Cinematic! What a loaded word it’s become. Once the game industry’s marketing buzzword du jour, the descriptor certainly earned its current status as a groanworthy sign that a developer would much rather be doing something else.
With such a disclaimer then, it’s safe to specify why It Came From The Desert, and in fact most games from its developer Cinemaware, had “cinematic” firmly in their sights. But in a good way.
A short-lived, but ambitious and rather prolific studio, Cinemaware released over a dozen games on the Amiga between 1986 and 1991, most of which were ported over to DOS as faithfully as the then-weaker platform allowed. Most were based on films, but on films in general rather than being adaptations of specific releases. While their influences are often obvious, it’s clear that Cinemaware had little interest in recreating singular films or series.
They also suffered none of the insecurity or desperate need for approval that plagued too many studios throughout the 2000s – none of their work attempted to mindlessly copy film (and it’s probably no coincidence that their one official licence, The Three Stooges, was also their most disjointed and strained). Rather than obsess over surface level details and presentation, they took their cues from themes, character tropes, styles of dialogue, and above all, storytelling.
Even their titles fit their genre and setting – their medieval strategies with the grand, even pompous Lords of The Rising Sun and Defender of the Crown, their Prohibition-era gangster tale the succinct The King of Chicago, while the jolly, jingoistic World War One flying ace romp has the cheerfully simple Wings. Finally, It Came From the Desert, a homage to 1950s radioactive monster b-movies, which echoes the tone of the genre and era straight from the title, matching those that emphasised the otherworldliness of their monsters or their origins, like Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and of course, Them!
It Came From The Desert is an adventure about a geologist and recent immigrant to a small desert town in 1950s America, who’s keen to investigate a recent meteorite strike in the area. This quickly becomes a case of proving the existence of, and then stopping, an invasion of giant ants. You achieve your goals by visiting many locations on a map and talking to their inhabitants.
Over time you begin fighting off ant attacks and trying to rescue people rather than merely visiting them, and eventually reveal a strategy layer where you work with local police to co-ordinate defence of the town. The latter part you can ignore entirely, and in fact it’s possible to miss most of the story. As in later non-Cinemaware games like KGB, The Last Express, or Consortium, everything in ICFTD plays out in real time. Events take place whether you’re there to see the results or not.
You can spend the entire time sleeping if you wish, right up until the ants destroy the town. There are conversations and events you’ll certainly miss on your first few attempts, and encounters can play out differently depending on your decisions, or degree of success at minigames. Yeah, there are minigames. That’s the other thing that defined much of the Cinemaware catalogue, but here another disclaimer is needed.
Throughout the 80s and especially the 90s, film licences led to a lot of poorly-conceived games that awkwardly shoehorned the plot or main artifacts of a film into a series of subgames. There’d often be only a tenuous connection between subgame and film, and unlikely explanations left to manuals or the player’s imagination. Many were rushed, and consequently they gained a reputation as cynical cash-ins that was largely deserved, and not really shaken until the early 2000s. This bears mentioning because Cinemaware defied it entirely.
Each story was seemingly built from the ground up with minigames made to fit comfortably, and while they can be tricky, few feel cheap or tacked on. Lords of the Rising Sun has you fielding armies to press your military campaign and fending off ninjas sent by rivals, while The King of Chicago’s mostly optional action scenes are simpler and more direct – “shoot or bomb the wiseguys before they shoot you” pretty much covers it, as you’d expect from gangsters. In the case of ICFTD, the action sequences are much more varied, suiting the general-purpose “adventurous scientist” theme.
Cinemware’s games are more than the sum of these minigames, thematically appropriate though they may be. Each game is equally concerned with the action and the narrative causing the action. Supported by the minor strategic element of balancing your gang’s books, and the randomised attitudes of key characters, it’s possible to take a surprisingly non-violent path in The King of Chicago, instead doing your best to talk or bribe your way to victory, and at least one unhappy ending comes of being too violent.
