Ray Ivey visits The Rock and the San Francisco of the Beats, and tells us all about it
April 1, 2014
Please note: 1954: Alcatraz is a game for adults only.
Guns, gays, goons, gonifs, grifters, getaways and goldigger’s gams. Cons, counterfeiters, coppers, canaries and the Cooler.
They’re all a part of the dark, violent and seductive world of 1954: Alcatraz.
Here’s a game I’ve been looking for ever since I saw some early assets from it last year at E3. I mean, it’s a game that might as well have been called Adventure Game For Ray: It’s a noir story set in the infamous island prison and San Francisco. But it’s not just San Francisco…it’s the San Francisco of the Beats. Which means the game embraces one of my favorite movie styles and takes place in my very favorite tourist section of the City By the Bay: North Beach.
So with all that going for it, how did the game turn out?
The news is good. 1954: Alcatraz is a game I enjoyed from start to finish.
In the game, you play both members of a married couple. There’s Joe, who after two prison escapes has been shut up on The Rock, and his wife Christine, a disreputable member of the beatnik arts scene. The couple has a big problem: Christine may not have long to live!
Turns out, Joe was sent to the Big House because of his involvement with an armored car heist. During the heist, the stolen money apparently was destroyed in a fire. But Mickey, the dangerous club-owning gangster Joe worked for, doesn’t buy it, and is pressuring Christine to reveal where Joe’s secret stash of the money is hidden.
At the beginning of the game, you automatically play as one character or the other. However, pretty quickly you gain the ability to change between the two characters at will. This really gives the player an enticing sense of control.
The game is presented in classic third-party point-and-click format. The art oozes style from every corner. Even the game’s interface gets you into the mood in a way I won’t give away.
Easily, the aspect of the game I enjoyed the most is how it embraces its setting. The creators of 1954: Alcatraz didn’t just dip their toes into the heady waters of the seedy underworld of North Beach in 1954; they did a cannonball right into the deep end of the pool. This is a game that owns its setting.
Go into the restroom of the gangster’s club? There’s a drunken woman literally collapsed on the floor. Need to get a junkie friend to spill some important info? Maybe you have some handy drugs hidden in your apartment that’ll do the trick. And that Catholic chaplain who works the prison? As corrupt as they come.
This is the first game in which I’ve ever heard the following line: “He’s got gray pubic hairs.” Yeah.
It’s also the first time a game has given me an achievement for stumbling over two gay guys having sex in the bushes of a public park. Yeah. An achievement.
The game features fun period quips like, “Why are you always on my biscuit?”
The game also scores some points for humor. At one point a desperately bored prison guard’s wife is talking to Joe. She laments, “At least you’ve got murders and stuff to talk about. WE talk about...Eisenhower.”
Even better, when Christine is chatting with a young Chinese aspiring Beat hipster, he makes a surprising crack about the venerated Chinese Opera where he’s working. He’s desperate to write something new like the rest of the Beats. “We’ve been doing the same play for eight hundred years,” he sighs glumly.
There’s even humor in the interface. Check out this pop-up description of the couch in the mobbed-up club owner’s office. When you roll the cursor over a messy couch, the pop-up description is, “Evidently, his bed.” This is not only funny, but it adds information that reveals character. Nicely played.
In addition to sticking the landing with its setting, the game is also strong in the story department. The more you get into the plot, the more you feel the push-and-pull of Joe and Christine’s relationship, and the more natural it feels to bounce from one of the pair to the other as you work toward their goals.
There are many interesting characters to meet as well. A couple of lovesick North Beach gays, a professional mermaid, a horny police detective, a dreamy but no-good ex-boyfriend, and many more colorful types populate the world of the game.
1954: Alcatraz doesn’t pull its punches, either. Characters are capable of doing very bad things, and violence hangs in the air as a real possibility throughout. This commitment to the dark side adds a welcome grittiness to the game. It also means, in case I haven’t made that clear already, that this is a game for adults only.
The game even features a cameo by the real-life Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud! Happily, his depiction in this game is much more in line with what I’ve read of the real Stroud than the warm and fuzzy teddy bear version portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie.
Another welcome feature: If the game has a Saved Game slot limit, I never hit it, and I save a LOT. This is a very good thing. Don’t you hate it when a game decides how many different saves you can have?
If the game has one weakness, it’s in the puzzles. Don’t get me wrong, they are all fine. They make sense and feel organic to the plot and characters. It’s just that as an old hand at adventure games, I was hoping for a couple of more puzzle-y puzzles. You know, flipping switches, deciphering messages, solving riddles and cracking tricky locks. That sort of thing. While an argument could be made that puzzles like this are unrealistic, my feeling is that having the game challenge you with a clever puzzle is sort of like the moment in a Broadway musical when the character bursts into song. It’s not realistic, but if you’ve paid your money for a ticket, chances are you don’t care. In fact, it’s one of the reasons you came to the show.
My hope is that when the talented team who put together 1954 Alcatraz builds their next game, they’ll just be a bit more bold and expansive in the puzzle department.
Another minor peeve: Some awkward character animations.
Picky peeve: There’s a shot of the San Francisco skyline that features a building that looks way too much like the Transamerica Pyramid, a building that didn’t begin construction until fifteen years after this game takes place.
Finally, and this is just my personal reaction, the way a character blackmails another character in the game left me with a slightly bad taste in my mouth.
But all of these last points are very minor quibbles. I had a great time playing 1954: Alcatraz and I think you will, too.
Oh, and one more thing: While the game’s art style features lots of gorgeous color, I recommend you at least try the “sepia” setting in the Options Menu to give your game an even more authentic noir feel!