Forever Worlds: A Review and a Fool's Errands

By MrLipid
April 2004

A Bit of Background ...

The first time I ran into the puzzle design of Courtland Shakespeare, it was 1995 and I was playing the three-puzzle demo of Jewels of the Oracle. And I loved it. The look, the sound, the physicality of the interaction with the puzzle pieces. As soon as I could, I picked up the full version and happily twiddled away many an hour, collecting a jewel for every correctly solved puzzle and delivering it to the Oracle. It was hugely satisfying to watch the jewels slowly fill the ring above the Oracle's altar.

What Jewels lacked in compelling narrative it more than made up for in quality of puzzles and the race to fill the ring. One more puzzle, one more jewel, and then, maybe, to bed. Or not. Wonder how tough it would be to get this scarab to clear all the balls out of this maze? Hmm.

The publishers of Jewels went bankrupt. Two years after the release of Jewels, Shakespeare was back with another puzzle collection, Gems of Darkness, featuring veteran character actor Henry Ramer in the role of an archeologist directing the excavation of an ancient multi-leveled, multi-roomed site. Once again, every correctly solved puzzle yielded a reward: this time, a gem. As the puzzles were solved, a chest filled with gems, leading to the game's final stumper. Gems, while more lushly produced, was in many ways a remake of Jewels. Not that I minded. I enjoyed Shakespeare's puzzle sense and found the familiarity and continuity of the challenges comforting rather than repetitive. The publisher of Gems also went bankrupt, and Shakespeare was quoted as saying that he was done with the business of developing games. The rights to both Jewels and Gems were acquired by DreamCatcher, becoming part of the product line that financed what is now the Adventure Company.

Great Expectations ...

Imagine my surprise and delight when, in the summer of 2003, I read that Shakespeare was again developing a game. And, rather than having it published by yet another company that was likely to go broke, he was working directly with the Adventure Company. The press releases and interviews hinted at something very different from the engaging twiddle puzzles found in Jewels and Gems. Forever Worlds would be more than just puzzles. There were rumors of a story and other characters, both human and not, with whom players would interact. The game trailer, which is also the introductory cutscene of the game, revealed a retro hip graphic style and a cheeky affection for the conventions of pulp fantasy and science fiction.

Having only a vague idea what to expect, I remained hopeful, even as Forever Worlds missed its initial ship date, that it would be the game that would finally, if perhaps not completely, compensate Shakespeare for his previous good work while delivering another great gaming experience.

Though I know nothing about Shakespeare's compensation, I've played his latest game, and this is the only sentence I will ever write that will contain the phrases "great gaming experience" and Forever Worlds.

A Detour of a Thousand Miles Starts on the Wrong Foot ...

The sheer technical challenge of getting Forever Worlds to run on Win98SE and ME can be found here and the complete and utter lack of assistance from TAC in meeting that challenge can be found here.

The Only Thing Worse than Failure ...

Perhaps the seemingly interminable—as in, say, forever?—effort of getting the game on its feet has colored my opinion of it. Perhaps. All, or at least most, was forgiven the first time the game actually predictably loaded following a reboot. That honeymoon started to fade when I tried looking around. And it was a distant memory once I attempted to move. While the scrolling speed for looking around can be adjusted, it tends to be choppy and clumsy. I suspect few players will find it possible to smoothly glance around the landscapes and interiors of Forever Worlds. And though the cursor is smart and will indicate a puzzle, a path, an informational popup or a potential inventory item, the cursor is only smart once it stops scrolling. This produces a game rhythm of stop, scan, stop, scan. The lushness of the background fades as attention shifts to what the change in the cursor is indicating.

Of course, one can't just look around. One has to be able to move. And while movement is certainly possible in Forever Worlds, it is often a puzzle in itself. This has less to do with the Virtools game engine than it does with how the game engine was utilized. The game engine, also used in Post Mortem and Syberia, is a series of linked spheres or nodes. One pops from the center of one node to the center of the next. Once inside a node, it is possible to look in all directions as well as zoom in or out on the image covering the node's interior.

Nodes, of course, have been around for quite some time in adventure games. Usually nodes are linked to cutscene paths. "We're moving via cutscene and now we're looking around in the node and now we're moving again via cutscene." While there are a few cutscene transitions in Forever Worlds, most of the transitions are handled as jump cuts. "We're looking around here in a node and, click, now we're looking around there in a node."

