Missing: Since January Review
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 333 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8x CD ROM, Windows 98 or more recent, 56K or better internet connection
Jack Lorski, a journalist for the SKL Network, has disappeared. The SKL Network produces television and internet video features for news organizations around the world, so it's not unusual for Lorski to be on extended assignment – but this time the SKL Network's CEO received a CD ROM and video clip at his home indicating that Lorski (and a companion) had been kidnapped. Lorski's captor, a man who calls himself The Phoenix, has demanded that the SKL Network release the CD – part of his so-called Great Work – to the public. The Phoenix's goals are mysterious – he has killed before and may kill again – Lorski and his companion may already have become his next victims. But there are hints that they are still alive and that The Phoenix has a message to communicate to the public, in his own sinister way.
After considerable debate, the SKL Network has agreed to distribute The Phoneix's black CD to the public. Accompanied by a white, installation CD that includes security and legal protocols, you are invited to join the community working to decipher The Phoenix's Great Work. Aided by a like-minded troupe, you will have support from folks at the SKL Network and around the world, with whom you can communicate via e-mail or web pages. It remains to be seen if by playing The Phoenix's game you can save Jack Lorski and Karen Gijman, who have been Missing: Since January.
Games, particularly adventure games, typically feel artificial ... constructed ... somehow wrong. Even the most engrossing of puzzles typically feels out of place. You have to prevent yourself from asking questions like, "Why on earth did the ancient race that once inhabited this secret cavern lock their doors with a set of pictograms that form an English pun?" Missing overcomes that dreadful quandary. Of course the puzzles are artificial – even absurd – those puzzles have been created for you, the player, by a serial killer called The Phoenix who enjoys toying with your mind.
Even better, you don't face these bizarre puzzles alone. Myriad others want you to succeed in understanding the Phoenix's puzzles and locating Jack Lorski and Karen Gijman. They offer to help you in e-mails (to which they will even respond), and excitedly give you clues to puzzles, making you feel part of a community. They have established or found internet sites with pertinent information, making you feel like you are simultaneously wading through a world of data, yet gaining the entire internet as your ally. Even the contrived puzzles feel somehow appropriate. They represent a dangerously insane murderer playing with you. With that as a cover, you no longer feel like it's a deranged game designer poking and prodding you with foolish puzzles – it's really a perfect ruse. It makes completely contrived segments of Missing seem perfectly appropriate.
Many of the puzzles are simply a series of clues designed to help you find a keyword or password to progress. As you solve these, The Phoenix reveals more of his own plans along with tidbits of Lorski's own records investigating The Phoenix's ceremonies. The Phoenix wants you to see the videos, but only after he feels you are sufficiently grounded in his intricate world of metaphysics, alchemy and astrology. By solving his puzzles, you demonstrate your knowledge, and hence your worthiness. And if you don't solve the puzzles his way, sometimes The Phoenix will dump you out of the program. The Phoenix's clues may lead you to search the internet for help, and while there are many artificial sites (constructed as part of the game), you can often find the information you need on real sites, making the game feel like detective work. Contrived or not, you are trying to save lives, so the searches must be done. It's hard to avoid comparison to Electronic Arts' abortive attempt at a similar game, Majestic, but the serial killer's plea for understanding is so much more personal, evocative and effective than a world of strange conspiracies. Everything in Missing has a sensible explanation, right down to a justification for inserting the installation disc.
Beyond its clever premise, Missing is a glorious example of gameplay and craft emerging victorious over technical excellence. The game relies heavily on simple tools such as Quicktime and Shockwave, and could have been built on a series of web pages. Yet it achieves an elegance of play with simple technology and excellent production values. What makes Missing such a strong title is the incredible sound design, art design and overall story arc. The sound is environmental, creepy and vitally important to the game. Most puzzles are solved more easily if you pay attention to sound cues, and even the aural puzzles are clever. For example, one puzzle has you ordering a set of sound clips to reconstruct a nursery rhyme-like song. You heard the happy version of the song in one of the game's video clips, but the version you need to put in order is clearly being forced out of a terrified Karen Gijman held captive by the Phoenix. It's genuinely creepy. The art is beautiful, if disturbing, and fascinating to explore.
This is the first time I have ever played a game in which the actual video didn't seem somehow out of place. The video sequences (done with live actors) are mostly Lorski's personal video document of his process tracking a serial killer. They further the plot and convey bits of information that can help you solve Missing's mysteries. Most importantly, the bits of video are presented as just that – past video clips. They aren't meant to represent real people interacting with you, but are bits of hand camera footage recording real life. It works well. And the story is actually clever. It's not quite as intricate as, say, an Umberto Eco novel, but it weaves a tremendous amount of historical information and esoterica into a seemingly real tale of murder and kidnapping. As such, if you have some knowledge of astrology or alchemy, you may even be able to solve some of the puzzles on your own without an internet search or waiting for helpful e-mails from others investigating the disc.
Missing isn't perfect, but it's hard to hold the developers responsible for the game's greatest flaw. If you search on the internet for the right set of keywords, sites with relevant information (created for the game) will usually turn up very high in your search results. Unfortunately, the game was released some time ago in Europe as In Memoriam, so your search will also typically turn up several walkthroughs of the game. That makes for a jarring break with the illusion being created of a real serial killer taunting you. Also many of the sites created for the game are similar in design, making them relatively easy to distinguish from run-of-the-mill web pages, especially when a personal blog-style page is available in several languages. If you can suspend your disbelief this far, you will find the game incredibly immersive. These searches will also reveal to you some fascinating real-world web pages, serving as a gateway to some web surfing that is entirely tangential to Missing itself (if your conscience allows you to put off deciphering The Phoenix's puzzles, putting Lorski and Gijman at risk).
The game is best played in short episodes, and relies heavily on e-mail. Many of your best clues will come from e-mails that will help you through specific puzzles. As such, it's better to play over a number of days, to make sure that you have time to receive some of the hint e-mails, rather than attempting to bulldoze through The Phoenix's puzzles. Many of the e-mails are just for color or to develop the plot, but they make for a fuller experience. That leads to another situation that isn't quite the developer's fault. If you have a slow e-mail account, you'll have difficulty with certain puzzles. Furthermore, if your e-mail in-box is overflowing with unsolicited e-mails, you would do best to create a new account for the game. The game will send you plenty of e-mails with mysterious subjects from people you don't know. They won't include attachments, but you are still likely to see a lot of offers to make your penis larger while trying to avoid deleting game e-mails. It's enough to make you concerned real police are missing clues because of people offering online pharmaceuticals.
Despite the intriguing conceptual foundation for the game, the amazing sound and appealing art, Missing is still an adventure game, and isn't going to appeal to those who despise the genre. And Missing is subject to some of the foibles of adventure games. While most of the puzzles are an exercise in pattern recognition, some require a modicum of manual dexterity. Missing even has its own version of detestable pixel hunting. While you might think you know the right keyword to pass a puzzle, it will sometimes turn out that your answer was right but you were using an alternate (or not archaic enough) spelling. Lastly, the ending lacks in instant gratification. While the game will continue to play itself out (even days beyond when you thought you were done), the moments immediately after you complete the game leave you hanging, wondering, "is that it?"
Despite its simple technical underpinnings, Missing is an unbelievably elegant game. You get an exceptional story that breaks the boundaries between the game and real life, along with impressive sound and art direction. All of that for $20. If you find adventure games to be even the slightest bit compelling, you would do well to pick up a copy of Missing. And you should do so soon, while all the web sites used in the game are still maintained, and easy to find with typical search engines.