Play it if: you'd like a collection of realistic puzzles presented in an engaging and quite atmospheric way, because as far as the central premise of the puzzles goes it's a good one.
Don't play it if: you want an overarching story, because this game never really amounts to what you think it will.
Not long ago, I gave five stars to a game which was in most respects average because the outstanding elements more than made up for them. Now I'm giving The Edifice three stars, because while it's in many respects a very well-designed and well-conceived game, it has a rather large deficiency that left me a little disappointed with it.
I like prehistory. I don't think there's enough of it in our storytelling. The last "serious" film to take place before the dawn of writing was 10,000 B.C., for God's sake. But there's a sense of mystery to that era. In many ways, it is a time we will never understand fully, because it is so alien to us: we are left to decipher figurative artifacts like cave paintings and tombs rather than dead languages. And yet it carries objects of profound curiosity - our first experiments with the technologies that made us great...tools, fire, language, husbandry. Who developed these things? What inspired them? I always wished the Civilization games would start a little earlier in time, before these concepts entered the psyche of our species - and now we have a game which takes place almost entirely in that black box of history.
The game's most prominent artistic influence should be obvious. The titular Edifice, an enigmatic construct which steers the protagonist's "evolution", draws from the Monolith of Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and of course the first chapter involves tool development under...somewhat similar circumstances to that film's famous opening scene). There's even an underplayed "reincarnation" aspect to the plot which is metaphorically reminiscent of the Star Child.
A more distant possible influence, and one I freely admit is probably just my own imagination, is EVO: The Search for Eden, a Super NES game released for American audiences in 1993. It features a protagonist (initially a fish) who "evolves" through various stages of complexity in a process not unlike reincarnation, passing through eras of geological history and approaching a sort of evolutionary singularity. It also has a driving plot device which remains mysterious in many respects. Players of the game will immediately understand the comparison, though I don't know whether the author has any experience with it. I recommend it, though.
The point is, this game hits a lot of my buttons in terms of genre interest. Smith wisely keeps the "sci-fi" elements of the story low-key; the Edifice is basically a plot device that allows him to string his puzzles together, and unlike the situation with certain games, in this case the puzzles justify it. They've got variety, verisimilitude and a good level of complexity. Individually they've probably been done before (level two comes to mind, obviously(Spoiler - click to show), with The Gostak employing it in a more complete sense a few years later), but they're done well. The worst thing to be said about them is that they're very unlike one another - yes, the game's basic thematic premise is helpful in understanding what it is you're supposed to try and achieve, but in any other sense solving one puzzle won't help you solve another. This is understandable when the puzzles require you to sort of reinvent the wheel (almost literally), but it can be a source of frustration at times.
That's not what I'm talking about with the whole "three stars" thing, though.
I hesitate to criticize a story for feeling like it hasn't sufficiently explored...well, itself - that is, its setting or its main theme - because the scope of a game is the author's business. Asimov's "Reason" might have been worthy of a novel, but it's hardly his fault he decided to publish it as a short story. Nevertheless, The Edifice doesn't feel like it ends; it feels like it stops. This was the same problem I had with Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, which shared the themes of reincarnation and humanity's evolution but failed (in my opinion) to do much of interest with them.
Three levels feels insufficient for a game with this much promise, but it's more than that. It's that the protagonist unthinkingly accepts the circumstances of his or her situation regardless of its surreal nature, which in some cases is an acceptable artistic touch but here feels incomplete - a dangling thread in what could have been a tapestry. Hemingway once said that omission was acceptable as long as you knew what it was you were omitting. The Edifice feels less like a case of deliberate omission and more like a case of Smith simply not knowing how to continue the idea much further. Which is understandable, and I'm not going to criticize the guy for laziness or anything, but it did mean I left The Edifice feeling disappointed.
How would I have addressed this gap? It's admittedly a tough question. If I were to plot out a "full" game, it would involve the protagonist understanding something more of the Edifice itself. (Spoiler - click to show)I'd have probably had him end up building it, I'm a sucker for those sorts of circular narratives. But even giving the protagonist the option to work against the Edifice, or act upon his knowledge of its existence and function in the "real" world, would have been interesting.
But even if I hadn't expanded or added to the settings, I'd have done what 2001: A Space Odyssey did: close the game with a vision of what was to come from our perspective. Not necessarily transforming the protagonist into a space fetus, but something awe-inspiring and transcendental - after all, isn't the Edifice godlike in its powers and implicit motives?
Perhaps 2001 is the key comparison here. As a work of art, 2001 is about the promise of transcendence - in a spiritual as well as technological sense. The Edifice has the technological development down pat, but it can only feebly suggest the spiritual, and so to me it will always feel like it could have amounted to something much greater.