game’s bizarre expectations. Everything else about Grim Fandango–the writing, the art, the voice acting–is fantastic. But it’s shackled to a series of incredibly arbitrary gameplay sections. I hesitate to even call them puzzles. You run around the environment, collecting items and then using those items in a specific order in specific parts of the environment. Some of these make a certain amount of sense, like luring birds with bread and then scaring them when they pop a balloon underneath. But others, like the bizarre shit with betting stubs at the cat racing track, is even more difficult to describe than it is to figure out. I played through the entire game with a guide and, while it made me feel a bit like a loser, I think I enjoyed my time with it way more than if I went in legit.
Adventure games faded into the background for a while, shortly after the release of Grim Fandango. The rise of action-adventure hybrids like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, which I seem to bring up in every other post in this series, offered an alternative to adventure games. Many of these titles retained a certain amount of the way progression was handled in classic adventure games–finding items and using them at the right place to open up the world. But rather than the elaborate sequences of items and events of Grim Fandango, instead the item was usually a key and the only thing you needed to figure out was where to use it. Instead of challenging puzzles, gameplay and challenge existed in action/combat sequences.
Other genres began to tell stories as well. Half-Life and Goldeneye brought narratives to the first person shooter. The 3-d Final Fantasy games introduced a bunch more people to the Japanese RPG, which had been a story-heavy genre since Dragon Quest IV. Similarly, the west had Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. And, of course, there was Metal Gear. Adventure games were no longer the primary source for interactive narratives, and all these other genres had established gameplay elements which are a lot more appealing than item-hunting and half-formed puzzles.
Adventure games never died. They didn’t even really disappear. While they weren’t as popular, the genre kept on trucking. The Syberia and Broken Sword series kept on trucking through the 2000s. So did The Longest Journey/Dreamfall, which were actually good. Quantic Dream did some weird shit that was at least entertaining. And let’s face it, Phoenix Wright was probably more adventure game than visual novel. But it wasn’t until recently that the genre, in something resembling its purest form, returned to mainstream prominence. What happened? Well, it’s complicated. But I’m going to oversimplify things and say The Walking Dead happened.
While The Walking Dead had a bit of the usual find item-use item gameplay (as well as the occasional bad action minigame), the old style of adventure game challenge was mostly stripped out. Instead, the primary interaction with the game was accomplished through dialog trees and diverging story paths. By making decisions for your main character, the story could seemingly develop differently. Bioware and Obsidian had been peddling this idea for years (since the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate) but Telltale games distilled it down into story-driven crack-cocaine. Now they have multiple franchises of adventure titles in development, all still running on the same creaky engine. Later games have leaned even harder into pure narrative-choice gameplay, relying even less on the awkward minigames and quick time events of The Walking Dead. Presumably, adventure games are big business again.
What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, CSI: Fatal Conspiracy is an adventure game developed by Telltale Games. Before Telltale were the heroes of the genre and big names in their own right, they developed small-time adventure games based on the Bone comics and…well… the hit CBS TV series, CSI.
CSI was Telltale’s cash cow, allowing them to work on their own projects while they developed very profitable licensed games for Ubisoft. I don’t think I knew anyone who played these games, but a ton of people did. CSI was a hell of a popular franchise. All told, Telltale made four separate CSI games, inheriting the series from 369 Interactive. “369 Interactive” was a specialty imprint of Radical Entertainment created solely for developing the first CSI games for Ubisoft. There are all sorts of reasons to know Radical Entertainment but the funniest one, by far, is that they developed Mario is Missing and Mario’s Time Machine for the NES, two terrible education/adventure games featuring Nintendo’s beloved plumber.
It’s important to know that Telltale didn’t start the CSI series of games, because at least one important element of Telltale games to this day–the five episode structure–was inherited from the 369 Interactive/Radical Entertainment games. This means that we can get hella reductive and say that we wouldn’t have The Walking Dead as we know it without Mario is Missing. And that’s amazing.
CSI: Fatal Conspiracy is the last of Telltale’s CSI titles, and it’s probably the best licensed game I’ve played so far in this dumb experiment. That’s not saying much. It’s an adventure game, and it’s far more in the vein of the older incarnations of the genre than Telltale’s later innovations. Actually, the closest analog I can think of is Phoenix Wright, if Phoenix Wright took itself deadly serious and infused with a few terrible minigames.
