Thursday, July 11, 2024

Game 521: Circuit's Edge (1990)

Circuit's Edge
United States
Westwood Associates (developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 11 September 2022 
Date Ended: 3 July 2024
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Circuit's Edge started as a BRIEF but spun out of control. I began it almost two years ago now, probably in response to yet another person writing to me claiming it was an RPG. Once I started it, I was intrigued enough that I put about eight hours into it, but I ended up having so many questions about the characters and settings that I set it aside until I could read the novel on which it was based, George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails (1986). I didn't get around to doing that until this spring, right about the time Whale's Voyage disappointed me with its own take on cyberpunk. I decided it was time to finish the game and, having finished it, I decided to turn it into a full entry despite its lack of CRPG credentials. 
Effinger's When Gravity Fails is the first of a trilogy of novels using the same character and the same setting. The other two are A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991), neither of which I have read. Based on the first novel alone, it is one of the weirdest intellectual properties ever to be given video game form, and they did it in the weirdest way, by making Circuit's Edge a canonical story set between the first two novels. Effinger created the plot for the game and wrote three-quarters of the in-game text. I scoured the Internet but could not find an authoritative account for how it came about. Accounts from Westwood developers indicate that Infocom brought the project to them, rather than the other way around, and notes from the manual suggest that Effinger was also approached by Infocom. My best guess is that some Infocom executive (Christopher Erhardt?) loved Gravity and made the game happen, heedless of what must have seemed like dismal marketing potential. The partnership also led to Effinger writing The Zork Chronicles, a novel set in Infocom's game world, the same year.

