Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Deja Vu - Remembering Who I Was
I adventurously scoured the streets of desolation in the continued search for my true self.

Shadowgate turned out to be a revelation to me. Tempted by the power of its absorbingly reverberant aesthetics, I allowed myself to wander out from my comfort zone and into the arched entryway of Castle Shadowgate--the black void of uncertainty, about which the wistfully drenched title screen invited me to wonder--where I spent many months immersing myself in a game that seemed so out of the ordinary to a closeted fellow like me. By doing so, I not only learned a great deal about the intrinsic values of a surprisingly interesting classic computer-game genre--I found out that I actually had a natural affinity for these "text-based adventures," which I previously dismissed as being primitive, boring, and too light on meaningful content.

I might've originally disregarded their potential because I wasn't much of a reader in my youth, preferring to spend my free time either drawing or creating elaborate constructions using the protective Styrofoam as taken from the boxes of my mother's most easily breakable valuables. I had an aptitude for writing, sure, but I did so in a more limited capacity, partly because I lacked confidence in my grammatical skills and couldn't rely on what I felt was an inadequate vocabulary. Still, I could find safety in writing about what I loved: Monsters, superheroes, and tales of struggle between good and evil, my all-encompassing stories always emanating from combinations of old mansions, ancient castles, and other similarly historic locales I enjoyed romanticizing about.

Shadowgate, for how it used its "advanced" literature to provide character to those fascinating depictions of castle halls and their inhabitants, was a huge inspiration to me both creatively and intellectually. It may have had limited replay value as a puzzle game, but to me it was worth revisiting again and again if only to soak in its brilliantly conceived setting, imagination-stoking phraseology, and wonderfully unsettling atmosphere, all of which I found to be intoxicating. I'd not so much play it but "feel" it, Shadowgate's a world from which I could draw endless inspiration.

Though, for however large in scope Shadowgate's world seemed to me, there was a part of me that wanted more of what it had to offer--something that could provide me an expansion of its ideas as imbued with that same Gothic flavor and sense of wonder. I just didn't have any idea what, exactly, I was supposed to be looking for. It wasn't Maniac Mansion, which had a lot of soul but otherwise lacked the desirable "Kemco-style presentation," which I felt was an important part of the package.

So what was it, then?

I didn't know it at the time, but Shadowgate, which I assumed was a standalone product, was actually one of four spiritually related "MacVenture" titles, named as such because they began life on Apple's Macintosh computer system. Shadowgate's arrival on the NES was the first of a slow drip of information that would eventually reveal this complete picture to me. For now, there were only single drops, the next of which landed on my head courtesy of Nintendo Power Volume 18, whose Pak Watch section unexpectedly revealed that yet another computer-game classic was on its way to the NES. As I turned to page 86--and before my brain could even process any other word or color--I immediately noticed that a screenshot in the lower-left corner bore a strikingly similar presentation to Shadowgate's. I was so excited to see that familiar-looking "commands" list and table of "goods," which were positioned exactly how I remembered them (except for the map, which had been forgivably shifted more toward the center), that the actual context of the preview temporarily eluded me.

It was a screenshot of two arms handcuffed together in front of a "Police" sign. I remember it well not just because of the immediate impression it made on me but because it happened to be on the page adjacent to the first Mega Man 3 preview, which I read through, like, two or three dozen times. Oh, and it belonged to a game named Deja Vu, whose subject-matter I thought to fully ingest after the shock had subsided. 

It wasn't a total mood-killer, but I was disappointed to learn that Deja Vu's story took place in what looked like a more modern-looking time-period. Now, I had no problem with detective stories, murder mysteries, and all of that jazz, but what I was looking for was an adventure game based in a more Medieval setting, with monsters, supernatural beings, and architecture more befitting of a fantasy world. It still had my interest, yeah, but I wasn't so moved by its basic premise that I felt it was a title I needed to run out and buy day one. Also, there was another big factor working against it: It was slated to be released in December of 1990, around the same time other highly anticipated titles like Mega Man 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game were dominating all of my available mental space.

I started warming up to Deja Vu when Nintendo Power Vol. 20 arrived with a big feature and more details on the game's plot. It seemed that our unnamed detective was an amnesia victim who was allegedly being framed for murder, and his story actually took place in the 1940s (or "olden times," which I might have called them)! There was some information in there about a dire prognosis and an urgent mission to discover your true identity, but what really caught my attention was the game's intriguing imagery and what I inferred from it: The vacated exterior of "Joe's Bar," which had an old Ford vehicle ("gangster car") parked in front of it. The empty casino that invited a private gambling session. A mysterious, no-doubt-threatening silhouetted figure standing beyond the clouded window of "Ace" Harding's office door. That clandestine sense of undetected activity and isolation. Suddenly, Deja Vu's premise seemed so much more compelling.

I made sure not to read too far into the feature or look at any other pictures, since I didn't want any other part of it spoiled for me, but I came away knowing that now was the perfect time to add it to my collection. So I went out on a cold January day in 1991 and purchased myself a copy of Deja Vu, which would be my third point-and-click-style adventure game and certainly not my last.