Each of the five cases plays out the same way. You investigate a crime scene, go back to the lab to perform tests on the evidence, confront the first suspect, and then do a mix of all three activities until you suss out the actual murderer. There is none of the storyline choice that would come to define later Telltale games. There is only one right answer, and no particular way to fail to choose it. Except, of course, by fucking up the minigames.
There are a handful of these minigames scattered throughout the lab, and they’re the closest thing that CSI: Fatal Conspiracy has to puzzles. You match up parts of fingerprints, compare barcode-like designs to identify chemicals, and use a tedious Mastermind-esque interface to match DNA profiles. The last one is particularly bad, because it encourages a certain amount of trial-and-error that forces you to stare at the same screen full of colored ovals for several minutes. It’s dumb and tedious. But, at the very least, these games are easy. I guess that’s a positive? There’s no failing the puzzles in CSI: Fatal Conspiracy. You can always try again, even if it is at the cost of more time.
The story is exactly the kind of CBS crime procedural bullshit that you would expect. Each murder is tangentially connected to the criminal empire of a Mexican drug lord Beatriz Salazar, also known as “The Queen of the Hive.” Referring to a Mexican gang as a hive without any context seemed fairly offensive until the final chapter, in which it is revealed that Ms. Salazar literally uses bee colonies as a front for her operation. It’s all pretty dumb. Because you only see Salazar a couple times, she’s never particularly threatening. She does some pretty heinous things but it’s all off-screen and the people she kills are generally unlikeable characters themselves so their deaths are pretty shrug-worthy.
To make matters worse, the campaign to put Salazar behind bars ends on a completely anti-climactic note. (SPOILERS ahead if, uh, you care about those sort of things for a years-old CSI game). There’s literally no showdown with Salazar. You find her hiding in a trap door under a burned-up bee farm. You can throw some shade her way, but there’s no confronting her with evidence. There’s no final match up against her, which is especially disappointing because the final chapter of the game is literally titled “Boss Battle.”
Compare this to a Phoenix Wright game, in which the last part of the last trial is usually a lengthy debate with the mastermind criminal, throwing every bit of evidence at them at the right time and calling them out on all their lies. The Wolf Among Us, one of Telltale’s most recent games, ends exactly the same way, with a debate against the main antagonist which covers the events of all five episodes.
None of this is realistic at all, and it wouldn’t be true to the CSI show either. But video games and TV shows are paced differently, and an adaptation needs to take that into account. The game should progress into some kind of final confrontation where everything the player has worked for can fall apart at the last minute. I don’t know how Fatal Conspiracy could have pulled this off, but it would have helped if the last chapter wasn’t just a manhunt for Salazar (who we had plenty of evidence against) but instead an investigation to come up with enough proof to tie her to the murders she committed. The manhunt storyline doesn’t give you a climactic moment unless you’re going to end on a shootout. That was never going to happen because this is an adventure game and, well, have you played the shooting sections in The Walking Dead? It wouldn’t have been pretty.
While the story is predictably meh, the game could have been salvaged with interesting characters. It wasn’t. In each episode, you are paired with a different main cast member from the television show. They all act (and are written) identically as a sardonic mentor to the nameless/faceless main character that you portray, a rookie CSI operative who has never appeared on TV. By restricting each character (except Captain Brass and Coroner Robbins) to a single episode, none of the characters are given any room to develop.
I don’t know how much I can fault the game for the lack of character development. I’ve watched a few CSI episodes and I understand that the series isn’t a bastion of serial storytelling. It is episodic and contained by design. However, adventure games live and die by the stoy and characters. And when the story is generic crime fiction pulp, interesting characters are absolutely necessary. There are no interesting characters in this game. Not on the CSI squad. And not among the killers and suspects. The closest we get is the eco-terrorist in chapter 2 who gets weirdly revolutionary when you accuse him.
On a final point, because I’m precisely the person who would get nitpicky about this, nobody in this game asks for a lawyer. Throughout the five episodes, you bring in suspect after suspect for questioning and exactly one lawyers up. Later you come back to him and talk to him because (I am not making this up) you found a finger puppet that was sentimental to him. That’s it.
Folks, if you’re ever brought in to be questioned by the police, CSI, or even poorly-rendered CGI representations of the CSI, and there’s any iota of chance they consider you a suspect, don’t talk to them until you’ve talked to a goddamn lawyer. Don’t be the cast of CSI Fatal Conspiracy. Be smarter than that.