Solarium struck me as immediately technically impressive when I saw it rolled out in IFComp. It presents itself as a sort of alchemy game, superficially: you have one element, and it's listed at the bottom, and you have a bunch of paths to choose. Technically, you just click through all the paths, and you amass ingredients until you have everything, though some passages are dead ends until you have certain ingredients. Text is color-coded. Simple and effective, with no multimedia. And as you find ingredients, the backstory fills in.
It's not some fantasy with wizards and mythical beasts. It's about the Cold War, and what might have happened with just a bit of supernatural nudging. Someone claims that, hey, we can use nuclear missiles without retribution from the Soviets if nothing happens! Because Communism's bad, right? And people get killed, but it's not as bad as the alternative! You, as part of a fictionalized version of President Eisenhower's Solarium project, are one of two dissenters in a 3-2 vote to launch the plan. The person who breaks the tie says "What the heck, let's bomb 'em." You-the-player learn quickly that your alchemical quest is about locating the other dissenter, with whom you felt a close spiritual bond, to gain closure.
So bombing occurs. It's rather more large-scale than the pre-emptive strike on Iraq, and the enemy is better equipped to counter. But things seem great at first, and there's one scene that reminded me of the picnics people had watching the first few Civil War battles, except in 1860, bystanders weren't going to get harmed. There's another scene where the entity who sold the nuclear attack has possessed the President himself, and you and your mate kill him. It's not even the grisliest.
All this is in service of relocating your friend, but more, who tried to stop the bombing. You both go in and out of bodies, only you do not have the same control over it that the archon (who possessed the President) did. But perhaps the right spell can bring them back one last time. You wrestle with whether you deserve to exist, and if so, how you can go about fixing things.
On rereading Solarium years later, I realize there's a lot of stuff I missed the first time through, but I still got a lot from it. There's a discussion of the overthrow of Iran's socialist regime, which of course had and still has its own side effects. The fervor and religious corruption are still strong. We've seen that you don't even need supernatural powers to manipulate large segments of a population. Simple slogans do the task. And if there is no archon to possess people, we've seen people sell their souls and dignity for power and attention, quickly leaving behind the people they suckered into voting a certain way. And we're not going to use nuclear missiles--but we have plenty of snake-oil salesmen saying that what we do to the environment can't really matter, right?
Solarium has two endings, and they both revolve around ultimate but painful recovery, one for the world, and one in your relationship. They're worth both checking, but I remember the ominous feeling as I clicked the back button (it's in TiddlyWiki format instead of standard Twine)--what if this wipes out my progress? And, of course, it can't change the holocaust that happened. It also establishes it's importance, without seeming to nod menacingly at you or tug on your sleeve to say, you know, you really should find me important or relevant. It has a self-assurance that's rare even among high-placing IFComp entries.
Reading this back in 2013, I felt this piece was a bit too rough or raw. But I couldn't put my finger on what I would do better. It feels too direct at some times, as if it doesn't give me room to breathe. Georgina feels like she is humblebragging to start out. Perhaps one may find her a cipher, or not likable enough, or whatever. But that may be part of the point. Targets of harassment are chosen because, well, they're putting themselves out there too much, or they're trying to hide from real judgment. They're acting too nice, or they're acting too brash. There's always something. So I think some melodrama can be the point, and whether or not we have a big or small win, there's always a worry that it's tripped up, or it's denigrated after the fact. And this is, indeed, not "all in our head." It's placed there by people who tell us we need to listen carefully to what they say, but all the same, their one offhand comment? Blowing off steam. As if you need to pay dues for basic human respect. That Georgina does not get it, both from clear louts and more sophisticated-seeming types, is the crux of Impostor Syndrome.
Because people can, indeed, be awful in many different ways. The place where Georgina feels the worst is a Ted-Talk style speech. There's a lot of anxiety. She aces the first slide, which has her name and experience. Everything else seems to be going okay, even as she remembers small things that went wrong with her process, nitpicks her boss found. Perhaps she should not even be here? Part of a minority quota? Ignoring, of course, the roadblocks that pop up for being a minority.
What strikes me about the dramatic moment is how crude and cruel it is, and how it is done by people surely nowhere near as smart as Georgina. She knows it's better not to look, and she knows it's not original, and she knows it's something she should be able to deflect, because it's been done before. She also knows it's aesthetically wrong. And we do, too, and it's not "freedom of speech" or anything like that, that people can do this with impunity. It's as if there's an unsaid voice saying "seen it before? You should deal with it. Not seen it before? Well, be lucky you haven't until now." (There's a parallel to "You never really listened to Trump" and "Trump lives rent-free in your head" taunts.)
