There goes my hero, he’s ordinary…

When real life becomes too mundane for comfort, gamers often look expectantly towards deeply engrossing adventure games, yearning for escapism. A spectacular trip to an alternate dimension, or the adoption of an outlandish, unaccustomed role perhaps. Delphine’s James Bond simulator, Stealth Affair, springs to mind. You’ll understand then why upon discovering that its precursor aims to fulfil every young boys’ dream to become a window cleaner, I wasn’t immediately overwhelmed with a sense of promise and wonderment.

Despite the intriguing title, the opening panorama depicting a man hoisted up the side of a glass-fronted skyscraper, primed to scrub it to a squeaky clean, glistening finish, just wasn’t selling it to me. Neither was the nerve-jangling image of George Formby that had made itself at home in my head, strumming away on a twee ukulele, a gormless grin connecting his ears like a join the dots exercise.

Luckily ‘Future Wars: Time Travellers’ has more up its sleeve than initially meets the eye. You’d imagine the protagonist – enigmatically known only as ‘hero’ – was equally relieved to learn that he’d soon find himself discarding the tedium of a repetitive manual labour job to become immersed in Another World entirely, another time even. Curiously foreshadowing what the future held for gamers and graphics artist, coder and all-round miracle-worker, Eric Chahi. In 1989 we’d only have a year to wait to find out.

Presumably ‘hero’ isn’t his actual name since it’s not capitalised. Hmm. Turning hero’s ordinary life on its head, aliens have invaded earth during the distant epoch of the 43rd century (or will do when the time comes), and established that we’re pretty well prepared in the defence department. Having a DeLorean to hand (or whatever) they decide that the best way forwards is backwards… to the past.

Emerging in a time zone prior to the construction of earth’s magnetic field ‘SDI’ shields rather conveniently allows them to be breached before they even exist. Technology was fairly primitive in 1304 (the middle ages) so they seem to have done their research. Sabotaging earth’s efforts to fend off attacks that won’t transpire for centuries, the ‘Crughons’ intend to plant three ticking time bombs at crucial junctures in history, then close in for the incisive kill. Erm… in the future when the unprotected target exists. I think.

If your head isn’t already hurting by now, it will be after being bludgeoned numerous times by a malapropism ‘joke’ concerning the ‘Croutons’. Hero stretches to great lengths to ensure we appreciate his inventive wit, yet if the acronym SDI is ever explained I must have missed it. It probably meant something in French and so fell through the cracks when translated. Perhaps Delphine were alluding to Ronald Reagan’s ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’?

Then again, it’s not the tip of the epic wtf-iceberg that should concern us; the rest of it is rapidly heading our way on course for a direct collision with our fragile sanity. As well as scouring our own era for traces of explosives, we must explore those of the Cretaceous and Medieval periods. Each is set to harbour a bomb designated to obliterate one of the generators (or ‘poles’) that will eventually exist to power the SDI shield, raised ‘in memory of a former age’ to acknowledge human’s return to the previously abandoned earth. Stymieing our attempts at recolonisation, disarmament is impossible once activated, obliging us to adopt a ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach to ward off their deployment in advance. A-ke-la. I. Will. Be. Pre. Pared.

Quite a tall order considering neither hero or the player is aware of this impending/bygone conspiracy going in. Confusingly the manual only tells the story from the point of view of two characters it forgets to introduce. Perhaps purposefully left vague to lure us in, we must unravel the threads as we go along, just like one of those mystery novel thingies. We only got out of bed to wash a few windows!

Nevertheless, after/before centuries of brutal warfare, reducing numerous once-proud colonies to dust, the eternal threat must finally (?) be vanquished if the human race is to survive. Just one man has the gumption to quell the invasion; that man is you, I mean me… us, practical joker, window cleaner extraordinaire and anonymous every-man, John Doe. If you’ve been holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night, breathe a sigh of relief. He’s strong, he’s fast, and above all else, he’s fresh from the fight. I hope he’s brought his Mr Muscle along.

We get off to a plodding start as our alter ego, George Formby. Entering the skyscraper we’re in the process of cleaning via an open window, we lay the classic bucket-water-door trap for our boss, Ed, and stand back to witness the side-splittingly hilarious results.

I can’t help thinking it was executed with greater aplomb in Monkey Island II three years later. At least the game shows some self-awareness by acknowledging it’s a lame trick.

