Point and click adventures had their golden age in the 1990s thanks to LucasArts, and while it might be premature to compare Scarecrow Studio to the likes of LucasArts, they're still a studio that wants to bring the classic vibe back, pushed by a burst of nostalgia and love for the genre. As a result of this, they're developing 3 Minutes to Midnight, a game that takes aim at players who spent hours struggling to close that godforsaken water pump (you know the one), and so we were curious about it when we recently tried it for the first time.
After we talked to Jan Serra, the mastermind behind 3 Minutes to Midnight and its script, we were able to play the demo, and travelled to the '40s to face one of those puzzles we had been waiting for. As he explained to us, the intention of the game is to offer an alternative to players, since right now the industry seems to be too focused on things like battle royale games, and he wants to prove that it's possible to create original titles and to bring back something that - for many - has been the climax for a genre that has seen better days. However, it's slowly getting bigger again (think of Thimbleweed Park, after all).
The start screen surprised us already, because they haven't gone for the nostalgic appeal in terms of visuals. To some extent, we all know that pixel art is the best tool to recreate the essence of an old game (again like Thimbleweed Park), but the 4K TV gave us a hint that they weren't following that path. In fact, we enjoyed that maximum resolution that allowed us to see even the smallest detail of the perfectly portrayed 2D characters.
So... where is the nostalgic appeal, the desire of bringing back something that once stood tall? Well, they took the high road: the essence. They've included traditional mechanics (you use a mouse for all the gameplay), that style and sense of humour that's always there, and that nonsense vibe that brings us out a smile and that makes things a little more difficult.
This was totally clear right from the start, as once we met Betty, the main character, we learned that our mission was to get some keys to enter a dam. We realised we had to take them away from Pam (it didn't look like we were going to convince her to do it herself), a girl with an axe who had a personality disorder that turned herself into three people, literally and metaphorically.
We spent several minutes talking to her, since we wanted to know Clarisse and Lisa (her two other personas) a bit better. One was childish, curious and playful while the other one was more mature, harsh, and dangerous. During our chat, they interchanged a few times, and we ended up accepting one mission in which we had to clean the restroom. However, for a moment we really thought we wouldn't have to get our hands dirty to get the keys.
In a matter of seconds we were having an interesting squeaking-and-grunting conversation with a raccoon that had taken over the trashcan, and it was at that moment when we realised that this is your typical LucasArts' nonsense and that they've scrutinised all of LucasArts' games into pieces to really understand the formula to then use it in their own way.
While all of that was happening, Jan told us that one of the 3 Minutes to Midnight's goals is that every single piece of dialogue is interesting and that no empty words are spoken. Of course, they also wanted to spill a bit of humour whenever they had a tiny chance and, after playing the demo, we can say they're going in the right direction. Even when we were chatting with a wild animal, we were curious about how the dialogue would unfold and what it could tell us.
Keeping the dialogue interesting isn't easy, but it's necessary in this kind of game, where every word could be a clue on how to progress. In fact, we had to be really alert to know where we should go, and we were also surprised by the characters' expressions and movements while they were talking. The developers told us they had had to work a lot with Unity Engine, and even considerably modified it to add a more dynamic touch to the animations so the characters would be even more expressive. Betty blowing gum bubbles while she's listening to the other person and Pam changing her looks depending on her personality... these are the details that make you pay attention.
We didn't go too far away from the rural area we started at, and although the demo was brief - only 30 minutes if everything developed as it was supposed to - it was a packed demo, and that time was enough to show its essence. Apart from the dialogue and those hints between the lines, we had to solve some puzzles, of course, and that reminded us, again, of the old school.
Puzzles weren't exactly difficult, as we had to solve some of them by using the most basic logic and some knowledge of how things work in the real world (if you have any trouble with mosquitoes, you may want to use citronella), but others were almost surreal (who hasn't turned a fire extinguisher into a plunger launcher?). To solve the latter, we had to explore and find items all over the place and have chats, trying to get some hints from what they said and from our imagination. Maybe the most difficult thing about this was finding out which items of our inventory could match, trying to use one over another with a few clicks. But that's actually the difficulty in these kinds of adventures.
However, we were able to progress without any problems and solve the predicaments that came up, constantly moving through the scenarios and looking for items. What we still don't understand is how we went from looking for some keys to summoning a creature on the lake so that a diver, "Smokey" (on the water) could fight it; something that, far from making us uncomfortable, made us pay even more attention to the game. Getting to know the story of this crazy (or brave) man, and of several generations that had been killed by a monster with a very bad temper, was the climax of this surreal experience that ended with the appearance of the "Great Sherman".
But after seeing how the diver had been preparing for that for almost two centuries, he threw himself into the hands of a creature that surpassed him in every possible way (see the end of the video interview for that), the curtain came down, and a classic cliffhanger left us waiting for the release date. 3 Minutes to Midnight has got off to a good start then, and our impressions after playing are totally positive. In fact, it's encouraging to see the dynamic produced by combining the puzzle formula, conversations between the mundane and the nonsense, and context with an intriguing mystery flair.
We'll have to wait until 2019 to fully enjoy the game and be able to review it in depth, but meanwhile there's a Kickstarter campaign looking to add more languages for the characters' voices, which are currently only in English, and to create the subtitles for 16 languages. We'll keep looking at the clock because something tells us that, when it's 3 minutes to midnight, the point and click adventure genre will get a story with amnesia, mystery, and humour that will definitely leave its mark.