Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe has seen several cinematic incarnations, from Humphrey Bogart's seminal portrayal in The Big Sleep (1946), to Elliot Gould's minimalist Marlowe in Robert Altman's bizarre interpretation of The Long Goodbye (1973). Private Eye from Byron Preiss Multimedia is the first attempt to bring the cynical PI to an interactive environment, and it succeeds in re-creating the hard-boiled atmosphere of the novel it is based on, Chandler's The Little Sister. Unfortunately, Private Eye leaves a great deal to be desired as a game.
Private Eye falls into the trappings of almost every interactive movie , unsteadily treading a thin line between a linear narrative structure and an experience controlled by the player. If the designers had stuck to the first option, creating a sort of living storybook for grown-ups, then they would have had something really great on their hands. The minimal animation - which looks like a cross between Dick Tracy comics and The Dig from LucasArts - is excellent, as is the original jazz score. And - surprise, surprise - the voice acting is top-notch, especially the voice of our hero, which never resorts to the Bogie impression one might expect. The game is made more enjoyable by the continual barrage of Marlowe-isms - such as during an interview with an aspiring actress caught up in the seediness of '30s-era Hollywood, when he sums up her character with a deadpan, "She looked about as hard to get as a haircut."
The technical achievements are undermined, however, by the almost total lack of any so-called "game." Long stretches of animation are interrupted by the opportunity to make minor decisions, not unlike the film sections of the last two Wing Commander games. The scene stops, and Marlowe confronts you with an opportunity: "I could ask him about this-and-that, or I could ask him about such-and-such." And of course, you constantly wish you could do the sensible thing, which would be both. But such are the limitations of Private Eye, and so you press on, never sure if you're making any headway because you're never asked to make any deductive decisions. It's always "should I take this incredibly valuable clue, or should I leave it?" or "Where should I go next?" when there's really only one sensible option. And in the end, the interactive elements became a tedious obstruction in the otherwise enjoyable experience, and I found myself wishing I could just set the thing on autopilot and have it tell me the story.
What made Chandler's Marlowe stand apart from similar hard-boiled creations was that his cynicism was always the result of an inherent optimism. Despite his tough-guy demeanor, he was always giving people the benefit of the doubt, and time and time again the world let him down. I sympathized with Marlowe while playing Private Eye - wanting desperately to enjoy it, but left feeling ultimately empty and disappointed.