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(based on 34 ratings)
About the Story
Sometimes people give pieces of themselves away.
Sometimes they give too much and who they are wears thin.
They become an absence. A hole in the world.
And a terrible Light shines through.
Content warning: Loss, Nihilism, Self-harm (mild), Eating disorder (implied)
2nd Place overall; 2nd Place, Miss Congeniality - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 8
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Abigail Corfman has made many high-quality games in the past, so I was excited to play this one.
This is a richly-illustrated Twine game, with black-and-white chiaroscuro images on one side and options on another. The game has background music and sound effects. The screen was too low-positioned for me to click on at first, but going to full-screen made it work better.
This is a combination story-focused and puzzle game. The idea is that a man, Anthony Lane, suspects that he has a wife but can't find her. You have to investigate the house to find out what's missing. Like another game in this comp, A Long Way to the Nearest Star, you have an inventory of thoughts and items that you can select from in each room, providing two-factor puzzles that make for a richer game.
The first half of the game had a lot of narrative momentum for me, with the puzzles being fairly light and forgiving. It bogged down a lot in the second half as it is possible to make irreversibly bad decisions.
But that made me have to think a lot. I had to really stop and imagine this person, what their life might be like. I continued to do poorly, even restarting. But I worked at it more and more. It was compelling to try to really thing about what their life was like, instead of what I wanted it to be like or assumed it would be like. It was like an exercise in empathy.
Overall, I think this is really well done. Love the art, too.
You are contacted by a man, Mr. Lane, who explains that his wife is missing. For some reason, no one can remember her name. With more questions than answers, you set out to explore the couple’s house to find a seemingly nameless woman.
Note: Obviously, the player already knows the woman’s name. Miriam Lane. It is in the game’s title. Because of this I will openly use her name in this review without tagging it as a spoiler. But uncovering her name in the game to reach the protagonist’s objective requires some work.
This is a longer Twine game. It feels like there are two halves of gameplay. The first is to (Spoiler - click to show) find Miriam while the second is to revive her to the waking world.
In the first half, the player searches the house for abnormal clues to build an understanding about Miriam's living situation. For the most part, this uses a “you can look but not touch” philosophy as you explore. The main mechanic is to use a list of thoughts that are automatically assembled and testing them in areas that seem relevant. It did feel, at times, a bit stagnant when you lose track of where you should look for clues. You end up going over the list for every possible location until you find something that sticks. A strong point (see below) is that it at least keeps track of which prompts you have already used.
Choose a thought:
Light and shadow is acting strangely. / tried
This is unnaturally aged or faded. / tried
There's something here that I can't see.
At the bottom of the screen is a progress bar that measures your “awareness” level. Once the bar is full, (Spoiler - click to show) you discover that she is lying on the bedroom bed in a somewhat comatose state. However, you can only see her silhouette. Your job is not over yet.
The second half of the gameplay is about (Spoiler - click to show) reviving her identity through personal mementos found in the house and recovering her name. Here, the game gives you more freedom to interact with objects. It retains some of the function from the first half, but its application of mechanics is narrowed down. You focus on (Spoiler - click to show) finding meaningful objects. However, the wrong objects can detract from Miriam’s recovery. Things that seem helpful may cause the opposite effect. I found this part to be more challenging to complete but more immersive in its story.
Generally, the puzzles were interesting and creative. My favorite was the flower puzzle where you (Spoiler - click to show) read about flowers and match their descriptions in the flower bed to locate them. It faintly reminded me of Ghosts Within which has themes about flowers and their symbolism. It too features a puzzle involving a guidebook. Another great thing about this game is that uses free range of movement that lets you explore the house and fiddle about with objects within, sharing some attributes with a parser format. Great example of a puzzle-oriented Twine game.
At the end of the game (unless you lost prematurely), you are (Spoiler - click to show) presented with some sentences about her life. Some words in these sentences consist of links that you click on to change them. The goal is to use what you learned from the gameplay to piece together her life. There are multiple endings. (Spoiler - click to show) You do not have to get the answers right 100% to reach a positive ending but every word change has an impact.
As the game progressed it becomes clearer that the (Spoiler - click to show) story is not so much about finding a missing person in the literal sense but recovering a personality that had fallen to the wayside. The game does not end when you find her. It ends when you learn her name and affirm the things she loves. The name is the focal point. And with that comes identity.
There is not too much about the protagonist, Jane. The player can identify themselves as an investigator, researcher, or someone who just wants to help, but Jane is given only a few characteristics, although the game is in first person. She seems to have an affinity for, if not paranormal, the bizarre and unexplainable. I thought that she was going to have more of an occult-oriented profession, but the game only dips its toes this subject. It keeps things subtle which carries its own charm.
There are few NPCs. Only (Spoiler - click to show) Mr. Lane. Miriam as well, but she is unresponsive for most of the game. We learn about her through her home. You nitpick at everything. It is almost like using a lens and zooming in. You examine the sewing room, then the cork board on the wall, and if you look closer there is the (Spoiler - click to show) hidden bird sketch. That bird sketch is a possession with fond memories but it, just like Miriam’s interests, have been overshadowed by obligations in her life.
The game sticks to a black and white colour scheme. Black background, white text, and snazzy black and white graphics. Each location has its own artwork, many having more than one. All of this creates a surreal feel. It does mingle with other visual effects such as a change of font for handwriting without diverting from this theme.
Design wise, the game strives to be user friendly. It has links at the bottom of the page that, when clicked on, result in popup boxes containing the player’s thoughts, inventory, and notes. This was nice since you do not have to flip to a different screen every time you feel like viewing this content. For a Twine game with lots of puzzles this was extremely helpful.