You can also walk away from some fights in It Came From The Desert, and try to prevent them from reoccurring. The latter features more of a meta-game, too. On a higher level, the key is to plan where you’ll visit in advance, and thus minimise wasted travel time between interviews and gathering evidence, but while screwing up typically costs you a day, it’s a pretty forgiving game overall, and even close to total ruin you still have a chance of pulling things back.
Much like Covert Action, you can’t really die, but injury is common, and anything from a car crash or ant attack to simple exhaustion lands you in the local hospital, where you have the option of escaping via a pretty impressive top-down stealth section. You’ll come to hate the sight of the nurse, and the fanatical determination of the hospital staff to force you to rest all day even if the ants are right outside the building.
The studio’s games with more singular sources of inspiration include Lords of the Rising Sun, a samurai conquest story loosely based on Japanese history (though with fewer crabs), and the very action-oriented Wings, influenced by the 1927 silent film of the same name. Again, both took cues from tone and story patterns of their respective film genres and built a game inspired by them, rather than slavishly copying or forcing exact details into a medium with completely different pacing, structure, and of course, degree of interactivity.
Fundamentally, it’s that latter point that defines the difference between the Cinemaware catalogue and the majority of games touted as “cinematic”. Though you have obvious goals and the measure of your success at achieving them dictates the tone of whatever ending you reach, the game is narrator, and the player is the protagonist. You are the agent navigating the plot, not a mere participant learning to jump through the writer’s preferred hoops in service of their creative vision.
ICFTD showcases this concept at its peak – rather than punishing deviation from the path with instant death, even the most obviously deadly screw-up is treated as another story beat to work with. Losing outright is entertaining in the best of these games. Some of King of Chicago’s endings offer options right up to the death, simply to make things more interesting. You’re still in character even when strapped into the electric chair, and can still play out your part a little differently. Can you win the game? Hell no, but this is all part of the story, all part of the show. Losing is fun.
There are many possible ways to screw up but still be entertained, and the game spins a decent yarn out of most (you don’t see many games where your death makes your poor mother cry and wish you’d been a baker like your old man). Some endings act as hints as well, and it’s a particularly nice touch that you can only be arrested by the one honest cop in town (evidently a childhood friend of the player character, because that trope is still in use even today), who makes a point of saying that the people you bought off on the cheap tried to stop him… but not very hard.
This element was present from Defender of the Realm, their first release, primitive strategy fare which nonetheless had some light adventure/action elements, and where failure results in not your death but text describing your escape from your conquerers, a reunion with Robin Hood, and a vow to one day liberate the kingdom. It’s a small thing but in keeping with the core of film – telling a good story – and with the spirit of historical epics like Spartacus and El Cid, where the hero doesn’t have to win, and the audience don’t even have to see the end of events.
ICFTD, meanwhile, is arguably a much more interesting game if you fail at it a little. The absurdly skeptical townsfolk suddenly realising the truth marks a point where you feel the ominous threat at your door, and as things go downhill their willingness to hand control over to you feels less like vindication and more like the beginning of the end. Fail to get a handle on things in time – and don’t feel bad, because you’re certainly not belittled for it – and the besieged townsfolk will make their desperate last stand. After that, a short but pitch perfect Is This The End Of Mankind ending, somewhere between cheesy American melodrama and Wyndhamesque speculation, burns off any doubt that Cinemaware knew exactly what they were doing.
At a time when the games industry is borrowing heavily from its own long-neglected past, it might be in Cinemaware’s catalogue that the key lessons film has to offer are unearthed. Recent years have already seen games like 80 Days, Life Is Strange, and Kentucky Route Zero meet with success by focusing on the interplay of narrative, setting and character, a point where both media can meet, and which games are uniquely able to explore through interaction. It’s taking control of that point and placing the player firmly there that counts. Cinemaware, and It Came From The Desert in particular, understood that, and as a result are well worth studying even 30 years on.