Normality

Normality
2.5
Game Name: Normality
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Gremlin Interactive (UK), Interplay (US)
Developer(s): Gremlin Interactive
Genre(s): First Person Adventure
Release Date: 1996
Notes: GOG.com forums have a fan patch to convert their UK release to US

The early to mid 90s represented the adventure game’s last hurrah, and found it paired up with the very genre that would kill it – the first person shooter. While games like the 7th Guest and Myst took early steps in melding pure adventures and the perspective, it would be games like Under a Killing Moon and Gremlin’s own Realms of the Haunting that would bring adventures into a full, free-roam 3D environment. And, as you can guess, the game we’re talking about today is on that list as well.

Neutropolis is a boring place, maaaan.

Neutropolis is a boring place, maaaan.

Normality takes place in a dystopian city where individuality and free thought are outlawed and a smog generator has blocked out the sun for 40 years. You play as Kent Knutson, and with your ratty dreads and crazy threads, you’re pretty much set up to be Public Enemy #1 from the start. The game begins after you’ve served a week in government detention for whistling jauntily on the street. Just before your release, a note slides under your door suggesting you investigate a conspiracy at the Plush-Rest Couch Factory. After accidentally stumbling through your own apartment’s couch and discovering a mysterious gizmo inside, you decide to take the letter’s advice.

To be clear, this is absolutely a proper point and click adventure, just presented in a 3D world. You have look, use, and talk commands. You will never acquire or use a weapon. There are no action minigames. You have an inventory you will stuff full of items – some of them useless – and deploy them on each other or the world to remove barriers. Throwing this into 3D is an intriguing take on “modernizing” the adventure genre, and in that respect, it works reasonably well.

You move around the world either by holding the left mouse button and dragging around, or by using the arrow keys. With no mouse buttons held, you move a hand cursor around the screen with labels popping up over items you can interact with. A bag icon in the upper right is always present, and accesses your inventory. Holding both mouse buttons, or using Page Up/Down let you look up and down about 45-degrees. This will be used to focus your view on the occasional floor puzzle. I also like that your view fills the frame completely, with no UI to get in the way.

normality3

It’s a true adventure. Take stuff that isn’t nailed down. Chat up the mentally unstable locals.

You get your standard set of Sierra action verbs by pressing the right mouse button. This brings up a little Kent action figure, with different parts of his body representing different commands. Mouse over his mouth and you’ll talk. Mouse over his hand and you’ll grab. My problem here is that you have no default action – the verb you selected resets immediately after using it. This isn’t a Sierra or LucasArts system where you’re selecting a cursor mode, instead, you’re selecting an action per every item. This means you’re hitting the right mouse button all the time. Luckily, you can use keyboard shortcuts to instantly activate whatever the cursor’s pointed at, but now you’re sitting up with hands on the keyboard and mouse.

Navigating doesn’t pose too much of a challenge though, and it’s easy enough to spot an item and maneuver to investigate. The 3D space is well used, with occasional items inside boxes or hidden under others. Doors actually swing open. You’ll never be timed or required to use precision control, such as avoiding a floor sensor or trying not to fall off a ledge, which smooths over any inherent jerkiness in the mouse movement. The most trouble I had was trying to wedge Kent into just the right angle to see or grab an item, but these troubles were rare overall.

Graphics generally impress as well, and the game’s cartoon style comes across well. The world is made up of some excellently detailed wall textures with no shortage of decorations. Rotating sprites fill out desks and corners, with the game calling that out on occasion. A basic lighting engine fades the environment at a distance and allows lights to be turned off, leading to some of the game’s amusing surprises. Character models are all CG, and look like stiff action figures carved from a block of plastic (as was the state of graphics at the time), but are grossly exaggerated for an effective comic look. CG cutscenes are used for most world-changing actions.

normality4

Clues aren’t exactly subtle. See also the dialogue about “FLOATing ideas,” or “wouldn’t want to get you FIRED.”

The disappointments start adding up quickly, though. For starters, there’s only seven locations in the whole game. These are average-sized areas for an adventure game, but feel surprisingly small from first person. You’re further limited in what you can actually do. The initial delight at seeing an entire block to explore fades when you find every store is closed. The shopping mall has only three stores. You’ll only check four tiny floors out of the government’s mega-tower HQ. You’re further tantalized by doors “locked from the inside” that can never be opened. It’s a let down, and yes, the small number of locations means you’ll backtrack frequently.