Title cards recap the main character.
When I say that it's a weird IP for a video game, I'm not specifically talking about its cyberpunk aesthetic. Interplay's Neuromancer (1988) had already shown that cyberpunk could be both good and popular. It's more the specifics that get me. The novels take place in a future in which the Islamic world is the superpower and the United States and Europe have fractured into a bunch of tiny independent republics. The main character praises Allah in a decent percentage of his conversations. That's a ballsy sell to western audiences the same year that the Gulf War started. Also in 1990, President George H. W. Bush and many other political leaders were blaming video games for rising crime rates. Sounds like a perfect time for a game whose pan-sexual main character lives in the equivalent of Bourbon Street, spends nights in strip clubs, wakes up every morning with a hangover, and freely abuses drugs. Admittedly, some of those features had to be toned down for the game.
And the setting.
And finally, it's weird that we join the character in media res rather than seeing an origin story (or a game-based rehash of Gravity). Certainly, most players wouldn't have read Gravity, but I guess that didn't hurt the game any more than it hurt The Witcher series two decades later.
An Infocom in-joke.
A few years ago, I would have said that I didn't like cyberpunk, but perhaps I'm changing or I just haven't read enough of it. Either way, I was surprised how strongly the opening chapters of Gravity gripped me. It helps that the series's setting, "The Budayeen," a neighborhood of an unnamed city, is explicitly based on the French Quarter of New Orleans. The main character, Marîd Audran, visits clubs in the neighborhood, has friends among the bartenders, meets clients, deals with con artists and drunks, all things that I have done frequently in the French Quarter. He even drinks gimlets!
And for the same reason!
The game is set in 2202, the novel a few years earlier. Audran is a refugee from Algeria, the son of a prostitute. He lives in the Budayeen, where most people are nominally Muslim but have mostly fallen from the faith that surrounds them. The neighborhood is run by a political boss named Friedlander Bey. We learn about the rest of the world only in snatches. The USA and the USSR "fractured into dozens of small monarchies and police states." The Islamic world is in some way unified, but the old factional strife still exists: we see disputes between Sunni and Shia, Berbers and Arabs. The fellahin are still poor and oppressed.
I've got good and bad news for you, Texans. Good news: Texas is its own country in the future.
Audran lives in this world as a freelancer and hustler. He bounces, he collects debts, finds missing people. He occasionally does some investigative work, though he hates cops. He has a lot of friends in low places, including a transgendered girlfriend named Yasmin, but he holds himself somewhat aloof from them, in particular because he refuses to get the cybernetic modifications that would allow him to use "moddies" and "daddies." Daddies are plug-ins that grant you abilities, like speaking a foreign language, knowledge of legal or accounting practices, or the ability to avoid a hangover. Moddies change your personality completely, either into a template (e.g., a card sharp, a secret agent) or a specific person, real or fictional (Audran spends a good portion of the book moddied as Nero Wolfe). You think these sound useful, but in the book, most people just use them for entertainment and prostitution.
Into this setting comes a serial killer, enhanced with moddies and daddies. Audran is at first a suspect. Once cleared, he is ordered by "Papa" Friedlander Bey to work with police Lieutenant Okking (the only cop he can stand) to investigate the crimes. Audran hates the job, particularly after Bey demands that he get the cybernetic enhancements, but you don't say no to Papa.
Audran's "super spy" moddy makes him think like James Bond.
Audran solves the case, killing the second killer himself, but he does so with a defective daddy that turns him into an animal. He literally tears the killer apart with his teeth. Unfortunately, he does the same to Lieutenant Okking, who the murderer had captured just before Audran arrived. In the aftermath, the neighborhood is so horrified by his actions that he loses his girlfriend and almost all his friends. Bars and clubs refuse him service. To add insult to injury, Bey forces him to take a permanent position as the Budayeen's liaison with the police force.
And thus we come to Circuit's Edge. The opening screens tell us that Audran is not trusted by his police contact and has, in contrast to his earlier preferences, embraced his cybernetic modifications, using them to increase his aggression and strength. He has just awoken from another night of hard living and hard drinking when he receives a call from one of his few remaining friends, Saied the Half-Hajj (he had begun the journey to Mecca but got distracted halfway), asking him to help with an errand.
The game opens in Audran's seedy apartment.
The interface shows Audran's portrait in the upper-left, his surroundings in the upper-right, and a textual description of the action at the bottom. The portrait suffers wounds and other conditions as Audran does. Commands are given through a menu bar at the top of the screen. They can be clicked on or called with the first letter. "Game," "Talk," "Inventory," and "Action" all have sub-menus. A small map appears in the lower-right, and four slots for moddies and daddies appear above Audran's portrait. Audran starts with just two daddies. "Bio-Scanner" makes his attributes appear on the right hand side of the screen, and I mostly left it in for the entire game. "The Suppressor" makes him immune to any sensory input (e.g., pain). I never used it once.
Audran steps outside as his phone rings. His "bioscanner" daddy shows his current statistics on the right. This is apparently a world where you need technology to tell if you're hungry or tired.
There are multiple ways to accomplish some tasks. For instance, if you want to swap chips, you can click on the chips themselves, or go to "Inventory" and select "Chip Rack," or go to "Action" and select "Chip In/Out." You can "look at" all your inventory items to get a detailed description, making this the second cyberpunk game in a row for which I can offer such praise.
Walking the streets of the Budayeen. The game does better than most RPGs of the period by populating its tiled environments with people.
Time passes even if you do nothing, reducing your "Food" and "Rest" meters. I wish there were a single-key shortcut to pause the game. Instead, you have to go "Game" and then "Game Options" and then "Pause." You can only save the game in Audran's apartment, and there's only one save slot. 
If you hang out in bars without doing anything, random women come up and ask you to buy them drinks.
Once out on the street, you can call up an automap, but it's unlabeled and thus pretty useless without the accompanying map in the game manual. The map is given as Audran's personal one, with notes and phone numbers, including characters who were killed in the book. If you call their numbers, you just get a message that they're out of service. You get an answering machine if you call most of the other numbers before you need to for plot purposes.
The manual map gives you numbers and addresses. Note that the streets are numbered from right to left.
Which you have to translate into positions on the blank game map. It's easier than it looks.
Moving works differently indoors and outdoors. Indoors, hitting any of the arrow keys rotates you to see the room from different views; most have two, but some only have one and the arrows don't do anything. There's never any walking or moving to do indoors. Once outside, however, you're in a proper tiled 3D interface in which the arrows move you right, left, forward, and about-face. NPCs in Arabic garb roam the streets. You can talk to both named and unnamed NPCs. You have both stock lines (many of them insults) and the ability to ask about specific keywords. I don't think the various compliments, honorifics, and insults ever make a difference, but I could be wrong.
Complimentary and uncomplimentary dialogue options show up randomly. The next time I clicked on this menu, I had an option to tell him that he was looking good.
The Budayeen is small but thickly settled, with almost 100 visitable locations. You can even leave the neighborhood via the east exit, but you can't freely explore. Instead, you take a cab to non-Budayeen locations in the rest of the city. I occasionally had fun ignoring the linear plot and just visiting random businesses, talking to random people, and calling random numbers. You only need to call about three people during the game, but the authors programmed the numbers of dozens of businesses into the game.
The locations you can visit thanks to Bill, the drug-addicted cab driver.
As you move around, you occasionally get attacked by random punks. You need to purchase a weapon to defend yourself, although I managed to get through most of the game on a "Kung Fu Master" moddy that gave me lethal kicks and punches and also occasionally replaced my regular dialogue choices with Master Po-style aphorisms. Anyway, these random battles plus the statistics shown with the bio-scanner daddy must be why some people think this is an RPG. Combat is a very minor part of the game, however--there are only two fixed battles--and the statistics never improve.
A random combat against a punk.I'm relying on my kung-fu here.
You can initiate combat with anyone, both named and unnamed NPCs, and loot their bodies if you kill them, but eventually the police catch up with you and kill you.

