Funicular Simulator 2021

by Mary Goodden profile and Tom Leather profile

2021

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sublime, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(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, Iím a sucker for a good transit-themed game Ė Iím thinking of the waking-dream fugue of What the Bus in last yearís Comp, or the meditative hangout-game Misty Hills in this yearís Spring Thing. Iím 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 Ė 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 Ė thereís 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 isnít 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 Ė to check out the mountainís mysterious phenomena Ė but who ascribe very different meanings to what theyíre about to experience. You get to learn more about their backstories and what theyíre 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 doesnít posit these as exclusive choices, I donít think, and doesnít 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 Ė perhaps thatís more about where Iím 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 isnít 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 Ė which portrays the night progressing from the initial golden hour through midnight Ė aids the immersion. It all leads to a final choice thatís lightly shaped by how youíve spent your time on the journey. The stakes for this choice werenít 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 donít 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 Ė 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 itís 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 Iíd been feeling sharper (you ever notice how pregnant with meaning the world can seem at 5 AM when youíve been up all night?)