… You know that bit where John Hammond spoils the magic of the flea circus by telling Ellie that it was all motorised? Well, I’m not like John. This article contains spoilers about the bizarre & obscure PC title Jurassic Park: Trespasser, you have been warned…
After the excitement of that first groundbreaking movie, the cinematic adaptation of Michael Crichton’s follow up “Jurassic Park: The Lost world” was a huge deal. I remember all the promotions and merchandise tie-ins alluding to the mysterious “Site B” – I’m pretty sure that even now, if you utter that short word coupled with a solitary letter most people (at least in my age range) would immediately think of dinosaurs. A year later in 1998 DreamWorks Interactive released “Jurassic Park: Trespasser” (actually just called “Trespasser”) to coincide with the home release of the movie. Sadly, rushing a game tie-in out to meet with some other release schedule is, as I’ve mentioned before, often one of the big problems with such a title and Trespasser was no exception. It was buggy, had sections cut, and largely failed to live up to the ambitious intentions of the designers. Twenty years later I decided to give this notorious game a shot in my ongoing quest to find the best Jurassic Park game out there.
Short Technical Interlude: I got hold of the CD release of the game, but in order to get it to run on my current PC I patched it with the community made CE patch with is available from TresCom.org … also worth noting that this game clearly still has a devoted cult following given the maps still being made for it. The CE patch allows the game to be run, apparently fixes a few bugs, and I believe gave me the option to play in my standard resolution.
The game puts the player in to the shoes of Anne … not that you can see her shoes if you look down, but I’ll get on to that later… an unlucky traveler involved in a plane crash on her way to Costa Rica to see some non-dinosaur friends. Following a brief intro in which it’s revealed that Anne isn’t a fan of flying (for good reason in this case) the player takes control on the beach amongst the plane wreckage… our hero miraculously unscathed. Anne, voiced by Minnie Driver, proceeds to quip and sarcastically comment her way across Site B looking for a way to escape whilst simultaneously re-living audio-excerpts from John Hammond’s memoirs at appropriate junctures. The game’s events seem to take place at some time after those portrayed in “The lost World” with the audio clips fleshing out the backstory of the facility’s secretive past whilst Anne makes her way through the abandoned ruins that it has become.
“…Spared No Expense…”
The role of John Hammond is brought to life once again by the late, great, Lord Richard Attenborough, and it’s just one of many elements in the game that hints at the grand vision that the developers were shooting for. Bringing in such a prominent (and distinguished) original cast member gives “Trespasser” a credibility in Jurassic Park lore that’s difficult to ignore whilst telling a new story. Whatever the shortcomings of this game, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this aspect of the title; hearing an iconic role taken up by the iconic actor who first personified is a rare treat.
“I wanted to give them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real. Something that they could feel and touch… “
Much of the game’s weirdness stems from the developers’ desire to create an immersive first-person experience without normal video-game elements making an appearance. A game attempting to grease the cogs between the player and the virtual environment is, as John himself would say, “an aim not entirely devoid of merit”. Sadly, in their enthusiasm to achieve this goal, the designers tampered with fundamentals such as ‘holding items’ and ‘picking things up’ to such an extent that at best it’s hilarious and worst bizarrely awkward. Rather than a traditional “Push button to pick up thing” approach, the player is given control of Anne’s right arm with the ability to flail and move it about at will; they can also grasp, rotate it, and even bend it at the wrist… theoretically allowing for an unparalleled level of freedom.
If at this point you’re starting to get a sense of deja vu, it could be that you’ve played ‘Surgeon Simulator’ whose developers have listed “Trespasser” as one of their sources of inspiration.
This arm flailing interaction fails on pretty much every level and results in comedically impossible contortions from our intrepid explorer; just figuring out an appropriate way to map the controls that didn’t induce finger cramp was a challenge. Picking up an item involves waving Anne’s hand towards the desired object and clicking the grasp button until you hit the jackpot and she actually takes it. Fortunately Anne is autonomous enough to hold a gun the correct way up once she has it and, despite it looking odd that she’s wielding a 12-gauge with one arm fully outstretched infront of her, it’s only necessary to maneuver the gun to roughly mid-view in order to FPS in a ‘normal’ manner without the need to further adjust the rotate and wrist controls; sadly not everything is so easy. Using an ingame keypad presents one of the biggest challenges; Anne needs to be far enough away that her flailing arm doesn’t just mash all the buttons with each sweep, but close enough to reach them. Then it’s just a matter of judging how well her outstretched finger is lined up with a particular button before enthusiastically jabbing if forward… if you manage to enter a code in under five attempts you’re doing very well. The developers even seem to have had some self-awareness about the difficulties of this interaction system as, whilst it’s entirely possibly to pick up an iron bar and flail it into objects, there is a dedicated “swing weapon” and “throw” command which comes as a huge relief to the player.