You still have to pay attention to the status bars, though. Audran occasionally has to sleep, stop into a restaurant, and visit the medical clinic for healing. I was delighted that the city had a New Orleans restaurant, complete with Jambalaya and oyster po boys. Taking care of these needs is harder than you might think, since your phone has a habit of waking you up from sleep with a time-sensitive mission. You're always having to meet someone at midnight or find something within 24 hours. The neighborhood's hours can be a problem, too: most businesses are open from around 18:00 to 04:00. You can't get much done during the day.
At 17:21, the pawn shop hasn't closed for the day. It hasn't opened yet.
Inventory is a constant problem. You only get 11 slots, and about half of them are taken up by things you absolutely cannot drop, like your money, chip rack, and phone. I tried to use my apartment for central storage, but you can't always get back there when you need to make room. Sometimes, you just have to guess that you won't need an item again and be willing to drop it in a random place.
Money plays an important role in the game, as you're always having to buy equipment and bribe people. You start out with a fair amount in your bank account, and I didn't see any reason not to just withdraw it at the beginning and ditch my bank card, freeing an inventory slot. There were a few times that I nearly went broke, but some reward usually came along at the last minute. You get money from random combats, and you can loot your slain foe's weapons and sell them. There's also a gambling den with roulette and baccarat, but since you can only save the game in your apartment, it's a risky proposition to gamble.
Gambling is one way to make money in the game.
As you go through the game, some of the puzzles are solved by having the right pieces of equipment; more are solved by having the right moddy or daddy, most of which are purchased from Laila's Mod Shop. The moddies are particularly fun because they take over your personality, and occasionally you get messages that show you're thinking like the character.
Most of the moddies are purchased at Laila's shop. I used five of these to win the game.
I'll describe the plot, but the game is far more about atmosphere than plot. The plot is completely linear, often timed, and sometimes unfair. The characters and locations, on the other hand, are excellently written. I think the writing is better than the book, even. It amazes me that more developers, even into the mid-1990s, weren't employing professional writers, especially given how much the ones that did stand out. Effinger's descriptions of the people and places in the Budayeen are written with talent and, more importantly, with love. He lived in New Orleans for most of his adult life (he died, alas, in 2002 at age 55) and clearly loved the seedy side of its streets. Every shuckster, wino, bartender, "sex-change," and prostitute feels like a real person, and if they ever earn the narrative's contempt, it's through their actions, not their positions. Again, I can't help but feel a certain affinity. I wish I were playing this exact game without the moddies and daddies.
The game has you do a couple of errands for friends before the main plot is introduced with an anonymous phone call. The caller tells you that "Papa" (a nickname for Friedlander Bey) wants you to pick up a notebook from someone at the Bougainvillea apartments. You get jumped and knocked unconscious when you arrive. You awake to find the resident of the apartment, Kenji Carter, dead from a thousand small cuts. "MCDIX" is scrawled across the wall in his blood. The police arrive and arrest you for the crime, but you get released on Bey's influence. Bey later summons you to his estate and tells you that Carter was his assistant. He tasks you with finding the murderer. At his orders, the police grudgingly cooperate with you, including by giving you a morgue pass to view Carter's body and by giving you a chip from Carter's answering machine. At the morgue, Carter's body has a holodisk and a pawn claim ticket.
It wouldn't be good noir if the hero didn't get conked over the head at least once.
A huge part of the game is simply listening to the answering machine chip and watching the holodisk. You need to buy an answering machine to listen to the message, but then the message is mostly in "some Oriental language," and the only part you can understand is MCDIX. You have to ask around to find out that it's in Japanese, then go looking for a daddy that will let you understand Japanese. Laila had one, but she sold it recently to the owner of Jewels of Morocco. He's recently been burglarized, meanwhile, and will only give you the daddy if you solve his burglary and recover a star sapphire. His only evidence is that the burglar had serpent tattoos on both arms.
One lead after another.
You've got to go to a tattoo shop to ask about the tattoos, which gives you two suspects, both of which have to be tracked down by tracing them through multiple businesses they supposedly worked at and apartments they supposedly lived in. In the middle of all of this, your friend Mahmoud calls you to tell you that his assistant, Abdul-Hassan, has been kidnapped, and you have less than 24 hours to find the boy or the kidnappers will kill him. The ransom note has a floral scent, which leads to a long and ridiculous sub-quest where you have to bounce around between a flower shop and a perfume shop tracking down whoever favors that specific scent, then steal a bunch of it from a warehouse at the docks to lure the person out of hiding. It really isn't worth recounting, but when you finally rescue Abdul, Mahmoud gives you a holograph viewer that you ultimately need for the disk you found in the morgue.
To make a long story short, the woman who left the message for Carter was his daughter, Tamara. She ended up in possession of the mysterious notebook and worried that someone was going to kill her. To avoid death, she got plastic surgery so extensive that she no longer even looks Asian. She also changed her name to Arissa and became a dancer at the clubs you've been visiting the entire game. When you finally talk to her and give her real name, she admits she's Kenji Carter's daughter. She says Kenji gave her a notebook for safekeeping; he was hiding it from Abu Salah, a local rug dealer. MCDIX, which everyone up to this point seems to think is the name of the killer, was just Tamara's way of reminding Kenji of the combination to her safe: 1409 in Roman numerals.
I figured that out early in the game by testing out the Julius Caesar moddy.
Abu Salah kidnaps Arissa/Tamara and invites you to meet him in a warehouse where he's tied her to a torture rack. He fills in the rest of the blanks. The notebook is Friedlander Bey's personal journal, which includes records of many crimes he has committed. "Even Papa, with all his power, could not escape conviction in the Islamic courts!" he gloats. Abu Salah and Kenji Carter conspired to steal the notebook from Bey and then ransom it back to him, but then Carter tried to cut Salah out of the deal. Salah killed Carter, his girlfriend, and some poor uninvolved bastard named Mack Dixon (Salah was trying to interpret the "MCDIX" clue). He might have killed other people, too. There was a moment in the game where a prostitute called and asked me to meet her at her apartment and was dead when I arrived. I never quite figured out what that was about.
It wouldn't be good noir if there wasn't at least one murder that remains unsolved.
Anyway, you defeat Abu Salah in single combat, but as he dies he hits a remote control that activates the torture device Arissa is tied to, threatening to tear her apart unless you can find the key within 60 minutes. You have to race to Abu Salah's rug shop, find it there, and race back with minutes to spare. You can still win the game if she's killed, but the concluding text indicates that it's not the best ending.
Saving Arissa at the last second.
The ending has you recover the notebook and return it to Bey, who's so happy with your performance that he gives you a place to live within his estate--which of course Audran hates. The game closes with a police memo indicating that Audran has become an embarrassment to the police force. The author contemplates just hiring Audran as a full police officer, speculating that once he is fully under police control, they can stuff him away in a desk job or have him quietly killed. This leads into A Fire in the Sun
The final conversation with Bey.
I played it all the way to the end, but I'm not going to pretend that I didn't look up some help several times. There are a few moments when the only way to progress is to scour the city for the next clue by talking to literally every NPC, or visiting every business of a certain type. There are times when you have to remember an NPC's offhand remark or find just the right set of equipment to piece together. It's not impossible that I would have figured it out on my own given time, but I was playing this as an exception and wanted to get it done in one entry. If you'd like more of a blow-by-blow, Zenic Reverie did an excellent series for The Adventurers' Guild starting in December 2013

