Looking back at the Tex Murphy videogames

With a new Tex Murphy adventure on the way, we look back at the cult classic videogame series...

Remember when the Mega CD from Sega arrived on the market with talk of real full motion video and games so real they were like playing a movie? Those claims were, of course, ridiculously overstated, and the best we got was a postage stamp-sized mass of pixellated footage, with gameplay that rarely amounted to little more than point and click shooting, or Dragon’s Lair-style single-command inputs. Still, the idea, however badly executed, was appealing, you can’t deny it. The thought of playing games with such visuals that, for the time, were far beyond anything we’d seen before was mind numbingly exciting.

In today’s graphically accomplished market, where we’re constantly spoiled by amazing visuals and movie-like productions, it’s easy to take for granted the appeal of the technology back then, and even though the Mega CD was far from perfect, it did offer some impressive gaming moments, but the tech was simply too limited for an idea that was, essentially, well ahead of its time.

However, there was a gaming platform that could better handle the idea of merging full motion video with gaming, and that was the PC. Although consoles like the 3DO and CD32 also attempted to blur the real with the digital, it was the PC that managed to hit the mark.

At first it was baby steps. Titles like the brain-bending Myst, 7th Guest and 11th Hour all mixed FMV with gameplay, even if actual movement was restricted to slide-show transitions or pre-rendered fly-bys. There was one series, however, that did the format better than most, and that was Access Software’s Tex Murphy.

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These adventure games, starring the titular hero, Tex Murphy, managed to make great use of FMV, and the hybrid worlds of real actors and sci-fi imagery created a cult series that’s still popular to this day. Lets take a look at this classic detective saga.

Mean Streets (1989)

The first game in the series was 1989’s Mean Streets, and it introduced us to Tex Murphy and his dystopian future world for the first time. Set in San Francisco after the Third World War, Tex Murphy, a down on his luck private investigator, accepts a case to investigate the apparent suicide of a university professor who was working on a top secret project. With only a handful of leads and $10,000 in hand, this could be the case to turn the gumshoe’s life around.

For its time, Mean Streets was an impressive title, and was surprisingly complex. Much of the game utilised Tex’s speeder, which was used to fly around San Francisco and California. Presented as a basic flight simulator, you had full control of the speeder and needed to input navigation points to visit important sites to interview witnesses and other informants. You could call people via the speeder’s phone (complete with some speech), and faxes provided more information. The game’s manual provided the first clues for you to work with, and from there you had to figure out your next move on your own. It was a tricky and brave debut for the series, which took the risky approach of such a unique style rather than stick to the popular trends of the time.

Visually, it was nothing special, and the interactive movie style was still a long way off, but it was a strong, if experimental start that established the Murphy series as a unique detective thriller. It was followed by the less adventurous, but arguably better, Martian Memorandum.

Martian Memorandum (1991)

Martian Memorandum ditched the elaborate setup of a open world map and speeder navigation for the tried and tested point and click adventure format. This may have been less imaginative, but it did make for a more fluid and accessible adventure that wasn’t as broken up by long flight sequences, which could, in truth, get old quickly in Mean Streets. What was left was a great detective adventure in the mould of classics like Monkey Island, released a year earlier.

On the trail of the missing daughter of a prominent business man, Murphy uncovers a sinister plot that involves hidden identities, the mysterious Oracle Stone and eventually, the planet Mars. The game played out like many similar titles, and featured plenty of character interaction. Questioning people using dialogue trees unlocked leads that pointed to new locations, and the game was the first real example of the series use of real video as conversing with others made use of small video clips and digitized speech.

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As with the original game, Martian Memorandum was unique in both its setting and storytelling, and was another fine adventure, but his would be the last time the series was seen in such a humble form…

Under A Killing Moon (1994)

Arguably the best Tex Murphy game of the whole series, and certainly the game that put Tex firmly on the map, Under A killing Moon was a quantum leap from Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum. It arrived only three years after the last game, but the title was almost indistinguishable from its predecessors.

Gone were the pixel sprites, dependence on text and traditional point and click interface, replaced by a new 3D rendered world, high quality (for the time) FMV and usage of green screen to place real actors within the game’s world. The end result was a distinctly unique and captivating story.

Tex Murphy returned, and despite his success in the Martian Memorandum case, he was still as down and out as ever, only this time he was actually played by series writer, Chris Jones, and was joined by stars such as Margot Kidder, Brian Keith and James Earl Jones.

The story saw Murphy set out humbly enough on a couple of small time jobs in a ruined San Francisco torn apart by racial tension between ‘Norms’ and mutants, but eventually he found himself involved in a mysterious cult, and his life got much more complicated.

The new direction taken by the series was, at the time of release, very impressive. Much of the game let players control Tex from a first person view, allowing full exploration of the 3D world, which was detailed and packed with atmosphere, and more importantly, clues. As with previous games, a major focus was on conversing with others, and this was handled by the game’s FMV sequences, fully voice acted with dialogue trees you could select responses from.

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These responses didn’t get quoted verbatim, though. Instead, the choices were often vague and cryptic indications of Tex’s possible responses, meaning you’d never really know what he’d say or how it would sound. It was an interesting design choice, and one that’s become popular amongst other developers.

The puzzle elements was ramped up, and the game required a lot of lateral thinking as you often had to use assorted items, and combinations of them to solve various puzzles before you could proceed (unless you used points to read hints in the game’s help system). There was a smattering of mini-game style puzzles too, such as having to assemble a torn up letter to reveal an important clue. It all made for an immersive sci-fi outing, and one that successfully merged traditional adventuring with the more logical puzzle approach of the hugely popular Myst.