This can work if it is obvious where "there" is in relation to "here." In Forever Worlds, it often isn't. Because there is no standard distance between node centers, a substantial amount of mental energy needs to be invested in figuring out just where one is. And it doesn't stop there. In more than a few instances, it doesn't matter from which direction one enters a node: once inside, one always winds up facing the same way. Enter a node from the east and, as would be expected, one winds up facing west. Enter that same node from the north and, surprise! one winds up facing not south, but ... west. Huh? There are several places in Forever Worlds where one simply has to ignore the screen and just remember where things are.

A good example of this can be found in a puzzle involving a wedged-open door. In node A, the door, which is on the other side of the room, appears wedged open. In the adjacent node, node B, the door always appears closed. Once the door is wedged open in node A, the only hint in node B that the door is open is the change in the cursor from neutral to navigation. And once the cursor is clicked on the still apparently locked door in node B, the player, upon entering node A, is turned around and tossed all the way across the room, winding up looking, from a distance, at the still wedged-open door.

From First to Third and Back Again ...

As disorienting as the travel from node to node can be, the cutscenes that link some nodes can be even more confusing. One moment one is in the middle of a first-person node and the next moment one is watching oneself in a third-person cutscene. And then back into a first-person node. While I wouldn't necessarily ask for Syberia-length cutscenes where the protagonist walks all the way from Point A to Point D, having the cutscene end at Point B and the first-person node pop in at Point D is a bit unsettling.

And then there is the matter of who appears in the cutscenes. No sooner has our hero started on his quest than he has his body snatched. His now-possessed body, which obviously looks like him, takes off to be with the hero's girlfriend. The hero, stuck in a different body, begins his quest. That's okay, except for the fact that the body that shows up in the hero's quest cutscenes isn't the body our hero now inhabits. It's our hero's original body! So what are we actually watching in the cutscenes? Are the cutscenes our hero imagining himself in the third person on this quest? Could be. Who knows?

Point and Click and Click and Click ...

Interacting with the game environment has it own special set of challenges. Suppose you have an item in inventory and you know you need to use it on a specific screen. First you must click when the cursor turns into a triangle. This indicates an action is possible, and clicking sets the game to puzzle mode. Then you must click to open your inventory, click to move the needed item to the select item area, click on the item, click to leave the inventory area and then see where the item will be accepted, through clicking, by the puzzle screen. Once you pull something out of inventory, there is no scrolling to another portion of the node; the background screen is frozen. You must scroll first, look for the action cursor, set the screen to puzzle mode and then go through the item selection process. If you are in the right place and fail to set the screen to puzzle mode, you can wave the inventory item around all you want. It won't matter.

The Nightmare Begins ...

Forever Worlds gets off on the wrong foot with its very first puzzle. The story logic is this: once the hero has entered a particular place, he cannot get out until he has fulfilled all of the tasks of his quest. The catch is that the player does not know this at the time. The inability to leave the area feels like a bug rather than a necessary step in the narrative. Click on the first puzzle and the error is compounded. One cannot save in the middle of a puzzle in a puzzle's node. One must leave a puzzle's node in order to save. Since the first puzzle location in the game is a single node, the player is literally trapped. There are only two ways out: solve the puzzle or hit Ctrl-Alt-Del. Not exactly elegant.

The fragile wagon that is the core story of Forever Worlds is slowly crushed under the burden of an overstuffed narrative that offers logorrhea in place of wit, whimsy or dramatic momentum. Our hero is soon stuck with a speed-talking lizard who, while beautifully realized, functions primarily as an expository fire hose, filling our ears with chatter that is supposed to make up for the failure of Forever Worlds to show rather than tell its tale.

And under the best of circumstances it would have been a challenging tale to tell. The fellow our hero is on a quest to save is Doc Maitland. Doc has been tossed into the Forever Worlds and split into a number of different identities. The goal is to find him in each of the Forever Worlds and get him back in one piece. Our hero is motivated to do this because not only is the doc's daughter the love of the hero's life, the hero has had his own body snatched and has to rescue the doc in order to rescue himself. And, to add one more twist, once our hero is on the move in the Forever Worlds, he finds that he himself can possess its inhabitants, a ghostly race known as Fillers.

Read All About It!

I suspect that one of the reasons Forever Worlds was shipped with its Solution Guide was that the guide was the only way players were going to be able to make sense of the game's story. It's also one of the few ways players can tell if they are making any progress. Unlike Jewels or Gems, there is no clear sense of accomplishment in Forever Worlds. Ol' Doc Maitland could have been split into three, four, five or fifty different identities and it would not have affected the narrative in any way.