This one-handed approach to everything also raises some amusing questions about Anne’s physical prowess. She can pick up and stack large wooden crates easily with one hand, but bump that hand into a wall whilst she’s holding a gun and she’ll likely drop it immediately (or worse, when a dinosaur bumps into her hand). Likewise grasping door handles seemed to present her with some challenges so I developed a policy of just shoving Anne through doorways backwards as it removed the need to interact with the fiddly things and made it much less likely that she’d abandon her gun in the process.
The guns themselves are a disposable commodity in Trespasser as they can’t be reloaded; luckily sound firearm security practices don’t seem to have been a priority on Site B with fully loaded weapons casually lying around everywhere. Once more, in the absence of onscreen indicators, Anne will give her best guess at roughly how much ammo is left as she picks up a weapon… presumably she has in-depth knowledge of the weights of firearms and their respective ammunition. Unfortunately her “nearly empty” statement seems to only play when “actually empty” and “feels like about half” lasts for most of a magazine.
… we also have to talk about Anne’s boobs…
Part of me gives the designers credit at the imaginative way the developers tackled the health meter. Anne sports a heart outline tattooed prominently on her cleavage; as she takes damage the heart begins to turn red and finally drips blood just before she falls to the ground. Having an ingame element represent the player’s health isn’t necessarily a bad idea; many games have telltale animation cycles or visual effects to represent health, but I’ve got to question the decision making process that led to players having to take a quick down Anne’s top every time they want to know how she’s holding up. Furthermore her boobs are crazy prominent; I’m not speaking from any sort of experience but I can’t imagine having a bust size where even a slight deviation from a horizontal eyeline would give you a full view of your own boobs without ever catching a glimpse of your feet. At one point, the game calls for the player to jump from a clifftop into a small lake below and I spent a good few minutes at the top trying to work out where to jump from because I couldn’t see the lake past her obstructing bosom.
Finally there are the dinosaurs, undertaken with the misguided gusto that I’ve come to expect from this game. There are a good range of these revived reptiles, most commonly are the velociraptors who make up the bulk of the enemy count, but the game also features T-rex and a handful of herbivores including brachiosaurus, stegosaurus, and triceratops. There are the rudimentary shapes of interesting AI at work; the carnivores will attack Anne or Herbivores forming organic unscripted encounters, T-rex’s vision is… possibly… movement based (although I just ran past most of them), and dinos will sometimes flee after a few shots. Unfortunately the execution makes encounters far more funny than frightening. Their movement seems to be programmed around the idea that each dino’s head remains a fixed distance from the ground whilst their legs compensate for any undulations underfoot; this gives them a bizarre “jelly-legged” way of ambling about. I also witnessed their necks snapping around at odd angles to look at me, dinosaurs half stuck through terrain, and a T-rex slide gracefully down a cliff-face.
Setting aside as much as I can the genuine weirdness of the control, interface, and dinosaur behavior, I’m kind of disappointed that the developers weren’t given the time to realise their ‘vision’. The game consists of a series of linear treks through jungle to hub areas (village, port, and lab) where the player must explore to unlock the way forward. The buildings are sparsely furnished, but these hub regions contain the potential for some neat puzzle solving… As it was I spent half an hour walking around the village searching for a key card that was behind a rock in John Hammond’s garden. It was also strange to see so few physics based puzzles given the effort to include an adventurous physics engine which, aside from some slight janky moments, is mostly functional.
So as a game it’s inescapably flawed, but how does it stack up as a Jurassic Park Game? The voice work by Richard Attenborough wins “Trespasser” some serious Jurassic Park points; actually having John Hammond provide interesting monologues which expand and compliment the existing universe makes the title much more credible. The village section is the only direct crossover to “The Lost World” with the player visiting a slimmed down version of the main operations building complete with helipad. This section also contains exploration of the houses of several of the main characters including Henry Wu and Dennis Nedry (although I wouldn’t have thought that Nedry was involved in Site B). Sadly, other than these points, the game is mostly generic including a section with ancient ruins and a pyramid, presumably because it contravenes some gaming convention if there is a jungle setting which doesn’t feature ancient ruins.
Everything considered, I had a load of fun with Trespasser (not least of which because a few excellent people joined me on Twitch for the ride) but as a game the best I can say is it was overly ambitious and luckily the gaping flaws make it funny rather than infuriating. As a Jurassic Park game it’s got some neat points but sadly rushed development stifled its potential and it failed to capture the magic of the franchise.
… I’d love to hear from anyone in the comments who played the game when it was fresh, was it groundbreaking at the time? or was it just as bizarre then? Also are there any suggestions for my next Jurassic Park gaming adventure?