A conspiratorial mystery, set both in-game and in your real-world browser, The Temporal Invasion [official site] is exactly the sort of game I've been crying out for since 2003's In Memoriam. But perhaps not exactly the game I was crying out for. This is well worth your attention, at least for an example of how closely it skirts around being excellent, especially at under £2. Here are some thoughts about how it almost, but doesn't quite, work.
In 2003 Lexis Numérique released the fascinating In Memoriam/MISSING: Since January. A peculiar and intriguing blurring of reality and fiction in which you attempted to catch a serial killer using the web to find clues. The killer's puzzles would lead you to jump to Google, finding both real information on real websites, and fictional clues on fake sites the developers had seeded around the net. The concept was incredible, the execution perhaps somewhat lacking toward the end. The game's largest issue, however, was longevity - the internet had a habit of eating its own tail, and where at first searching for clues led to their cleverly faked sites, message boards and blogs, soon it led only to walkthroughs and spoilers for In Memoriam. It's a problem no one's overcome, the idea perhaps best taken up by the brief success of ARGs, and sadly what I would love to see be a burgeoning genre is one that has yet to find a way to properly work.
The Temporal Invasion is a noble effort by Indian indie devs Hybronia Labs, but one that finds its restrictions not on the internet, but within its own fiction.
This begins absolutely immediately by an inexplicable delivery of information. You play a young person who has experienced a memory problem all his life, inflicted with strong, detailed memories of events that have never occurred. World War 2, he was convinced for instance, was started by the Chinese. One day some information reaches him from a person with the pseudonym Dr. Quantum, assuring him that his memory is not problematic after all, and promises to reveal to him the truth. But he's going to reveal it through a giant pile of research-based puzzles. Fine, we can suspend disbelief for that. But he sends these puzzles in the form of a giant pile of paperwork. But paperwork we're apparently unable to open until we've solved the last puzzle, and emailed him the answer. Huh? Quite what is stopping us from ripping open the final package and just finding out what's going on is not made clear at all. And why he doesn't just email the bloody clues is a bewildering mystery larger than any suggested in its conspiratorial meanderings.
You're first asked to find out about the death of a famous author, which happened in '63. And if that year rings a bell, yes the conspiracies go in the most obvious direction possible at first. However, as clumsy as the delivery may be, I cannot deny that I was quickly sucked in. Searching the internet for witness lists, reading up on subjects on Wikipedia, applying freshly gained knowledge to answer the riddles - it's all in there. And that's splendid.
But it's certainly a form of splendid that's regularly tainted by the game's flaws. The fiction just isn't strong enough to sustain it. It doesn't help that so-called "top secret" photographs you're sent can then be found on Wikipedia while researching the subject. It especially doesn't help that the text hasn't been properly proof-read, meaning there are lots of mistakes, sometimes verging near unintelligible.
Worse, sometimes it just doesn't make sense. A puzzle asks you to find the real name of a famous conspiracy favourite, then when you start on the next it appears to suggest that you've actually traveled somewhere. Except, no, I sent an email. It's suddenly switched its own understanding from a man sending us photographs in the post, to a man referring to something we can see with our own eyes, and yet both appear as photographs paperclipped to pieces of paper. But no, apparently we're now off on a clandestine adventure through the most dangerous parts of America, despite the dude sending us all the information we'd ever need.
Which is all very frustrating, as just the research and investigative side of it is, as I said, splendid. So why bury it beneath such confusion? At the start you're equipped with a very simple photo-manipulating program, that lets you move sliders for RGB and brightness, which reveals hidden clues. It's a touch clumsy, but again, lets you have those moments of discovery. Putting together a few clues and searching around them to reach the solution is top gaming fun, and it occasionally gets this right.
It also gets it a bit wrong here and there. There's a puzzle in which you research a patent number to get the information you need to translate some text - a top puzzle - which then gives you an email address. Email that address IRL and instead of the expected auto-replier sending you a clue or similar, you get a failed delivery message. What a bummer! Even the URL discerned from the email address isn't registered. What a sad oversight, for the piddling cost of knocking up a dodgy old website and registering the URL. That was something In Memoriam did wonderfully, and anything following it really should have followed suit. (In Memoriam went even further, having 'other players' sending you IRL emails with hints when it saw you were stuck on a puzzle, or having the serial killer email you in the middle of the night - amazing stuff.) Photos you zoom in on are very disappointingly low res, meaning you can't really search them for hidden clues, rather just the falsely hidden ones using its daft sliders - and indeed text you need to read becomes blurry as well as larger, which is shoddy.
I'm undeniably intrigued to keep going, and as the puzzles get harder it can only become more satisfying. But it's also so frustrating, to bump into completely unproofed writing, conflicting narrative, and a real sloppiness with the details. I think this is interesting, and at £1.67 unquestionably worth a look, but I'd love for it to have been something more special.