Added to the lair: 9/2/22
A game about time
Similarly to past instances, Virtual Nightclub is the kind of game that I started this project for in the first place - weird, obscure stuff that's seemingly lost to time. But despite being a decidedly interesting curio piece, unfortunately it's not quite for me.
I'd like to thank user Elphive for bringing the game to my attention and motivating me to push forward with this release. He took it upon himself to do an insane deep-dive on this oddity, and went as far as to create an exhaustive guide which is included and I would highly recommend consulting it if you wish to avoid a fair bit of frustration. It also provides quite a bit of history and context for the production as well which I found very interesting. Seriously, check it out. Hats off. Because of all the work he's put into this, I wanted to give him the opportunity to share his own thoughts on the game here:
VNC might be one of the strangest games I've ever played. Created over the course of three years at Philips in London, this game all but bankrupted their games division after the fall of the CD-i, was remade twice, cancelled, sold, revived, and then sold exclusively mail-order via the Sci-Fi Channel and a website no one's ever heard of.
The end result is an absolute fever dream. Nonsense mechanics, a completely incomprehensible plot, copious branding absolutely everywhere, and five-second snippets of drum'n'bass classics blasting your ears in. All this with some of the most surreal, insane vintage CGI I've ever seen, with badly comped in actors stumbling around awkwardly at dutch angles. Add in everything your mother told you never to put in a video game, and you've got VNC.
I kind of love it, in that "bad-movie" kind of way. It's incredibly clunky and awkward to control, sure, but the game is just so twisty and out there that it's something you have to see to believe. The idea that 4 major brands and 12 record labels signed off on this makes it all the more incomprehensible, and just fascinating. Combine that with the surreal mid-90s atmosphere, chock full of the era's design cliches, and you have one of the most fascinatingly weird experiences ever put on a CD-ROM.
And for all its quirks, awkwardness, and general weird choices, the game is incredibly dense - both with a staggering amount of in-game lore, and with shocking amounts of references and clips from real-life people and events. Buried within this game are 8 music videos, an unreleased song by a top-charting UK dance group, a 38-song soundtrack of licensed music (which you can play on demand via the in-game Waves), and almost an hour of video and audio interviews from various tech entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists.
You could easily play this game for a year and still not see everything, because of the sheer amount of stuff packed within its corners. The walkthrough only covers about half of what you can do in this game, and there are still tons of puzzles, mysteries, and stories to solve if you want to get deeper into it. In addition, the beta version has an almost completely different set of puzzles and mechanics, including several games cut and changed from the final version. However, it is much more unstable, and features some temp VFX and art which can make navigation even more difficult.
I strongly recommend taking a look at the manual before you play - it lays out the basic goals of the game, controls, and some hints on key items. (Its art is just as twisty as the main game, however, so I've also provided a plain-text version for improved readibility.)
I've also put together a walkthrough and history book called the Unofficial Visitor's Guide. It provides some backstory on the game's development, as well as a full guide to beating the final version of the game with screenshots and minigame tips. (Special thanks to raVen for help with the art.) More additions to this guide, including a walkthrough of the beta version, will be provided at some point next year in the guide's second edition.
So, to sum it all up - this game is a strange nightmare of a title, weird and confusing and surreal with a thousand different pieces plunked together. But there's something just so unusual and unique about it that it's definitely worth taking a look. (Even if that just involves laughing at the insane FMV, this game shouldn't just be forgotten.)
As for me, as I've mentioned in the past, I'm something of a cinephile, and I would equate my reaction to VNC to that of certain films. I like slow-burn horror. If I see "A24" on the box, I'll probably watch it, and chances are I'll really enjoy it. A lot of them could be characterized as art-house and I could understand how they could be off-putting or just outright boring for some, but when they work for me, they really work. Paradoxically though it's a genre where I find myself regularly wrestling with a thin, fuzzy, and arguably arbitrary line, between films that I could easily consider some of my an all-time favorites and ones that I violently detest. I think that's because it's a genre that can so easily devolve into self-indulgent pretentious drivel. The divide between the good and bad is, as I said, probably largely arbitrary. If someone had, for example, Hereditary, The Witch, Mother, and the remake of Suspiria in front of them, they could easily make comparisons between them as there's certainly some similarities on display. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of people fell into camps of either hating or loving all of them. But for me, Hereditary and The Witch are well within the great camp while Mother and Suspiria (2018) are deep in the "I hate this movie" pile. There's a hard to identify quality that pushes them just a bit over the threshold to a point where elements that are otherwise similar to those in films that I enjoy suddenly really rub me the wrong way. They reach a point where certain directing or storytelling choices just come across as so self-indulgent and masturbatory that some switch flips in my head and it just becomes a miserable experience for me.
Such is the reaction that VNC evokes in me when, truthfully, it's not that far off in terms of weirdness factor or aggressively unorthodox design choices from those in say Gadget - a not-quite-game that I really enjoy. I think it's that I came away feeling like VNC was just obtuse for the sake of being obtuse and so thoroughly unfriendly to the player in terms of being even remotely intuitive that it reached a point that I found myself getting pissed off at it. The minigames are often tedious and frustrating. The dialogue and story often come across as incoherent - not helped by the fact that there are no subtitles. Navigating the world is often unnecessarily confusing. And perhaps most unfortunate of all is the fact that I find a great deal of the music - which is a front and center part of the experience here - to be on the fairly grating side (exacerbated by its bad habit of drowning out the dialogue). These sort of issues just go on and on. The game is seemingly hellbent on being impenetrable. It's like the textbook definition of how not to design a game. It's unfortunate because in many ways this should be right up my alley - it's weird, it's a point-and-click adventure, it has FMV, it's cyberpunk, it's extremely 90s, everything looks like Trapper Keeper: The Video Game... but it just doesn't quite click for me.
With all that said, does that mean that I don't think that it's something worth taking a look at? No. I wouldn't have invested the time and energy to put this release together if I really thought that. There is clearly a lot of creativity and talent on display here, even if the end result is a bit too wonky for my taste. I think if you're the right person - and if you're here that makes you more likely than most - you might really enjoy Virtual Nightclub. For me, it's just a bit too far off the deep end for me to enjoy.