Puzzles vary. Most are signposted well enough, and perhaps even excessively. This is a game where the cashier is so spaced out that you can fly toys over the shoplifting sensor right in front of her. Some even have multiple options, such as opening a washing machine with a screwdriver later, or smashing it open with a harpoon. Yet, Adventure Game Logic still rears its head, usually related to when you’re expected to backtrack. I had absolutely no idea where to use a ladder I found. I was able to guess the computer geek might have a needed password, but picking up a handful of actual shit and throwing it on his shirt was a leap of logic I wasn’t prepared for. And I remember wasting a lot of time because I didn’t understand that there was a power sender and a power receiver. Other than the occasional stumble, though, the limited areas make this easy enough to breeze through in a couple days. The manual even features generous hints for the entire game, if you want to use it.

For me at least, I wasn’t laughing through the journey. I think part of this is because you never get a developed sense of the world or your actions. Stabs at an overly cautious, humorless government rarely appear, and this is not satire on the level of, say, Bureaucracy. The laziness of the corpulent, brainwashed citizenry is referenced maybe twice. If I remember correctly, you don’t even see the very people you’re trying to liberate except for brief glimpses in cutscenes. Are they pleased when you broadcast a rock video of a singer seemingly inspired by Geddy Lee? Are they drooling masses in need of awakening? Is the government goon squad furious and set back when you blow up a transmission tower? You’ll never know, making tasks like painting a giant waffle statue turn into adventure game busy work when you can’t see even the slightest reaction for your efforts.

I... uh...

I… uh….

Normality’s also just not that clever, or really, as zany as you might expect. You use white paint in place of milk to trick someone into drinking “coffee.” You smoke two jackboots out of a truck by piping in fumes from your bathroom. You defeat a recruiting agent who doesn’t believe you’re fat enough for the job by wearing an “I’m Fat, Honest!” T-shirt. Kent stubbornly refuses to recognize anything drug related. The occasional fourth wall break feels right out of the playbook. There’s a lot of potential with the concept that just doesn’t get explored and a lot of gags that just feel mundane.

Also, crucially, the voice actor for Kent never did much for me. In the U.K. release, you get a more nasally, nerdy voice, while in the U.S. release, you get 80’s icon Corey Feldman. The Feldmeister’s performance is much livelier and a little more fitting with the anti-establishment vibe and Kent’s character design. However, he also sounds like a cross between a California surfer and Jim Carrey doing Ace Ventura. Neither actor created a character I found particularly endearing. I never felt like me and my buddy Kent were about to pull some awesome pranks together, it was mostly a distracting collection of awkwardly-delivered lines. It is interesting to note that Feldman seems to deviate from the script often (going by the subtitles), so he’s at least keeping the role agile and fresh. Overall, his is the better performance.

With little humor buoying it, the plot seems threadbare. The mystery of the couch widget starts off well enough, but gets solved early. From there, you’re just running acts of mischief to bring down the regime. The resolution offers few surprises – the government’s leader really is simply evil for no reason given. The ending itself wraps up quickly and conveniently, and finishes with a CG victory sequence that feels more like a 3D animator’s 1996 demo reel than a reward. I also believe Normality also holds the distinction of being the only game that ends with the protagonist puking into a toilet. Congratulations on beating the game, Kent!

As far as bring a Leisure Suit Larry style adventure into a 3D engine, technically, Normality works quite well. Environments are detailed, there’s plenty of objects to examine, manipulate, and store in your inventory. Unfortunately, Normality can’t match the humor. Chances at real satire don’t get followed through, and even the juvenile gags feel sparse. Puzzles feel fairly balanced, but there’s not much here to make you feel clever. With only seven areas to explore, stale gags, and a short play time, the game’s as acceptable, but bland, as its government brand *FOOD* snacks.

 

The Good

It’s an old-style point and click adventure in a “modern” 3D engine. Technically, works very well. The environments are well detailed and decorated, with plenty to look at. Puzzles are generally balanced. The entire U.S. voice cast offers a lesson in scenery chewing, and I wouldn’t have that any other way.

The Bad

Plenty of missed opportunities and generic gags. Feels like a game that should come with a laugh track. Very short, with no chance for character development. Areas feel small. Kent’s nerdy voice in the U.K. version, and Feldman’s erratic surfer take in the U.S., make a character that’s hard to connect with.

 

“You’re… uh… the only man for the job, Kent!”
“Well I am a man, and it is a job, so I guess you’ve got a point.”

 

3 Comments

  1. Rob K. says:

    Very good review J Man, thank you so much for this review btw, I will only add, for now, that I would give it, myself, 3 and a half or 4 stars. As a veteran PC adventure gamer, I really thought it is, and still was good, albeit with some minor flaws, some boring parts and level design and a bit too short for my own tastes.

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