Game Review: Post Mortem

Way back in 2015 (does that count as way back?) I reviewed a murder mystery-adventure game called Still Life.  In the review, I lamented that this game was, unbeknownst to me at time of playing, the second in a trilogy.  Two years later I’m finally getting around to playing the first, confusingly named Post Mortem, thus not hinting at any sort of connection at a glance.

Somewhat fortunately, Still Life (& its direct sequel Still Life 2, which I’ll be playing next) is more of a spin-off than a direct sequel to Post Mortem.  And after going back over the plot of Still Life, I can attest that, aside from introducing one of the main characters from Still Life, there’s no real carry-over that took away from my understanding of the subsequent title.

256px-Postmortembox

So what is the plot?  Post Mortem plants us in the role of Gustav McPherson, who after retiring from being a private investigator moves to Paris in the 40’s to become an artist.  At least that’s his goal, until one evening a mysterious woman enters his studio to hire him to investigate the brutal murder of her sister and brother-in-law.  Possessing passive psychic abilities, Gus received a vision of the murders as they were committed, and thus agrees — the large sum of money the lady offers doesn’t hurt.  The oddly ritualistic murders lead Gus down a trail of occultism and shadowed motives.

Gameplay is very old-school point-&-click adventure game stuff.  You direct Gus around various environments, snatching evidence and clues, talking to people, and doing general detective work.  There’s a strong emphasis on speaking with people, with the correct dialogue choices in some cases affecting the path you take later in the game.  For example, tell the front desk clerk at the hotel where the murder occurred you’re an insurance rep & he’ll let you in, but tell him you’re a detective & he’ll kick you out, blocking off that part of the investigation.  And of course there are puzzles to unlock various evidence or progress the story.


Narrative: I’m not an expert on the subject, but at least to me Post Mortem gives a very strong film noir vibe.  It literally starts with a sultry femme fatale walking into the office of a man who’s given up on being a detective & being all secretive about offering him a very shady, & lucrative, job offer.  From there we deal with corrupt police giving a show of investigating the murders but being useless & corrupt, artist/bar owners who double as fences, street-wise prostitutes the detective falls in love with… all the usual suspects in film noir.  Betrayal & uncertainty abound around every corner, all set within the seedy pretentiousness of old Paris.  When I think about it, a lot of Post Mortem feels like it draws directly from other sources.  First film noir & detective fiction, then from occult fiction.  Towards the end of the game we’re dealing with alchemy, immortality & the Templars, of all things.  It’s difficult to tell if these beats are intentional homages & genuine inspiration or just following a formula.  Things like the Templars & the occult are pretty commonplace today, but Post Mortem originally came out in 2002, before Assassin’s Creed made such themes more salient in gamers’ consciousness.

That being said, I did find the story a bit of fresh air, thanks in large part to Gus’ character.  He’s not some brooding, guilt-&-alcohol riddled PI, as seems to have become the norm in such stories today.  Although the game does mention he’s “retired” for unknown reasons & suggests he fled to Paris, it’s not really focused on aside from giving him reluctance in the beginning.  Though at times he’s written a bit like a wet-cloth, Gus comes across as a generally nice guy who strives to uncover the truth to bring justice to the right people.  He acts like a normal person would, psychic abilities notwithstanding, & thus makes for a good proxy character for players.  He gets frustrated when people impede his path, shows compassion & caring for those wronged, & generally isn’t motivated by greed.  Even the secondary characters, although suspicious at times, never come across as strictly evil or one-note.  They seem, for the most part, like normal people in extraordinary circumstances.

