Jurassic Park: Trespasser was supposed to be the most revolutionary shooter of 1997 and instead became the biggest disappointment of 1998. Most computers at the time couldn’t even run it and the game, over-time and over-budget, failed to meet the expectations of anyone. An image of my time playing it emerges as the perfect demonstration both of its failure and frustration: a velociraptor, glitching into view by a weird hobble, passing beneath an obvious trap where you’re supposed to shoot a jeep off a rock and onto its head, and after doing so spinning out within the jeep’s polygons in an animation that irreparably freezes the game such that the frame you’re staring at when you have to turn your computer off is a sign that appears, saying, “No thanks required. The pleasure was all ours. Max and Steven Spielberg.”
But does being terrible make it less revolutionary? So much of this game has trickled down into the memories of new and better creators that for Jurassic Park’s 25th anniversary this year, I’m quite serious when I say that everyone should play it.
John Hammond spared no expense turning his excessive childlike imagination into living dinosaurs, which he then placed in an ecosystem whose fractal uncertainty broke a pleasure-park down into primeval death traps and well-meaning disaster. Each dinosaur was a functional whole and a valid creation, but the sum of the system frayed into chaos not present in its parts.
There could never be a more appropriate Jurassic Park game than one that, instead of turning Hammond’s desperate spat of misdirected godliness into a pristine story simulator or park management game, actually emulates it in the very design philosophy that can take good creations and force chaos to emerge from them. Trespasser never takes function to heart when it designs all the things it desires to have in its park. Hammond was hours away from his T-Rex devouring his tax attorney when he mused about the soundtrack he was going to have in the park’s introduction video. Lead designer Seamus Blackley, whose degree was in physics, stuffed Trespasser with scientific and aesthetic oddities like the jeep trap while de-prioritizing function with every whimsical half-baked advancement in technology. The game inevitably emerges from its program to devour the player with a special kind of anarchy that we can’t program when we try.
This anarchy, of the player retaining absolute freedom but no choice, stalks you moment-to-moment in Trespasser. Every tiny encounter contains that unattainable realism that No Man’s Sky could not achieve with all its shiny promises. But Trespasser proves how foolish a goal that really is, by achieving it with such blatant incompetence.
They could not have purposely designed the best parts of Trespasser, the absurdity emergent in each moment like a version of MYST that occasionally degrades into Octodad. Your true task in Trespasser is to conquer the physics engine. Your arm, controlled with the mouse, flails around and into objects with the promise of platformer puzzling, immersive gunplay, and realistic object manipulation. You have to clench and unclench your hand, turn your wrist, move arm muscles separately (to control this one arm, DreamWorks Interactive might have considered a controller layout more similar to Steel Battalion). I shudder to think that the game’s prototype tried to manage both arms at once.
The weirdest thing about all this physical rigmarole is that it’s kind of engrossing. Given a gun and abandoned on an island, most of us wouldn’t become Master Chief and paint the ruins with the blood of our enemies. A real physical enemy would approach the actual object of the gun in our hand, turn our wrist out as we fumble to regain control of our senses, smack our arm into a tree, make us drop the gun, and eat our face. Helplessness is a real factor in Trespasser that other games are too busy empowering couch potatoes to really bother with, and though the game isn’t designed as survival horror, the action in its levels each feel as desperate as a surprise encounter in a haunted house.
One reason Trespasser manages to be frightening (as a child, I remember the game positively seething with unknown dangers, like it was out to get me) is that despite lacking functionality, it amends gaps in the realism of other games. For instance, the location of your gun in a typical FPS is a convenient abstraction – it’s located somewhere within your chest, yet is always the same distance from your body no matter how close you get to a wall. In Trespasser, the gun is an object in the world that you have to physically manipulate independently of automatic mechanics. You have to meticulously pick it off the ground and get it steady. The simplest task is soul-crushing in Trespasser, which those who like Battlefield would call “boring” and those who like flight simulators would call “a good effort.”
It’s not merely broken, since you can get better at it. But you can also pick up a baseball bat and be thankful that you didn’t kill yourself this time by reaching at it from the wrong angle and clubbing yourself in the kidney. Puzzles in Trespasser are always challenges of mechanics – trying to push a code into a keypad with an actual extended finger, or creating a plank bridge by lifting and laying things just so. It’s so wonky that for us non-athletic folks it approaches feeling real.
This surrogate reality, of details and no functions, is what makes Trespasser so special. Its power to immerse you in its rules with whimsical advancements in technology defies every game that tried to do so with accessibility. No game has been so good at being bad.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org