Back in 2001 – as Dr. Frank N. Furter would put it – it wasn’t easy to have a good time.
There were few alternatives, for a PC gamer, to full price titles bought on store shelves: the good free indie titles were still far on the horizon and Macromedia Flash wasn’t yet ready for being seriously used by developers on the web. If, God forbid, one had the bad luck of being a point’n’click adventure aficionado, there really wasn’t much to do outside of trying to gorge on whatever mediocre title The Adventure Company would start releasing, in 2002, on a monthly basis.
Until AGS finally hit the scenes.
Adventure Game Studio (AGS) is a free tool that allows development of fully fledged 2D point’n’click adventures; relatively simple to use and to master. It is still currently in use by several developers to publish commercial titles, for example Whispers of a Machine and Unavowed, both of them among my favourite adventures of the past few years. Back in 2001, the tool was still in a very early stage, being used solely by indie developers to produce short – and free – point’n’clicks, mostly with handmade 320×200 graphics.
Still to come were the glory days of AGS, with the release of the fondly remembered Chzo Mythos adventures, developed by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. The first title in the trilogy, “5 days a stranger”, would come out only in 2003. So, while I too spent my days dreaming of developing my own point’n’click adventure (not with blackjack and hookers, but instead with evil gods and monks, I’ll talk about it someday), I gladly hunted for whatever free adventure I could get my hands on.
Still, to this day, one of the best free AGS title I played is Pleurghburg: Dark Ages.
In Dark Ages, detective Jake McUrk is assigned to a mysterious case that has been plaguing the city: who screamed last night? No really, the first objective the player is tasked with is talking to the old man who reported hearing the scream and, then, going to investigate the old morgue. I swear it gets better: taking a page out of Sierra’s cult classic Manhunter, Jake will discover a series of murders and the evil cult behind it all. Spoiler warning, right?
Let’s tackle the obvious first: this is not a game that has aged well. Graphically, it looked already pretty crude back when it was first released, in 2001, and it really doesn’t look any better now. Still, I always found that its greatest charm was right there, in how primitive it looked. Soundtrack is still one of the best I heard in a AGS title, though. While longer songs would have been more appropriate for the gameplay, there’s a full selection of tracks, most of them effused with a vague melancholy while remaining catchy.
Dark Ages is also not an easy recommendation if one is looking for clever writing or in-depth interesting characters. Dialogue is mostly swift and to the point, even though police and detective work are nicely detailed, estabilishing a solid framework akin to what Sierra did with Police Quest. Unfortunately, there’s almost no background information for the characters, including our detective and his dear friend, the scientist. They do make fun of each other a lot, but little else beyond that.
The story is also not what one would call especially refined: the cult’s evil plan hinges on conquering the city of Pleurghburg with acts of terrorism, while walking around the streets dressed in very suspicious cloaks. Those very same cloaks that they tend to leave at the murder scenes. So, narrative is not really on Sierra’s average level of quality, not even the bad Sierra.
Then why did I choose Pleurghburgh, of all titles, to celebrate those AGS titles of old?
Well, because it had a great atmosphere and solid varied gameplay.
The thriller oozes with darkness and dread, along with gruesome close-ups of butchered corpses (generally well drawn, honestly) and floors stained with blood. The “updated” version of Pleurghburg, released a few weeks after the debut, also adds an appropriate fog effect that contributes greatly to the general sensation of fear and dread. There’s also abundance of small little details, like people walking around in the city while detective Jake McUrk is out on the streets. While this might not sound like a big deal today, it definitely was for a free point’n’click adventure from 2001.
Granted, all of this while still being made in low resolution badly hand drawn pixel art, but, really, it all added to the charm. Personally, I feel that the more a videogame tries to scare the player, while trying to operate on a similar framework than a horror movie, the more it fails to do so. Pleurghburg, instead, works on a more subtle level, referring to that primitive fear one might have felt as a child: just letting the player’s imagination do most of the work.
The adventure sees the player visit several different locations, even partnering up with another detective at one point, while also reporting to Jake’s boss for updates on the “scream” case. The puzzles are mostly logical, at least in keeping up with the detective’s objectives, even though there’s a few that require serious backtracking. One particular example is having to go back and forth with elevators in the police station only to talk with the coroner and to update the chief of detectives. The developer himself said he mostly made up the puzzles as he worked his way through the story and, apparently, “he got lucky”.
Fortunately, Dark Ages at least avoids the plethora of inventory items of dubious use, but it sure has its share of pixel hunting problems. Interestingly, Detective McUrk employs several police trinkets, like a portable blood sample analyzer which has to be used on most murder scenes. It does feel a bit like doing police work, again referring to that semi-realistic Police Quest framework.
Still, if one should decide to ever give Pleurghburg a visit, it would be first and foremost for the atmosphere, the gruesome close-ups and the overall 80’s Sierra feel. The multiple endings, four of them, are also a nice touch, basically unheard of in a 2001 free point’n’click adventure. In a clever design choice, there was no “good” or bad ending, Dark Ages allows the player to decide which way to finish the story. I would be remiss in my job as a journalist if I didn’t mention Pleurghburgh is actually a sequel to a previous title by the developer, Cops and Killers. But, since that action platformer never went beyond the demo stage and was never actually finished, it hardly matters.
Pleurghburg – which, if anyone is still wondering, is probably pronunced something akin to “BLEAH” – was mostly developed by one man team Chrille Blomqvist for his software house GasPOP and released in November of 2001. It went on to win several awards for titles developed with the Adventure Game Studio software, among them “best game created with AGS in 2001″. Then again, it is also true that there weren’t many AGS titles released back then…
In 2003, Chrille started development on a sequel, called “The Asylum”, featuring 3D rendered backgrounds. There is little info about the plot, but one thing is certain: it featured the return of Detective McUrk. The few screenshots I managed to recover from the Internet archive looked okay, even though the character models are still basically the same. The developer was being helped on the art and animation, but apparently, he soon found himself alone and realized he could never really finish it on his own.
This was back in 2005 and there were no more substantial news after that; the GasPOP website is still up but, ever since 2009, it just shows a blank page promising potential updates. I tried getting in touch with Blomqvist but haven’t heard back from him.
Pleurghburg: Dark Ages harkens back to simpler times, when AGS was still in its early stages and many amateur developers were having fun with it, with different degree of success. Personally, I’ve always felt GasPOP’s title scratched an itch that few other adventures reached for, at least in the last twenty years, with its mix of horror, gore and police work.
It felt like playing a particularly gruesome episode of CSI, mixed with game design that seamlessly flowed from Police Quest to Manhunter: adventure gameplay enriched by a few overhead arcade sequences, along with simple but effective pixel art.
Dark Ages is still available on the AGS website studio, for free.