Normality is Interplay and Gremlin Interactive’s 1996 graphic adventure. The box proclaims that this is “An adventure like nothing you’ve seen before.” This is quite a hefty proclamation, and unfortunately Normality does not deliver on it. While striving to be a break from the norm, Normality is more normal than it wants to be.
The story goes a little something like this. The city of Neutropolis is a polluted, depressing city run by Paul Nystalux and his army of Norms. Norms are the police, and they arrest anyone who behaves in a non-conformist manner and shows even a semblance of free thought. Your alter ego is Kent Knutson, a raspy-voiced non-conformist who’s a cross between a 1990s alterna-rock loving grunge slacker, and a 1960s beatnik. Kent has just completed a seven day sentence in jail for merely whistling a tune he made up himself.
During his sentence, a note was slid under his cell door. It said that there are other non-conformist free thinkers in Neutropolis who want to shake things up. It is up to Kent to find these people and do something about the current state of Neutropolis. However, Kent’s journey is fraught with obstacles, including his own apartment. The Norm officer outside demands that Kent keep his TV on twenty-four hours a day or else he’ll be thrown back into jail. Unfortunately, Kent’s TV doesn’t stay on all the time. How can he keep the TV permanently on so he can make his escape? From that humble beginning, Kent’s adventure to find the rebel faction and liberate Neutropolis from Paul Nystalux’s rule is underway.
On the surface, the plot doesn’t seem all that bad a retelling of your basic ‘small rebel faction versus big evil leader’ plotline, but there are many factors that work against it, the first of which are the characters. Kent is one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve ever met. His over-exaggerated whiny angst and oddly placed enunciations of words got on my nerves quite rapidly. The other protagonists were not much better, either. They were all just a bunch of whiners who made Kent do all the work for their organization.
The supporting cast also got very little dialogue. Thus, none of them were given any semblance of a personality or development, except for Kent, and even he didn’t develop one iota throughout the story’s course. I think another reason for the lack of character development was Normality’s ridiculously short length: I beat this game in a mere two days. At first I felt gypped; I paid money for this game and didn’t get my money’s worth of play time. On the other hand, I don’t think I could’ve taken Kent and his annoying friends for any moment longer. The short length made them bearable.
The characters were made all the worse by their voice actors. If they didn’t have annoying snotty voices, they were grossly miscast. One example of miscasting was for the role of old man Dai. Dai sounded like the Mayor from Powerpuff Girls, which would be fine if he were a moron. But Dai is actually a very wise character and his voice made him sound like a fool. Heather’s voice was the most annoying for me. She sounded like Stan’s sister in South Park, and her voice is quite grating.
Another strike against the story is in the writing. Normality’s script is very simplistic and the writing is quite weak. This is supposed to be a comedic game, but I found the script not funny at all. Kent’s smart-aleck comments to everything were more irritating than funny, and the attempts at jokes in the game were ham-handedly written and so obvious they lost all humor.
For me, the visuals and sound did not make up for the story and character shortcomings. Generally, the environments looked sound and believable in a cartoony sort of way. Normality uses a similar engine to Doom, so the gameplay visuals use 2D spritery to create a first-person pseudo-3D world. The walls and other surrounding environments get very pixelly up close, but from a decent distance look alright.
Play is done from the first-person perspective of Kent. The non-playable character sprites you encounter are quite pixilated, especially up close. You pretty much only encounter them up close since you converse with them rather than blast them from afar. The sprites also have little to no animations. I know this game is five years old, but those sprites did look horrible to me.
I could have forgiven the less-than-stellar spritery if the character designs were appealing. However, I did not find Les Spink’s character designs appealing at all. Kent, in particular, looks like a mess. Galoshes, jean shorts, a pink scarf tied around the waist, a green sleeveless T-shirt, and a brown vest do not go together at all. I can understand Kent’s being a non-conformist, but did Spink have to dress him so badly? And his face, with that orange hair and goatee, is not at all pleasant to look at. I’m certainly glad this game wasn’t presented in a 3rd person perspective so I didn’t have to look at Kent.
There are a bunch of CG FMVs scattered throughout the game. These FMVs use a 3rd person perspective so you can actually see Kent doing things. The FMVs use 3D polygonal models on 3D polygon backdrops. The polygon characters are noticeably blocky and their mouths did not move when they spoke. Basically, these were very good graphics back in 1996, but today they look dated. At least the FMV cutscenes are presented crisply and clearly without a hint of graininess.
As for sounds, there’s nothing special here. I already mentioned the voice acting. There is very little music in the game, and all of it is quite forgettable. The arrangements are simple and use very little instrumentation. It all sounds quite MIDI-ish. The sound effects are good, though, and sound like they’re supposed to. When Kent kicks his TV, it sounds like a guy kicking a TV.
Gameplay is standard fare for the genre. It uses a keyboard/mouse interface. Since this is a first-person game, the arrow keys on the keyboard move Kent in various directions. Page-Up and Page-Down allow Kent to look up and down. You can then glide the mouse pointer over various things in the surroundings. If you happen upon an important item, you’ll see the name of it on the screen. Right-click on it and a Kent voodoo doll will pop up on the screen. By pointing and clicking on different parts of the voodoo doll, you can use, pick up, or examine items, open doors, or talk to NPCs. There are also a bunch of hotkeys on the keyboard you can use for various commands. I preferred to use the voodoo doll since it was easier to use than remembering a bunch of hotkeys. The voodoo doll interface is touted as something cool and unique, but frankly, it’s not much different than any other point-and-click adventure interface.
Like other mainstays in the genre, Kent can collect items and store them in his inventory, which is accessible by clicking the backpack icon on the top-right corner of the screen. Kent can examine items in his inventory, use them, or combine them. Throughout the game’s course, you never have to combine more than two items.
Exploration and puzzle solving are key elements to the genre. Exploration in Normality is quite limited, because the playable environments are both small in number and size. In fact, there are only about eight playable locations. All of them are surprisingly small, and you’ll have them memorized in mere minutes. Also, there were quite a few locations in the game that you could not even go into, such as the playground. It struck me as odd that upon clicking the playground, Kent says something like, “We can’t play there. Paul Nystalux’s orders.” Coming from a non-conformist liberal like Kent, this sounded like a total cop-out.
The puzzles are actually quite well done in Normality. None of them are insultingly easy, and none of them are frustratingly difficult. They were all smoothly integrated into the story. Veterans of the genre will probably blow through this one quite easily, though. Since Kent cannot die and you can never screw up so bad that you get stuck, trial and error will always see you through. What got me, though, is that one puzzle that was mentioned in the hints section of the instruction manual was completely unnecessary and not required to complete the game. Why even have an optional puzzle like that when it doesn’t even make an ounce of difference? Had this puzzle impacted the story, its inclusion would have been warranted.
It’s too bad Normality turned out as sub-par as it did, because the game really did have potential. Just like the RPG with a great battle system stuck in a horrid game, Normality has some clever puzzles integrated into a bad game. Some script revisions, more personable characters, a different character designer, a different set of voice actors, and a deeper, more expansive plotline could have made Normality into the “radical free-thinking utopia” Kent wants Neutropolis to be, rather than the “polluted pit” it is.