Last Window: The Secret of Cape West for Nintendo DS is a sequel to 2007’s Hotel Dusk. Like its predecessor, Cape West is a staunchly old-fashioned mystery adventure with an arresting visual style; the DS is held like a book and the characters are rotoscoped line drawings with only sparse animation. Both games feature unusual plots for computer games. There’s very little action or violence, and the gameplay consists mainly of conversing with residents of the building and solving simple item-based puzzles. The plots are even unusual for mysteries, focussed as they are on the nuances of the rather quotidian problems that arise when strangers find themselves sharing a space they’d rather not have to live in. Unfortunately the originality and style can’t overcome the problems with writing that keep the games from picking up any sort of reasonable pace.
[No real spoilers here – I didn’t play enough of the game to learn the solution.]
The games certainly do a great job of showing up the narrowness of our current notions about computer game plots. Even the very few games with stories that don’t involve killing tend to be fantastical, abstract or some combination of the two. Which is great, but it’s nice to see someone trying to make a game out of (broadly) plausible situations.
I don’t remember much about Hotel Dusk, except that it hadn’t lived up to my expectations. I played it shortly after it came out and promptly forgot about it. Cape West seems to be more of the same, but I was disappointed to find that it’s not just underwhelming; it’s excruciatingly dull, to the point where I gave up after about two hours, after only three of the game’s ten chapters. But before you say, “What do you expect? You just said it was a game about ‘the rather quotidian problems that arise when strangers find themselves sharing a space’,” I should explain that it’s not the plot that’s the problem, it’s the writing.
Synopsis first. You play ex-cop Kyle Hyde, recently fired as a salesman for Red Crown, a low rent door-to-door sales company which side-lines as a sort of detective agency. People pay Red Crown to discreetly track down lost items, often of purely sentimental value. Kyle lives in an apartment at the converted Cape West hotel, a scruffy building that’s just been earmarked for demolition. If that’s not unusual enough for a video game, the setting is 1980s Los Angeles.
Hyde is a great protagonist. He’s got all the antisocial traits of the great American detectives, but with none of the over-the-top flaws which modern incarnations of the trope tend to be burdened with. He’s not an alcoholic, or a serial womaniser. He treats everyone respectfully, if standoffishly, and isn’t prone to violence. He’s got a bit of a tortured past™, but it’s believable. Everyone in Hyde’s life seems to want to help him, but he just can’t get it together. He doesn’t turn up to work, doesn’t pay his rent, doesn’t answer his phone, and there’s only so much a reasonable person can put up with from an employee, son, tenant or lover. One by one, people are reluctantly giving up on him. It’s a convincing and nicely understated portrait of someone who’s deeply dissatisfied but knows they don’t really have anything to complain about. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is a pretty extraordinary for a computer game. It’d be pretty unusual for a crime novel, frankly. (I picked up something today about a serial killer mutilating women and playing chess with their corpses using Manhattan as the board! It’s really impossible to roll your eyes hard enough.)
All this praise makes it such a shame that the game is so frickin’ tedious! Sigh.
Everything is overwritten, explaining the most clear and obvious details several times over and taking hundreds of lines of dialogue to say virtually nothing. At the risk of getting out of my depth here, this seems to be a symptom that afflicts Japanese games a lot (the game was originally released in Japanese, but the translation is very good, considered on a line-by-line basis). The popular Metal Gear Solid series is a prime example, with hours of cutscenes that could easily be scratched out. Metal Gear Solid 3 manages to spend so long saying nothing that you wonder if lead designer Hideo Kojima is trying to channel Beckett or Pinter, but a lack of writing ability means the characters just explain military acronyms they’d already know to each other for hours.
There are usually two main problems with overwritten material, both of which Cape West has in spades. The first is a systematic abuse of the “show don’t tell” principle. A case in point: Hyde gets fired by his boss Ed at the beginning of the game, although this seems to be a regular occurrence. The next morning he talks to the secretary, Rachel, about trying to smooth things over. After the phone call, where nothing much is really said, Hyde has the following thought:
I don’t envy Rachel. She’s a great PA, but she has to spend most of her time keeping me and Ed civil. Come to think of it, she’s the only woman I can be truly open with.
Apart from the fact that it’s a weird non sequitur, that’s the sort of thing the reader should be working out for himself, not having baldly plonked down in front of him at the beginning of the plot. Everything in the game that could be missed or is even remotely open for misinterpretation is immediately pinned down and clarified – often several times – to make sure that you’ve definitely, definitely got it. It completely defeats the point of creating such wonderfully nuanced characters.