As for the story itself, I felt it came across a bit disjointed.  I feel this is a standard adventure-game problem, where you know your overall goal, but end up randomly bouncing around places for so long that by the time you get what you need to progress your goal, you’ve forgotten it.  For example, early on I recognized that I either needed the old newspaper-pen routine to get a key from a locked door.  By the time I got them, I’d forgotten what I needed them for.  Sometimes it is more straight-forward, like being told by the police you need a sketch of the suspect so you go see the barman who saw the guy.  There were also times when Gus seemed to know things before I’d asked or come to conclusion I’d never thought of.  Some questioning branches repeat, such as learning from mystery woman about the Head of Baphomet, only to ask another question later about it as if he’d never heard of it.  Or toward the end when I took a picture of a dead guy, which I presented as evidence that Gus claimed proved he couldn’t have been the murderer because he’d been dead for too long.  Which was true, but at no point did the game suggest this was the case.  I think, to that end, another big problem is that Gus never comments or speculates on anything he sees during the investigation.  He’ll write notes sometimes, but the game never prompts you to look at what he’s written, so a lot of times I’d find myself doing things without understanding the connection but blindly stumbling into it.

Overall, while I appreciate the mystery itself & some of the characters, the story could be told more competently.

Score: 3


Mechanics: I mentioned it in the last paragraph, but I’ll mention it again here as it’s both a narrative & mechanical fault I had with the game: the lack of feedback between game & player.  I really didn’t like that Gus never comments aloud on anything during the investigations.  Although the game keeps track, it’s entirely up to the player to solve the problems.  On its own, that’s fine, but they need to make the gameplay aid that.  I wish that whenever you read a file or Gus makes a note about something, it would automatically take you to his notebook to see what he wrote.  You don’t even automatically read anything you pick up, or know what it is until you examine it in your inventory.  This caused a major problem for me at one point when the game bugged out & I couldn’t read any notes.

This seems to be a common bug people experience after picking up de Allepin’s file from Dr. Kaufner’s office where once you’ve read the file you can’t read any other note but will see “cannot locate source” messages in your notebook.  After this point, I was limited to only being able to access the coroner & journalist notes.  This doesn’t prevent you from playing further, but without Gus’ notes you’ll be running blind.

I found that, after picking up the book on Templars, if I went to the notes by selecting the book, instead of pulling up documents from the menu, I could access my files appropriately.  Not sure if that will work using other documents to access.

Gameplay revolves mostly around two activities: talking to people & solving puzzles.  Sadly, I was disappointed that the game favored the former.  I play adventure games for the exploration & puzzles, which Post Mortem pushed to the background.  Yeah, a detective would ask a lot of questions to witnesses, but I would’ve preferred a better balance.  In fact, puzzles only come into play in the last third of the game, & there were only five in total (including one that basically auto-solves once you’ve found all the pieces).  It’s a shame because they were pretty good puzzles, taking a bit of brain power to solve without being impenetrable.  There was a nice variety, as well.  I would’ve liked more detectiving in this detective story.

Two other mechanics that I’ll briefly touch on, because I liked them, were that you can control your view with the mouse rather than having to click to turn in any direction, & that the ending you get depends exclusively on how well you investigated & collected evidence.  There were a lot of things you can collect along the way that doesn’t play into any puzzle or seem to help the case progress other than confirming the player’s conclusions.  But it’s all worth it in the end to go through the final big dialogue tree, presenting all this evidence you’ve been collecting up to that point.  It’s very satisfying to be like, “Bam!  Here’s their passports showing they weren’t who they claimed.  And here’s a written statement from the person who hired them.  And here’s the strange powder you found in the murder room that I made in the dead man’s house.”  Actually, it’s kinda funny how lax the law was in Paris in the 40’s or whenever this is set.  They don’t seem to care about me claiming to break into places, including crime scenes & influential banker’s houses where I claim to have found the man dead, or withholding evidence.  My modern sensibilities were like, “Why did you pick up the murder weapon with your bare hands?”

Overall, while there were some really nice puzzles in the game, as well as some chuckle-worthy shenanigans, I felt the lack of feedback between game & player & emphasis on sending me chatting with random people rather than looking for clues dragged the experience down.

