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The Independent Culture
HE DOESN'T use the exact phrasing, "Please allow me to introduce myself", but Mephistopheles is a suave old devil to whom we readily warm. If this were a movie, John Lithgow would be perfect in the part. Faust, however, is a computer game that thinks it's a harbinger of a new art form. Although it belongs to the standard games genre of adventure, in which progress depends on solving puzzles, it reaches for dimensions barely registered by the computer games world: good, evil, and the choice between them.

Instead of directing the actions of a fit young warrior with an improbable torso, Faust's players take on the role of an elderly black man, Marcellus Faust, who is the last keeper of a derelict amusement park, somewhere in a mythical America. This is a New World setting for an Old World story. The game was developed by a French-Slovenian partnership, Arxel Tribe, and is issued by the French publisher Cryo Interactive. Goethe is not the first German Romantic from whom this team has drawn inspiration. Last year they produced Ring, an adventure based on Wagner's Ring cycle.

Faust is a considerably more sophisticated creation than the Ring, both visually and structurally. It comprises a sequence of seven stories, or levels, in which players have to complete tasks as characters make their Faustian choices. The same characters crop up throughout the series, and the player gradually builds up a picture of the relations between them as the game progresses. They are driven by grand passions - love, lust, greed, jealousy - and bound by the great moral imperatives; duty and loyalty. In short, for once in the world of digital storytelling games, the characters actually have characters.

They are, however, a troupe that befits this Grand Guignol spectacle: a pair of voluptuous Siamese twins, and the moustachioed tiger-tamer they adore, a dwarf, an English gentleman who engaged in secret wartime activities, and an artist Lothario. The last in the series is Giselle, an obese girl who is offered the possibility of being beautiful for ever. Her eternity will be in a painting, however, and the price will be death.

To reach her, the player needs to surmount an obstacle course of problems that come to seem more fiendish than any of Mephistopheles's propositions. It takes a particular kind of cunning to work out, for instance, that the dials on the posts of a bed need to be set to the latitudes and longitudes revealed by placing a map behind a stained window. Although there's an unofficial website which reveals many of the tricks, the requirement for puzzle intelligence may exclude many people who would otherwise enjoy the themes of Faust.

This is a pity, because this is a computer game for people who aren't impressed by computer games. That much is clear just from the soundtrack, a sleek affair with a cool jazz emphasis, featuring artists such as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Sarah Vaughan; not to mention Mel Torme.

Faust is cinematographic in its use of sound, scene and editing. In the first story, for instance, which unfolds in the twins' caravan, cleverly lit flashbacks hint at terrible events in their past. Yet in spite of this, Faust often feels more like a novel, since the process of examining scenes and searching for clues happens at the player's pace. Going backwards to fathom clues, or re-examining the narrative for hints, is like re-reading passages and flicking back through the pages. But all the best books make you do that.

Faust (Windows, Mac version promised, pounds 35) was reviewed using an Octan M500 from Carrera (0181 307 2800).

You can visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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