By Craig Pearson on October 30th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
I’m finally handed the opportunity to write about Jurassic Park: Trespasser on RPS, but instead of hitting Isla Sorna like a sexy chaos mathematician, I instead drop into the less chaotic confines of the demo. I took some time to consider what I loved about Trespasser, a game that was widely regarded as the most disappointing release of 1998, and I realised that my fondest memories were of the demo. I still really like the game, but it was that little sandbox of dinosaurs and boxes that boiled down what I wanted from games. I managed to dig the demo up on TresCom, and installed two parts of the mods here to up the resolution and returned to that Lost World. It was there, when I was 19 and this felt like the future, that I lost dozens of hours. My inner child returned as I flapped my noodley arm around at raptors, so I did what every responsible adult would do: I interviewed him. Here is the transcript of the chat between 19 year-old me, and the handsome, witty grown-up that idiot somehow spawned.
Me: So, you have the Trespasser demo loaded and ready, yeah?
Craig: I do.
Me: So what can you see?
Craig: I’m on a platform, there are some boxes, and it feels like I’m in some sort of jungle.
Me: Right, well now you need to –
Craig: I looked down and I have boobs!
Me: Yup. That’s a feature. In order to create a more immersive experience, they removed the HUD. The character’s health bar is actually a tattoo, and when she picks up a gun she reads out a rough estimate of the leftover ammo.
Craig: I’d like to immers -
Me: I’m begging you not to finish that sentence.
Craig: When did you get so uptight?
Me: When I grew up and left Clydebank, where I met people with a worldview that extended beyond football scores and stabbing. Look, I know why you’re doing that. It’s a defence mechanism that’ll keep you safe for a few more years in that hellhole, but then you’ll leave and not have to worry about talking like everyone else. You don’t need to do it to me. Breasts are great, but they’re not a punchline. And in Trespasser it was an interesting attempt at a HUD-free environment. Anyway, if you hack the game and go into third-person mode, you’ll find out the character model is only arms and breasts. As sex-starved as you are, I refuse to believe we’d find that hot.
Craig: You sound sex-starved right now.
Me: Just play the game. Walk to the edge of the platform, head towards the boxes.
Craig: Right. Ooh, it’s quite high. There’s a couple of raptors down below, some bones, and some trees.
Me: Just watch the raptors for a bit.
Craig: The bigger one is killing the little one.
Me: That’s right, but it doesn’t always happen. It’s very rare, but sometimes the little one keeps its distance and survives. Trespasser made an attempt at an eco-system, and though it didn’t really matter, repeated playthroughs of the demo and the game did throw up one or two differences in the world and in how you’d play it. I can’t tell you how many times you’ll attempt to make it across to the second platform, grab a gun, and try and kill the big one before it kills the little one.
Craig: I will? Why?
Me: Well, Trespasser is a very early lesson in emergence for you. Right now, there aren’t that many examples of it in first-person shooters. And as broken as those dinosaurs are, you’ll discover a simple pleasure in watching those systems interact, particularly when you can affect the outcome. Trespasser was an example of the sort of games you’ll come to love before you were even aware of them yourself. You didn’t realise this in 1998 – will you stop looking at your own chest!
Craig: Sorry. Emergence, systems, whatever. What else is cool?
Me: Don’t ‘whatever’ my past. It’s really important to me, and it’s your future. You’re at the beginning of something defining. A game that will create a sense of interaction that you’ll crave for the next 15 years.
Craig: You’re 34!
Me: And a half. Hush! Now walk towards those boxes and press your right-mouse button.
Craig: Hah! I can see her arm. Wow, this is trippy. I can waggle her arm about!
Me: So, this is the major problem with Trespasser. It has a really robust physics engine. If you run up to the boxes you can knock them over and pick them up…
Craig: Wow. WOW. They tipped over and fell off the edge. Wow! They moved! How is that possible?
Me: I’ll give you another minute.
Craig: Did you see that?
Me: I did. And I shared your excitement. You’ll be glad to know I still get a kick out of it. You’d better lap it up. Enjoy every moment of Trespasser’s physics engine, even the bad bits. It was so ahead of its time that nothing will manage to come close until you’ve grown a pony tail and been to Australia and back.
Craig: You did what?
Me: Look. We’ve barely moved. Do me a favour and jump on the big boxes at the edge and then run and jump across the gap.
Craig: Or I could take the bridge?
Me: I’ve played the demo a billionty times. I know you, and I know right now you’re probably thinking that I’m wrong. Trust me: run and jump, and don’t bother with the collapsing bridge.
Craig: Done. I’m on the other side, and the plank did fall. Whatever.
Me: Right. Remember the arm thing? This is where it gets really surreal. It’s how you pick things up, and there’s a fair few puzzles in the main game that require you to do that, but for now it’s time to show you why people mock Trespasser. Walk to the boxes. They have guns on them. Extend your hand and sort of plonk it down on one. The Uzi is the best here. No look. Put your hand down. Down. No, left a bit. Down. DOWN!
Craig: I’m trying!
Me: You can also rotate your shoulder and hand and grab the gun and… wow.
Craig: Should It be pointing in this direction?
Me: Obviously not.
Craig: Can I still… hah! I can still fire it. Fear my angled-death, dino-jerks.
Me: The arm is kind of special. For everything else that’s wrong with the game, I can at least see where the ambition weighed it down. Trespasser is ahead of its time in many regards, but the arm… yeah, I got nothing. It’s the primary way you interact with the world and it’s almost entirely broken: you shoot things, you pick things up, you stab key cards at keypads with a possessed, demonic appendage. It catches on everything, and aiming weapons is its own three-dimensional puzzle. Look, let’s try that. First grab all the guns and throw them over the side so you can grab them later, but keep the Uzi. Walk to the edge and face that shack.