Another thing that hit me--the same guys who micromanaged Georgina noting small things she did wrong (they probably let you know they don't suffer idiocy) do let the big stuff slip through at a talk she put effort into. It's a logical inconsistency and worse. I could picture them, after the presentation, say "Yeah, they were out of line, but you could respond better." Or suddenly forgetting talks they made about taking the initiative to build a positive culture, or whatever.
And Georgina has a chance to, near the end, to dare to get out of her lane and talk about non-technical stuff, but then she's worked so hard to focus and not waste people's time. This is the main choice in IS: you can skip it, or you can have a link-maze. If people are too critical of the aesthetics of a Twine link-maze, they are missing the big picture, but it is a relatively weak point. (I saved, but I still guessed the top five words most likely to do something, then looked at the source. It feels like link-mazes could have a way to be navigable, and I've seen Twine tricks where URLs turn into plain text, which I like a lot. Maybe that could happen here, blocking out similar words. But I sense I am turning into the same people who micromanaged Georgina.)
There are other things, too, placing harassment side-by-side with coworkers flat-out ignoring Georgina or uninviting her from important meetings and projects. Again, it's easy to imagine a voice saying "Oh, so you're mad when they bug you and mad when they don't. You seem to need things just so, don't you?" This is something I don't think I saw on the first reading, but it seems more natural now, and we really need more ways to bounce back quickly.
Working through IS I was reminded of a teacher or two who put me on the spot more than they should have. I think of how I was told others had it worse, just as Georgina was, and yet how I should be impressed by that teacher being so uncompromising! I'm older than they are now and have more access to information, so I can work through the past and know people who remind me of people like that are bad news. But they do seem to gain power.
Still, fight-back strategies are way more at our fingertips in 2023 and 2013. YouTube videos have discussions where even the most generic or overwrought descriptions of mistreatment bring people together. The techniques, short- and long-term, have lagged behind trolling techniques, because the second are much easier to develop. Looking back I'd be more interested in the small moments and victories and such--they are there in IS but intentionally muted.
The author said that this was intended to make people think, and I think it did, but it led me the wrong way at first. That's not malicious like the antagonists in the story leading Georgina the wrong way. But it is enough to say it is an opportunity missed. This should in no way preclude the author to keep fighting and tell stories that need to be told. It's been ten years. Sadly, there will have been more data to help hone said stories. But if we say IS is a bit too direct and the author has the talent to write something more powerful, one thing we can't credibly say any more is that the plot, or the narrator's feeling, are too exaggerated. It's not perfect, but it's very good it's there, as it addresses issues well beyond standard angst.
We've all read a story about someone who was told how they were going to die, took steps to avoid it, and had it happen anyway. Or that someone they loved would die a certain way. Years ago Ryan North built on this to say, what if there was a machine that could tell anyone how they were going to die? It spawned a short-story collection I read and enjoyed. One I didn't find out about until I played Machine of Death. I don't remember any of the stories, but I remember MoD, maybe mostly because it was part of IFComp, and so naturally I read what others had to say about it, and I remembered details.
But I think MoD's interactivity allows us to remember certain things. Anyone who got a card from the machine would wonder about all the details and start what-iffing. It must feel awful to know the walls are closing in, and you aren't even near. So should you? Well, in MoD, you're hanging out near a machine, wondering just that. Or maybe you'll just engage in Deathspotting, a wonderfully evocative word MoD uses that I don't think I need to define. You even chat with someone who got a card. It all seems impossible, even in this enlightened day and age where we can evaluate risk factors for a certain sort of cancer or whatever. But the moral and emotional import is pretty clear. We'd change what we do and who we are. It would be on our mind. Knowledge would not bring power.
So yeah there's a way to sneak out of the mall and say "nope nope nope." You can still learn a lot in the process. You can waste your remaining $5 at a fast food restaurant that gives discounts to people with certain death cards. There's a story of a famous person who did well by embracing his cause of death and another who lied about theirs.