But it’s the second problem that’s the killer. The dialogue is 99% fluff. This would be bad enough in a book, but the dialogue in Cape West scrolls onto the screen, and you have to tap with the stylus every six words or so to get it to advance. Here’s a conversation from early in the game, when Kyle is woken up by his slacker neighbour Tony. Brace yourself! (And feel free to scroll down once you’ve had enough. It really doesn’t pick up. There’ll be a row of asterisks when the dialogue stops.)
Tony: Cool, you’re still here.
Kyle: Great, what do you want? You know what time it is, right?
T: Trust me, man, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.
K: It’s always important with you. Go on, spill it.
T: I need your help. Like, really need your help.
K: Hey, calm down, will you? Spit it out. What’s wrong?
T: Thanks, just hear me out, okay? Come with me, I need you to help me out of a fix with some quick thinking.
K: Quick thinking?
T: Yeah, I’m being squeezed by that chick down the hall, but she’s got it all wrong.
K: You’re being—What the hell are you blabbing on about, Tony? You better start making sense pretty soon, or you’re outta here.
T: Alright, alright. Let me catch my breath. It’s really bad. I mean, it’s worse than really bad.
K: What could be that bad?
T: She’s shouting out some crazy stuff, saying I’m a no-good thief!
K: She thinks you’re a thief? Come on, Tony, what did you do this time?
T: Yeah, that’s right, take one look at me and send me downtown. I’m innocent. Can’t tell you how much I’ve tried telling her… She thinks I’ve snatched her ring. Just keeps screaming it over and over.
K: Ring? Who thinks you’ve stolen their ring?
T: Marie, that’s who! She’s made up her mind and won’t listen to reason!
T: You know, the chick living in room 206. She’s the blonde one who moved in around half a year back.
K: The stuck-up one, right?
T: So we’re clear. Anyway, Marie’s lost her ring somewhere, and now she’s accusing me. I’m drawing a total blank.
[“Accusing me” is in orange, indicating that this is something you can press further. But it’s not really a choice – ending the conversation doesn’t get you anywhere, and there are no other options. Much of the game is only pseudo-interactive like this.]
K: Why does Marie think it was you that took her ring?
T: Search me!
K: She’s gotta have a reason though. I mean, she’s not imagining it, right?
T: I got no idea what she’s thinking. I told you, it doesn’t make any sense to me.
K: Did you try asking her why she thinks it was you?
T: Yeah… But she just came outta nowhere and barged into my room, demanding that I return her precious ring. She wouldn’t even let me speak!
K: So you didn’t do anything that could’ve led her to suspect it was you?
T: I don’t know. I mean, I can’t remember.
K: I see.
T. I don’t know what she’s on. Chick must be crazy or something.
K: I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Tony. But I need you to promise you really didn’t take the ring.
T: Why the hell would I even touch her stupid ring? I may be many things, but I’m not the kinda guy who steals people’s stuff!
K: Yeah, I guess you’re not. Now I think about it, you’re not the sort who’d grab a person’s wallet.
T: Damn right! Glad you finally realised, man. I’m not a thief. That’s why I need you to go in there and convince her of the same. She’s bound to listen to you. I don’t have a chance in hell on my own.
K: Yeah, well, let’s hope you’re right.
[There’s an extremely brief interactive section at this point, where you walk six feet from your door to Marie’s]
Kyle: You got a moment?
Marie: Maybe. What do you want?
K: Looks like you and Tony are having some sort of disagreement.
M: You could say that.
K: Can you tell me what happened?
M: My ring’s been stolen, that’s what! It was that guy from room 201, he did it.
K: Why are you so convinced it was him?
M: Simple. He was the only person around when it went missing. He stole it right out of my room.
K: How can you be sure?
M: He must’ve taken it this morning when I went to the vending machine in the lobby. I planned on going straight back to my room, so I left the door unlocked.
K: Is that all you’ve got to go on?
M: Not quite. I passed him on the stairs on my way down. He was heading up to the second floor. I think he seized that opportunity to snoop around in my room and snatch my ring while I was away!
K: So, that’s why you think it was him.
K: Seriously, that’s the only reason you think it was him?
M: It’s got to be. I’m sure of it. After all, he was the only person around, and when he went past my room, and saw the door unlocked, he…
K: He what?