Me: Now try and get down.
Me: I’m not going to say.
Craig: But there’s nothing. Can I jump into the trees? There’s a puddle on the other side? Will it break my fall?
Me: Nope. It’s kind of obvious. Or at least it is to me, after years and years of playing games with physics.
Craig: Ah, so it involves physics? Can I pile boxes up beneath me and jump on them?
Me: No. Well, maybe, but you’ll need a lot of patience and practice to pull that off. But think bigger.
Craig: I don’t know.
Me: I understand your confusion. FPSes aren’t like this. They don’t ask you to think of how the world will physically react, it’ll be a while before they do so again. Trespasser didn’t change anything for quite some time. That shack should have ushered in a new way to play games, but for now it’s just a big box resting on a pair of smaller boxes. Look at how the hill is sloping to the bottom end of the platform. How can you use all that to your advantage?
Craig: I shoot the shack?
Me: You shoot the shack.
Craig: It’s tumbling down. Games are brilliant!
Me: Most people will argue that the ‘brilliant’ label is probably misapplied, there. I have no recourse to that. I love Trespasser, but everything people will call it in the coming years is probably accurate. It’s a huge anomaly. It’s Heaven’s Gate, the game. At least it tried something, and most of those attempts coloured how you’ll want to experience games forever. It’s almost certainly the reason why you’ll play 50 hours of Arma 3 while avoid anything to do with Call Of Duty.
Craig: Arma isn’t a word, silly. Also, I’m on top of the shack and there are raptors surrounding it. I’ve tried to shoot them, but –
Me: The arm?
Craig: The arm.
Me: It’s a horrible system at the best of times, but I will say that its awkwardness turns combat into a an interesting dance of terror. It’s like holding an untrained snake with a gun in its mouth. It’s best to not panic, which is actually hard when a jerking, impossible-to-track raptor is bounding towards you like some sort of demon. At least you’re out of reach on the shack. Take your time and centre the arm and fire when you’re convinced it’ll hit. Yopu have to be sure. You’ll see some red pixels spew out and the dino’s movement will get even more erratic.
Me: I know! There’s something about seeing their wobbling movement that still makes me sad. They seem confused and lost, and if they weren’t biting me I wouldn’t attack them.
Craig: Well dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together…
Me: Just shoot them. I’ll deal with the PTSD in later life. Drop to the ground and grab a few more guns. There’s not a lot of time left in the demo if you carry on how it’s supposed to be played, but I think you’ll be fine. If you look at the wooded area, there are a few buildings beyond it. Walk over to the odd stand thing.
Craig: What is it?
Me: I still don’t know, but you should turn around and shoot the raptor that’s stalking you.
Craig: Aiee! Clever girl.
Me: It’s actually just cheeky checkpointing. Trespasser sort of feels like an open-world, and the animals do react to people and predators, but it’s not quite as open as it wants you to think it is, and it tries to fool you a bit. That dinosaur spawned from behind a rock. Try and kill it without using too many bullets. Be accurate.
Craig: Take that, Barney! Okay, it’s dead. Now what?
Me: Sigh. Was I really this dim? Look around. What do you see? And what does that tell you about what you need to do?
Craig: There’s a locked gate, a pile of boxes that are a bit too big to climb on, oh. And a comms thing. I’ll bet if I open the panel and dial a number…
Me: Go on.
Craig: Nope. It dialled, but there’s a recording saying the station is busy. Did you remember it doing that way? Actually, how do you remember all of this?
Me: Because you’ll replay it over and over and over. You put more time into it than you will some full games, and it’s mostly because of this puzzle. The answer is really straight forward, but you’ll use what it shows you about the game and become obsessed with piling up boxes to –
Craig: I pile up boxes! Of course! That’s why they’re sort of all over the place… and out of reach on that stand thing.
Me: You already know what to do. It’s just like the shack.
Craig: So I shoot one or two, pile them up and climb out?
Me: Yup. And when you get over the wall there’s a T-Rex on the other side.
Craig: Gee, thanks for ruining it for me.
Me: Trust me, the T-Rex ruins it for you itself. It’s… unimpressive. And its appearance also ends the demo, and you don’t want to do that just yet.
Craig: Hey, I don’t need me to tell me what to do.
Me: It doesn’t matter. I already know what you’re thinking. You’re about to start wondering where piling up boxes can get you? You’re starting to think about the boxes you knocked off the ledge at the beginning of the game. Can you gather all them together and build something that’ll get you to the top of whatever the nearby structure is. And that thought’ll stick with you, longer than the full game will. It’s clunky: you’ll have to carry some from the starting area, but it won’t matter. You’ll do it for hours, revel in a strange freedom that’s so new and exciting and ridiculously ahead of its time. You’ll find a new form of entertainment in a broken game that’s universally derided. I honestly thought that it would birth something. A new genre? It didn’t. And though it wasn’t forgotten, it wasn’t inspirational for at least another five years. It’s remembered because it was broken, but it tried so so hard to be something new and different and forward-thinking, and it just did so a half-decade or so before games and designers were capable of realising that vision. The full game spread it around the island, but the demo gave me a perfect little sandbox to mess about with. I love it. You’ll love it, and it’ll change your gaming life.
Craig: It’s just boxes, dude.
Me: I don’t like you. Anyway, stack some more boxes. It’s time for me to return to the present, where I have games full of physics: I can set traps for zombies, build breakable spaceships, throw things at helicopters. It’s fun here. You’ll love it.