Remember being a dinosaur-loving kid of the 90s? Collecting all those plastic models and learning their names as if they were Pokémon? Remember then the big event when Jurassic Park finally came to theatres in 1993? Remember the awe, and how we all so desperately wanted to be there, on that island with all our favorite reptiles? Looking up to the colossal Brachiosaurus, scaring the shit out of the fast Galimimus, escaping from the smart and cool Velociraptors? Hell, even getting eaten alive by a Tyrannosaurus wouldn’t have spoiled the deal.
Well, while there have been a number of Jurassic Park games released shortly after the first movie came out, they were all rather arcadey and none of them really succeeded in conveying the scale of the prehistoric beasts. It only took five more years before Trespasser came about, the one game that would fulfill our childhood dreams and trample on them at the same time. Imagine getting stranded on the very beach that was seen in the film sequel The Lost World, slowly making your way into the forest while passing ruins of a former research station, jeeps, buildings, even weapons left by the escaping and the less fortunate ones. Then over a hill encountering the breathtaking sight of two Brachiosaurs towering far into the sky. Imagine how their steps cause the very earth you stand on to shake. Then imagine one of them taking a leap straight into the air, elevating itself to the shoulder height of its peer. Congratulations, you’ve trespassed into a lost world where you sure as hell don’t belong, and yet it’s not unlikely you’ll find yourself strangely drawn in further as you proceed.
Trespasser is most definitely not your average licensed shovelware. For one the developers at the then Stephen Spielberg owned DreamWorks Interactive studios realized what the franchise was all about. Forget the movies’ characters and narrative, all everyone ever cared about was “Holy shit, an island full of real living dinosaurs!” They also were aware that the Lost World would best be discovered inside a simulation as immersive as possible, and thus decided to create one of the first fully functional physics engines in a video game, pushing boundaries of what games could and should be.
Accordingly, the game doesn’t bother at all to follow the story of the movie. The protagonist is just some lady named Anne who gets stranded on the Isla Sorna when her plane crashes. That of course is the island from the second Jurassic Park movie, the secret site B, the Lost World. But except for a few familiar locations the only other element tying the game into the franchise is the voice-over by Richard Attenborough as John Hammond, which are triggered at certain points and reminisce upon how everything went to shit after the events of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It’s not quite established where those comments are coming from, but Anne implies that she can hear them, too, as she uses them to deduct solutions in trying to get away from the island.
The true protagonist, however, isn’t Anne herself, but the rubber chicken she calls a right arm. It is the powerful interface through which to interact with the simulated world. By pressing different buttons together with mouse movements, players get total control over this particular extremity. The most obvious uses are swinging the arm around to grab and drop stuff, but Anne can also bend her wrist and shoulder in all reasonable (and some unreasonable) angles. Small objects can be thrown to get a gun from the high stack of crates. Doors have to be grabbed and pushed open like in real life.
While the arm controls are a fantastic concept, it doesn’t work quite as well as it sounds. Handling heavy objects is extremely annoying, and stacking crates is much, much harder than it should be. Mounted guns are downright impossible to use. There’s also an infinite number of bugs and glitches concerning the physics, ranging from obnoxious to hilarious, as can be seen in numerous montages of spinning doors and flying buildings on YouTube. Yet the fact that everything is bound to the underlying (though glitched) laws of physics compels one to try again and again.
Despite the unique and experimental nature of the program, most of the time players will be handling weapons to defend themselves against the carnivorous dinosaurs. Anne can wave around blunt objects to beat Raptors to death, which works similar to the swordfighting in Treyarch’s Die by the Sword. Guns are more effective and in fair supply, but they also have to be aimed properly (fighting closing-in Raptors with a long-barreled gun is a nightmare, as they keep pushing away the weapon with their heads). Once again physics are applied, so turning around quickly in a narrow doorway may result in Anne dropping her rifle and leaving her defenseless in the most inconvenient situations. It’s also not as hard as one would think to accidentally drop the weapon in the heat of battle by hitting the wrong mouse button. Luckily, Anne can stow away one as a spare. It’s always only one item, no matter whether she holsters a weapon, pockets a keycard or wears a helmet (the latter of which doesn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever).
