One hundred and fifteen years ago, before Rock, Paper, Shotgun was a twinkle in Horace's eye, I used to do the bulk of my writing in a magazine called PC Gamer. Now, I've no idea what's happened to that mag since, but for ten years I kept it propped up with a two page budget section, and reviews of terrible, terrible adventure games. And most terrible of them all were the always-awful but ever-so-sincere productions of French publisher and developer, Cryo Interactive.
From 1992 to 2002, the studio defied sense, taste, and coherence to produce an endless stream of the worst, most clumsy, most drearily pre-rendered Myst clones the world has ever seen. And Megarace. I think PC Gamer made me review all of them.
Well no, not all of them - I didn't start until 1999. But it sure felt like it. Among them were Arthur’s Knights: Chapter 2: The Secret of Merlin (42%), The New Adventures Of The Time Machine (53%), The Secret of Nautilus (27%), and of course - of course - Hellboy (14%).
It's important to understand how barmy their games were. That Time Machine game? Well, remember the H.G. Wells book? About a man identified only as the Time Traveller? Not so here. Now the Time Traveller is in fact H.G. Wells. (I forgave Lois & Clark when they did this, because dammit, they managed to make that story somehow involve Moriarty as well.) Once again he goes forward 800,000-ish years, but this time he gets turned into a little boy. You play as a little boy H.G. Wells. Of course! Or how about The Secret Of Nautilus? You remember how Verne told the tale of Captain Nemo, and his extraordinary submarine adventures, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea? What he DIDN'T tell you was that he was also secretly working on a sentient AI to control the boat, who then turns evil and traps you in the sub. It was sort of incredible, really.
At one point I was sent over to Nice to visit the studio, to see the development of their, um, sequel to From Dusk Till Dawn. A game set on a boat. No, really. After the events of the movie, it seems Seth Gecko (Clooney's character) is condemned to death, and sent off on a prison ship. But oh my goodness, vampires get on board! What a to-do. What a conveniently confined location with re-usuable assets for an adventure company's attempt to make a third-person shooter.
Honestly, by the time I was heading out there I'd written so many negative reviews of their games I wasn't sure if it was all a sting. They would capture me, torture me, and post my limbs back to PCG one by one until they got a cover. In the end, either they had no idea who I was, or didn't care, and the awkwardness of the trip was entirely derived from how obviously utterly awful the game was going to be. (It eventually got 32%.)
For me, the zenith/nadir of Cryo was Hellboy: Dogs Of The Night. The game was so extraordinarily terrible that it drew crowds in PC Gamer's office, when a demo sent in 2000 to be on the magazine's cover disc turned out to be, um, the entire game. Finished code never reached the magazine, and it wasn't until 2002 that a copy showed up. Sent in by a reader (one Andrew Dobson), who found it in a charity shop. It had a note attached asking that I review it. This coincided with the news that Cryo Interactive was to be no more. Debts had piled up, and after closing down the North American studio that had "made" Hellboy the year before, they filed for insolvency. It was Frank Herbert's Dune that killed them - an idiotic attempt to take one of the most revered names in strategy gaming history and turn it into an adventure. It was a costly flop, and creditors couldn't be found to keep the bonkers company afloat.
Hellboy was incredible. If you can somehow find a copy, please do give it a try. And let me know where you found it. It didn't work on any level. A sort-of third-person action game, it looked years out of date on release - the graphics were sub-Doom - was near-uncontrollable, and amazingly, had no mouse controls. A particular favourite memory was how to escape from pursuing monsters - go around a corner. The game, like an idiot dog, couldn't remember anything it couldn't see on screen. It's one of gaming's most peculiar creations, inexplicably awful. And it gave me opportunity to write a eulogy to my nemesis of those three or four years. I wrote,
"Days later, as I was walking amongst the cooled remains of where our school had once stood, I couldn’t help but be struck by the peace that lay across the broken fragments. I stopped, thinking upon the recent times, trying to equate the horror of the past few days and this gentle silence that now surrounded me. The disingenuity hovered in the air about me, as if two worlds were improperly joined. When, from betwixt the loosened bricks, came a bloodied arm, the hand grabbing me violently about the leg, it’s vice grip cold and grim against my flesh. In that very moment I felt the accumulation of pain, distress, hatred and despair that had lived inside Cryo for its entire existence. And I was gruesomely aware of my part in this anguish.
As I saw the life of Cryo flashing through my mind - the scars of hurtful reviews, the misunderstandings, the confused press releases, the slightly mistranslated instruction booklets – I was made fully aware of each wound received, each moment of self-confidence being stripped away, each sleepless night after another cruel comment. And as I saw this all, as I lived it through, I became wholly aware of something I had never before known. It became clear to me, that somehow, two years ago, I missed one."
Of course, I wasn't freed by their death. From the ashes rose DreamCatcher and The Adventure Company, who monstrously went on to complete unfinished Cryo games like Salammbo: Battle For Carthage, and made sequels to the hideous Atlantis and Egypt series. There was Arxel Tribe, LK Avalon, and of course Microids, all churning out similar dross. But there was something missing - something only Cryo could do. Something uniquely awful, utterly unhinged, and seemingly defiantly stupid. I... miss those games, a bit. Deadpan adventure games set in wholly ludicrous reinterpretation of out-of-copyright works of literature, in which nothing made sense, and all puzzles were unfathomable guesswork. It's been, gosh, thirteen years since Cryo left us. It's weird, but I kind of miss them.
Many thanks to Moby Games, who have the sense to keep screenshots where I did not.