Retrospective: Discworld Noir

Anyone who follows me on a semi-regular basis might have noticed that I’ve been on something of a Discworld binge recently. I’m a massive fan of Terry Pratchett‘s universe and have been through all of the audiobooks in the series in the last year-or-so (which is why there are so many Pratchett quotes on my Tumblr and Twitter feeds).

Following on from all that, I recently decided to sit down and have a go at getting the classic Discworld games working, but have so far only managed it with one: Discworld Noir. This was a game that I remember enjoying at the time, but how does it stand up today?

Discworld Noir

Whereas the first two games were based heavily on the plots of existing Discworld novels, Discworld Noir is an entirely original story, inspired by (and a parody of) Noir movies. Released in 1999, the game is a classic point-and-click adventure game, where you take on the role of Lewton, the Discworld’s first Private Detective. Lewton is hired by a mysterious and buxom stranger to investigate a series of bizarre murders and uncover a dangerous conspiracy on the streets of Ankh-Morpork, a city full of Trolls, Dwarves, Vampires and Werewolves.

The game features voice work from Rob Brydon, Robert Llewelyn and Nigel Planer (names that should be familiar to any connoisseur of the British sitcom) and, though he wasn’t directly involved, lines from the books are oft quoted and Sir Terry was involved in some of the writing (and is credited as being a source of “far too much interference”).

Unfortunately, it seems that the developer and publisher went bust pretty soon after the games released, and so it was never patched and still contains some fairly major bugs. It is also considered difficult to get to run on modern machines, but I actually found it surprisingly easy, after following a few online guides.

Getting The Game to Work

I managed to get it working on Windows 7, but it’s a bit of a faff. The following works for me, but I cannot guarantee that they will work for everyone. I did have to install a No-CD patch (but I do own a physical copy of the disk, so that’s OK!), but I didn’t have to change any administrator or compatibility mode settings. Just follow these steps:

When the game launches, press Alt + Enter to get it into Windowed mode. This will make the graphics go all distorted and weird, but it will prevent the game from crashing during the opening sequence. You then have to press ‘New Game’ (Load or Options will crash the game). Then you have to watch or skip through the opening sequence in Windowed Mode until you’re in Lewton’s Office and Carlotta has left. It is still possible to watch the opening cutscene and work out what is going on; the voices work fine, the graphics will just look weird. Once you are in control of Lewton and able to move around your office, press Alt+Enter again to go back to full screen and the game should work fine from there on. If you exit the game at any point, then you can save your progress and when you start it up again you will have to press New Game, skip through the opening sequence again and can then open the Load menu (F1) once you are in control of Lewton, then continue as normal.

It’s a bit of a pain, I’ll admit, but once you start/load into the actual game, it works fine (more-or -less). I only experienced one other crash while playing the game and it didn’t repeat itself when I reloaded and tried again. Save your game often though, just in case!

The Game

You know the drill, you click around the environment to make Lewton move around, right-click on objects to examine them and double-click to interact with them. Once you start a conversation with a character, you get access to various dialogue options and you can pick up items to add them to your inventory. It’s then a case of working out who to question and what items to use to progress through the story.

Where Noir gets interesting is with the addition of the notebook. The notebook contains a list of clues and suspects, and you can use these notes to interact with other people/objects. You can, for example, use a clue on an object to try and work out what it is, or click on a suspect’s name in the list to ask a character about the suspect. This is another layer of complexity that I don’t remember from many games of that era, and is more synonymous with recent titles like L.A. Noire.

Finally *spoiler alert* you get some supernatural abilities. There are four acts to the story and at the end of Act II, you get turned into a Werewolf. Going into Wolf Form enhances your hearing and lets you see smells (as clouds of coloured smoke), allowing you to uncover new clues about your environment which cannot be perceived in human form. Your goal is basically to travel around the city, talking to both new and familiar characters and to uncover the truth behind a string of murders. Most of the steps involved are fairly logical and there are plenty of hints if you know how to look for them. I have to admit that on a small handful of occasions I resulted to looking at an online walkthrough, but for the most part, the game isn’t too bizarre, surreal or obtuse.

Presentation

I feel I need to discuss the game’s presentation. It hasn’t really aged well, having been made on a (presumably) restricted budged in the early days of 3D graphics. The environments and character models have clearly been build in 3D, but all the actual sprites and backgrounds in the game are 2D. The only 3D character is Lewton himself and he suffers from animations that I can only describe as ‘janky’. He goes through a bizarre twitch at the end of each animation loop while he’s moving around, which can be off-putting at first, but I learned to see past it. Every other character in the game just plays the same short animation over and over while they speak, which can also be quite distracting and immersion breaking. The environments actually still look pretty nice, even if some of the characters look a bit weird.

Final Thoughts

Discworld Noir is a game that hasn’t aged particularly well, but (with a bit of effort) is still very playable. The story might not be massively original, but it is has a decent amount of character and humour to it, and I think would appeal to new-comers to the series (but has lots of little lines and details for Discworld fans to find). It’s a shame that the developer/publisher never managed to fix some of the bugs, but I still enjoyed my time with Luton on the rainy streets of Ankh-Morpork.

Recommendation: I can’t honestly recommend paying a lot for this game, but if you can pick it up from a car-boot sale, eBay or a bargain bin somewhere for a couple of quid, I’d say it was well worth a punt, particularly if you are a fan of the Discworld series.