Deja Vu is another one of those games about which I have a bunch of memories but nothing very specific beyond some initial impressions. I remember, for instance, how it concerned me that the cursor moved so slowly compared to how it did in Shadowgate, which made even basic actions take longer than necessary. Though, I felt better about the slower pace when I learned that Deja Vu had no arbitrary time constraints (or "click restraints," as it were), which meant that I could relax, think through my actions, and take in the sights without the lingering worry of having to constantly track down a source of sustenance. 

More so than Shadowgate, Deja Vu taught me that I had to be more thorough in my investigation--that even the pockets of a coat could contain vitally important paraphernalia like coins and bullets. It would test the limits of my cognizance by trying to misdirect me, hoping that the sight of a corpse would distract me from the mundane wooden fixture over which it hanged--the item-filled "desk," which I indeed failed to notice until much later on. I ran into many a dead end, but it was never because any of the game's puzzles were illogical or arcane, like in a certain other game where I had to light an easily unnoticed "special" torch to burn away a wraith or use a wand to transform a snake statue into a staff. I was comforted by the fact that Deja Vu had clear, understandable rules

What I didn't appreciate was the deeply troubling possibility of the game becoming unwinnable under certain conditions. If I ran out of coins, for instance, I was screwed, since I could no longer afford to ride around in the taxis; I might have felt less nervous about the possibility had I known that the casino's slot machine was programmed to pay out if you were on your last coin, but how could I take such a risk when an hour of progress was on the line? It was like a constant weight hanging over me, at times quelling my curiosity and discouraging my ambition to explore beyond Peoria, the main area. (It's worth noting that the driver of the yellow cab will give you a break if you try to leave without paying, but I wouldn't have known about that, either, since I was afraid of getting arrested.) 

Also, I didn't like that you could only foil the mugger's hold-up attempts three times before any additional defensive acts would result in instant death; while this scenario was nowhere near as worrisome as a potential lack of coins, since the mugger's appearances were random occurrences, I felt that there was no reason to have him return a fourth time, especially if there was nothing I could do about it.

To tell you the truth, I didn't really have much of a clue about what was going on in Deja Vu outside of the plot thread in which our protagonist was trying to regain his memory and clear his name. There were mentions of Siegels and Sternwoods and Sugar Shacks, but damned if I knew who any of them were supposed to be. It was clear that some nasty forger was going around planting incriminating evidence everywhere, doing his best to paint me as a murderer for some reason, and that's all the information I needed; the names didn't mean much to me when I was more interested in immersing myself in Deja Vu's silently dangerous world, in letting its music play as I daydreamed about what these scenes would look like in real life.

I learned years later that the game's events were supposed to be taking place during the late-night hours, which the NES port was unable to convey, but the scene I always pictured was one of a quiet Sunday afternoon when everyone was home recovering from the workweek, content to hang around, watch TV all day, and essentially leave the entire world to me as my own personal playground. 

The game did a good job of hammering home the desired sense of desolation, often punctuating a new rooms's description with a qualifying statement like "no one's around" or "you can't see anybody." My favorite depiction, which I found most symbolic of Deja Vu's remote atmosphere, was the scene early on inside Joe's Bar. As you enter the bar area, the music shifts from the rather inviting Ace Harding theme (whose construction I was thrilled to realize was based on the flute jingle from Shadowgate) to a more brow-lowering, mysterious piece that worked to render an image of a man curiously moving about a quiet, creaky room whose only illumination was the refracting sunlight that revealed little more than the dust particles floating all around him, his only view of the world a large window that provided a still image of the deserted, heat-drenched streets across which no witnesses would be wandering today. It was the game's best tune and a good enough reason to park the cursor mid-screen, soak in every scene-defining note, and let my imagination do the rest.

Since I didn't fully understand what I was trying to prove or which of the articles from my pages and pages of inventory were most incriminating, I relied mostly on the game's built-in fail-safe, which was designed to prevent players from discarding important items. It's kind of sad that I couldn't even deduce that the people sleeping in those beds in the house over on Auburn were the game's actual villains--I just assumed they were two dead people, killed because they unfortunately got caught up in the same plot. It turns out they were just exceptionally heavy sleepers, which I discovered years later when on a whim I used capsules of Sodium Pentothal on them and watched on, shocked, as they admitted their roles in the frame-job while under its inducement. As far as I guessed, the game's story had to be "typical gangster stuff," my unseen antagonist more likely your typical fedora-wearing, Tommy Gun-waving 1940s mobster.

I would go on to complete Deja Vu, but it would be quite a long time before I'd figure out what it was I was actually accomplishing. My piecing together its full story would happen years later, when I started playing it more observantly and gained a new-found appreciation for its divergent take on the ICOM Simulations adventure formula. Though, after that first play-through, I didn't feel any particular need to return to Deja Vu, which I didn't enjoy as much as I had hoped--not nearly as much as I did Shadowgate, which was absolutely world-changing. I just couldn't get excited for case files and hitmen like I could for magic scrolls and wyverns, so I decided that Deja Vu wasn't what I was looking for; I played through it only a handful of times the rest of that year and mostly because I was enamored with its aesthetic achievements.

