In the late 90s, James Cameron’s Titanic began an obsession for millions. At the time, the special effects were unprecedented, the scale was grand, and posters of Leonardo DiCaprio were decorating the walls of countless girls. The film made record-breaking numbers in movie theatres and won a massive amount of awards. Fascination with the Titanic itself experienced an upward trend, although it’s safe to say curiosity surrounding the ship, its passengers, and the sinking has, and will always remain, deeply embedded in pop culture and history. I would definitely know, as I was fascinated with the Titanic in the 90s, too, but not because of the blockbuster film. My obsession was the obscure point-and-click adventure game, Titanic: An Adventure Out of Time.
The game has a multitude of charming quirks rooted in the technology of the time. The CD-ROM era graphics are incredibly dated, but the gameplay is timeless adventure/discovery that’s so typical of many 90s point-and-click games. The animation used for each individual character during dialogue is also downright surreal. The developer, Cyberflix, used technology called “Cyberpuppets” to recreate facial expressions and speech. Basically, one actor would be photographed in a variety of poses and then the photographs would be used make the characters talk and move. It all looks very unnatural but there definitely wasn’t much else like it at the time, for better or for worse.
The strange and dated aspects of the game are easy to get hung up on, but the underlying mystery at the center of the story was what really hooked me. The game begins in 1942, 30 years after the sinking of the Titanic. You play a former British secret agent who is alone in his flat in the middle of the London bombings. Destitute, you walk around reminiscing about that fateful night 30 years ago. Somehow, you failed an important mission onboard and were forced to resign as a result. As you look at the pocket watch you carried with you from so long ago, the words of your dismissal echoing in your ears, the bombs fall and you are killed.
Without explanation, you are then transported back in time 30 years to that night onboard the Titanic. A voiceover asks “What if the past could be changed?” It’s jarring, but strangely compelling. You wake up in your cabin just at the moment your assignment was supposed to begin, but this time you cannot fail. What follows is a combination of espionage, historical fiction, alternate reality, and the virtual museum that is a digital recreation of the Titanic. Although the authenticity of the setting is certainly held back by technical limitations, it was perfect to pique young curiosity about the Titanic.
Your assignment starts out modestly: recover a priceless copy of a book of poetry, The Rubayait of Omar Khayyam, which has been stolen. You follow your one suspect, German passenger Colonel Zeitel. Over the course of a few hours and a series of twists and puzzles, you not only recover the book, but also a painting with war plans hidden on the back, a diamond necklace, and a notebook containing the names of all the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Recovering all of the items and then getting off the boat before it sinks gives you the best possible ending, which is really clever in an odd sort of way.
The good ending of the game brings you back to your flat in 1942, this time the future is much brighter because your mission has singlehandedly prevented both world wars and the Russian Revolution. That’s right; essentially world peace was the unintended result of your mission onboard the Titanic. The justification for this is an interesting series of historical what-ifs. Both the book and the necklace were going to fall into the hands of a Serbian stowaway on the ship. He subsequently sells them to finance the group that assassinates Franz Ferdinand. The painting containing the war plans turns out to be strategically useless, because the plans themselves were scrapped. But the artist who painted it becomes famous, since his painting is now priceless after surviving the Titanic. That artist is Adolf Hitler, whose career flourishes and leads him far away from politics. The notebook with the names of the Bolsheviks is straightforward; it’s turned over to the Russian government and Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky are executed.
And all you had to do to get there was solve a series of logic puzzles.