Never mind. We make a sharp exit to avoid any repercussions, only to find ourselves trapped in a room with an Indiana Jones-esque descending ceiling. Beyond entering a code to deactivate it, the pace never really escalates to signify that a sense of urgency is demanded. Which I suppose is technically true when we have a time-travelling wotsit at our fingertips. We’d only have to rewind the tape if anything went awry. For now, we don’t know where we’re going or why, so hero is as much in the dark as we are. In any case, the proper game is about to start so we can chuck away the squeegee and grab some alien repellent. OK, so insecticide will have to do. You never know when you might encounter a swarm of deadly mosquitoes.

I, I wish you could swim, Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim.

Future Wars was the first of Delphine’s adventure game endeavours to engage the entirely mouse-driven ‘Cinematique’ control system. Quite a step up from earlier keyboard controlled, vocabulary recognition style ‘interactive fiction’ adventures. Under the fancy title lurks a fairly primitive right-click menu populated with simple verbs used to perform actions. It’s there when you need it, and politely vanishes to free up screen real estate when you don’t.

Although largely functional, it can be ridiculously arduous to use in places. For instance, entering a five digit code into a keypad requires you to select the ‘operate’ command before pushing each and every digit. Why is it even necessary once? They’re buttons, buttons are designed to be pushed.

Nevertheless, the Cinematique menu’s main limitation is not being able to combine items in the inventory, or manipulate one with another; a facility that would be implemented in Delphine’s follow-up adventure, ‘Operation Stealth’, a year later, and further refined for ‘A Cruise for a Corpse’.

Being a fairly early specimen in the point and click adventure genre the dialogue doesn’t feature a decision tree of any kind, it’s scripted. We can choose to talk to people, or not. If we do, the conversation plays out automatically as though we’re a member of the audience watching a play. Instead we alter their behaviour by providing whatever it is they want (a cup of Chikapok for example, don’t ask), or influence them by adjusting our own conduct.

Given that the dialogue was translated from its original French tongue, you won’t experience any regional nuance as with, say, Simon the Sorcerer. It’s all quite straight-laced and rudimentary, reminiscent of early King’s Quest games. Some characters are so devoid of human traits they could easy pass for androids.

Also aligning with Sierra’s back-catalogue, dying is a way of life. Unless you enjoy watching Groundhog Day on a constant loop, in an echo chamber, you’ll want to save your game as often as you breathe. Anything and everything can result in a ‘game over’ message, and there are no extra lives to spare.

Speaking of …erm, less than optimal game design, it’s perfectly possible to progress beyond areas in which you’re required to collect critical items without actually doing so. Once you realise your mistake it can be too late to backtrack, rendering all your toil null and void.

You may not have the patience to re-tread the same ground in any case since true path-finding hasn’t been implemented. Hero walks everywhere in a straight line no matter what. Encounter an obstacle and he halts, leaving you to micro-manage his tip-toeing around it. If he was carrying a white stick, led by a Labrador, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Clearly it was still early days for adventure game technology, and this issue would be addressed by other developers later, benefiting the whole community.

While we’re on a roll, often essential objects are represented by a couple of tiny pixels that bear them no relation. Without scanning every last inch of a locale with the ‘examine’ option selected you’d have no idea they were even there, or relevant to the task at hand.

If you’re lucky enough to spot them at all you may be too far away to actually interact. Hero won’t move closer to an object automatically before attempting to execute a command. Instead we’ll be told that it’s simply not happening, encouraged to shimmy a bit nearer and try again. As a result it can take half a dozen attempts to perform a very basic maneuver… if we don’t perish in the process first. Try water-bombing the electronic wolf from a safe distance! There’s a phrase I’m guaranteed never to use again, though I’d imagine they were all the rage back in ye olde France.

While the playfield is often smaller than we’d like, switching back and forth between full screen vistas and tiny windows does give the impression we’re entering more tightly confined areas. It’s particularly effective for interior ones where a sense of claustrophobia is required to heighten the tension.

With Eric Chahi responsible for producing all the artwork, as you’d expect, much of it is stunning, clearly evocative of Another World in places. Those turquoise colour schemes are unmistakable.

 

Be sure to keep your ears open for the laser gun sound effect that also later found its way into the same game. Making a scene featuring an overall-clad man washing a skyscraper seem enticing, luring you into an expedition you may otherwise have passed over was a stroke of genius. So astounding we can even forgive him for forgetting to draw the star of the show’s reflection into the skyscraper’s glorious mirror finish.

As a one man band, unfortunately Eric felt obliged to recycle certain backdrops and sprites rather than creating everything from scratch. The deja vu is strong with this one, use it wisely Luke, I mean hero. Come on, you must have noticed the resemblance? He’s wearing the iconic Skywalker skiff outfit in the Medieval era (having nicked it from a naked swimmer who looks identical to hero).