After I won, I spent some time just screwing around, but I didn't get very much interesting to happen. If you kill a key NPC, the game doesn't tell you that you've put yourself in an unwinnable situation; it just stops triggering events that cause the plot to move forward. You can go directly to Abu Salah's rug shop at any point and kill him, but there's no acknowledgement of this. If you fail to solve Abdul's kidnapping by the deadline (midnight the following night), Bey summons you to his house and fires you, but the game lets you keep playing. I don't think it's possible to solve the rest of the game at that point, however, since you need a key item from Hassan, and he won't talk to you. I did confirm that you can skip a lot of stages in the main quest by going directly to people and feeding keywords that you're not supposed to know. I was able to skip an entire portion of the Abdul kidnapping quest by going directly to Mohammad's Glass and asking about the ODD WOMAN (I realize that probably doesn't make sense if you haven't played it). That doesn't always work, though, as if you ask Arissa about TAMARA too early, she claims not to know what you're talking about. If I had more time, it would be fun to figure out the minimum number of steps needed to win.
Bey does not take failure lightly.
Like many games that are simply good games, regardless of their RPG status, it does well on the GIMLET despite getting a 0 for "character creation and development," a 1 for "magic and combat," and a 2 for "equipment," the three categories that most define an RPG, I think. However, it gets a well-deserved 8 for "game world," a 6 for "NPC interaction," and between 3 and 5 on everything else, for a final score of 36. I suppose the lesson here is that the text, world, characters, and atmosphere are so good that I slightly recommend it as an RPG even though it really isn't an RPG. I liked the setting, the quest, and the Chandleresque writing. I liked having a growing list of leads to run down in an otherwise open neighborhood. I liked having to hit six clubs in a row to find a particular dancer and finding the right daddy for a particular situation. Maybe I'm more of an adventure gamer than I thought. Maybe it's just been too long since I've been in New Orleans.


