The Jurassic Park franchise has a love/hate relationship with its video game tie-ins. From fantastic park builders and arcade shooters to the lesser known barcode collector and DVD board game, Jurassic Park games have been pretty hit or miss. Among the lesser known titles, one very special game stands out above all the others. The game was Trespasser, an overly innovative and ambitious title that aimed for the moon and crashed somewhere near Costa Rica.
Trespasser was intended as a “digital sequel” to Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Though it was supposed to be released alongside The Lost World in May 1997, it was actually released late-October 1998. The game went over budget several times, but with good reason.
Trespasser needed its own physics engine, built from the ground up. It was, incredibly, the first game to make use of ragdoll physics. Inverse kinematics allowed enemy AI to create its own animations as needed. Impressively, dinosaur AI was programmed to protect territory with different levels of hostility, creating a real sense of island ecology. Though split into levels, the entire island of Isla Sorna was comprehensively designed as a 3D model before moving to development and was one of the first open-ended outdoor environments seen in gaming. Because Trespasser was so advanced for its time, home computers of 1998 struggled to play it. Players and critics often complained of slowdowns and low frame-rate as their machines labored against the future of 3D gaming
In addition to technical design, Trespasser pushed for truly innovate gameplay. First, Trespasser has an immersive HUD, similar in some ways to Dead Space or 2005’s King Kong. Health is expressed by a heart tattoo on the PC’s chest. As Anne (the PC) takes damage, her tattoo is gradually constricted by barbed wire until it’s fit to burst. Add on to this that ammo isn’t counted by number, but by quips “It’s full," "about eight shots left," "feels empty,” and Trespasser has the real makings of a survival horror game.
All this sounds fantastic. Publishers claimed Trespasser would “revolutionize PC gaming.” The box art declared the game as "the evolution of first-person 3D gaming." That may have been the case, if it wasn’t for Trespasser’s most infamous gameplay element. In an effort to maximize realism and make the most of its physics engine, the player needs a means to manipulate the environment. Rather than use invisible arms (as Half Life 2 would), Trespasser gives players an entire arm. A boneless, cumbersome rubber arm with a wrist like an over lubricated hinge. This unusual design is, in many ways, the mother of Surgeon Simulator.
To this day almost all FPS games have players use weapons in a pre-animated, static pose. Trespasser, taking advantage of its new physics engine, wanted players to improvise. Using the swing button, players can pistol-whip raptors at any time. Anne can use anything as a melee weapon, from baseball bats, to wooden boxes, and even two-ton steel girders. To this day, Trespasser is the only game where you can beat a dinosaur to death with a floppy disc.
While these elements should have made for tense survival horror, it unfortunately comes across as more frustrating than innovative. One button extends the arm, two more rotate the wrist in either direction, another fires guns and swings melee weapons, and another picks up and drops items. Fans of the game get used to it over time, but the controls are admittedly more complex than Surgeon Simulator. Add to this that players need to simultaneously navigate an open-ended 3D environment, and you have a control scheme nightmare. As if that’s not enough, developers had originally planned to have two arms for maximum realism.
So what was Trespasser actually about? Anne (the PC) is the only survivor of a plane crash on Isla Sorna (Site B). Once she realizes where she is, Anne’s only goal is to find a radio to call for a helicopter. That’s it. The end goal is always clear, but Anne rarely makes short-term progress toward that goal. After a little intrigue and puzzling at the laboratories, the last goal is to climb the mountain and escape. It would have been really interesting if, to match the survival horror atmosphere, Anne made a few other escape attempts or even had to collect parts to construct her own radio.
As a digital sequel, the game takes place after The Lost World and it shows in the environment and dialogue. The island is littered with the crushed jeeps and forgotten weapons of InGen poachers. While this is a nice bit of environmental storytelling, it’s a little too much. Trespasser makes it look as though poachers declared war on the dinosaurs and lost, badly. Human skeletons, abandoned jeeps with mounted turrets, and piles of guns are overly abundant. Trespasser was intended to be survival horror, but the sheer number of guns makes it closer to a very awkward action shooter.
Ghostly excerpts from the memoir of John Hammond (narrated by Richard Attenborough) play wax poetic as Anne explores the island. These original narrations provide a lot of insight into the creation of Jurassic Park, Site B, and Hammond’s relation to Jurassic Park’s staff. It’s a nice listen and the full memoir can be found, in order, on YouTube or the fan site Trescom.org.
Anne is not a silent protagonist. She often narrates her thoughts as a disbeliever thrown into a survival situation. Her response to handling a gun for the first time is a nice touch, as is her amazement at seeing her first dinosaur. It makes her a somewhat realistic character, rather than a traditional shooter tough guy. However, her frustration while on the radio is a little restrained and doesn't reflect her growth throughout the game. Still, having a voiced protagonist with a realistic outlook on her situation is great. What’s not so great (though somewhat understandable given the graphical limitations of the time and the fact the second arm was ditched for its complexity) is the health bar is on Anne’s chest and her chest is so big you can’t see her feet. You can, however, see her holstered sidearm, which serves to always remind players what’s in their inventory.
Trespasser leaves a lot to be desired. Though environments are large and explorable, they're mostly empty jungles and crags. Due to graphical limitations, you'll never see big herds of dinosaurs. A few levels have abandoned offices and labs (some with usable computers), but dinosaurs cannot enter buildings. Additionally, while levels are open to exploration, choke points force movement in the right direction. For example, the first level forces players to use a seesaw puzzle to escape a valley. Likewise, much of the second level can be bypassed by using boxes to form a bridge over broken monorail track.
Combat is comedically awkward. Remember how the AI makes its own animations? The result is truly hilarious movement where raptor legs spin like Wile E. Coyote. Dinosaurs constantly trip, float, fold in on themselves, and occasionally bounce off cliffs. Though AI parameters exist for dinosaurs to claim territory, the actual game doesn't make full use of the technology. Every dinosaur has meters for hunger and aggression. Raptors are locked at the maximum for both at all times, making them always hunt and attack the player.
To make matters worse, Anne’s awkward arm automatically drops items upon collision with the world. Because the wrist can move in any direction, it's possible for Anne to shoot or electrocute herself as a result of bumping into a wall. Solid walls and inanimate objects aren't Anne's only enemy. When raptors get into melee range, Anne can’t shoot because her hand goes limp against their side and she drops her gun. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that every single enemy in the game is a melee-oriented ball of teeth and claws. While the melee combat is somewhat smoother, going toe-to-toe with retractable talons is typically deadly. Despite this, taking down a T-Rex with a desert eagle feels awesome because you’re still able to defeat the toughest creature on the island, despite everything going against you.
Playing Trespasser is like playing a primitive, protoplasmic form of Half Life 2 crossed with a walking simulator like Dear Esther. Despite abysmal sales and poor reception from critics, Trespasser still (in 2018) has a strong base of players and modders on Trescom.org. The site and its basic proboards layout is par for the course with similar early 2000s interest sites. Despite this, the community is still fairly active in sharing their love for this obscure 20-year-old title and Jurassic Park in general. With a little tweaking and graphical updates, Trespasser would probably make a fantastic VR game.
With a bigger budget and more time, Trespasser could have been the greatest first-person shooter of the 90s. As it stands, the developer’s ambition got the better of them. They tried too much too soon. The developers stood on the shoulders of giants and the publisher tried to push it out as fast as they could. And before they even knew what they had, they packaged it and slapped it on CD-ROM and sold it. The developers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.