Majestic: Everything Old is New Again

Editor’s note: This article was written by me and originally published in the Online Community Report in 2001.  OCR went on hiatus in 2004, and when it came back in 2006 only a few of its old archived articles remained on the site.  With their permission, I am republishing this article on this site for historical interest, along with a new epilogue explaining where the story is today.

Shadowy conspiracies. Sinister plots. Deadly consequences. Since the tragic events of September 11, we’ve all had to quickly become used to the idea of such things crashing uninvited into our everyday lives. The idea of volunteering for such an experience, then, may seem like unlikely fodder for entertainment – and yet that’s exactly what Electronic Arts is attempting with their daring, experimental online game, Majestic.

The idea behind Majestic is simple: the player must join with other players around the world to unravel a set of secret, mysterious plots involving many of the standard elements of fringe conspiracy theories from the last twenty years (UFOs, CIA mind control, etc.). As the player delves deeper into the plot, the game supplements the interactions with other players with a range of automatically generated communications, including phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and instant messages. These provide key plot points and hints to the mystery, as well as creating an overall atmosphere unlike any other you’ve experienced – just wait until you get your first message on your answering machine from someone threatening to kill you, and you’ll know what I mean.

In theory, then, this would seem to be an exciting new type of online community – a group brought together to collaboratively build their own gaming experience, partly through puzzle-solving, partly through role-playing. Of course, as we all know, things rarely are in truth what they would seem to be in theory. So does Majestic live up to its promise?

What do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Gameplay in Majestic is streamlined to the extreme. The player downloads and installs a small application, Majestic Alliance, which resides in the Windows system tray. This is the central hub for all game activity; it manages your contacts, keeps track of clues you’ve discovered and puzzles you’ve solved, and allows you to do basic account maintenance. While you’re running Alliance, you must also run AOL’s Instant Messenger client. This is because IM plays an important role in the game, as we shall see.

Once the Alliance client is installed and running, the next step is… to wait. That’s right, to wait; Quake this ain’t. Over time, pieces of evidence start arriving in your Alliance in-box regarding what at first appears to be an accidental fire at the headquarters of the game’s developers, Anim-X. Bit by bit, though, it becomes apparent that the fire at Anim-X might not be accidental after all…

The most striking thing about this first experience with Majestic is the way the game surrounds you with fictional but seemingly real characters. The first of these that you meet are the staff of Anim-X, some of whom are immediately killed off in the fire and others who begin to react to the evidence presented in their own ways and according to their own agendas. You meet these characters through the multimedia elements of the game: streaming video clips ostensibly from their Webcams, faxes, phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages.

It is this last that element, the instant messaging, that is the game’s most powerful interface innovation. You know, intellectually speaking, that you’re chatting with nothing more than a mere scripted bot, a kind of pumped-up ELIZA for the 21st century; but it still has a surreal quality to be exchanging messages with such a bot in this format, which, even though it is very young, we’ve come to associate with a direct, unintermediated connection to another person’s thoughts. I found myself reflecting more than once as the game unfolded on how personal, even intimate, instant messaging really is; if Marshall McLuhan was correct when he proclaimed that the medium is the message, IM is a medium whose message is that it is possible to exchange ideas with another human being without annoying barriers like skulls getting in the way. Participating in such an exchange with a well-written bot is a strange sensation indeed, reminiscent of astronaut Dave Bowman’s interactions with the chatty yet chillingly murderous computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This feeling of unreality is compounded by the way Majestic makes the player search for clues that are scattered around the Web. There are URLs galore slung around in this game, some for real, pre-existing sites, others for sites that were set up specifically for the purposes of the game. The designers did their jobs well enough that’s often difficult to tell the difference; you’ll find yourself more than once staring at a site and wondering if it’s real or if, just behind its normal-looking facade, lurks another meaning altogether.

Falling Down on the Job

Now, all this may sound quite unique, and at first it is; but once the new-car smell fades, you begin to notice the imperfections under the hood. First and foremost, this game is slow. I mean this not in the traditional sense of the software performing badly. Rather, I mean that interactions and clues are doled out at a maddeningly stingy pace; one a day is a pretty good clip, and often there will be days at a time when the player is placed on “Standby” mode. This might not be such a flaw if there were other things to do while on Standby. Unfortunately, however, there aren’t. Majestic is extremely linear; you solve puzzles one at a time, each solution leading to the next problem. Now, you puzzle-lovers might think this sounds like heaven; all that time to cogitate over a difficult problem! Alas, Majestic manages to blow this too: if you spend more than a day or so on a puzzle, the game will start e-mailing you hints to the solution, growing increasingly more explicit until after about two days it’s giving it away. For those of us who work during the day, this can have the effect of ruining the puzzles; you come home at the end of the day to find that the puzzle you put an hour into last night has its solution sitting in your in-box.