  1. I wonder what was wrong with the person recommending the game to Chet. It is clearly an adventure game, not an RPG. The menu´s make it so obvious.

    1. It has strength, stamina, and agility stats shown on-screen. That's exceedingly rare for adventure games, and very common for RPGs. So I'm not surprised that some people conclude from the menus that it's clearly an RPG.

    2. Game genres are all over the place, especially between different languages. I'd call Zelda games 'action-adventure', but some people call it an 'adventure', because it is the same type of game as Adventure. Some people would just call it 'action' and others (granted they'd be late Nineties Amiga magazines) would call it 'role playing' (because it has a character in it. I know.). And then there's Streets of Rage and Street Fighter and 'fighting game', 'brawler', 'beat 'em up'... An interesting comparison with this game would be with Wizardry IV maybe, with the amount of flying about the place and trading items in both, except this game is like an Macventure with more dialogue and just a couple of different type of health bars (sort of a graphicalised text adventure actually, maybe like Journey), and Wizardry IV combines its injokey adventure game item trading with endless puzzles relating to its RPG roots but you're fiddling with your team at arms length so its about quartermastery and exploiting edge cases.

    3. Yeah, it's definitely the statistics, even though they're more like "meters" than attributes. In any event, MobyGames insists on calling it an RPG, so a lot of the emails come from people who think I've "missed" something.

  2. I'd assume more games didn't hire professional writers because those tend to cost money, and I have doubts that high quality writing would have been enough of a selling point to offset that

    1. Coincidentally, Infocom is an illustrative example. They had so much financial success with Douglas Adams for the adaption of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (it was a third of their pre-Activision buyout sales), but it was a huge struggle to get done because of his procrastination. Adams’s “second” game Bureaucracy took years because he more or less wouldn’t work on it at all, and it was eventually ghostwritten by one of his friends. Suffice to say, they couldn’t get an HGttG sequel very far either.

      They had a lot more development success working with Jim Lawrence on Seastalker and Moonmist. He had written many of the books in the second series of Tom Swift novels and also wrote some entries in the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series among other things. Games aimed at children featuring a young genius (Seastalker) or detective (Moonmist) were right in his wheelhouse. Those had absolutely smooth developments, but Jim Lawrence had been forced to work under pseudonyms so they had respectable sales but were not huge hits.

      A slight counter example is the third Tex Murphy game, Under a Killing Moon. The first one is an okay noir-ish sci-fi adventure, but the second is absolutely awful. However, the third (and beyond) had Aaron Conners as writer. I think he had zero professional experience in fiction, but he at least had a degree in literature and was already working at Access as a technical writer. The jump in quality was huge as a little actual training goes a long way.

  3. Interesting. Never heard of either book or game, but they seem worthy to check out, even if only for the very unique scenario.

    As for the adventure/RPG dichotomy, this game seems to differ from most adventures I know in that at least at the surface, it apparently allows some liberty in your actions. For instance, I can't remember a lot of adventures that give you a purse to spend freely on bribes and items; usually, it's about very specific item exchange chains to contain the risk that the player misses the purchase of a required item.

    Incidentally, given your statement that money is needed throughout the game and you only narrowly avoided going broke, how did you rate the economy?

    1. The book is a cyberpunk classic, but right now the only cyberpunk that is remembered from the 80s seems to be Neuromancer. When there was actually a lot of interesting stuff.

      The first book is genuinely good, even better if you enjoy the tropes.

  4. It seems unlikely, but maybe you robbed yourself of some interest rate by withdrawing all the money from the bank at once...

    Interesting read, I'm glad you enjoyed the game for what it is.

