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(based on 14 ratings)
About the Story
Every twenty years, the aurora appears over the crystal mountain. Are the celestial lights a miracle? A scientific phenomenon? Or a message from another world? Take a seat beside one of four strangers, ride the funicular to the summit, and unravel the mysteries of the aurora, the mountain, and each other.
14th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
When looking over the list of entries into this years Comp, I found myself looking forward to Funicular Simulator 2021 just on the strength of its title. Oddly, I’m a sucker for a good transit-themed game – I’m thinking of the waking-dream fugue of What the Bus in last year’s Comp, or the meditative hangout-game Misty Hills in this year’s Spring Thing. I’m guessing this is partially because I miss my public-transit commute, 18 months into COVID (I used to get a lot of reading done!) Beyond this personal bias, though, I think public transportation is actually a great match with IF: transit is a liminal space, where you can encounter different people whose lives are very different – and while the destination is your own, someone else is driving, so you can sit back and enjoy the journey. Funicular Simulator 2021 is not really a transit-game in the sense I was expecting – there’s nothing quotidian about this trip, as the protagonist is climbing a very special mountain on the night of a once-in-a-lifetime aurora. But it wound up scratching the itch nonetheless, because it provides some of the same pleasures.
Belying its title, Funicular Simulator isn’t about the vehicle but about its passengers. The main gameplay consists of extended conversations with four different people, all of whom are ascending the mountain for the same basic reason – to check out the mountain’s mysterious phenomena – but who ascribe very different meanings to what they’re about to experience. You get to learn more about their backstories and what they’re hoping to find, and while the protagonist is a blank slate, by responding to the various characters and validating or denying their motivations, you can define what's brought you to the mountain. Without spoiling too much, my takeaway was that this is about allowing the player to explore some of the common human responses to the numinous: to look to it for escape, for study, for comfort, or for distraction.
The game doesn’t posit these as exclusive choices, I don’t think, and doesn’t put its thumb on the scales for any one in particular, allowing you to see the value in, as well as the counterarguments against, each worldview (though with that said, I found the artist to be too callow to take seriously – perhaps that’s more about where I’m at in life than about anything in the game, though). You get multiple opportunities to engage with the four characters, and you can spread your attention equally among them, or focus on just one or two to explore their conversations more deeply. Replay shows that there isn’t a huge amount of branching in the content of what they say, but the different choices do feel like they portray the protagonist in a significantly different light, so I found them satisfying.
The writing is strong throughout, taking sentiments that could be cliched and events that could be too abstract to resonate and making them sing. The understated visual design – which portrays the night progressing from the initial golden hour through midnight – aids the immersion. It all leads to a final choice that’s lightly shaped by how you’ve spent your time on the journey. The stakes for this choice weren’t completely clear to me, nor am I sure how much changes based on your decision. But the ending I got was poetic, and felt like it organically built on what came before, so much so that I don’t feel tempted to take the journey again and make different choices just for the sake of it.
Highlight: I found the conversation with the pilgrim character really well-done and personally impactful – her situation could be played for melodrama, but the grounded dialogue and unique worldview she offered made her stand out.
Lowlight: Some of the sequences when you reach the mountain struck me as a little too oblique, but if so it’s a close-run thing.
How I failed the author: I played this one late at night, after a day of Henry not sleeping well at all. But I think this wound up being good, since even though this meant I didn't appreciate the prose as much as I should have done, my zonked-out brain found a lot emotional heft in the game that I might not have been able to experience clearly if I’d been feeling sharper (you ever notice how pregnant with meaning the world can seem at 5 AM when you’ve been up all night?)
Earlier in 2021, the New Zealand touristry bureau released this great ad about avoiding cliches when visiting sites: avoiding certain poses or certain shots, and so forth. It's well-done and amusing, as it opens up some questions: why do we go interesting places? Are we really getting anything out of it? Are we getting what we should? How do we get what we should? Funicular Simulator doesn't pretend to answer these questions fully, but it does provide us with ways a sightseeing trip could be more than just something to check off on. In fact, here, it can lead to an entirely new life, or death. And, as Mike Russo's review (which will appear on IFDB in 35 days) invoked for me, it may give a feeling of being on public transport and having your own stuff to do, and yet being open to discussion if the right person is nearby. It helps scratch the itch of wondering what the interesting-seeming person on the bus/train is thinking about, whether you've never seen them before or recognize them on that route. So there are very accessible personal and fantasy elements at play here.