But what if you choose a card? Well, then, there are three scenarios. I don't want to spoil them, because they're quite different and worth seeing, and with something like your own cause of death, it's a surprise. The game lets you restart from the beginning of the death scenario, or you can go back to the machine, where you can loop to the next choice. It doesn't directly allow undos, which might feel artificial given the theme, but this feels about right, since we all do trace through the past and think "could I have done better" and sometimes even hope for verification we did as well as we seemed to.
Suffice it to say one is pedestrian, one is absurd, and one contains a corporate slogan of sorts that can mean anything. This variety allows MoD to poke at certain tropes or obvious considerations without beating on them too much. For instance, if you're in a normally life-threatening situation, you can be risky because, well, you can't die THAT way.
I found the absurdist one to be the least effective, though it gave me the most laughs on the surface. There's some celebrity doppelganger stuff in there, which only goes so far, and because the cause of death is so specific, you really do try to do everything you can to avoid it, which weirds some people out. But hey, it wouldn't be weird if they KNEW. Still, there are ways out.
The corporate slogan is a bit different--you have a boss at work who knows their cause of death, and they let you know "I know my cause of death and I'm not letting it stop me! So I don't want to hear any whining." It's like "there's no I in team," but far, far worse for underlings. One of the main dramas here is getting to work on time. The bad end is lampshaded quite effectively, but the good ending blindsided me a bit and yet still made sense. The author, of course, wrote a lot of stuff to just make people laugh, but I appreciated the twist here, after skewering awful corporate types, to take some sting out of them abusing a catch phrase.
The pedestrian scenario makes a few things obvious, but the thing is--you know you aren't going to die violently! At least you're pretty sure. So everything's okay, right? But then you have a chance to look at someone else's death card. There are some implications there of what you might have to do. But one neat bit is that if you think you can do or avoid something because you're invincible, you only sort of get away with it. You aren't told what state of mind you'll die in, and that's something you have control over, for better or worse, with certain drastic actions.
The author is good at stringing juvenile jokes together without being cruel, and here he's a bit more profound than in In a Manor of Speaking. I can't say which entry is better, but I appreciate them both a lot, and it's neat to see the author have two drastically different successes from one IFComp to the next. MoD contains a lot of deep thoughts and worries under the jokes. It'd be ideal if we didn't need that to explore serious matters, but we often do. Replaying MoD almost ten years after its original release, I felt relief I hadn't found any stupid ways to die. I remembered the ways I worried I might die, instilled by teachers or peers or whomever because I was too careless or conservative. But I do think MoD is one of those things that help you worry less about dying so that you can, you know, pack more life in. And the whole concept of the Machine of Death turns out to have been prescient--ten years ago, we knew that machines knew a lot about you, but with political campaigns and so forth, knowledge of microtargeting and such has expanded to where it seems like machines can figure everything except how we're going to die. MoD lets us join in the fight against that sort of fatalism, or at least imagine how to, which would be worthy even if it weren't well-written.
Just looking at a map of the London Underground leaves me a bit dizzy. All those colors, all those loops, all those stations! Chicago is a lot more linear, but then again, part of that is due to just not having as much public transport. I remember a family trip to London where I diligently tried to memorize all the stations and hoped maybe we could visit them all. Of course, I wanted to visit all the tourist sites too. I vowed to be back one day, but of course, Life Happened. I don't think I've even gotten to all the Chicago L stations. Some are not in great areas, and I drove by them on the freeway, and that's enough.
And so you take the Northern Line to work. There's a constant intimation you, Zoran, might want to do something else than go to your vague tech job today. Eventually the game pushes you out at London Bridge, one stop short of Bank. It's actually possible to get to Liverpool Street, where there's no way to get to leave the Underground and go to your job. But all the same, you can't go further. You want freedom, but you don't want to end up in the middle of nowhere. (One wonders what people on the north side think of Balham. Perhaps it isn't the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand, it's impossible to visit the Highbury or Upton Park stations in Moquette.)
This isn't just arbitrary by the game. Part of what makes the London Underground so interesting to me is all the loops and runarounds and interchanges, and if the station names far out seem interesting, it does get linear. So it seeks to maximize the confusion and looping. Without a map I was baffled to see myself winding up at that same place I hit about eight moves ago.
There's not much, strictly speaking, to DO in Moquette. You look at people, think about their histories and what they want to do, and ponder changing. You leave the train if you feel it may wind up in the middle of nowhere. Some people may quit before this, and it's a satisfactory experience. Eventually you stumble on a girl named Heather, whom you sort of liked. This all is a bit awkward, but there's more of a point than just emo stuff. You fail to converse adequately with her, or you think you do, even if you remember stuff she liked.