If you weren’t already thinking along those lines, Future Wars equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi actually quotes Star Wars verbatim. Credit where it’s due for the honesty, if not originality.

Aesthetically exquisite as some of the visuals are, it would appear that even greater emphasis was placed on the impact of the audio. No fewer than six musicians were assigned to this task; Antoine O’Heix, Jean Baudlot, Jesus Martinez, Marc Minier, Paul Cuisset, and Philippe Chastel. In contrast, only a single programmer was responsible for coding the entire game, Paul Cuisset. Delphine were so proud of the game’s musical compositions they actually released the soundtrack independently, distributed via CD.

Meanwhile, hero visits a monastery to rescue the obligatory damsel in distress, Lo’Ann, from an ‘abomination of monks’.

 

It turns out that Lo’Ann and her father, Lear Bailey, are the characters introduced in the manual’s preamble – agents of TRIANGLE no less (yes, you have to SHOUT that bit), the institute of time research. I knew we’d get there in the end! They serve a purpose too, which is reassuring to hear. They’ve been sent back in time from the future to thwart the Crughon’s dastardly, despicable scheme to snuff out the human race.

To kill some time, then ensues a series of tedious events involving hero being kidnapped and then mistaken for an alien co-conspirator by the supreme council.

Flipping into the Cretaceous period (because dinosaurs are always treated to a cameo in time travel scenarios, it’s the law), we’re thrust into a time-sensitive action sequence calling for lots of mindless (compressed air gun) blasting. Apparently lasers are less economical.

If you thought the fourth wall breaking was dire in Stealth Affair, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet… b-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet…

As you are settling in, well-armed, and ready to defend your life at whatever cost, A STRANGE IDEA crosses your mind!!!
“Why don’t I click on the Crughons with my mouse! As soon as their leader appears on his platform, I ought to eliminate him!!!…”
You ask yourself for a moment how could such a strange idea have come to you!
“Click? Mouse??? I must be under hypnosis! Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…”

Our ultimate objective here is to commandeer the Crughon’s shuttle, and pilot it towards their fortress headquarters.

Well that could be a draughty journey!

Having navigated the labyrinthine corridors we infiltrate the computer control room and reprogram one of the three Scorzuums (delayed action bombs) under their auspices to detonate prematurely. Evacuating in an escape pod just in the nick of time their base is decimated. Kiboshing the Crughon’s terrorist crusade, the deviants fail to evolve and the world is saved. Hurrah!

 

 

 

In a final twist to the already melon-twistingly flummoxing tale we discover that we are the cause of the dinosaurs being wiped out a gazillion eons ago (well, actually 65 million years if you want to get all sciencey about it). Or rather hero the unexceptional, anonymous window cleaner from 1989 is. Well, that makes a refreshing change. They didn’t live happily ever after.

Sequels were proposed to expand upon hero’s ‘Adventures in Time’ (the US title), though failed to materialise. I don’t recall mourning the loss, unconvinced I’d want to revisit hero’s dreary tribulations, even if the destiny of humankind was once again hanging in the balance.

1989 was the same year in which Back to the Future II was released, so naturally Delphine were perfectly poised to ride on the coattails of the time travel Zeitgeist. Where Robert Zemeckis had the edge, he kept it light, entertaining and above all didn’t engage an alien invasion angle of any kind. A tired trope even at this stage courtesy of all those schlock sci-fi B-movies that had the market sewn up in the 50s. Admittedly some of their plots too made as little sense as the cryptic bundle of nonsense in which hero found himself entrenched. Why couldn’t the Martian Croutons have just gone back in time to the point before the shield existed and blown up the earth while it was unguarded and at its most vulnerable? Why the elaborate bomb-planting time-delay ruse? It’s a bit late to start worrying about the butterfly effect now.

In between the advent of Future Wars and now, Mulder and Scully well and truly expunged our appetite for alien conspiracies. So much so that when we heard that this would be the crux of the Indiana Jones comeback movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, swathes of fans groaned, rolled over and went back to sleep. Is it really any wonder ‘The Menace’ (another alternative subtitle) is such a hard sell for retro-gamers today?

As the genre evolved, Future Wars was a harsh lesson in how not to design rewarding adventure games. Not that the likes of LucasArts needed the tuition mind you; they had already produced wittier, more refined, coherent and cohesive point and clickers by this stage, and only improved their output with each successive release. They even had the foresight to Dig out the little green men while the alien craze was still current. Which reminds me, it’s been yonks since I’ve visited my old pal Zak McKracken and his Alien Mindbenders.

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