In the pantheon of classic adventure game series, certain franchises come to mind. King’s Quest, Sam and Max, Zork, etcetera. These games are looked upon so favorably in the collective game unconscious because, in a way, they are timeless: their stories and puzzles are great, and their graphical or technological shortcomings often work in their favor. Whether text-based or VGA, gamers have little to no trouble fondly remembering great old adventure games.
Unless, of course, the game uses full motion video.
FMV is usually synonymous with “crap,” as games like A Fork in the Tale and The Daedalus Encounter prove. But there is one adventure franchise which consistently used FMV, and still managed not to suck; one franchise that combined film noir, comedy, and dystopian sci-fi into five difficult, entertaining titles.
That franchise is Tex Murphy, and these are his games.
All four games in the Tex Murphy series (technically five, but the final game, Overseer, is just a fully 3D remake of the first one, Mean Streets) take place sometime in the 21st century, in Post-WWIII San Francisco. The skies are red with radiation, and the San Franciscan populace consists largely of radiated mutants. The protagonist of all four games, Tex Murphy, is one of the few citizens born without any genetic defects.
Tex is your average hard-boiled detective: he’s generally honest, but he drinks a bit too much, he has back problems, and he’s constantly down on his luck. His inner monologues are typically clever, humorous affairs as he congratulates himself on his admittedly sharp observational skills.
Tex operates his own private detective agency out of his room in the Ritz Hotel, across the street from a mutated newspaper stand owner whom he happens to be in love with. Thanks to Tex’s location in San Francisco, many of the characters in his neighborhood recur throughout the series.
Each case Tex gets usually involves a murder or a disappearance (something interesting, but altogether typical for film noir) that soon devolves into something far more complex and sinister than it would at first appear. In other words, a standard film noir plot. Detailing the plots of the individual games would more or less spoil them, but suffice it to say that they manage to inegrate archetypical film noir aspects with adventure-game humor and Blade Runner-esque sci-fi.
The first two games in the series, Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, are typical point-and-click fare, with the occasional use of live actors. The first two games are difficult, in an old-school kind of way.
In Mean Streets, Tex never makes a note of anything he sees or hears — it’s up to the player to remember all the clues and make sense of them. It’s actually sort of cool that a game forces the player to truly play the part of the detective: most “detective” games (a la Blade Runner) remember too many facts for the player, essentially turning the game into a prolonged interactive movie.
Martian Memorandum makes this easier on the player — Tex remembers the main clues of a case — but retains the “dead end” possibilities that existed in Mean Streets. Whether intentionally or not, you can talk a witness into a corner from which they will never recover, and you’ll frequently not realize you did it. It’s deceptively easy to essentially “lose” the game by angering a character to the point where they refuse to divulge clues vital to your progression in the game.
But that’s just the first two games. The last three, Under a Killing Moon, Pandora Detective, and Overseer, are the more frequently (and fondly) remembered amongst adventure game fans.
Where the first two games involved 2D graphics, the last three combine fully 3D exploration and full-motion video. I’ll get into the FMV stuff later, but the 3D exploration is actually kind of interesting, even today.
Basically, you can walk around the entire gameworld as if it were an FPS, which is something even modern adventure games rarely do (at the moment, the only one I can think of is Penumbra). It feels kind of wonky — if you’re examining, you can’t move, and if you’re moving, you can’t examine — but the system is nonetheless ahead of its time.
The FMV sequences, on the other hand, fit only in the context of their time. They’re frequently cheesy (though they get slightly better as the series progresses), the acting is hammy (the title character is played by Chris Jones, one of the series’ creators), and the celebrity guest stars could not seem more bored (including: James Earl Jones, Clint Howard, Barry Corbin, Michael York, Margot “I’m Fucking Insane” Kidder).
Still, though, the meat of the last three games — the adventure aspects — are worthy of praise. The puzzles are clever (if sometimes too reliant on pixel-hunting), the dialogue is frequently amusing, and the games are just plain fun. For all the cheese of the FMV aspects, the combination of comedy, noir, and sci-fi still works really, really well.
Why You Probably Haven’t Played It:
Out of all the forgotten games, the Tex Murphy series probably has one of the biggest fan bases. When full motion video use was at its peak, it was more or less impossible to not know of Tex Murphy’s adventures.
But, as I said in the intro, the use of full motion video is one of those few antiquated technologies that we do not look upon with affection. People tend to forget that the majority of Tex’s games allowed for fully 3D movement, instead choosing to focus on the frequently cheesy FMV dialogue.
Even more depressing is the fact that the Tex series is not technically finished: the final released game, Overseer, ends with a cliffhanger that was to be solved in an immediately-produced sequel called Chance. After Overseer was published, however, Access Software was acquired by Microsoft, who in turn sold it to Take Two, who in turn shut it down for good.
Despite the fact that at least two more sequels were planned, the Tex Murphy series died in 1998. The creators, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, created a few flash movies and radio plays to hint at what those sequels would have consisted of. Still, it’s been almost a decade since the last Tex Murphy game, the company that originally published it is long since dead, and adventure games (much less FMV games) aren’t exactly financial blockbusters in today’s gaming market. For all intents and purposes, the franchise is completely dead.
However, that isn’t to suggest you can’t still enjoy the games. Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum are available for download at Abandonia — just remember to download DosBox.
The other three Tex games, the fully 3D ones, are available on eBay for a reasonable price. They play differently than the first two in the series, but if you enjoy the Tex Murphy “vibe” from the first two games, the last three won’t disappoint you.