Hopefull you won’t run out of ammo with the remaining weapon. While Anne counts the bullets to help player keep track (for automatics, she gives a rough estimate), there’s no way to reload, so any weapon with an emptied magazine is garbage. The best Anne can do is to throw them at enemies in hope they get distracted.
Aside from her right arm, the only other part we ever get to see of Anne is her chest. But wait, this is a gameplay relevant feature! Being an immersive simulation and all, Trespasser doesn’t have any on-screen displays whatsoever. But since sometimes players might want to know how close to death they are at any given moment, a heart-shaped tattoo on Anne’s left breast is colored in a gradually deeper red hue as she gets hurt. Rather than dealing with health packs, Anne heals automatically when left alone for a while. (Just in case anyone wondered where not only Halo‘s limitation to two weapons at a time, but also the regenerating health came from.)
The possibility to stare at your own chest, of course, became the cause of much arousal and ridicule, almost overshadowing all of the game’s other features in the media coverage. What most didn’t tell you, however, is the fact that Anne’s boobs are so goddamn enormous that she can’t even look at her own feet. This is a serious problem: Sometimes players will find themselves pushed to try a bit of platforming. While this is already an issue in first person games in general, it gets really problematic when it’s impossible to check how close one is to the ledge.
Not content with pushing the boundaries of physics simulation in games, DreamWorks Interactive also employed ridiculously sophisticated AI for the dinosaurs. Save for the final battle, there is no scripting at all to their behavior, and instead everything is based on a ton of variable parameters. If the T-Rex is really hungry, he might ignore you to hunt down that much more nutritious Triceratops. Some Raptors will try to flee when wounded in a one-on-one fight, but attack fiercely when supported by their pack. Even their animations are based on AI.
In general dinosaurs are made more creepy by actually acting like animals, but the Raptors take a big hit by not being quite the smart and relentless killers shown in the movies. Sometimes they appear more like goofy chickens when they stumble over their own legs as the game once again fumbles over its own ambitions. There are a lot of buildings with complex layouts and narrow hallways that would invite a chase like the one with the kids in the first movie, but for some reason the Raptors in the game won’t enter a building even when trying to lure them in, so you can shoot them like sitting ducks from within. (Wow, two fowl comparisons in one paragraph. Don’t forget people, actual Velociraptors were feathered.) They sure as hell can’t open doors. This is made even worse by one mockup screenshot from the back of the box that shows Anne throwing a chair at a raptor at close quarters inside a room. Yeah, look at this exciting stuff you’re not going to experience!
Speaking of the interiors, in some places one finds the strangest things, but a lot of them feel really empty. The point may be that they’re abandoned and the game means to create a desolate atmosphere, but many buildings appear rather as if they have never been used. This is somehow supported by the narration of the staff having calmly abandoned the facilities instead of fleeing or being wiped out, but as a player, when one gets the feeling that there should be more, that is never a good thing. It also raises some uncomfortable questions, like why everyone took all their stuff with them, only kindly leaving their weapons lying around. Fully loaded.
The game does have a number of interesting environment puzzles, though. Some are quite obvious, like the car dangling above a cliff while a Raptor approaches through the valley, sometimes it’s just a keycard that needs to be found. More complicated ones involve knocking down a trailer to create a path, or finding a way into the compound with Hammond’s villa and the abandoned offices. Some of these can be approached with different solutions. Awesome setpieces like a jump down a waterfall or finding a mercenary’s hidden stack of weapons help sustain a player’s attention in between the duller moments. At least for the first two thirds of the game. Towards the end, there’s an awful lot of inevitable fighting, and the clumsy combat system changes from intriguingly difficult to plainly annoying. The setups become also less believable as it goes on. In the beginning, every encounter feels like one has trespassed into the hunting grounds of a wild animal. The last stage is just a barren mountain crawling with Raptors (quite a sight to behold from below, actually) because someone wanted a lot of action in the finale.
