Revisiting the FMV game Conspiracies

I just noticed from browsing MobyGames out of boredom that it has been 20 years this month since the game Conspiracies was released in the US. Conspiracies is a FMV game developed by Anima Ppd Interactive that I’ve had a long fascination with. I picked the game up near release when I saw it was pretty cheap at a Best Buy, during a time when we were desperate for new adventure games but also because back then I already had a morbid curiosity in FMV games. You play as the detective Nick Delios as you investigate a murder and along the way you discover a bunch of weird subplots and bigger mysteries. It plays exactly like a Tex Murphy game, but maybe not quite at the level of quality that we would expect from that series. It’s hard to know where to start with why this game is so fascinating to me. Richard Cobbett wrote a great article about the game for PC Gamer a while ago about it.

picture of a balding man in a hoodie smiling
Our hero, Nick Delios

I guess a lot of the weirdness in Conspiracies comes from the main character, Nick Delios. He’s not particularly interesting but he’s just such an odd protagonist for an adventure game. Like all characters in FMV games, he wears the same outfit throughout the entire game but it’s just a grey hoodie and grey sweatpants. Since it was a game developed in Greece, he is also dubbed and it doesn’t quite fit but it’s also endearing at the same time?

The PC Gamer article mentions the starting puzzle where you cannot leave the apartment until you make coffee using water from your fish tank, but that’s just the beginning of the odd puzzles. Another puzzle requires you to get by a robotic dog, that is not intimidating at all, by filling an inner tube with water and feeding it to the dog. The most famous puzzle in the game requires you to get a signed cd from a real band called Blues Wire and give it to someone in another location to proceed.

Nothing about it really makes sense. Why is a band from today playing in the future? Why this Greek blues band? Why do you have to pretend you’re dying for them to give you the cd? Like most of the game, it’s not a particularly difficult puzzle, just a really weird one.

However, there is one puzzle that beats them all and caused my friend and I a lot of pain when we played through it. Conspiracies is a game that gives you a ton of inventory items, many of them being completely useless, and a very limited inventory space. Some of these items are small sticks of gum that are scattered throughout the game. My friend and I were playing through the game on our own computers while chatting about it over voice chat and while we each had to dump inventory items to make space, he chose to drop some of those sticks of gum. After all, surely you don’t need six sticks of gum? Well, it turns out you do. Apparently you can figure out what items are needed and which ones aren’t by going to your apartment, and using items on your trash can. If an item isn’t needed, the game will dispose of the item in the trash, otherwise nothing will happen. You’re meant to use the gum much later in the game, where you reach a cutscene of a flying car taking off and Nick combines gum and a tiny gps and throws it at the moving car to get it to stick. If you do not have all six pieces of gum, the game reaches a fail state. We did not know this and my friend spent an hour looking for the stick of gum that he dropped somewhere in this massive 3D space to get past this point. Eventually he gave up and I just sent him my save file so he could proceed. Even the cutscene itself is ridiculous and shows Nick unwrapping and chewing on all six pieces of gum before throwing the gps unit at the flying car.

The reception to this game was a bizarre thing to watch as well. This came out during a time when the adventure game community was desperate for adventure games and would rally behind every single game in the hopes that it would “revive” the genre that many perceived as dead. I think you could make a solid argument that the genre was fine if you were including freeware games and the adventure games coming from Japan, but if you were looking for commercial adventure games for the PC then it was a rough time. Adventure game sites often gave the few commercial games we had glowing reviews, only for bigger outlets to trash the games. This led to accusations that the mainstream gaming press was biased against adventure games and sounds oddly like a conservative talking point we’d hear today but no, the games were frequently just terrible. I have a vivid memory of PC Gamer giving The Moment of Silence, a completely forgettable adventure game, a poor review and the Adventure Gamers forums having a massive thread about it. Even games that I thought were decent, like Broken Sword 3, had unrealistic expectations placed on them and people in the community expected them to single-handedly make the genre popular again. This basically went on until companies like Telltale started making games and I’m glad I don’t see it anymore other than the occasional person at a games outlet saying the genre is dead and then the resulting discourse from that.

Anyway, this all meant that when PC Gamer gave the game a poor review, as it should have, people were not pleased. The developers wrote an angry letter to PC Gamer and the magazine actually published it.

We at Anima PPD-Interactive are new developers. Conspiracies is our first game, and it took us five years of development and our own funding. Do you believe that judging the game that hard is leaving us anything? The most likely thing that may occur is that we sell nothing in the U.S. and stop our efforts here. Is that what your magazine wants? Fewer independent developers?

Also, did you play the game till the end? You think there’s nothing worthwhile? Not even the story or the Puzzles? I think that you’re on the slope that Hollywood is on – lots of effects and explosions, but boring stories or no stories at all. Just kill, kill, kill. Of course I don’t say that our game is at the edge of technology , but all of the gamers that played our game up to now had a lot of fun. FMV games are very expensive to develop, and there aren’t many of this kind on the market anymore.

We’re very frustrated that you don’t count the story factor or human factor but only graphics and effects. As adventure gamers we feel that a game with a boring story and great graphics is worse than a game with a good story and poorer graphics.

We feel sorry that you’re not supporting us independent developers at all.

To which PC Gamer writer Chuck Osborne responded with:

I’m not sure which is more surprising: That we’re supposed to award brownie points to independent developers, or that Conspiracies took five years to make. As I said in my review, I’d gladly play an all-text adventure game (and have!) if it had a great story and compelling puzzles. Sadly, Conspiracies received a 23% because of its confounding plot and pathetic gameplay. To answer your question: Yes, we enthusiastically support small developers – we just don’t support bad games.

Again, this was a thing that frequently happened with negative reviews of adventure games in the early 00’s. I remember Chuck Osborne going onto the Just Adventure forums to explain how he’s not biased against adventure games just because he gave a negative review to the latest Dreamcatcher game and what not, and other journalists would pop onto the Adventure Gamers forums to explain the same thing.

The game must have been a success because in 2011, 8 years after the first game, there was a Conspiracies 2. Even with the long gap between games, it manages to bring back everyone from the first game, including the people who did the dubbing for the English version. It’s an improvement over the first game, although I felt like it removed the weirdness from the game so I never finished it. One day I’ll have to, so I can see how the cliffhanger from the first game is resolved.

While they only developed the two games, Anima PPD seems to still be around today doing video production. You can even buy physical copies of Conspiracies 1 and 2 from their website. I believe this is the only place where you can legally buy them, as they never got a release on Steam or GOG. I hope they do get a digital release someday. While it’s clear I don’t think they’re “Good” games, they are fascinating and must have done something right if I’m still thinking about Conspiracies 20 years later.

On a final note, after our playthrough of the first game together, my friend wrote the studio an email thanking them for making the game. I don’t think the email was entirely sincere but there wasn’t any sarcasm in it either. To his surprise, the studio responded and sent him a bunch of Conspiracies swag like a poster and a copy of the game with a bonus dvd of extra material, which I believe was signed? Just an incredibly kind gesture from a small studio that didn’t need to do so, and this enthusiasm is probably why I’m still recommending it to streamers and enjoyers of obscure games today.

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