Gross Characters Populate Engrossing CD-ROM Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Franz Kafka and David Lynch could team up to create a CD-ROM, the result might resemble Bad Mojo, an improbable new computer game starring a cockroach.

Your goal is to guide the little roach through various unsavory locales in search of a magic charm that will transform him into a human. Along the way, you meet a menagerie of characters including rats, silverfish, worms and various swarms of larva, all feeding on whatever dead meat happens to be about.

Sound like fun for the whole family?

Amazingly, it probably is.

The creators of Bad Mojo have gone out of their way to say they played up the gross-out factor in the game to attract young males--the major target for computer game sales. But this game is not repulsive, even for those with a low tolerance level for blood and guts (of which there is also plenty in the game).

That's because the graphic design of Bad Mojo is--and who would have thunk it for a game starring a cockroach--stunningly beautiful.

Bad Mojo begins with a short, uninspired video sequence that you could skip, except that it gives you the basics of the plot. It concerns a hapless loner, Roger Samms, who rents a room above a decrepit tavern in San Francisco that has been closed down by the health department.

Roger has just stolen enough cash to finally leave his seedy digs, but a mysterious pendant that once belonged to his mother suddenly turns him into a cockroach. (Don't ask why or how; it's never really explained.)

This bug is not man-sized like Kafka's in "The Metamorphosis." Roger, who once transformed can no longer talk, appears to be your everyday cockroach and must get around by crawling through rooms, air ducts and plumbing pipes.

This is where the graphic design comes into play. Roger's new world is a photo-realistic landscape depicting ordinary places--a bedroom, office, kitchen, bathroom--from the point of view of a small creature.

The detail is amazing, even in such ordinary places as the tile floor of the bathroom or the control pad of a FAX machine. At times, the design is a bit showy--when Roger crawls behind the face of a little clock in the kitchen, his image becomes slightly distorted, just as it would behind a real piece of cheap plastic. But it doesn't take long before you're immersed in Roger's unrelentingly dreary world, which proves an apt setting for a plot line concerning his mother and the oafish fellow who used to run the tavern.

Roger's movement, controlled by the arrow keys, is disturbingly lifelike. You navigate him across floors, walls, desks, beds and other objects as he searches for clues to his fate.

Along the way there are many dangers--a cat ready to make you lunch, the burners of a water heater, a hungry rat, a garbage disposal, insect poison, etc. To overcome obstacles, you have to figure out ways of manipulating items around you.

Occasionally, fellow creatures will give you clues, via video collages and narration, and Mom appears at times to recite helpful poems.

The puzzles are inconsistent in quality. Some are so easy that even I could figure them out quickly. But one is extremely difficult, calling for a solution completely different in nature from those preceding it. Judging from comments left on Internet message groups by early players of the game, I was far from alone in having trouble at this point. It's the rare person who will solve all the puzzles unassisted.

The inconsistencies of the puzzles and weakness of the plot line keep Bad Mojo from joining Myst--which it somewhat resembles in game play--in the pantheon of all-time greats. But it's certainly entertaining, and its achievements in graphics put it far above most CD-ROMs.

Bad Mojo: Available for Windows at about $50; Mac version due out soon.

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David Colker's e-mail address is David.Colker@latimes.com.

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