STUCK IN A RIDDLE WITH YOU [Author: Arcadian Del Sol]

Developers are often faced with a double-edged sword. If they release a product before it is ready, they will lose money on premature evaporation; and if they hold out too long, they’ll never be able to live up to the over-indulged hype and expectation of an impatient 0-5 minute warez marketplace. Once in a great while, a game will release at the peak of freshness, harvested at the perfect moment, and allowed to ripen on the retail shelf just long enough. These games never win any premature “bought-and-sold” game awards; but rather, they develop in obscurity, where the proper pace and rhythm of development can march to the beat of its own drum.

This almost happened to Majestic, but in many ways, you can’t blame the developers at AnimX, a company that, in hindsight, may or may not even exist. Quite a few Majestic players are convinced that AnimX was a fabrication from the start – a device used to lay the foundation for the game itself. Majestic sows seeds of doubt and suspicion from the moment it begins, and does its best to lead you down garden pathways until you’re not really sure what to do; which in itself, is another double-edged sword for Electronic Arts.

Much has been made lately about “the opening act” in computer games. Much like a good novel or a good film, the job of the opening act is to take you to another place, where the walls of your own life are sluffed away like an old snakeskin, and are replaced with the surroundings of the imagination. Games that flat-out nailed it are Fallout, Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and Return to Zork, where the zork faithful like myself were at long last able to look at that simple white cottage in the woods after so many years of “You are standing in front of a white house…” text prompts. If you are a true zork zealot, then you know where I’m coming from – that opening act was nothing short of a religious experience.

So what can be said about the Majestic opening act? Well, without giving away any spoilers, it is basically a tutorial of the game’s interface. I’ll pause here until the cheering and applauding simmers down. Things do pick up, and towards the end of the opening act, you are definately in a “what the hell?” frame of mind; which is exactly where EA wants you to be. The bad news, is that “what the hell?” takes about three to four days before it turns into “what the hell am I doing wasting my time with this glorified AOL commercial?”

Because that’s what Majestic is. While playing the introductory act, I decided on just one evening session, to count the number of AOL banner ads I was exposed to by EA. In one half hour of play, I saw twenty-four different ads from AOL advertisers shilling everything from internet spy-cams I can use to look at pretty girls to websites promising me airfares so low, I could buy out half the airplane for myself. Somewhere in the midst of this click-through jungle, lies the skeletal remains of what was once a great game called Majestic. Of course, the “great” part was during the early testing when nobody really knew anything about it, and the ‘game’ was mostly a figment of our collective imaginations.

And there’s the far side of the development cycle I referred to earlier. Majestic was so tightly under wraps and so closely guarded, we really didn’t know a great deal about it until a month or two before the actual release. We envisioned a game that captured the conspiratorial controversy of The X-Files (the good seasons), the international intrigue of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the curious foppishness of The Prisoner, and the never-ending mystery of The Fugitive (original series only, please). What we finally got was an internet browser, AOL Instant Messenger, RealAudio, and WinAmp. A collection of gizmos and gadgets most of us already have on our systems, and probably abandoned for more robust applications that serve the same purpose.

I’ve played the entire introductory chapter of Majestic and I have to caution you about one thing. The claim that “it plays you” is poppy-cock. Majestic doesn’t play you. It asks you to play it. The catch is that it will only allow you to play it when it deems that you are ready to move on, and when it feels that you have played enough for the day, it informs you that you are indeed, finished until tomorrow. You cannot glance at the clock, figure you have an hour to kill until the new Friends is on TV, and kill that time by playing Majestic. Instead, you’ll be eating dinner, or in the shower, and Majestic will telephone you, or email you, or Instant message you that it is ready for you to play it. More often than not, your session is over in fifteen minute spurts of streaming video and AOL banner ads. And forgive me for the sin of using the word “play” in reference to Majestic, because it is not a game you “play” – it is a game you listen to, watch, and read. It does not simply lead you down the garden path. Majestic ties a leash to your neck and drags you Planet-Of-The-Apes style down the corn rows. In an attempt to give you an idea of what Majestic is like, without spoiling the game, here’s a stereo-typical Majestic session:

*boot up computer*

*log onto internet*

*Click yes to pop-up: Log onto Majestic?*

*Click yes to pop-up: Majestic requires Instant Messenger? Logon?*

*check email – read email from Majestic NPC*

*Go to URL given by Majestic NPC’s Email*

*Go to Majestic homepage and type in information found on URL somewhere between 5 AOL banner ads*

*Check Majestic Alliance Interface*

*Check Majestic homepage again and see that you have new email*

*Check Email*

*Realize that new email is email you already viewed*

*Check Majestic Alliance Interface – Your status is STILL “Acquire”*

*IM someone on your ally list – “Dude, I’m still on Acquire”*

*Go to Majestic Homepage and search for: Keyword given by IM Ally*

*Go to URL produced by keyword*

*read some information tucked between three AOL banner ads*

*Send email to webmaster of URL*

*Check Majestic Alliance Interface – no change*

*Look at Clock – time for new Friends Episode (leave PC on)*

*Just as Joey is about to engage in goofball antic, you hear an IM pop-up*

*Check IM – Majestic Bot #4 asks if it is you.*

*You say, Hi yes it is me.*

*Majestic Bot #4 asks if you read the email*

*Majestic Bot #4 asks if you viewed the URL*

*Majestic Bot #4 says to wait until tomorrow when it is safe to contact you again*

*Check Majestic Alliance Interface – status is now: Standby*

*sit and stare for a minute and wonder at what point you actually played a game*

*log off Majestic and play some Quake III or Free Cell.*

That’s pretty much the typical Majestic session. Did I like it? At first, yes – but quickly, the routine depicted above becomes mind-numbingly predictable. Majestic is not a game you play; it is big red button that dispenses a peanut each time you click it. Read an email, gain a point. Watch a streaming video, gain a point. View a URL, gain a point; well, you get the picture here.

By now, we are all familiar with the exploitable nature of Majestic. The registration process warns that if you sign up using someone else’s phone number (thus sending some very strange and disturbing phone calls to them), that you could be subject to legal action. Don’t be frightened by this hollow promise – they say the same thing about hacking and exploiting in Ultima Online, and so far, I’m aware of no pending litigation where an individual or individuals are going on trial for electronic theft of UO items or accounts. EA’s response to this is to suggest that the individual players consider legal actions on their own, and they even go the extra mile in promising NO ASSISTANCE unless a judge orders them to assist. This little warning in the Majestic registration process makes me laugh so hard, a little fart comes out.

I’ve heard stories told that once you get into the billable portions of the game, it gets much more difficult and much more interesting. Perhaps if they showed some of that interesting content in the introductory session, I’d be inclined to pay money for more of it. If I wanted to pay another monthly access fee to browse the web, get instant messages, and receive emails – I’d buy an AOL account. And from some of the banner ads I saw while playing Majestic, I can tell you that AOL has some pretty good offers this month.

Note on lack of screenshots: Having completed the initial introductory chapter, if I were to show you screenshots of the interface, there is a very good chance it would spoil certain key elements in the mysterious plot of Majestic. Given that the whole purpose of this game is to discover clues to unwravel that mystery, it would be in bad taste to offer up entire portions of the plot as a result of posting a few screenshots of the items I have acquired, and the contents of my Majestic homepage.

Rating: 1.5 BattleCruiser CDs (out of a possible 5 Fallout CDs)