Combine the obscurity of an inert story with the labored whimsy of the game world (chocolate is the most valuable thing in the universe, giant imprisoned butterflies provide most of the world's power) and about the only thing players can be grateful for is the game's modest length. Put another way, while it may not do what it does very well, it doesn't do it very long, either.

Of all the games I've ever played, the game Forever Worlds most closely resembles is another DreamCatcher interdimensional time travel steamer: Beyond Time. (You can find my full review of Beyond Time here.) That project also suffered from a story that was told rather than shown while players solved unrelated puzzles in a variety of colorful, if seemingly randomly selected, venues. Ironically, for all its other faults, there was a clear mission in Beyond Time: to collect crystals.

Make it Stop!

What draws me to a game is its ability to immerse me in its world. If it pulls me in and keeps me playing, I am willing to make all sorts of allowances. And, out of genuine affection for Shakespeare's two previous games, I was prepared to give Forever Worlds every opportunity to engage me. And yet, from the first screen, the game, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, pushed me out of its world and held me at arm's length. It started with the focus on the cursor. When I stopped playing the game and just looked at the scenery, it was stunning. Not at all interactive, but still stunning. Start playing again and focus shifts back to the cursor.

Getting to the first interactive location in the game put a bit more distance between me and the experience. Nothing quite like learning that what one sees and how one gets there have nothing to do with each other.

The first in-game cutscene animation, like all of the game's animation, was very slick. Using that animation in support of a snippet of shtick from Wayne's World was at best unimaginative and at worst lazy. Gazing at the cursor, overcoming the navigation, enduring the dialogue. What next?

Of course, what was next was what may become known as the Solve or Reboot puzzle, followed in short order by the appearance of the bloviating reptile, the oddly truncated third-person cutscenes, the first exposure to the convoluted inventory interface and the even more convoluted inventory puzzles.

And so on and so on, with no sense of how much remained to be done, all the way to the end. As the last string of disjointed cutscenes played out, I could only shake my head in baffled indifference. It was like watching a film that, had everything gone okay, would have been just okay. Except everything didn't go okay. It was as if every third reel had been stolen, half the effects shots had been lost in the lab and there was never time to do a full readthrough of the script.

Though the game world visuals are sumptuous and the animation in the cutscenes first-rate, the dialogue doesn't play and the puzzles have none of the physical intelligence of the developer's earlier work. The only thing Forever Worlds has in common with what Shakespeare has done before is the burst of stars that signals the passage from one world to another. Forever Worlds is a huge, huge disappointment.

Close Only Counts In ...

Even the technical specs listed for the game on TAC's website are wrong. It can't be completed on 98 First Edition, it needs DirectX 9.0b, it only takes up about 800 MB on the hard drive and the CD speed is only an issue upon install (the game plays completely from the hard drive; no copy protection). Also, those playing Forever Worlds on 98SE or ME must have Windows Media Player Series 9 installed.

* * * * *

A Fool's Errands: TAC Technical Support and Forever Worlds

On April 11, 2004, one day after receiving my copy of Forever Worlds, I posted the following comment on the Adventure Company's technical support forum:

After the first install (which the installation log said completed normally), the game failed to load. The TAC and Hexagon Entertainment logos would appear and then the game would lock the system up tight with a black screen.

Uninstalled and installed again. Removed other programs that can be used to open .Avi files and associated all .Avi files with DivX. Same problem. TAC, Hexagon, black screen.

Uninstalled and reinstalled and uninstalled and reinstalled and...No change. The game always locks up after the Hexagon logo.

Not happy.

Athlon XP 3000+
512MB
GeForce 5200 FX
SB Live! Value
Win98SE

Under normal circumstances, reliving the unbending of an adventure game load failure would not appear to be all that useful. The odds that the solution to one game's failure can be extrapolated to others, given the unique characteristics of individual games and systems, are small. Still, this is not a tale about actually getting a game to run. That story does not involve the technical support staff of TAC. This is, rather, an examination of the assumptions inherent in the suggestions offered by TAC and how those assumptions rendered TAC incapable of providing any useful advice.

The fundamental assumption was that Forever Worlds was thoroughly tested and would perform as promised on every Windows OS from 98 and ME through 2000 and XP. Starting from this premise, any operational problem suffered by a customer must reflect a problem on the customer's system. Therefore, any technical advice would focus on diagnosing the customer's system.

In short order, everyone who was having no luck getting Forever Worlds to load in 98, 98SE or ME was told to update his or her video drivers, make sure the CD was in the drive and not worry about virtual CD drives or CD burners. And if none of that helped, just submit an online technical support form.

