Usually when someone says that a work is "so bad it's good", they mean that though the content is bad, there is pleasure to be derived from seeing just how bad it is. But when it comes to Reconciling Mother, which was ranked 25 out of 27 in IFComp 2007, if someone told me that it was so bad it was good, I would think they were praising it for good elements that have somehow emerged from a lack of good design decisions.
That said, it is hard to play Reconciling Mother for long without getting slapped in the face with indications that some of the work's charming elements were entirely unintentional. For example, despite the apparent randomness of the work's content, I have read that there is a way to win. Other reviewers have complained that the winning ending is underimplented, but I think this work might have worked best if the author had not created winning conditions. (I had this realization while playing another IF work, The Land of Breakfast and Lunch, which I recommend taking a look at if you, like me, are interested in more intentional attempts at evocative surreality.) After reading several reviews of Reconciling Mother, I searched high and low for a download link not to win but to experience some of the heaviness, whimsy, wonder, and weirdness it contains for myself.
I would not blame anyone who gave Reconciling Mother only one star, but the perception that there is something wonderful underlying the work, even if it is only an illusion, compels me to give it two.
(I have updated this review once since I first posted it.)
(I have revised this review once since I first posted it):
The Land of Breakfast and Lunch makes little of an attempt to offer puzzles and even less of an attempt to offer narrative. Because the author has placed the work squarely in the genre of surreal games, these aspects are not strikes against it. But they do make it difficult to detail the enjoyable features of the work without simply quoting the bits I like at length. Instead I will try to explain through generalizations and comparisons.
Generalizing, the work's diegetic content is richly described, and it includes delightful extradiegetic content (assuming it makes sense to say a fourth-wall-breaking work has extradiegetic content; for an arguable example, enter the command SCORE). The game contains many jokes, most of which are underwhelming, but few are terrible, and one made me laugh out loud. Despite the stated lack of a goal, the work at the very least encourages the player to walk along a path (the only path offered by the game) punctuated by various lands, including the eponymous Land of Breakfast and Lunch. Interwoven into the fabric of the game are various threads that evoke a sense of nostalgia, especially for those of us who grew up in the West during the late twentieth or early twenty-first century. Thus, there are parts of the game that feel meaningful, even if no meaning is imposed by the author.
As for comparisons, the works it reminds me the most of are Myst and Reconciling Mother. Like Myst The Land of Breakfast and Lunch provides an atmosphere that in its best moments fills me with a sense of wonder. Unlike Myst the game lacks a robust underlying structure. (I say more about this below.) Like Reconciling Mother it is an interactive fiction work with many elements that left me feeling amused, wistful, or intrigued. But unlike Reconciling Mother, the game is obviously written by someone who has extensive knowledge of the authoring system used to create it, and because its surreal aspects were deliberately included and fairly well implemented, it feels more like a finished project.
That said, I have found more than a few cracks in the work. Some I found during my first, quick playthrough. Most I found while doing a moderate amount of poking around. Many of the problems could be characterized as a lack of polish. If the only reward a work offers is the experience of interacting with it, then it is of paramount importance that every interaction with the player goes smoothly. Thus, if I want to return the "doll" of the jack-in-the-box to its box I should not encounter a guess-the-noun problem within a guess-the-verb problem (which is aggravated by the presence of a doll, a lid, and a box that are not components of the jack-in-the-box but initially appear in the same room!). What's more, I should not find myself yanked out of the immersive experience by stock responses. When I enter GIVE PENNY TO SALESPERSON, I should see a reply more appropriate and less misleading than, "You can only do that to something animate." If an author has to choose between implementing only fitting responses to likely player input and implementing rich smell descriptions, I want them to choose the fitting responses.
If blemishes like those described above had been removed, I probably would have given this work a 5. All the same, I have yet to play a better surreal work that is as evocative as this one. If you enjoy unusual experiences in interactive fiction, I recommend checking it out.