Last week, a mysterious glossy cardboard box appeared on my desk. Decorated with faux mystical runes vaguely reminiscent of ancient cuniform emblazoned upon Assyrian desert sandstone, the box held the kind of archeological adventure mystique so carefully created in the Indiana Jones movies.
Other than an Atlanta, Ga., return address, there was no indication as to what resided within.
Intrigued, I opened the box later that day, and was welcomed to the mystical world of The Lost Island of Alanna, a CD ROM game that promised beautiful landscapes, mind-bending puzzles, and grand adventure. Along side the installation instructions and the CD itself was a bottle of Cherry Coke.
Then it dawned on me: There would be nothing mystical about this experience. It was all a clever marketing ploy designed by Coca Cola to get a zillion kids playing a game that would require them to drink lots of artificially-flavored syrup. As a matter of fact, according to the so called "game experts" behind The Lost Island of Alanna, this entertainment is the "first to integrate a CD ROM game, the Internet, and product packaging of its kind."
It turns out that the marketing geniuses at Coca Cola have designed thirty-two different labels for Cherry Coke this summer. Each design will have symbols hidden in its graphics which can be used as clues to solve the game's various puzzles. Just as Microsoft has been reviled for their integration of the browser in the operating system, be prepared to grumble and gripe at Coca Cola. The keys to this game have been bundled in Cherry Cokes you'll need to "collect" (i.e. BUY) to get through Alanna.
In addition, the cherrycoke.com website will supposedly be a repository for additional hints and clues, though I couldn't find anything worthwhile there at press time.
That's right, I played the game, and that's strange for me as I generally don't use my computers for gaming of any kind. But in the name of journalistic duty, I took the plunge.
The mountainous landscapes in Lost Island of Alanna are attractive, but not extraordinary. The tech guys who work one room over are gaming maniacs, so I know what computer landscapes can be. My machine is decent-a P166 with 32 megs of RAM-but apparently it wasn't enough for Alanna. It's not even a full-motion game, but the transitions between the static scenes were sluggish.
Apparently there's a downloadable upgrade which improves performance on the cherrycoke.com website. Even so, participants in one discussion list claim that it crashes their machines, leading one to suggest "Coke should stay out of the software business."
The first puzzle presented in Alanna is a gate which requires you to click on a series of levers in a certain sequence. I clicked randomly a few times, and the gate opened. Thereafter, I encountered several dead ends ("There is nothing interesting beyond the trees").
Picking up tools along the way, I eventfully came across the next puzzle. It's one of those sliding-squares puzzles with one piece missing, where you have to put the pattern together. Solving it gets you a sword!
I spent the next hour trying to figure out how to get a rope out of the tree so I could cross the ravine. The hooked antler wouldn't do it. Nor would the vine or the ball of twine. Or the sword.
More frustrating even was the lack of meaningful failure messages. "Nothing interesting happens" is not only a lousy clue as to what's needed, it's also an unwitting description of Alanna in general.
(Incidentally, if anyone else is struggling with this ravine barrier, a quick Deja News (www. dejanews.com) search came up with the following: "Go to inventory screen. Combine staff, curved antler, and twine into long handled hook. Go back to rope hanging from tree and you can get across." I have no idea where this staff is, though. Nor how to "combine" items.)
In any event, after spending three hours with The Lost Island of Alanna, I'd say that it's a mediocre game at best. I'm sure I'd have gotten further along in the game if I'd succumbed to Coke headquarters' demands and bought 32 liters of Cherry Coke. But there was no chance of that.
As for the integration of CD ROM, website, and product packaging, the game makes for an interesting and innovative approach to marketing. In the materials which accompanied the CD, Coke claims that they're sending the game out to half a million teenagers via direct mail and magazine inserts.
It's also freely downloadable (a whopping 16 megs) at the www.cherrycoke.com.
As probably the biggest trafficker of refined sugar in the world, Coca Cola can afford to hire a game development team and give away hundreds of thousands of CDs. They're banking on the teenage mass-media-watching, sugar-slurping, computer-game-playing demographic.
It's a good gamble, really. I'm sure they'll rake in a few billion on this one. There's even evidence in the online discussion lists that some people really are striving to get Alanna figured out, and the case may be that there's a lot more to the game than I managed to uncover.
Ultimately, my journalistic duty forces me to apologize for not deciphering all the puzzles and exposing all of Allana's mysteries. I'm sure any teenager would have done better. Still, as I double-click the uninstall icon in my "Alanna" directory, I recommend that you pay this promotion less attention than I have.