The first clue that TAC really wasn't offering game-specific advice is the bit about making sure the CD is in the drive. Forever Worlds installs completely to the hard drive and, since it is not copy protected, does not require a CD in the drive. I did submit an online technical support form. And, days later, got back the same sort of generic advice posted on the forum: update video drivers, etc.

The next burst of advice indicated that while Forever Worlds did need an MP3 player for its audio portions, it didn't matter which player was installed. An uninstall and reinstall of the DivX codec and DivX player (needed for running the game's cutscenes) might be in order, on the chance that the initial install was somehow faulty. And, just to put everyone's mind to rest, the loading problems did not relate to Win98.

While this appears more specific, it's really not. Forever Worlds, on the platforms upon which it fails to load, requires Windows Media Player Series 9 as its MP3 player. Nothing else will work. On the other hand, Forever Worlds does not require the DivX player, just the DivX codec. And though it is possible to load Forever Worlds on Win98, the game can only be completed on Win98SE or higher.

When none of these suggestions produced results, additional generic advice was offered. Try the game on another computer to determine if the disks are defective. Run the DirectX diagnostic tool to see which version of DirectX is present and if there is a problem. Set the CD drive to no read ahead and to use Ctrl-Alt-Del to close all programs other than Explorer and Systray and then reinstall the game.

Since the game's installation routine was incapable of setting the game up properly on a Win98SE or ME system, trying the game on a different system would yield nothing more than another failure. Since the game won't allow itself to be installed without DirectX 9.0b present, Dxdiag reveals that the version of DirectX installed is, indeed, 9.0b. And it's just fine. As for a no read ahead install with nothing running other than Explorer or Systray, I'd already done that. CD Copier, my virtual CD drive, requires that the real CD drive be set to no read ahead. And, as mentioned in the original post, the game installation log revealed no problems. Nor did it indicate any problems on any of the subsequent reinstalls.

With no one reporting success yet, the torrent of generic advice continued. Download the DivX codec directly from DivX. Check which version of Windows Media Player is currently installed. And, again, assurances that Forever Worlds had been tested on Win98 systems and no problems of the sort I or others had encountered had been found.

Turns out the downloaded version of the DivX codec was no different than the version that shipped on the Forever Worlds CD. While checking the version of the Windows Media Player was not a bad idea, there was no suggestion that a particular version might be needed. And the assurance that game ran on Win98, minus any idea how that Win98 system had been set up, rang hollow.

By this time, April 14th, I was beginning to run out of patience. I suggested that it might be an idea to contact the lead programmer of Forever Worlds and see what he might have to offer regarding the load failures. As far as I know, TAC never acted on this suggestion. Five days later, I would, but more on that later.

More generic advice. Install the latest version of Windows Media Player. Submit another online technical support form. Run msinfo32 and submit its report to TAC Tech Support.

While the installation of the latest version of the Windows Media Player was a not a bad idea, there was no hint that it was offered as anything other than yet another "just try this." Since the first online technical support form had yielded no useful advice, it seemed pointless to submit another. Msinfo32 generated a 1.3 MB report that, once submitted to TAC, disappeared without comment or response.

The next few posts from TAC technical support confirmed the suspicion that TAC really didn't know the specs of the Win98 system upon which Forever Worlds had been tested. However, a TAC technical support person took a copy of Forever Worlds home with her and found that it ran without a problem on her home system. And, since it was not possible to replicate the error, there was little more that could be done. The last bit of advice from TAC technical support was that those having problems download a registry cleaner.

And that was pretty much all TAC technical support had to say. As of April 16th, there were no further official responses. The implicit message was clear: Those who bought Forever Worlds in hopes that it would run as claimed on 98 and ME were just going to have to solve the problem themselves.

On April 19th, I sent the following note to Michael Adams, the head of Quality Assurance, and then forwarded the note to Richard Wah Kan, the President of TAC.

Mr. Kan,

Below is a message I recently sent to Michael Adams:

Mr. Adams,

Anyone putting any effort into figuring out why Forever Worlds doesn't run predictably on 98 or ME? When it does run, it runs beautifully. Unfortunately, it doesn't load very often. And when it tips over, it freezes the system completely, sometimes to the point of requiring the reinstallation of video drivers.

Looking forward to hearing of any progress on this front.

Here's the April 20th response from DreamCatcher, sent by Joel Dreschler of Technical Support:

Hello Bradford,

Thank you for your email

Here at Dreamcatcher Games Interactive we take all problems very seriously when they surface with our products. We are currently working on a fix for the problem that some of our users have been experiencing with Forever Worlds on Windows 98/ME.

Thank you for your efforts in our forums for this!

