Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: simile, metaphor, magic system, dream, surreal, noir, detective, mystery
Simon Christiansen's work has been characterised by brilliant concepts that are ultimately let down in the execution. The execution has improved considerably (and so have the concepts, really); the overall experience, though, is still a little rough.
The big concept of PataNoir is that similes occupy their own adjacent reality that you can manipulate: change the simile, change the real world. One frequently-employed subset of this involves altering the personalities of people. Elements of one simile can be used to tinker with another, and in some sequences similes are gates that allow you to plunge into entirely separate worlds. There are, then, a number of distinct kinds of manipulation that can be performed with similes, and they're thrown at you pretty much all at once, together with rules about how the system works (similes can be used to modify real-world things, but can't act directly on them: a simile key will not unlock a real door.) When I first played it I had a little trouble taking on everything at once, and stalled out perhaps halfway in.
The simile hook provides a good deal of rather lovely imagery (kicking in good and early), with elements of fantastic journey about it; to film this you'd want Terry Gilliam (or Švankmajer, though it's not quite that dark). There is a hauntingly dark atmosphere to much of it. Not every section is quite as spectacular as it could be: the climactic scene in particular could be richer and darker. But there are many images I took away from this: (Spoiler - click to show)the angel fountain encircled by snake-paths, the sleeping giant, the eyes you swim into like subterranean lakes, the plunge from bottles on a table in a messy apartment into a minaret-studded city. There's much here of the raw stuff of imagination, the pure delight of strange transformations.
Structurally, the game has areas you can travel between, and you will fairly often need to travel back and forth. The game's natural pace is a sort of Anchorhead-like, leisurely poking around at things; but I ended up speeding things up with the walkthrough a good deal, for a couple of reasons. Dream or hallucination is a flow state: it's not something where you get hung up on a fair-but-difficult conundrum for a while and have to work through it logically. The play experience matches up much better with the experience-as-written when you cheat. Simile-logic isn't really consistent enough for a Savoir-Faire simulationist approach, and there's often a whiff of read-author's-mind about the solutions. In the impossible-to-make Platonic ideal of this game, more or less everything you tried would advance the plot somehow. That said, going to the walkthrough really doesn't ruin the experience: it's still hauntingly strange.
Christiansen's biggest limiting factor remains narrative voice. This is exacerbated because of PataNoir's reliance on a genre that makes very strong demands on narrative voice, even when done as a pastiche. Noir needs a tone of slangy self-assurance, murky motives, a grimy, uncomfortable world full of implied sex, violence and desperation. PataNoir feels a bit more in Thin Man territory: there's a noir template, but it's being used in service to something else, it's as much a comedy on noir tropes as anything, and thus it's rendered nonthreatening. The characters are a little too straightforward: the obligatory femme fatale has the mandatory dangerous curves, but these are only significant as a simile: but the PC doesn't feel as though he regards her with either lust or trepidation.
And then there's the ending. (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist, it turns out, has a rare mental-health condition ("Lytton-Chandler syndrome") and, off his meds, has likely fantasised the entire thing. A lot of people felt this was a cop-out; I'm not convinced of this, but I don't think it really matches up with the story as written. The tough, non-flowing puzzle structure isn't suggestive of hallucination, but of solid, graspable, permanent worlds; the contrast between the rich simile-worlds and the flat detective-noir story suggests that they genuinely do occupy separate worlds, rather than being elements of the same hallucination.
So ultimately I came out of this hoping that Christiansen would team up with a more confident wordsmith, or perhaps find something that allows him to develop his own voice rather than trying to replicate an established style.
Related reviews: science fiction, science fantasy, surreal, smell, noir, detective
Narrative-centred, vivid, weird SF noir, short and fast-moving. If you enjoy Robb Sherwin games or Deadline Enchanter you're likely to enjoy this.
The idea of a PC with a prodigious sense of smell has been floating around the IF world for an awfully long time. And a detective piece seems like a good fit for a smell game: the PC can see evidence that nobody else can, and you can deliver forensic-science details without having to mess around in a lab. The thing practically writes itself, and Nostrils of Flesh and Clay looks almost nothing like it.
Nostrils is a sort of science-fantasy noir. The SMELL verb is, indeed, more useful than EXAMINE, but it doesn't give concrete information so much as emotions, associations and metaphors. This meshes in heavily with the lurid, punchy prose, which would be at risk of becoming purple if it wasn't so admirably concise. The world is grimy, threatening, nauseous, bordering on the surreal; everything is experienced viscerally. There's heavy use of gesture-worldbuilding; China Mieville or Blade Runner territory. You are not meant to understand everything, and there's a significant gap between player and protagonist.
Once the central plot thread emerges, it's pretty clear that things are not going to end well. The protagonist is a bent cop; her special powers bring her little joy and cause her plenty of suffering. The world does not contain anybody trustworthy or pleasant. The IF feeling of isolation is in full effect. There is, in theory, a payoff you're working towards, but this isn't a character who sees any real hope of things getting better. It doesn't wallow in misery, and the language is too tasty to make the experience particularly grim; but the content's still pretty freakin' dark.
Mechanically, it's a rather simple game, without much in the way of deep interaction or significant choice. Cut-scenes feature heavily. The whole thing has the instincts of a short story, with all the unnecessary elements sheared off; it wants to keep the plot moving. At points it's somewhat more sparsely implemented than might be hoped, but mostly (particularly considering that it credits no testers) it's remarkably smooth to play.
Highly promising; hoping for more.
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