Leave your kafkian metaphores at the door, ladies and gentleman, cause we’re about to go where no cockroach has ever gone before!
Bad Mojo is the infamous game that everyone remembers exactly because you play as a cockroach: roaming around in kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, trying not to get killed and, at the same time, trying to save someone from suicide.
Sounds weird enough? Well, the game had a full array of quirky design choices, some ahead of their time, others that haven’t aged so brilliantly. Alright, let’s switch off the lights, set our rat traps around the house and let’s get to it, my scurrying little friends.
“That roach game” designed by Vincent Carrella and Phill Simon, the duo also responsible for the quirky Space Bunnies Must Die!, is one of the few titles I have always wanted to check out since discovering its existence. The story, unfortunately, goes that the first time I actually managed to play it, I ended up being pretty underwhelmed. The intro sequence was pretty interesting and the graphics were also very well done, but I ended up getting stuck in a manner of minutes and I had to resort to consult a walkthrough to understand what the game was expecting me to do.
I’m not really one to like hand holding nor do I need an in-game tutorial, I grew up with DOS games after all, but here the player has to confront the puzzles with a certain mindset in order to proceed.
Weirdly enough you’re not named Gregor…
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful design choice that the game was conceived and developed with a cockroach in mind. Which is something I’ve always disliked about those “immersive” experiences: either the game is designed around the strengths and limitations of the protagonist or else it can’t be considered “immersive”.
These last few days I’ve been playing Among The Sleep, a modern horror game where you play as an infant child going around solving puzzles. The game is supposed to be scary cause you’re a defenseless child, but it doesn’t work, at all. This is because the child can do things no normal human infant could do without hurting himself, like falling from great heights, jumping hurdles and throwing heavy things around.
None of that is in Bad Mojo, you’re not asked to do anything that an insect wouldn’t be capable of doing. You move objects around, balance yourself on leg tables in order to climb around and not much else. Unfortunately for the gameplay, that’s its main issue, there’s not much else a cockroach can actually do. Under that shiny resistant beetle shell that acts as a sort of bait for adventure gamers, there’s an action adventure game lying in wait. I have no quarrel with the adventure part, but the action?
Realism vs Gameplay: the neverending struggle
And here we come to the old “realism vs gameplay” tirade that we’ve all read and talked about a thousand times. Personally, I find it ideal when games find a middle point: a realistic gameplay experience that can also be fun. The iperrealistic simulation is fun only for a niche kind of market, not the one really interested in weaving a narrative like the game from Pulse Interactive. Bad Mojo is not even that realistic, it’s just designed in a way to make you think and act like a cockroach with a human mind.
Maybe they should have just designed the game to be approached differently, but I can see the dilemma the developing team was facing. In the featurette, highly recommended viewing, the designers say they were afraid that most people wouldn’t get the hints in the various videos and find the game esoteric and unplayable. Well, it’s not, but it does manage to be cryptic a lot and since you have no inventory nor health to speak of, dying over and over again is par for the course. Maybe sometimes “weird for the sake of weirdness” is not always the way to go in designing games.
The idea of placing obstacles everywhere in order to make the player learn by “trying everything” hasn’t aged that good. The way the objects are designed, the player ends up failing to barely understand why you can crawl on some surfaces but on others you die almost instantly. Most of the time you’ll be spending in the game will be actually figuring out where to go and not die, rather than what to do. Since the game is played in a topdown view, most of the time you’ll have to explore every nook and cranny to look for an exit. Again, sure, like a cockroach, but when you have no idea where to go and the only trick is the gud’ ol’ “try everything”, chances are you’re not really having much fun.
Full Motion Videos done right!
Anyone who has ever played a game from the nineties knows that doing Full Motion Videos well is pretty hard. Phantasmagoria – A Puzzle of Flesh kinda did it, Black Dahlia was okay and Bad Mojo is great in that department! There’s a fair amount of cheesy overacting, but most videos are tame compared to other titles of the time and will be essential in keeping you playing. Its supernatural story is expertly weaven and even goes to places you probably wouldn’t expect. Even though there are no famous or recognizable actors, the cast is pretty decent and one of the best features of the game. Digitized locations are expertly used, full of tiny details which will act as clues as to what to do next and as callbacks to events of the future and the past. Also, as a small but essential technical detail, the development team managed to keep the whole game, although pretty short, on a single CD, so there wasn’t any disc swapping required. This also meant that the movies and the backgrounds were pretty compressed, but luckily there is a “redux” version, which I’ll get to later.
Short but sweet
Bad Mojo wasn’t a perfect game, far from it, but managed to once again show that FMVs are not bad per se, they can actually be a pretty efficient tool to tell a story and to immerse the player. Also that working inside certain technical limitations of the time could still produce excellent results. I’ve talked about immersion being the keyword here, the whole being a cockroach experience is simulated with extreme attention to details, along with sound effects recorded live from animals and real objects. The soundtrack is also available to download on the musician’s Bandcamp.
If all of this was in service of a gameplay that didn’t rely heavily on maze-like gameplay with cryptic hints, but instead on something more adventurous, Bad Mojo would be that rare “weird” hidden gem that everybody could still appreciate and play. But, again referring to the featurette, I don’t really think the team was going for that feeling. Instead it’s meant to be enjoyed like that rare weird cult movie, that one Zulawski movie from the eightes, that takes a certain kind of mindset to understand and appreciate.
The “redux” version of Bad Mojo is obviously the one to play, you can find it on GOG and it’s usually for sale at a reasonable price. It fixed a few bugs (but didn’t squash them… hehe) from the retail version, along with adding higher quality backgrounds and videos. Now comes the part of the article where I should try to find a kind of alternative, only this time it does not really come that easy. The only game that comes close in how it weaves its narrative around “animals”, even though the gameplay is way more mainstream, is Deadly Creatures, released in 2009, for Nintendo Wii. The player alternated between a tarantula and a scorpion, had a pretty interesting atmosphere and also a plot which the creatures were part of, but never protagonist. Unfortunately, the chances of playing it today are few and far between, probably emulation would be the way to go.