The interactive movie–that nebulous, hard-to-define genre briefly fashionable in the mid-1990s, when CD-ROM technology made it possible for developers to integrate live-action footage into games–is not exactly remembered for its high quality. But even in the tradition responsible for such notorious follies as Night Trap, Sewer Shark, and Who Shot Johnny Rock, The Quiet Man is astonishingly dire–a graceless, outdated game that belongs squarely in the era of laserdiscs and the Philips CD-i. When it isn’t an interactive movie, it’s a simple 3D beat-em-up of the kind once ubiquitous at arcades. But an interest in the past does not make The Quiet Man a love letter to video game history, and its ideas are poorly realized.
The Quiet Man boasts a formal conceit that is at least moderately interesting. You play as a svelte blonde 20-something named Dane, who is deaf, and as a consequence the game is almost totally silent. You hear only the muffled patter of footfalls while walking, some indistinct notes of synthesizer to represent voices, and a faint patina of generic ambience elsewhere. The marketing materials describe this as an effort to allow the player to “experience the world in the way Dane does.” But we clearly do not experience the world as Dane does. Dane reads lips; he communicates extensively and effortlessly with every character he encounters. So why are these conversations not subtitled? In one lengthy scene of dialogue after another, people talk with Dane, presumably advancing the story. Meanwhile, we have no earthly clue what’s being said or what’s going on.
This sort of inexplicable design is entirely typical of The Quiet Man. It’s difficult to understand so much of what transpires. Consider an early narrative sequence in which Dane meets either a colleague or a friend–the relationship was not apparent to me and only gets more confusing over the course of the story–and converses with him in his office. In a series of mundane closeups the other man speaks as Dane nods along, rapt; the nature of their discussion is opaque, and their performances, amateurish and hammy, are abysmal. You can imagine this scene being staged in such a way that the content would be clear even without sound or subtitles. The Quiet Man doesn’t even try.
When these mystifying, interminable full-motion-video scenes at last end, the actors are switched out for crudely animated substitutions, many of whom bear such a poor resemblance to their real-life counterparts that it is frequently unclear who’s who. It’s never hard to pick out Dane in the heat of battle, though, because he’s the only one who’s white. The endless procession of villainous henchmen you’re asked to brutally dispatch are uniformly latino, broad caricatures of “cholos” in street-gang garb who sneer at you between pummellings. You fight them pretty much exclusively throughout. The political implications of the game’s demographic makeup are appalling, in this fraught time of wall-building especially, and the end result is plainly, unforgivably racist.
In any case, it’s quite fitting for the enemies to be the same cliched type repeated ad nauseam, because repetitiveness is the very nature of The Quiet Man’s beat-em-up combat system. Brawling has what might generously be described as an arcade-like simplicity: one button to punch, one to kick, and one to dodge, plus a finishing move that can be triggered on occasion. It would be more accurate to call this rudimentary. Almost every battle boils down to a dull frenzy of button-mashing, as enemies rarely block, scarcely fight back, and practically never come at you more than one at a time. Though waves of 10 or even 20 must be defeated to clear a given room, they don’t change their approach or vary their style, and mostly seem to stand around awaiting their turn to be vanquished. There’s no way to vary your own attacks, either, which gives every encounter the air of a chore.
Boss battles aren’t much different in terms of character or technique. They distinguish themselves instead in terms of overwhelming difficulty. I almost never lost a fight in the course of regular gameplay; each of the handful of boss battles, though, kept me stuck for a long time, as I labored through dust-ups with enemies that seemed absurdly overpowered and virtually invulnerable to damage. Worse than simply losing these battles was how consistently vague they proved to be. Seldom is it apparent why you might be losing a fight. The game doesn’t track damage or show the enemy’s health, and it’s never certain whether your hits are landing or registering much effect–hitboxes are indistinct and attacks almost always clip through bodies, which makes the whole process feel at once feeble, confusing, and outrageously imprecise.
Simplistic, ungainly combat is all the more surprising given that it is The Quiet Man’s only gameplay mechanic. From beginning to end there is nothing else to do — no places to navigate, no items to collect, no weapons to wield, no puzzles to solve. It’s just those same mind-numbing punches and kicks broken up by extended narrative scenes that by virtue of the enforced silence you can’t hope to follow or understand. The broad contours of the plot are vaguely discernible: the drama involves childhood trauma, a seedy metropolitan underbelly, various acts of conspiracy and revenge. As for the details, it’s impossible to say. The game’s final moments tease an upcoming addition that will allow you to play it through a second time with the sound restored. This feels like both a preposterous cop-out–it’s walking back the main conceit!–and a cruel punishment. With sound the story will surely make more sense. But having suffered through The Quiet Man once, I can’t bear to try it again.