Even then, Deja Vu still managed to stand out amongst the many games in my NES collection. I mean, there really wasn't much else like it on the console or the Commodore 64 (as far as I knew)--at least nothing that had the power to so arouse my imagination and make me feel like part of a game's world. It might have lacked the rich mythos of a Shadowgate or a King's Quest, but it nevertheless succeeded in creating an interesting world that I could embellish and make my own.

Deja Vu, like most of the games I played while among friends, wound up resonating with me for what you could guess were strange reasons. In particular, we found great amusement in the randomly appearing mugger of all characters; for one, we thought it was hilarious how he'd show up each time sporting a new facial wound courtesy of the jab we previously pumped into his face, and we were always trying to find ways to inflict further injury upon him even when the game decided he'd had enough. We were tickled by the characterization we'd created for him and how we imagined he'd deliver his lines-- that is, popping up out of nowhere like a speed freak and shouting "Give me allllllll your money!" in a voice that would seem more appropriate for the Wicked Witch of the West. He'd react to any thwarted hold-up attempt by running down the street, flailing his arms wildly, and yelling "I'll be baaaaack!" in the same exaggerated manner.

We further emblemized the mugger like we always did: By incorporating him into our outside-world games and projects like our newspaper-based "Master Criminals" series, where he was usually depicted him as having Gumby arms and holding people up from inconceivably long distances. We also made him a recurring character in our live-action adaptation of Law of the West, where he had a special ability to steal items from the sheriff and was otherwise immune to bullets, the only means of repelling him a timely jab motion. The mugger was ultimately supplanted by our newly created character Dink, whose amalgamation entailed the theft of most of his characteristics and locution. After that, the mugger's time was up; all he could do was run off into the sunset, flailing his arms wildly in protest.

What you've just read is either highly ironic or incredibly stupid.

Against my better judgment, I'll mention that we were also fond of that horrifyingly misshapen bum, who would pop up from time to time and offer to give us advice. Our response, naturally, was to always punch him in the face, which produced what we remembered as the funniest line in the game: "I doubt he felt it!" It was a misattributed line, of course, reserved instead for when you throw a haymaker into the gut of the grossly obese Ms. Sternwood, who lay unconscious in a trunk. No--the actual line, or part of it, was "...he may not have noticed it," but we didn't care; we adopted our apparently hallucinated version as another oft-repeated inside joke, communicated whenever we'd conceptualize a scene where our hated teacher Sr. Ginetta (or some other similarly odious subject) was met with a swift blow to the face. For whatever reason, it slowly evolved into the goofier, more obfuscated "I doubted he felted it!", which I can only guess was because we were emotionally stunted.

Though it managed to become a greater source of entertainment to me (probably for the wrong reasons), my general attitude toward Deja Vu remained consistent in those early years. While I'd continue to fervently return to Shadowgate's world any chance I could get, I'd pop in Deja Vu maybe, say, once every four or five months, whence I'd try to recreate Shadowgate's magic by examining every item, interacting with every object, and finding new and interesting ways to commit suicide and get arrested. It just wasn't the same, and I soon gave up on the notion that I could connect with its world on the same level. If it hadn't become a thing for my friends and I to break it out for the purposes of lampooning its characters, I might have dropped Deja Vu completely. For certain, I considered it my least favorite of the three NES MacVenture games by a pretty big margin.

But I never did give up on Deja Vu. In my later teen years, as I started to grow as a person, I played through it again with the intent of learning about the nature of its story. I read through all of the files and documents to gain a clear understanding of the characters and their motivations. And I became learned enough to have a firm grasp on the game's historical context. Viewed with an enlightened perspective, I couldn't see Deja Vu as anything other than an engaging, top-tier point-and-click adventure, deserving of being judged on its own merits. I wouldn't be dedicating this much space to it if I thought otherwise.

It's true that I'm more smitten with the two powerfully alluring games that sandwich it, but Deja Vu certainly isn't short on personality. In fact, I'm seeking to delve even deeper into its world by way of the alternate versions--the rightfully titled Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!, available for the Apple Macintosh, Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, and Windows PC. I look forward to trying them out and giving them proper coverage on this site (if I can get them to work). Sure--it would have been nice had I been able to explore more of Ace Harding's world much earlier via the elusive--rather, nonexistent--NES sequel, Deja Vu II: Lost in Vegas (which Nintendo Power had my running all around the state searching for), but some things weren't meant to be. Or maybe they were, but I wasn't? Whatever--that's a topic for another day.

Deja Vu might not have been the game I was originally looking for, but I can see now that it was one I needed at the time. Though it wasn't able to expand upon the fantastical themes of Shadowgate, which I obsessed over, it provided me a flavor of adventure whose acquired taste fueled me to kick open the door to a much larger universe of adventure games that included crime dramas, absurd morality plays, tales of redemption, and everything in between.

It was a long journey, wrought with hesitancy and many a roadblock, but I emerged from it a seasoned adventurer, and the travails of Ace Harding are a big reason why. 

Way to go, Ace! Thanks to you, my story would only get better.

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