Key to the game’s success was the cinematic element. The live action was of a very high quality for the time, especially as the actors were actually digitally placed within the game world, and the mixture of interesting storyline, witty dialogue, sometimes slapstick comedy, and immersion made it a firm favourite, even to this day.

The Pandora Directive (1996)

The fourth Tex Murphy game was The Pandora Directive, and it continued to use the game engine developed for Under A Killing Moon. Events again revolved around San Francisco, and Tex was still a resident of the Mutant-populated area of the city, living on Chandler Ave, featured in the previous game. Many characters returned, including Tex’s love interest, Chelsee Bando, and once again Tex is drawn into another dangerous case.

As Killing Moon was such a success, Pandora used many of the same mechanics that worked previously. Again, players controlled Tex and explored the 3D rendered world, and conversing with the world’s inhabitants was handled in much the same way, including the great FMV interactions and branching dialogue.

However, The Pandora Directive also introduced multiple endings and paths through the game. Depending on how you behaved and the choices you made during the story, Tex would get different conclusions to the adventure. This would become a common feature in many future titles, such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect, but here it was a real innovation.

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The open-ended story and improved presentation made for a great sequel to Under A Killing Moon, but the series would next take a step backwards, at least as far as story was concerned.

Overseer (1998)

Overseer wasn’t a new Tex Murphy story per se, but was instead a retelling of Mean Streets. Now in a relationship with Chelsee Bando, Tex recounts his first case to her, and players got the chance to relive the events of the first game in the new updated game engine, once again delivering the fully interactive 3D world.

Overseer was developed with more up to date PCs in mind, and the whole thing was given a bit of an overhaul to work with Windows 95 and 98. This, of course, lead to a better FMV quality, improved sound, tweaked world navigation and a general improvement in overall presentation and feel, including a full screen 3D view.

Staples of the series started with Killing Moon remained, including the dialogue system and heavy focus on world exploration for clues, and the flashback-style story allowed the team to retell and rework parts of the original game using the new technology. However, a lot of the game was only the result of a troubled development cycle.

Overseer‘s existence was down to a rushed development period forced on the team to coincide with Intel’s new hardware at the time, which the game was supposed to be bundled with. Initially the plan was to release an actual sequel to Pandora called Trance. This was split into a trilogy later on, but eventually scrapped due to tight deadlines imposed on the team by Intel. If they wanted the game to be bundled with the new Intel chips, they had to get a move on, and this lead to the reworking of Mean Streets.

Sadly, the Intel deal then folded, but the team still continued to work on Overseer, expanding on the original plans for the game. The original trilogy of sequels was put on ice.

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Overseer was one of the first games to be released on DVD (alongside a five CD set), and this version offered better video quality and no need for disc swapping, an issue that always plagued the series ever since Killing Moon.

Technically, Overseer was the superior game in the Tex Murphy series, but it’s considered by many fans to be the weaker of the 3D titles, and its not quite as challenging as its predecessors when it comes to puzzles. It also lost the multiple endings. Despite this, it’s still one of the best examples of the early FMV adventure.

Full motion

As a rule, I don’t personally look forward to a time when graphics in games come too close to photo realistic levels. I want a game to look like a game, and so I prefer titles that don’t go for true realism as such, but instead focus on distinctive visuals and setting that lets us leave the dull old world we live in behind. So, games like Tex Murphy shouldn’t appeal quite as much as they do. After all, FMV is, ignoring limits of video quality, real. It’s real people without the need for animation and clever use of technology. There’s less creative flair, and less room to improve or innovate. How can you top real life?

The difference with the Tex Murphy games, though, it the clever use of FMV and 3D rendered worlds, along with green screen. The mash-up of real and fantasy makes for a very unique feel, one that few other games have managed to best.

It’s all about the great stories, quirky characters and distinctive atmosphere, with a selection of devious brain teasers to give your grey matter a workout. And, unlike most of the FMV-centric games of the time, many of which were released to cash in on the growing trend of shoe-horning the tech into games for the sake of it, the Tex Murphy series used FMV correctly. It was both a main feature and back-seat driver. It never got in the way of the core gameplay, but it was always at the forefront, delivering a game world that impressed as much as it entertained.

Sadly for fans, 1998’s Overseer was the last time we’d see Tex on our screens. Access software was swallowed up by the mighty Microsoft, which wasn’t interested in the series or the genre it made a name for itself in. Take-Two Interactive later acquired and shut down Access, further signifying the death of the series, but all was not lost.

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Chris Jones and collaborator Aaron Connors eventually set up their own studio, Big Finish Games, and they managed to acquire the rights to the series. This lead to the original games being made available once more, and also to a brand new Tex Murphy adventure.

Tesla Effect (2014)

Originally titled Project Fedora, the next game in the Tex Murphy series has risen from the ashes thanks to a successful Kickstarter project. Now being published by Atlus, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure will see Chris Jones reprise his role as Tex in a totally new Tex Murphy story, which will stick to the series’ unique style.

The new game is due for release in 2014, and you can view a trailer for it below.

If you’ve yet to sample the delights of the Tex Murphy series, then you really should visit GOG.com, where you can find all the games in the series. What’s more, they all run on modern PCs, so there’s no more messing around with DOS emulators or virtual machines in order to play them. You can find out more at the link below.

GOG.com

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