I have been a huge fan of Abigail Corfman's games for a while. The complexity possible in a Twine game seem to be elevated to the next level whenever I play her games. The Absence of Miriam Lane still has the familiar features found in her work. Free range of movement, unique and stylized use of puzzles (such as the flower puzzle), and a complex character-oriented story.
Based on what I have seen, I think this game will do well in the Comp. Speaking of which… this is the first game I have played for this Comp, and I am thrilled! Have you ever been in an art class where the teacher shows you a rainbow of bright and colourful craft paper that look so appealing you do not know which one to pick first? That is how I feel right now.
A woman has vanished, well, sort of. Her husband's a bit confused. There's no foul play, really. You're a researcher, maybe an investigator, maybe a combination. That's an early choice, but your title doesn't matter. Your task is to find out what has happened, where did she go, and why.
Everything seems in order in not just the house by also the story and the technical layout. The layout feels appropriate–black and white sketched pictures, unintrusive but effective music, and a small local map in the bottom left where you click on where to go. So big-picture navigation is easy. The calculated sparseness gives us a good feeling that something is wrong. We're seeing enough details, right? But we aren't.
Asking her husband gives you additional questions to ask in general. Some things seem out of place. The light is wrong. You can have up to five questions to ask, and the right one in the right place offers clues, leaving Miriam Lane closer to visible. Ones you don't need any more are discarded. While brute force works, things are generally well-clued, and you should be able to find some clear places to ask the right questions before the last observation or two needs guesswork.
Once you become adjusted to the light, you have an idea of how or why she is gone. Here there's the only thing that really broke immersion for me, but the rest of the game is so well-done, I may be missing something: you-the- character need to find her name, which her husband never tells you, but you-the-player know it's Miriam, and based on the puzzles in the rest of the game, "M. Lane" would seem suitable. It's minor, but the rest of the game is so strong, I want to leave the possibility open I was missing something.
Once she's visible, you can start collecting items. Some of them have special meaning to her, for better or for worse. An average reader should discern pretty easily what makes her happy and what doesn't. Also, the stuff that makes her happy is hidden, and most hidden items are similar to something unhappy in clear view, and yes, this Means Something. The more positive items you collect and show her, the more optimistic the ending is, though once you know her name, describing what you've found of her also helps her return to her normal self. This threw me off slightly, too. There was a status bar at the bottom, and it increased when you gave her something nice, but I was under the impression you had to make it go all the way. You don't. But perhaps I should have known.
You see, there's a moment in AoML where it clicks that the author knows what they're doing. This is the only other time AoML slightly broke immersion for me, and that was more due to me appreciating the technical and design work, because I was looking for it when writing a review. There's a book of flowers and a flower bed. The book describes several flowers. Each flower has about five descriptions. When you pick a flower, you're asked to choose from about twenty descriptions. But you don't need all five! I can't recall this convenience before and, well, it just makes sense.
This was an immense relief but also in line with the game: you don't need to know every detail about why things happened to Miriam, or how she got to be the way she is. Although in some cases, items you find may make her upset. Several that seem happy aren't, which you can deduce if you have been paying attention, thus putting AoML that much further above your average fetch-quest. That's how empathy works in general, beyond an "oh, you like this, right? Well, you seemed to enjoy it. Whatever." Miriam doesn't need that complete understanding, yet you feel she needs it, and her husband seems to want a complete explanation. None is necessary from her, and none is necessary in-game. So when we ask for people to understand us completely, perhaps we would really just be happy with people who understood enough to block out others who tell us, with bad intentions or not, "Gosh, I just can't understand this about you." For Miriam, it's her husband not really caring about her impractical or "childish" desires and ignoring her sacrifices. While that may be a truism, AoML pushes it forward nicely.
There's one more criticism that's quite high-level. I'd like it to be easier to tab through the options. There's a lot of mouse movement, and certainly AoML is more ambitious and intricate than your average Twine effort, so there needs to be, with pop-up screens when you want to think or take an item. This is detailed GUI stuff, and it's the sort of request I only make when it's clear the author knows what they're doing and then some and, well, I wanted to see everything in-game before rifling through the source. I think with something as high-level as AoML is, it leaves you asking for more--especially because the main NPC, Miriam, never did, and look what happened to her! That's what being sympathetic gets you, game.
This is minor, though. AoML offers a wide variety of emotions and choices. You can play very badly or well. The second time through, when I knew there were things to be remembered (the more you remember and find, the more you recover of Miriam) I felt bad forgetting stuff I should have known. It occurred to me that there were people I found forgettable whom I cared about more than noisier people who grabbed my attention, and perhaps I was on the other side of that.
One more thing: AoML made more than enough sense the first time through, but it made a lot more sense when I replayed the introduction and poked around and also re-read the content warning. So much is well-hinted. It leaves you feeling you missed something, and that is your fault and not its, and that's an eerie feeling. I wound up remembering times I'd been ignored in my past, as well as people I ignored. There was no rage. But I remembered certain items people felt should give me joy and didn't, and I had an explanation. So that was a boost.
AoML and Elvish for Good-Bye were my top two rated entries in IFComp and may be more similar than you think. Both talk of unspoken desires. In AoML, they're more realistic, stuff you can't say you want, or stuff that can be easily crushed. EfG is more fantastic, more optimistic, a knowing there's something out there you can't imagine one day. Each feels necessary to give life color in its own way.
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