The worst failure of Trespasser, however, is how it drops the ball on the dinosaurs. First of all, for a game that should be all about bringing the fascination of the movie to an interactive experiencem there are not many of them at all. Aside from the obligatory Raptors and T-Rex, the only other carnivore is one single Albertosaurus, hyped up as more dangerous than the former but actually disposed of quite easily. For peaceful dinosaurs there’s the aforementioned Brachiosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. While that sounds like a decent enough selection, there’s literally only two or three of them of each in the whole game, along with seven T-Rexes and a couple hundreds of Raptors of three differently textured tribes. There is some slight dissonance in this biotope.
The herbivores are all really dull and boring, too. Try what one might to piss off the Stegosaurus in hope to see it attempt to impale Anne’s head with its spiky tail, there’ll be no response. The game clearly misses out on the most interesting dinosaurs from the movies, and unless it’s Raptors, there are never more than two dinosaurs in any given location, quite a stretch from the early target renders, which caught attention with whole herds on a vast, open plain. While a Galimimus stampede was likely made impossible by the technical limitations of the time, there’s also no (fictional) venom spitting Dilophosaurus, no hordes of tiny and pesky Compsognathus and no bullheaded Pachycephalosaurus, only the same old Raptors over and over again.
Other issues with its presentation are strictly due to performance concerns. There’s some reasonable amount of fog everywhere (but nowhere near as much as in Turok), and the game does some crazy form of mipmapping where every object more than a couple dozen feet away is rendered into a horribly pixellated caricature of itself. But wide and open outside terrains weren’t something 3D games usually did at the time, so keeping that in mind Trespasser‘s graphics were actually quite impressive in 1998. Now there are fan-made patches that at least deactivate the mip-mapping, which is enough to make the game look significantly better.
Counterintuitive to the game’s attempted overall feel of freedom and openness, it is clearly divided into separate stages, with no opportunity to go back after the jump. In the beginning the level design goes out of its way to make those borders plausible, but towards the end some transitions don’t seem to make any sense, suggesting whole stages got cut near the end of development. The game also tries to have some big cinematic moments with cued music, but due to the open nature it doesn’t quite work, and big dramatic tunes occasionally start to play at the most inappropriate times.
To a degree, Trespasser‘s problems certainly can be attributed to executive meddling – the game had already missed the release of the movie it was supposed to tie into by more than a year, and the big shots surely were nervous that the movie might have been forgotten completely by the time the game would come out. (An understandable fear, given how forgettable a sequel The Lost World was.) There’s no doubt that the game was pushed out to the market before it was finished, but actually Trespasser is the kind of game that is never quite finished, far too ambitious for its own good. At one point the developers were planning to implement control of both arms, which would have opened a whole new barrel of worms. A while ago an early beta of the game leaked, which contained – besides a silly testing area in a desert – another whole level cut from the game in a pine grove. Also, two thirds of Anne’s 3D model had completely different texturing back then and were even bigger than in the final version. Here’s a hint: It’s not the arm.
Trespasser is a game that really could only come to be in a magical time and place. Ultimately collapsing in and of itself, it is also one of the most fascinating commercial games ever published. It was also ahead of its time in so many respects that it serves as a marker of what first person games would eventually evolve into, as it is full of “They don’t make ’em like that, anymore” moments, especially concerning its free, unscripted nature. Although the game understandably never was a huge success, there exists a small but persistent fandom even today, most of which gathers at TresCom and its hosted sites.
Postmortem: DreamWorks Interactive’s Trespasser at Gamasutra.
Research Indicates’ legendary Let’s Play of the game.