    1. Technically, the payment of interest is forbidden under Islamic law, though The Budayeen does not seem like a community where formal law much matters.

    2. Good thought, but no, you don't make any interest. The Budayeen isn't big enough to have its own bank, so I'm sure the bank operates by the rules of the nation.

  5. There will come a time (if we find a way to make Chet live to 150+) when this blog will reach Disco Elysium and various games that attempt to clone its formula. I wonder how will they do on GIMLET, not having any combat and only rudimentary equipment (DE itself should get at least something in this category, but Gamedec or Sovereign Syndicate, or even The Thaumaturge get almost nothing). IMO they straddle a very thin line between adventure games (or maybe even visual novels) and "true" RPGs. For one, thing, without combat it's almost impossible to get a game over. Then again, with save/load, does game overs even matter that much? I'm still very conflicted on these games: I don't find them as fun as traditional CRPGs, because I think that removing combat without replacing it with another complex activity takes away half the fun of a CRPG, but I guess there is something in this approach.

    1. I know for me DE hit the exact sweet spot in the center of the venn diagram between "What I like about RPGs" and "What I like about adventure games", and particularly, the idea of solving adventure game puzzles by "grinding" for the necessary skills was an eye-opener.

    2. Irene and I have been looking for a new console game. She has me playing The Sinking City right now, and I don't really care for it. Maybe after we're done, I'll finally give DE a try. The name still pisses me off, though.

    3. If the name pisses you off, the edgelord-y writing is probably gonna piss you off even more. For a console play I would recomment The Council instead - a game that did combat-less RPG a year before DE and, from a gameplay perspective, far better than DE.

    4. On the other hand, DE and its derivatives also contain a lot of my most hated elements from RPGs: a lot of slow backtracking through already empty locations and what basically amounts to endless fetch quests. Here's where Visual Novels, at least, win on comfort: when another character is just a few menu clicks away, it's much quicker and less painful that the several dozen clicks it takes to move from one POI to another in an isometric DE-like. They do try to spice all the walking up with a little (re)exploration by throwing a new item or character here and there, but I find this is not enough to keep me from wishing I could just teleport to where I'm going...

    5. > Irene and I have been looking for a new console game.

      Can I interest you in Rogue Trader, maybe? Warhammer universe is not for everyone, but I firmly believe RT is a very gentle introduction to it, with enough humor to offset the usual over-the-top epicness and grimdarkness . And we do have romances! (And way less trash combats than Pathfinder series)

    6. I'd strongly suggest to play Disco Elysium as opposed to the other titles mentioned. It might be you will not like it, but one should try to experience at least once works that are considered milestones, even if they are not in one's favorite style. It's the same reason I read Gravity's Rainbow and watched Tree of Life. I disliked both but I can see why they are considered masterpieces.

    7. Another voice for Disco Elysium, the game is a unique masterpiece and much closer to a "full RPG experience" than the Council, which I found poorly written and gamey (trying to find small consumable in every room really breaks immersion - they should have done without).

      Since we are in Cyberpunk, on my side my preference is for ShadowRun: DragonFall - the best storyline (though not "narration") in a RPG in the last 10 years. It is also a full-fledged RPG (equipment and character progression), tactical combat using both guns and magic.

      Also: how many games have ogres, halflings, dragon and elves in future Berlin!

    8. The Council felt very preachy to me (Reminded me of The Forgotten City in its penchant to stop the action for long periods for a filibuster on political philosophy), and it bothered me a lot that one of the core mechanics is introduced so late in the game. It's also one of those games that gives a pretty dishonest illusion of choice - lots of what are presented as Big Important Plot-Altering Decisions really boil down to "Does character X die, or do they just leave the story?" or "Does the player character continue unscathed, or do they receive a grevious injury that no one ever notices or comments on and which has no impact on their abilities later?"
      The plot is nicely insane though

    9. @Ross, that grievous injury is actually very important - it lock you out of a number of endings. Other choices you make throughout the game also determine how exactly the final confrontation will play out - there are like 20-30 possible permutations, leading to half a dozen principal outcomes.

    10. I loved playing tabletop 'Shadowrun' as a youngster, but today the inclusion of fantasy races feels too much and over the top - if it's a near future cyberpunk setting, just stick with mutant (=very strong) and augmented (=very smart) people apart from the usual class choices.

    11. It's not perfect but Disco Elysium is pretty special and for my money has the best blend of mechanics and dialog that's ever been done. The setting is pretty damned unique too - fictional but neither sci-fi nor fantasy (except for one or two weird things...).