Neither Adams nor Kan ever responded to my note.

The same day Joel Dreschler e-mailed me, he posted the following on the Tech Support Forum.

Hello all,

If you are having problems running Forever Worlds on a 98/ME machine please take the following steps:

Check that you have the requirements:

Please verify that you have a video card with at least 32 MB and a processor of at least 400 MHz. To do this you can from the main desktop press on the start button in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. From there chose run and in the dialog box type dxdiag

In the first screen or tab you will be given system information including the Processor, Memory and version of DirectX. If the version of DirectX is older that 9.0b it is out of date and can be updated at www.Microsoft.Com/directx

On the third tab, display you can view your video card information. The Device area has Name which will have the video card. If the name is sis, s3, trident or intel these are on board graphics cards and not a separate video card. For this game you must have at least a 32meg card. Also ensure that the date of the driver in the top right hand corner is <3 months. Please do not do this through windows update, but through your computer manufacturer or better yet, through the manufacturer of your video card.

Some general steps:

- Please ensure all other programs are closed prior to running the game. This includes any anti-virus software you may have installed on your system. A way to check that all other programs are closed, perform the following while on your windows desktop:

1) Using your keyboard, press the CTRL, ALT and DEL key simultaneously and a "Close Program" window will appear.

2) Within this window it will display what programs are currently running. To reduce Windows to its basic functionality, the only two programs that absolutely need to be running are "Explorer" and "Systray." Any other programs that are listed can be selected, then press on "End Task" to close the program.

3) Perform steps 1 and 2 again until only "Explorer" and "Systray" remain.

4) When this is completed, attempt to play the game.

NOTE: All the programs that you have closed will restart the next time Windows starts.

- Uninstall and reinstall the game as it may have not installed correctly.

- If possible please try the game on another machine as it maybe a defective disk. If you are unable to do so please exchange the game for another copy.

If you are still having problems please email us at techsupport@dreamcatchergames.com with the following attachment so that we may better troubleshoot your problem, please provide us with your system's information. To do this, please follow these steps:

1) From your desktop, click on the Start button, click Run, then type "msinfo32" without the quotes.

2) From the System Information window, click on the File menu, then click Save (save itas text file).

3) Save this file to a known location such as My Documents.

4) Attach this file to your next email and send it back to us.

--------------------
Happy gaming!

Joel Drechsler
Technical Support

This post, prominently displayed on the TAC Technical Forum and locked to prevent any response, continues the tradition of assuming that all game problems originate in the player's system and not in the actual game or, as in the case of Forever Worlds, the game's installation routine.

Early in the evening of the previous day, Monday, April 19th, I finally did what I had suggested TAC do five days earlier: locate the e-mail address of the lead programmer on Forever Worlds and ask for help. He responded quite promptly, providing both clear instructions on how to setup a Win98SE and ME system for Forever Worlds and a concise explanation for why such a setup was necessary. The entire time elapsed between deciding to find him and implementing his recipe for success was roughly five hours.

On April 20, I posted, on the TAC Technical Forum and elsewhere, his setup routine for running Forever Worlds on Win98SE and ME.

Looking back, it is now apparent that the TAC Technical Support person who took Forever Worlds home and had no trouble running it had, without realizing it, followed the recipe for setting up a Win98SE system: Install DirectX 9.0b, Windows Media Player Series 9, the proper video drivers and the DivX codec. Given the assumption that the game should run and that any problems could be attributed to an individual player's system, the successful loading of Forever Worlds on a tech's home system served as little more than confirmation of that assumption. The posting of a meaningless string of fool's errands on the TAC technical support forum under the title Forever Worlds on 98/ME problems suggests that TAC Technical Support has chosen to learn nothing from any of this. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Hexagon Entertainment
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: April 2004

Available for: Windows

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Screenshots

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System Requirements

Win 98/ME/2000/XP
Pentium II 400 MHz (700 MHz recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
DirectX 8 compatible sound card
1.2 GB free hard disk space
16X CD-ROM (24X recommended)
32 MB Direct3D compatible video card (64 MB recommended)
16-bit color (24-bit recommended)
DirectSound
compatible sound card
Mouse, keyboard, amd speakers

(There are at least two errors in the Solution Guide. On page 38, there is a reference to clicking on the red button. This is not necessary. On page 41, clicking on the meter (Fig. 78) does nothing. One needs to click on the bee poster to the right of the machine in Fig. 79. Also, there are references to touching Doc Maitland at the end of each episode. This is not possible since the transitions back to the Departure Booth occur automatically.)

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