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.
Dreams are difficult material for a writer; most often, literary dreams are just narrative laziness or cowardice, and resemble actual dreams very little. apple, however, attains a sort of Lynchian semi-coherence -- a faint shadow of the senseless power of actual dreams, but about as good as can be expected in a waking state.
The author was in his teens when he wrote this, and there's a definite adolescent feel to the whole thing: Tarantino-slickness, transgressive (though not porny) sex everywhere, the cool-meta vibe that Hollywood went frantic over in the late 90s and early aughts. It's very much a beast of that era, back when school shootings evoked controversy rather than resignation.
It's not much of a game; the interactivity is slight, more about engagement and focus-changing than about altering the course of events. There are one or two cool use-of-medium tricks in here -- as when the narrative turns into a TV script -- but they come across as throwaway and irrelevant. There are great big textdumps. At the time, to a sceptic, it would have looked like the logical extension of the malign influence of Photopia: short stories trivially dressed up as IF, cheap pressing of the audience's buttons. Formal purists, people who see the game/puzzle aspect of IF as essential, are basically going to hate this.
What's striking about apple is that it does a pretty decent job of representing a sense of the dreamlike: fractured hints of narrative, a looming feeling of inevitability, a lurching unease. It's not perfect at this, it's not even great; but it's good.
Drawing heavily on the Alice corpus but not precisely retelling it, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is a guilt-ridden, surreal journey that partially reveals the history of a deeply messed-up family.
Partially is the key bit, here. Most of the story takes place in a state of dream-logic, laden with significance that can't be unpacked. Elements of characters are gestured at rather than explained or directly shown, and little that is suggested is ever really cleared up. Even before the dream-sequence, most things are not expressed directly.
The plot, such as it is: after work at his hat shop, Alastair Lidell meets his wife Catherine and their infant daughter, and they go to visit the funfair. Their relationship is falling apart: Alastair is numb and withdrawn, Catherine hypersensitive. As they argue, the pram rolls into the canal. Alastair dives in after her and enters a dark Wonderland from which he never emerges, an underground train populated by strange versions of his family.
A good number of people viscerally dislike Sentencing; the amount of misery floating around is so high, and the specifics so indefinite, that it's not hard to end up loathing one major character or another, and with them the whole game. At one point of the dream-sequence you have to (Spoiler - click to show)viciously beat a family member in order to advance. If you're sensitive to issues of PC-player complicity, you're likely to have a hard time with this.
It develops a strong feeling of doomed, dreamlike inevitability, but this involves to scanty implementation, linearity and other unfairness to the player; and this, in turn, ends up disrupting the dreamlike flow. One of the strongest examples: there are scenes in which a previously unmentioned character speaks up out of nowhere. This is just how dreams work, but as far as gameplay goes it doesn't inspire confidence in the world. And that confidence would be misplaced: the implementation is pretty ragged. At various points this interrupts the dreamlike flow of the game; it's somewhat too puzzley for the sort of experience that it's trying to deliver. When it does flow smoothly, these problems fall away; but the texture isn't as even as it could be. Its central gimmick -- in which you gather words from the text, then assemble them into a sentence that determines the ending -- falls far short of what it could be, and is incomplete even at its relatively unambitious scale.
At its best, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is poetic, evocative and challenging; at its worst it's noncommittal and incomplete. Whether its emotional impact is a cheap and nasty trick or an artistic accomplishment is going to depend heavily on your individual reaction.
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