    12. I like the metahumans in Shadowrun. There's already a number of perfectly good straight cyberpunk settings (like, uh, Cyberpunk), and the Sixth World stuff is the most interesting part of Shadowrun lore by far. Megacorps run by dragons! Megacorps run by blood mages! Dragon Presidents using the office in an elaborate plot to stop Lovecraftian horrors from breaking into our reality!

      I think there's probably an argument that Shadowrun would seem less goofy if the metahuman races weren't literally dwarves, elves, orcs, etc. But it's never bothered me much.

    13. Spirits hosting talk shows. Ghouls forming human err ghoul rights groups. Yes, the over-the-top stuff and modern society dealing with fantasy elements (do you have a licence for your fireball, sir?) is what makes the setting special, at least to me.
      I think how much you like Shadowrun: Dragonfall will depend a lot on how much you like the setting and the story, especially if you're more used to open world games.

  6. This was an enormously entertaining read, almost like it was written with love.
    I know next to nothing about the language, but I believe Bey is a Turkish honorific, like Lord or Mister, not the last name.
    Friedlander ~"from a happy place" is a last name; however, I think Bey is used with the given name IRL.
    I'd love if a speaker could spread more light on this.
    You managed to write a very gripping and thrilling account of this light-but-still-literature-quality (does that make sense?) game! I really liked what you said about it being more about atmosphere than plot. Could this be one of the reasons you can keep playing even if you fail the main storyline somewhere during the playthrough? Like a rather extreme life sim, you play for the random interactions and get to experience all the cool locations. Or are those not that entertaining?
    It's really important to keep tensions high most of the time in such a setting, and the single save file in addition to having to literally go home to save, losing in-game time, so you must plan and put saving in your calendar, these mechanics and considerations seem to do a very good job at making the player feel uneasy. Could be old-fashioned design, could be very intentional.

    Discuss. Be spot on, concise, and specific. :P

    1. speaking of names, the protagonist being called Marid, which can mean rebel (or demon)

  7. The cover mentions "multiple musical themes". Interestingly, you haven't said anything about the music, even though you seem to be very sensitive to what music is plaing during a game.

    1. He isn't (sensitive), he turns the music off ten minutes into the game, every single time ;)

    2. It doesn't take me anywhere close to 10 minutes. But yes, when I cover music, it's because I forced myself to turn it on and pay attention. I didn't do that here.

    3. you can listen to the Roland MT-32 music yourself if you have dosbox+munt - it's really quite good and has stayed with me since i played it as a kid. Unfortunately, only the intro has been recorded and shared on youtube...

  8. At first I thought that "card sharp" was a misspelling of "card shark". A new English expression learned.

    Somehow my mind initially misread "a local rug dealer" for something else, given the descriptions of the quarter, but I guess the setting makes sense for both.

  9. A classic CRPG Addict post, despite this not even qualifying as a CRPG. Nice work.

    FYI: I would avoid "transgendered" - these days, recommended usage is "trans" or "transgender." This is partially a grammatical/style-guide matter . But more importantly, many trans folks find "transgendered" misleading or harmful; being a past-tense verb, it suggests something 'happened' to them, rather than the adjectival form, which conveys an innate aspect of identity.

    1. You're right about the preferred nomenclature here, and there's no reason not to go along with it, but the substantive argument for the change has never really made sense. "Red-haired", "broad-shouldered", "quick-witted", etc. are all adjectives that do not have anything to do with a past tense verb, nor do they imply any change.

    2. That's a different grammatical situation though. You can't generally use "hair", "shoulder" or "wit" as verbs (ok, "shoulder" you can, but in a very different sense), so there's no past tense to imply there. "Gender", on the other hand, can function as a verb - no idea how recent this usage is, but at least by now it's widespread enough to be in the dictionaries.

  10. Very interesting post, and game, and setting. Thanks! I have to keep an eye out for these books.
    It does make me wonder a little how well Red Dead Redemption 2 would do on the Gimlet.

    1. Like CE and a few other games that I cover, it would get high scores in a lot of places but not in the categories that I think are most important to RPGs. My guess is 9,1,7,7,2,5,6,7,10,8 = 62, with the 1 going to "character creation and development," the 2 going to "combat," and the 5 and 6 going to "equipment" and "economy." It does best in game world, interface, and overall gameplay, none of which are RPG-exclusive categories.

  11. What was with the 1980s CRPG fascination with disgusting and dirty apartments, streets, etc? Off the top of my head I can think of The Twilight Zone Game, Softporn Adventure, and now this one.