Fortunately, an unrequited crush is not the main thrust of Moquette. It goes a bit further than that, and if I didn't particularly like the end, which felt too swervy and too on-the-nose at once, I do recommend the journey. First through without the map, then trying to hit specific places. The people-watching bit is well done.
My own experience with public transport is spoiler-tagged, as it rambles a bit, much like Moquette does, but I've rather enjoyed myself more than Zoran, just reading a book and occasionally people-watching. (Spoiler - click to show)It has revolved largely around getting near tricky-to-find places. There are city and suburban buses to go with the Chicago L. I remember one library in the northwest suburbs that had the only copy of a book I wanted to read, and I took three buses there. I enjoyed planning the bus trips. Then one day I realized it wasn't hard to transfer my city card to work in suburban cards, and if they weren't too far away, I could place holds. I sort of missed the adventure, but I'd done things once. And that library? It's gobbled up into the consortium which means a Chicago resident can just sneak north to Evanston, place a hold, and not have to go through some mazy public transport. I sort of miss the adventure. And sometimes even on Chicago's grid, you realize you've been going west and then south to somewhere, and you've never gone south and then west. It's weird seeing a place you remember, thinking you took a route you never saw.
That's enough adventure for me. It feels like there should be more, and you can't get it just by public transport, but it's often a good start to make you want more. Moquette did that for me, even if I felt its ending didn't stick the landing.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street stuck with me over the years, not due to any hugely lush detail, or due to being one of the most impressive entries in IFComp 2013, but due to its oddness. You play as a handyman who helps with odd jobs and drops off newspapers for your neighbors in a neighborhood not very conducive to easy text adventure navigation. Your main job, in fact, will be giving newspapers. It's a bit of a fishbowl, but nobody's leaning over you.
This is all pretty easy, what with a well-organized street, though it's a bit odd to have left- and right-hand sides implemented. Fortunately it's a minimalist game, and it's orderly, and using the up-arrow helps speed through the repetitive tasks.
Then there is that weird mansion at the north edge. For whatever reason, you need to go north twice there, too, after visiting Janice or Glenn -- and going east or west brings you back to them. Glenn's a bit of a grouch who says "Don't trample my grass." In fact everyone is painted relatively quickly. Lottie confuses a toaster with a stove. If you give the wrong person an item they wanted fixed (a toaster, a kettle) the responses are rather funny. And of course it's fun to ask people about specific neighbors.
There is some pain with the parser, as after each knock you need to type in a new key for conversation. This all feels like routine, though, fixing whatever one of your neighbors asks you to end the day, until there are ten newspapers in the stack instead of nine. There is a definite mystery here!
The characters remind me of Di Bianca NPCs (though his first IFComp entry came a year after,) albeit with far far fewer abstract puzzles. The parser errors, too, have that something. "What would the neighbors think?" It might be annoying in a more complex and realistic game, but it's a bit charming here. There's also an odd bug--I suppose a well-crafted game can get away with one such bug that make things more topsy-turvy. Each game gets one, and here, if you walk away from a house and come back after talking to someone, that's when the owner waves and goes back inside. Unintentional, unless I am really missing something. But it adds to the atmosphere.
The only reason I came back to THERS instead of other IFComp 2013 entries that placed higher was, well, I didn't solve it, after getting the ending where you loop around back to Monday. So people looking for history or value may be better served by playing Olly Olly Oxen Free or Robin and Orchid first. Nevertheless there's something special about sort-of recovering something, an alternate ending you never quite saw but hoped for, even if it wasn't quite clued enough. (It wasn't. No big deal.)
And even with those top placers, the thing is, I remember them better, their flow and so forth, and it would be like visiting an old friend. They follow all the good rules of strong game design and break certain too-stiff ones to give them originality. THERS is more that odd cafe nearby that left me both worried and intrigued, or maybe it is that friend that occasionally pissed you off but had some legitimately good points and you wish you'd been able to listen to them a bit more. It has a weird chaotic energy buried in its minimalism, one that encourages me to maybe do things wrong, maybe not on purpose, but to have faith that looking around these odd corners may turn up something interesting and valuable. I'm quite glad I revisited it. But all the same I hope to write a walkthrough so the next person who's curious doesn't have to stumble through that much. I hope they're out there.