By Matthew Kresal
A hundred and ten years ago, a grand ocean liner of the Edwardian era was caught up in fate and circumstances on its maiden voyage, hitting an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic and sinking without enough lifeboats for all aboard her. The Titanic's tragic fate has played out in every form of mass media since that April night in 1912. It's unsurprisingly been the inspiration behind a number of alternate history works, including one that recently celebrated the quarter-century anniversary of its release. The CyberFlix computer game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time put its own alternate history spin on the sinking.
Yet, the 1996 point and click adventure game starts not on the ship but thirty years and thousands of miles away. World War II is raging around Frank Carlson, a former British spy, as he occupies a dingy London flat surrounded by souvenirs and memories, unable to leave without being accosted by his landlady. Reminded of his failure thirty years earlier on the Titanic, Carlson is caught in the explosion of a German bombing raid, propelling him (and the player) back in time for a second chance at completing his mission.
Carlson's mission? Initially, after meeting his Secret Service contact, Penny Pringle, recovering a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that's being used as part of a deal between Imperial German spy Colonel Zeitel and an art dealer, with both men being on board the Titanic. That proves to be just the start of events involving a host of characters with overlapping plots. They range from a necklace owned by Carlson's former love Georgia Lambeth, a notebook carried by Zeitel's young protege Willi von Haderlitz, and military plans attached to a painting by a young Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler.
Yes, this is a game with a bit of everything!
Adventure Out of Time is a spy story, one with two twists. The first is its location and gameplay, taking place entirely on the Titanic in the hours leading up to its slipping beneath the ocean waves. The bulk of the gameplay occurs before the ship hits the iceberg, allowing players to roam the Titanic as the evening wears on and the clock ticks. This portion of the game doesn't take place in real-time, time only moving forward as the player as Carlson completes (or even fails to complete) puzzles and collects items. That changes after Carlson is rendered unconscious shortly after the impact, waking up in his cabin at 1:05 am on the 15th, where the game swaps to real-time, where the player has a chance to retrieve the items one more time and take part in sidequests before the last lifeboat leaves. Together, they allow players to roam the ocean liner, recreated with exquisite attention to detail and with solid graphics for a mid-1990s computer game that used CyberFlix's unique game engine to let the game unfold.
(For those interested in the game's development and history, the 48-minute 2021 documentary The Making of Titanic Adventure Out of Time on YouTube is worth seeking out. YouTuber Rotoscopester dug into a number of archival sources and secured an interview with CyberFlix co-founder and the game's sound designer Scott Scheinbaum. Scheinbaum revealed that, for example, CyberFlix sourced a swatch book from the company that supplied wallpaper used on the Titanic, matching design details from monochrome photographs to it to create the full-color versions in the game. The documentary also reveals how what seemed to be much of the Titanic was apparently modeled in 3D and put onto two CDs for the game. Hint: "apparently" is the operative phrase.)
The other thing that makes Adventure Out of Time stand out, and the topic of this blog post, is its alternate endings that branch off into alternate histories. The game has not one but eight different possible outcomes, the most obvious ones being either leaving the ship with none of the items, allowing history to repeat itself, or never leaving Titanic at all. What the player has when they leave the ship can change the course of history which follows, from the necklace and Rubaiyat preventing World War I to Willie's notebook with its list of names halting the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and the painting making Hitler famous as an artist, thus stopping the rise of the Nazis. All eight endings are collected below, including the "perfect" ending.
Are the endings plausible? Given that the Hitler painting, The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, wasn't painted in reality until 1914, the answer is probably not. Indeed, as the video above attests, all but one of the outcomes leads to generally darker alternatives. The game simplifies things, to be sure, to the point where that painting leaving the Titanic can prevent World War II or Willie's notebook with its list of names can stop the takeover of Russia by the communists. As a result, some of its outcomes (preventing World War I and II but not the October Revolution leading to a communist takeover of all of Europe, including Britain) stretch credulity at times. As historical shorthands, however, and ones intended to make the player go back and attempt to get to the "perfect" ending where the world is at peace, they work within that context. Yet, as games increasingly become a source of historical knowledge, the importance of separating fact from fiction remains paramount, especially where the Titanic is involved.
For all of the alternative endings and pathways that history might unfold, there is one that remains out of reach. No matter what the player as Carlson does, including getting a pair of binoculars to the ship's (fictional) third officer or managing to get onto the bridge to have a go at altering the Titanic's course, the liner always comes to its historical fate. Whatever else happens, either to Carlson for not getting into a lifeboat in time or with the items he does or doesn't have, the Titanic will always hit the iceberg and sink to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Beyond the gameplay, Adventure Out of Time has a couple of intriguing what if's attached to it. First released in late 1996, the game sold well at first, but only with the release a year later of James Cameron's film did sales take off, eventually reaching well over a million copies. Though the two were by no means linked, there can be little doubt that Cameron's film gave Adventure Out of Time far more attention than it might have gotten otherwise, including the use of its animation in numerous TV documentaries. How would it be remembered if Cameron's film hadn't been the blockbuster it became and boosted its sales?
Perhaps more compelling is the notion of a sequel. As Scheinbaum revealed in the aforementioned documentary, plans were brewing within CyberFlix for a follow-up game set on either fellow ocean liner the Lusitania or the zeppelin Hindenburg. Indeed, hints for both are within the original game, including Carlson having a ticket for the Hindenburg's 1937 voyage in his London flat. Even so, CyberFlix founder Bill Appleton focused the company's efforts on the pirate-based game Redjack: Revenge of the Brethren. Redjack's sales were not as hoped, perhaps equaling as little as 10,000 copies, leading to CyberFlix's closure. What might have happened if the Hinderburg sequel, even if it had been a spiritual one, had followed instead, or come hot on the heels of Redjack's less than stellar sales, is an intriguing question in its own right.
Even without a sequel, Titanic: Adventure Out of Time has continued to linger, much like the liner and events that inspired it. The game has received a second life in recent years, with releases on Steam and GOG making it available for players in the post-CD-ROM era. Though its graphics may have dated in the last quarter-century, the ability to roam the famous ship has lost none of its appealing aspects, nor has the alternate history spy story that goes with it. As such, it's never been better to travel back in time with Frank Carlson and enjoy an Adventure Out of Time.