Tommy Guns and Steel Drums: Our First Look at The Journey Down
Times are tough for Kito and Bwana, the proprietors of Kaonandodo’s Gas n’ Charter. The power has just been shut off by the shady new power company, but with some quick ingenuity (read: pulling a switch) Bwana is able to subvert the power company’s meddling and restart the power. But to keep it on, they’re going to have to find a way to make up the four thousand dollars they owe. Luckily for them, a young professor from St. Armando University shows up looking for an old book that she has tracked down to Kito and Bwana’s place, located up in the attic. To get to the book, you build a ladder out of breadsticks.
The thing about The Journey Down is that all throughout the experience you’re going to have to give yourself to that oft-maligned adventure game logic. For example, after Lina (the professor searching for the book) suggests that Kito and Bwana fly her back to the campus, we are to assume three things that can only be deemed ridiculous: 1.) that she can clearly not see that the plane in question has no motor, is missing a propeller, as well as something with which to pilot the aircraft, so when she asks “does your plane fly?” she should ostensibly already know the answer. 2.) The acquisition of the required parts to get the plane to be capable of gaining lift would ostensibly require a greater length of time than it would take to simply get a taxi. 3.) That somehow a quick flight across the city is going to run Ms. Lina four grand. Now, we can argue surely riveting topics like exchange rates between USD and the fictional St. Armando dollar, but the other two just seem to exist on a plane (no pun intended) made specifically for the fuzzy non-logic of point-and-click puzzlers.
In true genre-specific stylings, you will spend all of your time collecting innocuous items and using them in seemingly ridiculous ways. It is the sort of pseudo-truths that entertain, but can also be highly annoying when you aren’t in the same mindset as the developer. There were several times during my three hour playthrough in which I literally had to go into each room and click on everything until something happened. To SkyGoblin’s credit, there was only one time in which I was genuinely sure there was no way to find a certain item without just mindlessly pixel hunting. Granted, my sleeves are relatively unstriped by the Sierra point-and-clickers of yore, but the market for these games is larger than ever, and having some sort of help system within the game would be extremely helpful, and would possibly help bridge that gap between developer and player.
I do not necessarily begrudge the developers these points as The Journey Down game has been out for some time, with this newest version being a sort of face lift, (the original game can be found on the site) adding all sorts of new content and a huge graphical reboot that seems to hearken to a sort of Roger the Rabbit aesthetic, mixing the backgrounds of hand painted art over which computer generated characters interact with each other. Also similar to Roger the Rabbit is the noire elements of the game — dingy back alleys lit only by a flickering neon sign, a cigar-wielding bossman sitting menacingly behind his desk of power, overlooking spires of sulfuric yellow smoke, and two tommy gun-wielding henchmen with all the according accoutrement — all set the world in something that seems to be assuredly secure in its bifurcation. The game is a slapstick, melancholy, tongue-in-cheek mess… and I kind of love it.
There is seemingly little reason why I prefer one game over another. A game can be a fantastic experience with layered and complex narratives that logically flow one after another, or the game can be something that looks less to the William H. Gass school of narrative composition, and more like a graduate of the Hunter S. Thompson school of gonzo narration. The story in The Journey Down falls somewhere on the latter side of the continuum. At times, ostensibly sense-making, it winks at you throughout, implying — much in a Mystery Science 3000 pastiche — you should really just relax. That way, when a recipe asks you for a tablespoon of olive oil and you use a dollop of motor oil instead, you won’t be too chuffed.
This is only the first chapter in an ongoing adventure for Kito, Bwana, and Lina as they go about exposing the secrets of the Underland, it’s troubling history, and its connection to the government of St. Armando and Armando Power. Because of this, the game plays a little short — it took me (a pretty green adventure game player) three hours to finish, though a “speed run” through it a second time took me about twenty minutes — but it does what any good first chapter does. It sets a scene, introduces characters, and sets up a series of questions that all need answers. For that reason, I am looking forward to exploring where exactly this whole thing goes, and what exactly the Underland has in store for me in chapter two.