Forever Worlds: A Review and a Fool's Errands
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 interminableas 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
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
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
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
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,
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
* * * * *
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.
Athlon XP 3000+
GeForce 5200 FX
SB Live! Value
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
Below is a message I recently sent to Michael 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:
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.
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
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
- 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 email@example.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.
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
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
98/ME problems suggests that TAC Technical Support has chosen
to learn nothing from any of this.