Score: 3


Aesthetics: Obviously, since this game was made in 2002, the graphics look dated.  For the time, they were probably on-point.  Other games made during this time were Morrowind, Hitman 2 & Eternal Darkness, & I think the graphics matched those games.  The cutscenes still look pretty nice, as do most of the environments, even if they look a bit blurred now.  I found the character movements generally pretty smooth, although the characters posture oddly at times.  During dialogue, Gus always stands with his hands clasped together like he’s holding a case — which he is in cutscenes but never in dialogue.  They also have a lot of repeated stock movements, but at least they always fit with what the person was saying.

The audio I don’t think held up quite as well.  There’s nothing wrong with the background noise or music, & I liked that each environment has its own theme.  But the acting… my God.  The voices themselves are fine, & usually the acting is okay.  But there were quite a few scenes where I was laughing at their attempts at emotion.  *affect dry tone* Yes, Gus, I can tell you’re really broken up over your friend’s brutal murder.  You sound like you’ve been crying for hours, Bebe.  But bless them, they’re trying.

Score: 3


Replay Value: Low to moderate.  As I said, there are some different paths based on choices, but they all lead to the same end.  There are basically four endings, a good & bad based on if you found all the evidence, & then two twists on each of those outcomes based on your last choice.  I’d say save your game at the start of the final act &, if you don’t have all the evidence, go find it.  Otherwise, there’s not much point to playing a second time.

Score: 2


Breakdown

Untitled

Final Score: 3

Final Word: While there are some nice elements to Post Mortem, there are definitely better adventure/mystery games out there.  I can’t see this really capturing anyone’s attention, & it feels like nothing will be missed by skipping it.  If you can get it as a bundle with the Still Life games, maybe check it out.  Otherwise I’d pass.

– GamerDame

Title: Post Mortem
Consoles: PC
Rating: M
Developer: Microids
Publishers: Microids, The Adventure Company
Release Date: Febuary 28, 2003
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Filed under 3, Adventure, PC, Puzzle, Reviews

A Former Bureaucrat Plays Papers, Please

Okay, so the title may be a bit of a stretch; I was never important enough to be a bureaucrat.  I was just a lowly, replaceable peon… not unlike the beleaguered border Inspector from Papers, Please.  I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game where I felt so much empathy for my PC as the nameless Inspector.  I knew what he was going through because, to a far lesser extent, I’ve been there myself.  And since I haven’t seen anyone talk about this game from somewhat of a first-hand experience, I decided to do something other than write a proper review.  After all, a game like Papers, Please deserves no less.

For those who have read the few previous articles where I’ve mentioned the job I had prior to finishing up college, I worked for seven years in emergency services, specifically as a 911 call taker/dispatcher (in the county I live they’re not separate positions).  In addition to handling every police, fire & medical emergency in the county, our office handled entering records into the national crime database.  Every missing person, stolen possession, warrant & protection order was handed down to our department.  And while this might sound interesting to every nosy person with a police scanner, most of the time it was a lot of paperwork & staring at computers.

Often during my Papers, Please playtime I felt like was having a PTSD flashback to my years in that box of an office.  People always think I’m joking, but I have nightmares about having to go back to work there.  Sitting at my little cubicle, papers spread across my desks, going through every single keystroke to make sure the person who entered the record got everything right.  Running criminal histories, making sure every previous alias, no matter how asinine, got entered.  Checking fingerprints.  Serial numbers.  And all while knowing there was just another person down the line who’d be checking my checking.  Ugh!  Layers upon layers of bureaucracy.  I’m all for checks & balances, but there’s a point when it just becomes a big circle jerk.

I’m not sure if my experience robotically checking records made the game any easier for me, though I do wish I’d had a discrepancy checker like the Inspector did.  It would’ve been a lot easier than just my eyes.  More importantly, I would’ve loved to have had a DETAIN or DENY option, both for dealing with the public & officials.  More than once did I think, “Can I just arrest you for wasting my time?” or, “Can we get a system that sends a shock through this person’s mobile?”.  The former usually came after being butt-dialed for the fiftieth time from the same number.  Seriously, stop sitting on $200+ pieces of technology.

