And here I thought Steam would disappoint. Nope – I got a sufficiently fascinating game for my money. Lucky me.
SPOILERS for the game follow:
Return NULL encapsulates two traditions: the modern point-and-click adventure game, and the visual novel. You click on things and choose whether to “Use”, “Examine” or “Use with another object”. The game’s driven by dialogue blocks and the occasional choice in what to say. Thus end-eth the tradition encapsulating.
For our story: it’s the near future, and the world has gone all 1984 by way of Blade Runner. An authoritarian police force monitors the streets of… Town City, let’s call it, with cameras observing all and unease in the air. Crime is abundant, and the general populace is unhappy.
Enter Jack Drebin, a character whose name I had to look up, it was so unmemorable. He’s our tough cop gone bad – a man who loses someone dear in the prologue, driven to seek justice in the most self-destructive manner possible. Beyond “losing a loved one” and “being effectively on life support”, Jack is as personable as white bread.
Jack gets a call. It’s the “activist” group that was supposedly tied to his past suffering. Bad news: he’s been screwed over by the police force – the whole tragic backstory angle was a manipulative attempt to push some pro-control policies into play. He was never meant to survive. Probably.
Jack is asked to help the “activists” out – by locating blueprints for a bomb (the “Return NULL” of the title, a phrase which I believe is a coding reference). He agrees to it, in the hopes of getting justice. Some wandering, some mild puzzle solving, a firefight that runs like molasses on a netbook’s processor. Cue contrived cliffhanger ending.
Why, you may ask, am I so willing to spoil the game in its entirety? I’ll tell you, dear reader.
It’s not a good game.
The decision to make a point-and-click adventure game in this day and age, without animations or even basic voice work, is astounding. I do not understand why the developers (of which there are at least four, based on the credits) couldn’t provide some voice work – even just recording their own voices. It might have spiced up the experience, given some life to the stilted writing. But instead they elected to keep the game static and inexpressive, relying entirely on the belief that their writing and visuals can carry the experience.
The game’s failure to engage runs deeper than its appearance, though. In the forty-eight minutes I spent on this game, nothing challenged or intrigued me. The locales kind of blurred together, and my actions were limited to “find item, click to go to location, use item in predetermined manner”. Rinse and repeat.
And I finished Episode 1. There is nothing more or less in this game – a couple firefights showing off the only animation present, some assorted environmental puzzles, and conversation options that lead nowhere special.
My interest in this game arises from my fascination at its failings; how and why a game that seemed intriguing in its trailer, would suddenly become depressingly flat and uninspired. This from a game that looks like the middle-ground between watercolour painting and comic panel, with a sufficiently haunting soundtrack to boot.
It’s a handful of beautiful nothing. I spent money on it, but you don’t have to.