    1. At a wild guess, many solo or small-team game developers live in a disgusting and dirty apartment :)
      Write what you know!

    2. The big US cities were rougher places in the '70s and '80s and a lot of media (Death Wish, etc.) extrapolated that to even nastier extremes. Also, CRPGs by their nature tend to involve dangerous situations, so you'll tend to see settings where a firefight with some thugs won't get a ton of heat.

    3. Isn't that just part of the aesthetic of cyberpunk?

    4. Cyberpunk can be sleek too. It's more the trend of over-describing just how gross the main character's apartment is that I keep noticing in games of this era (adventure games more than CRPGS truthfully).

      Radiant and Stepped Pyramids are probably right though, many of these young game developers were living in shitty apartments in not so great urban neighborhoods back then.

    5. Most of the protagonists of these kind of games are down-on-their luck or otherwise losers. A trashed apartment is a good shorthand for that.

    6. That might be part of it, but I think it's also a way of emphasizing a future where the gulf between haves and have-nots has grown so much that people aren't so much living in apartments as squatting in what used to be apartments.

    7. It's a core part of the aesthetic, coming from the influence of punk and drug culture on the genre. Cyberpunk without poverty and drugs (tech or traditional) doesn't feel like Cyberpunk to me. But I guess Will wasn't talking specifically about Cyberpunk RPGs.

    8. That's definitely the "-punk" part of cyberpunk: nonconformists living on the fringes of society, from which they are radically alienated.

    9. The hard-boiled detective is also a down-and-out loser with an alcohol problem, barely making a living between clients.

    10. Sorry for my comment mistake just above. Still getting used to this system (but excited to be commenting on this blog).

      I totally agree that Cyberpunk needs to have a grimy side. That is the appeal after all, combining cutting edge technology with pulp noir and 80's urban grunge. It's also one of the reasons it kinda fell out of vogue in the 2000s as cities became gentrified and technology trended towards fashion accessories.

      I do love the genre though. Cyberpunk 2077, despite its woeful release, ended up being one of the best games of the last 5 years in terms of story telling and immersion.

  12. Love the map in this game. Dense, creates lots of little nooks and crannies to explore, but doesn't resort to mazes/spirals/etc. as a way of making a small map feel bigger. Very navigable.

    1. Very true. And the on-screen text keeps you oriented as to what street you're on.

  13. As part of their coverage of Circuit's Edge, the German retro games podcast Stay forever did an interview (in English) with Mike Legg of Westwood who did programming and game design on the game - you can find the audio and a transcript here.

    According to him, "in the third book, The Exile Kiss, George [Effinger] took characters and locations that we had come up with for the game, and then they went into the third book, which was really cool."

    As Chet mentions, the French Quarter of New Orleans and its people were a clear inspiration - Legg recounts that at the time of creating the game, Effinger actually lived right on Bourbon Street and that a lot of the characters in the books are based on people that he knew in real life, plus the Marid Audran character was based on Effinger himself.

    The title Circuit's Edge was chosen because, says Legg, "[w]e were trying to come up with some kind of cool high-tech cyberpunk name and “circuit” came in from the moddies and the daddies."

  14. I just got asked to something in Dallas in a couple of weeks. That's too close to New Orleans not to go.

    1. What about the climate becoming nearly unbearable down there in early August?

  15. There was very little Infocom left at Infocom when this game was published -- basically by this point it was just a label used by Activision to release games that had players reading a lot of text to move plot along. It's a good fit, but the goodness of the fit was kind of ultimately irrelevant for all parties involved.

    (Still, a nice late huzzah from the final gasp of the bookware boom!)

  16. "The novels take place in a future in which the Islamic world is the superpower and the United States and Europe have fractured into a bunch of tiny independent republics." This writer is a visionary.

  17. I played this many years ago, but stopped not too far into it once I realized that:
    - the RPG and combat elements are barely existent
    - it's a linear adventure, which is fine but:
    - it has lots of time sensitive puzzles
    - it can easily put you into walking dead situations without you
    - the parser doesn't provide a lot of answers when you deviate from the main (and only) quest

    That said, I love how the game creates a great atmosphere with its writing and interface (and even the somewhat limited graphics). Your description nailed my feelings exactly.

    I'd love to play a game with this exact interface and graphics, but a more open world and deeper NPC interaction.

  18. Hah! The Exile Kiss had a big effect on me when I read it as a teenager, never realised it was part of a series, not to mention a computer game. Wonderful writeup also...

  19. If nothing else, I may read those books!


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