But where Papers, Please really started hitting the empathy buttons was when the Inspector had to deal with the trickle down of politics.  Like the Inspector, at least in my playthroughs, I too know what it’s like to be chewed out by a supervisor for making a mistake at a job they don’t even know how to do, & holding your tongue when they cop an attitude because they have just enough power to let it go to their head.  To be lauded one minute & thrown under the bus the next, just for the person up the chain from me to make themselves look better.

It’s funny, because a lot people might have found how quickly rules & policies change in-game a bit unrealistic.  But while I’m sure this was an effort on Lucas Pope’s part to point out the ridiculousness & corruptness of the regime in Arstotzka, I know that crap happens!  I have been there!  I have seen local government change its mind at a moment’s notice.  I have seen how they make poor decisions without seeking counsel from parties who might know better.  I have been forced to follow protocols & procedures that I knew where doomed to fail, but nobody asked my opinion, despite being a veteran at the dispatch office (I’m not being facetious, either.  I was third most senior in my office for at least half my tenure there.).  I’ve had to change records from day-to-day because someone who made an unfairly greater amount of money than me decided they knew better.  I’ve seen the government set policies just to make a point, knowing full well they’d repeal them the next day.  Maybe a country’s government isn’t so quick to make such changes, but if nothing else, I can say that Papers, Please is an accurate representation of what happens when you give someone who’s never had any authority a little bit of power of another person’s life.  In short, it sucks.  One example that made me laugh was when, after doing my job & denying the Inspector’s supervisor’s friend entry for having the wrong paperwork, he petulantly told me, “There are no more plaques.”  As if I cared about his stupid Award of Sufficiency.  It reminded me of a time my supervisor in real life yelled at me for messing up a call (minor) because she took it as some personal attack on herself & was concerned about how it would make her look.  I could tell she wanted to argue, but couldn’t when my only response was, “Yes, I made a mistake.”  I got more enjoyment than I should have when she just stomped away after that with nothing else to say.

This isn’t all to say my past experiences meant I didn’t enjoy the game.  On the contrary.  Papers, Please in a uniquely compelling experience that I think every gamer can become absorbed in.  I just relate a little more than most gamers.  I was determined to get the Inspector out, no matter how many family members I leave behind (that last part is probably more a reflection of my estranged familial relations).

There were moments that highlighted the absurdity of being in any public service job.  Having people wanting you to bend the rules for them.  To which my usual response — in the game & real life — was, “I’m not getting in trouble for you.”  Granted, I did have the Inspector bend the rules sometimes.  Only if I hadn’t gotten any citations yet.  I like to think of myself as a utilitarian.  Papers, Please really gets you in the mindset of looking out for yourself.  My typical response to their lame excuses for discrepancies was, “Don’t care.”  They should be grateful I didn’t detain them on clerical errors.  A particularly hilarious moment, for me at least, was dealing with the Order.  I did enough for them to keep asking for favors, but not enough that they didn’t try to kill me in the end.  My first & second endings involved either going to jail for them & them wimping out in their revolution, or stopping their plans in the end but having been associated enough with them to go to jail for it.  Guess that’s what I get for trusting masked men with ill-defined goals.  I guess I was as much a sheep as the rest of the chattel.

In the end, though, I suppose that’s Papers, Please’s greatest strength.  You are just another cog in the wheel.  The Inspector’s story is just one of many.  You don’t really “win.”  You just try to survive & eek out some sort of existence.  Kinda depressing, but it does make getting an ending where you live all the more rewarding.

– GamerDame

Title: Papers, Please
Consoles: PC, Mac, iOS, Vita
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: 3909 LLC
Publisher: 3909 LLC
Release Date: August 8, 2013

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Filed under 5, Indie, PC, Reviews