After a few minutes of playing Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon I realized that this was a game that I’ve always wanted to play but never knew existed until recently. I was quite late to the party since the game came out in the early 90s, back when point and click adventures were cool and “interactive movie” sounded like something futuristic and not something cheesy. It was also a time when technology didn’t quite know what to do with itself; for some reason Access Software couldn’t quite figure out how to use a keyboard and mouse to make someone move around a 2.5D world in a way that makes sense, and there are specific instances where the smooth gameplay suddenly breaks into jagged fragments.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to be able to load Tex Murphey in DOSBOX and travel back in time to the past’s virtual imagining of the future. I wish I had played this when it was first released, but not everything about the game has aged poorly.
There are a lot of things to like about Under a Killing Moon. Its world is a fun and miserable wasteland. People are mutated from the fallout of World War III’s nukes and live as second class citizens in a city half blown apart. Murphy’s best friend offers to serve him a fried human brain to eat, which Murphy declines (as I myself would). A psychotic clown lived across the street from Murphy’s apartment where he runs a store selling clown goods. Business was good until he was shoved into a barrel of green acid which digested everything but his makeup and skeleton. A man nearby lives in a dumpster and is addicted to not drugs, but chocolate. I’m not sure if that was an act of censorship or a joke, but most likely both. Murphy’s neighborhood is a terrible place full of nice people. It’s disgusting, terrifying, familiar, and amusing all at once.
As an interactive movie, Under a Killing Moon’s cinematography is composed of bad actors superimposed on top of absolutely terrible computer graphics, which is exactly what you would expect from a game of this genre and era. All of the cut scenes are conversations, or rather they’re conversation trees. So each cut scene is actually pieced together through a bunch of video clips dependent on which conversations the player chooses.
It’s nice that Access decided to make each few second clip as entertaining as they could, since the scenes as a whole are constantly being interrupted by dialog choices and don’t always come together neatly. The actors might not be the best, but in every snippet of dialog you can tell that they at least act like they can act, whatever I mean by that.
I mentioned that there are dialog trees. Under a Killing Moon isn’t an RPG, so every conversation pretty much has one predetermined outcome, sometimes two if one of them is your death. The different forks in each tree exist mainly to give the player control over Murphy’s personality, to give the player options as to what he or she thinks would be more entertaining to see, to provide puzzles within the conversations, and finally some options are hilarious just by the fact that they exist.
For a linear adventure game, these are perfect reasons for dialog trees. It’s fun subtly changing Murphy’s personality, making him a little more serious, a little more sarcastic, a little more bitter, or a little less so. Murphy is a sarcastic, bitter character by nature, so it is often fun choosing friendlier options just to see him struggle with an attempt to be friendly at all.
I had far more fun with this game than I thought I would. It has a serious story in a satirical world, fun characters, and intuitive puzzles. It is a game where I actually felt like I was a detective, finding clues and looking up information without the game just filling in all of the blanks for me. I’m somewhat sad to see that this is a game of the past and not something people make anymore.
At least, that’s what I think about the first third of the game. For some reason after Murphy solves his first case the world is about to be destroyed, or something. A plot as epic as that has no room for the interesting, likable characters the game went through lengths to make us get to know. In order to stress the growing tension as all of civilization is on the brink of annihilation, the game gets harder by sometimes stopping the whole pointing and clicking and dialog trees in order to focus more on walking around rooms while trying to avoid instant death.
Being a point and click adventure game though, this mechanic isn’t particularly fun. In fact it’s a miserable experience. The puzzles get harder too, by becoming terrible puzzles. Hey I like to deny the accusations that adventure game puzzles were all just arbitrary combinations of random items found through pixel hunts, but sometimes that’s just the case in some titles, like this one.
At the end Tex comes home to find that no one recognizes him as Earth’s savior, and he doesn’t care for the fame anyway. He’s back to where he started, a lousy job, a lousy neighborhood, and no money. He reflects for a moment on his situation, and realizes that things aren’t so bad after all. He solved that one case after all. I feel exactly like him. That single case was the only part of the game I could look back on with fond memories. The rest was a waste of time.