The situation here isn't exactly the daily commute to work or the weekly bus trip to the grocery store, though. You're on the tram to see an aurora that appears every twenty years. Four people around you seem, well, interesting. There's Luke the graphic artist, Sofia the pilgrim, Meena the scientist, and Ray the student. You choose one to start, and the game focuses in on them. Each has their own story. None fully expects you to believe them, and there's no reason to.
Well, until you reach the end of the line. One of the four leads you to a conclusion, and you have a choice of whom to go with, at that point, if you made friends enough. There's a sort of Groundhog Day mechanic at work here. You can mess up a bit, and the person just says they want to be alone, or in the case where someone is romantically interested, you can push them away. And you can try again, if they didn't invite you a bit further. Or you can choose another conversational companion. You know a bit more, and that "Yes, I know what the aurora is for" option is now more viable. Without enough knowledge of the future/past, you don't REALLY know what it's for. The "actually, I don't know" follow-up option disappears. So the same options feel different. Along the way, stuff we know isn't true (aliens, time travel, reincarnation, etc.) becomes believable. Or I want to believe it, or I might as well, and the best part is, there is no scientific mumbo-jumbo.
I found the game-ending choice on the third person through. It was pretty clear they would end things, and I could back out when I wanted. It never quite feels like lawnmowering, though given the content warning, I used process of elimination to figure what was up with my final conversant. Having a bit more meta-information than my own character was maybe not something the authors fully intended to happen, but it gave me another layer of complexity in the whole "looping to find knowledge/resolution" thing, which was neat. I didn't feel there were barriers on what I could or should imagine, either. Things could be possible without me having to explain them. And there were lines like this:
"Oh well," says Sofia. ... She laughs. "I haven't even told you my name! I'm Sofia."
Wait, I thought at first, that's just a clear mis-step. But of course, that's what happens when you cycle through and get to see a conversation more than once. You do know Sofia well due to the cycles the game goes in. I like takes on time paradoxes like this, whether they're heavy or light. I also found some question of whether or not your companions cycled through this train ride up several times, which put a spin on some of their small-talky "but you can't believe this" proclamations. I mean, maybe they learned and remembered a lot by observing you, as well, and it would be weird to explain that back to you.
So we get a lot of potential trippiness with very little "look at me I'm being trippy and showing you The Truth and yet The Truth is fungible" sort of nonsense. This is appreciated. Adding to the effect is the background–I remember tinkering with gradients in Microsoft Office years ago, and it was just fun, but it didn't mean anything. Here the effect is relatively simple and works well. It's sort of sunset-ish, but a bit more than that, and anything too jazzy would've been inappropriate.
The undo command allows you to see all five possible endings (go with anyone or stay by yourself) so you can get a feel for the narrative, and yet at the same time you feel as though you've earned it. Though I like logic puzzles, I'm glad there wasn't any huge logic puzzle to unlock each ending, more just asking questions and trying things out. There aren't many puzzles, but I liked how the bit with the scientist's chronon tracker worked, both how it was laid out and how you could find something if you were clever. You had to set a reading to a certain number, which was not bad with trial and error, but that wasn't everything.
I can't be the only IFComper who looks at the entries next to me alphabetically, to see if I'm in good company. Fine Felines before me was quite enjoyable, and I'm happy to report so was Funicular Simulator. (They wound up placing next to each other, too!) But it goes beyond just "wow, that's neat." Funicular Simulator is a game on the very surface about interesting people sitting next to you to learn from on a ride, thrown together by chance, and it has a bit more. You can bug whom you want to bug, and nobody will get annoyed. And, to me, it's a heck of a lot more interesting and involving than a luxury cruise could ever be. You get to ask questions and not worry if they're the wrong ones, and you never feel as though someone's waiting to pat your hand and saying "sweetie, there are no wrong questions or answers. No, really, not even yours."
This magical mystery game involves taking a ride up a mountain with an odd assortment of possible companions who each hold the key to a different possible explanation for the celestial phenomena at the peak.
The writing is compelling, and the companions are each evocative in their own way with a distinctive background, personality, and theory on the aurora and crystals. It’s fun to mix and match, going “all in” with a companion and then replaying with a different one, like a super-short dating sim. I also like that past trips up the funicular impact some dialogue options on subsequent loops.
Although the game seems to offer many different paths (three loops per play-through, each time picking one of four companions), I didn’t notice any variation in the companions’ behavior based on which other companions I had previously picked. Also, while each companion’s scene offers a long sequence of choices, they mainly seem to boil down to (a) engage more, or (b) distance yourself; this made the conversations a bit less compelling, since I couldn’t figure out what benefit or interesting outcome came from not engaging.
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