Empty cells. That’s not exactly what the unoccupied rooms at Daedalic look like. But open a door off the square of corridors that makes up their Hamburg HQ, and there’s a good chance you’ll be met by nothing but whitewashed walls and the memories of projects like Goodbye Deponia and The Whispered World.
The men and women of Germany’s premier adventure game developer are not numerous enough to fill every room of their offices - instead rotating between projects, filling fresh spaces with PCs and Doctor Who posters. But eventually they’ll return to those empty rooms, covering their walls with ideas and carpeting their floors with noise.
They’ve done the same to San Francisco's famous prison - refilling its whitewashed cells with convicts, its visitor’s room with shrill family drama, and its lunch hall with the low murmur of illicit conversation. They’ve restored it to the way we might imagine it was 60 years ago, and planted the player behind the eyes of an inmate intent on pointing and clicking and puzzling his way off The Rock.
It’s probably the most traditional of the adventure games Daedalic currently have in development - but for a mechanical conceit that allows it beyond the walls of its no-chance security prison and onto the streets of ‘50s ‘Frisco.
Throughout 1954: Alcatraz, you’ll alternately control two halves of a young couple - Joe, jailed for armed robbery and suspected by his bunkmates of having stashed substantial ill-gotten earnings away on the outside. And Christine, his wife - an artist, writer and scenester with what Daedalic call a “highly flexible sense of ethics”.
Joe’s sentence is long, and both are acutely aware that they might spend their best years apart. They therefore take a hands-on approach to resolving their predicament - less hand-wringing and appealing to boards, more forging documents and hatching escape plans.
These aren’t natural born crooks, however. Joe has a straightforward manner that renders him instantly likeable - probably undeservedly. Combined with Christine’s dry wit and cultural nous, the pair recall Broken Sword’s George and Nico - capable counterparts in a life-threatening situation.
The two games don’t play dissimilarly - San Francisco’s scenes (or screens, in adventure genre terminology) are mostly static: locations to be scoured more than once for tools and clues.
But Alcatraz’s trick is to let you switch between characters at any point, rather than when directed to. Flicking between perspectives is a simple matter of pressing a button, functionally identical to Double Fine’s Broken Age - but Daedalic’s two worlds are rather more directly linked than Schafer’s.
Puzzles in Alcatraz are often solved from both sides of the prison walls. In one early sequence, Joe is locked away in solitary and Christine is required to work the warden to get him out. Meanwhile, Joe muses about guard patrol times and ‘taking a walk’ - suggesting that he too will play a part in the solution.
“In some cases, you get stuck with Joe and he has no way to get out. In other situations there’s something Christine needs from Joe, because he’s the only one who knows where the money is,” elaborates Daedalic designer Matt Kempke. “They have to rely on each other, although they don’t [physically] meet until a very important scene in the game.”
Tackling a problem from two angles is a mechanically intriguing prospect - though it seems Alcatraz will stop short of offering two possible routes to the same outcome.
Nevertheless, it’s a clever and simple workaround to that age-old adventure game problem - getting stuck with no apparent tools to hand. Switching from the island to San Fran and back again won’t solve your puzzles for you. But it will reliably open up the game with new challenges - letting the existing jigsaw jumble about at the back of your brain, where they’re so often put together.