Most disappointingly, the much-vaunted online community aspect of Majestic is, frankly, non-existent. It is true that the Alliance application links you to other Majestic players, but these players are all at different points in the game’s linear structure than you are, so it’s difficult to team up with them in any meaningful fashion. The puzzles are all constructed in such a way so that solo players can solve them without assistance, so there’s no incentive to reach out to one’s fellow player, either; you can play the game on your own just fine, thank you very much. This is perhaps the most mystifying design decision of all. Why build an application that’s designed from the ground up to live on the Internet, and then not connect the users to each other? To its credit, Majestic makes some nods in the direction of online community; you can add other players to your Alliance window at will, and there’s a button to invite your friends to play along with you via e-mail. But these gestures are undermined by the very fact that they are completely optional – folks who work together get no benefit over folks who work alone, save perhaps solving the puzzles a bit faster.

Contrast this for a moment with the vibrant online communities that have sprung up around action games like Quake III Arena and Half-Life, both of which feature online multiplay prominently (indeed, Quake III has no single-player component worth speaking of). For both these games, users have formed elaborate structures of “clans”, where teams of players practice their own tactics and strategies offline together, and then take them to the online game to unleash upon their opponents. These communities have sprung up because there is a direct incentive for players to bond together; one player alone can never achieve the dominance in the game (or the reputation that goes with that dominance) that a well-coordinated team can. Compared to this, Majestic‘s support for online communities looks pretty anemic.

Less Revolution, More Reinvention

In fact, once all is said and done, the whole package feels less like an avant-garde experiment for the Internet age than it does an almost-forgotten genre of computer game: the adventure game. In these games, the player (almost always single-handedly) guided an avatar through a series of increasingly difficult puzzles presented in the framework of a narrative. Outstanding examples of this genre, like Sierra’s King’s Quest series, LucasArts’ Monkey Island series, and almost all of the groundbreaking text adventures published by Infocom, explicitly took their as their inspiration the idea of providing a game experience that felt like being inside a well-written book. Even though Majestic falls down in its stated goal of being a whole new kind of game, when looked at in another way – the old single-player adventure game, reinvented for the age of the Web – it starts to look pretty decent again after all. It’s just not the revolution that EA has proclaimed it to be.

So does Majestic‘s failure to carve out a whole new genre mean that it’s impossible to do so using the ideas and technologies it applies? Not at all. It’s not hard to imagine a future game much like Majestic, but with better facilities for player matchmaking (matching by progress level would be a good start), puzzles that required team interaction to solve, and multiple plot threads, so that when one slacked off for a little while the players could pick up another at their leisure. When that game comes along, we’ll have a revolution on our hands. Until then, though, we can have a glimpse of that future revolution through the flawed lens that is Majestic.

EPILOGUE (December 13, 2006): Majestic didn’t last long; after lukewarm sales and facing a hostile audience after September 11, EA shut the game down in 2002.  Despite its flaws, in some ways its biggest problem was that it was too far ahead of its time; my call for a game that offered “better facilities for player matchmaking, puzzles that required team interaction to solve, and multiple plot threads” sounds a lot like today’s biggest online game, World of Warcraft, and the idea of distributing the game in small “episode” chunks is a trend that recently has become very popular in gaming (Half-Life 2‘s developers, for example, have gone episodic in a big way).

Oh, and Majestic inspired this too — “Our New Office Pastime is Messing With the Guy Who Plays Majestic“:

Crenshaw tipped the waiter at our local Chinese restaurant $20 bucks to lean over and whisper to Frank in the middle of lunch. “The crane strikes swiftest with one leg upright,” he whispered. Then: “Don’t … order … the Kung Pao chicken…” He looked side to side and scurried off.

When he wasn’t looking, Reggie swapped his fortune cookie with one that said “Douglas Matthews dies tonight.” Frank hardly touched his food.