M: Well it’s no secret that he’s short of cash. And I’m sure he’s no stranger to taking other people’s stuff either.
T: No stranger? What the hell?
M: So, getting too close to the truth, am I? Don’t play the innocent with me! I’ve seen you borrowing money from other people in the building.
T: I don’t have to listen to this crap!
K: Take it easy, Tony! Waving your fists around ain’t gonna help your case.
T: Yeah, yeah, I know, man.
M: Mr Hyde, I don’t know why he’s decided to involve you in this, but all I want is for him to return my ring.
K: When exactly did your ring go missing?
M: I’d say about an hour ago. When I got back from the lobby, my door was open. This was unusual, but I headed inside and soon noticed my ring was gone. It wasn’t in the place I remember leaving it. I knew what had happened immediately. He stole it!
[At this point there’s a choice of two options, but it’s not really a choice because you have to play through both of them.]
K: What kind of ring was stolen?
M: A diamond one. It was a three-carat diamond ring with rubies on in.
K: Sounds like it came with quite a price tag.
M: It’s a very important ring to me. I got it as a present from someone special.
[And this is the second choice.]
K: Where did you leave the ring?
M: Where? Inside my room, of course! Though I don’t see why I should share that sort of information with you.
[Once both choices have been selected, the dialogue continues with this strange non sequitur.]
M: Do you understand why I think he stole my ring?
K: It’s not that I don’t understand what you’re saying, Marie… but Tony’s telling me a different story. He swears he didn’t take it.
T: You tell her, Hyde! That’s what I’ve been saying from the start. What would I want with the stupid ring anyway? How can you be sure it wasn’t taken by someone who snuck into the building? After all, anyone can just wander in here. There are some weird people about. Like last night, when I saw this suspicious lady in sunglasses going out the door. Who the hell was that?
M: … [The silent ellipsis seems to be a Japanese favourite!]
T: You saw her too, right Hyde?
K: Yeah, I saw her.
M: Well, I’m not convinced. It goes without saying that there are suspicious people around, but if you ask me, you’re the most suspicious one of the lot!
T: Will you just drop it already?
M: Hey, get your hands off me!
At this point Betty comes to point out that Marie is overreacting and suggests that she search her room (although it takes another forty lines of dialogue to do that). Kyle diplomatically suggests that Betty might have a point, and Marie reluctantly agrees (another twenty lines). And wouldn’t you know it, the ring had fallen down beside her dresser. Is everyone alright? Do you need a little sit down to recover from the excitement?
*********(IF YOU WERE SCROLLING DOWN, STOP HERE!)**********
So that’s close to 150 lines of dialogue and almost 2,000 words to relate an incident that any competent writer could deal with in a tenth of the time. Sure, there’s some characterization in there, but almost all of the stuff about Tony was covered in an equally tedious conversation down in the lobby. There’s an important reminder about the woman in the sunglasses, but that’s the only piece of information that has any relevance to the overall plot. And we wouldn’t need a reminder if the game hadn’t spent an hour on conversations that should have taken five minutes!
Cape West only has a few reviews online, because the publisher went bankrupt before it could be released in the US. But what reviews there are consistently praise the script. One uses the hilariously euphemistic “text-heavy” to describe the deluge of words. But it’s not “text-heavy”, it’s “content-light”! I can dimly understand why the reviewers have praised it. It’s so unusual to see games featuring this kind of story and this kind of writing, and it’s easy to be blinded by the originality of it. Video game reviewers are used to dealing with writing that’s barely English, or that sounds like it’s been written by a team of ten-year-olds, so by that metric Cape West is pretty much perfect. But good writing isn’t just about whether all the individual sentences make sense! 2000 competent or even excellent sentences saying the same thing over and over is far worse than a handful of clumsy ones that get the job done. You have to be an extraordinary writer to make a virtue out of mundanity and repetition. Without the ability to cut 90% of the dialogue, there was no way of saving Cape West.
The biggest shame is that there’s a great idea here, from a developer who was brave enough to buck the trend and try to create an intelligent, realistic interactive mystery plot in a genre that’s stuffed with ghosts and serial killers. But nothing could compel me to sit through ten more hours of dialogue like that. Maybe I’d have had the patience ten years ago, but I’m an editor now. I can barely cope with vacuous dialogue when I’m paid to read it; I can’t suffer through it in my spare time as well.