Number of Reviews: 8
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Difficult, Brilliant, February 28, 2014
Fair warning, I've tried to use the spoiler tag but I may have inadvertently left something in. You should go play this first before reading a single review anyway!
I enjoyed this immensely. In a lot of ways, this reminded me of an Ursula Le Guin novel (The Left Hand of Darkness in particular), with the focus shifted from gender divisions to -- well, it's complicated, but brilliantly put together. (Spoiler - click to show)The Colonists are asked what price they will pay, in terms of which faction of their people (and thus which facet of their culture) they will sacrifice, for the survival of their entire race. The humans are asked the opposite question; what part of their culture will they pay to save a single suffering segment of their population.
(Spoiler - click to show)Add to this that each race has already faced the choice to destroy one group of their people to save the rest, and made very different decisions that shaped their cultures, and that the historical decision that most people would want to be the correct one was most likely (but may not have been) disastrous, and that everyone involved except the hero is aware of these ramifications, and you have a lot to think about.
We don't get to see much, if any, of the emotions of any of the characters, including the protagonist. (Spoiler - click to show)He isn't a blank slate; he has been personally affected by the Plague, and the choices made that led to it. And his life has been changed, maybe even saved, by choices others have made for him. But, despite glimpses of his history, we are never told overtly how he feels about anything of importance. This is a case where detachment from the main character is an effective technique; the distance allowed me to see the facets of the situation without undue emotional weight.
That is part of what made it so difficult to decide what to do; if the protagonist's sympathies were clear and aligned, we could simply choose to "do what our character would do" and thus feel no responsibility for the choice (as we are urged by the protagonist's superior, who goes so far as to absolve us of any guilt if we do "follow orders"). Instead, we are forced to decide on our own, using the information we've gleaned from our exploration of the world and the NPCs (and the more thorough the exploration, the more meaningful the choice will be, though never clear cut). We can certainly choose to make the decision we think the hero would make, based on what we know of him, but it will not be handed to us.
There's a fine line between "make the best choice you can with the limited information you have" and "eh, it's impossible to say what'll happen, just pick something". I think this came down on the side of the former, but it could easily swing to the other side if you missed important information or didn't explore enough or didn't catch on right away that these NPCs were not going to stand around feeding you information on demand all day.
I'm terrible at timed puzzles and worse at dialogue-based story advancement (I'm the person dialogue menus were invented for). I love that this was accounted for; I still made it to the end by doing logical IF-y things, just with a lot less information than a better player would have had. I could have made a decision blindly at that point, but I decided not to spoil the ending with lack of context. So I restarted with a walkthrough to consult on the trickier bits, mainly a couple of conversations near the beginning before I caught on to the nuances of communication. Hint: (Spoiler - click to show)You often get just one shot at someone; the most productive next step is often clued heavily in their dialogue. Experiment with general responses like "agree" or "disagree".
It took several hours of mulling it over to really grasp the significance of the main story and to appreciate the layers built into it and the frame around it. EVERYONE in this game has an agenda and a past that influences them today, and none of these agendas are petty or foolish, and none are entirely right or entirely wrong -- much like their opinions of each other. (Spoiler - click to show)There are also no absolutes and no guarantees; no ending promises that history will prove this the right choice, a theme mirrored by the human story of the plague. And on this scale, of millions and millions of lives, that ambiguity feels appropriate.
By the end I was greedily lingering over any little thing I could interact with just to learn a tiny bit more, checking just one more time to see if changing any aspect might open up another ending, even reading the Club Floyd Transcript to see what others might have found that I missed. And requiring that my loved ones play too so we can discuss it. Not sure there's higher praise than that.