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Time after time, September 2, 2021
(Note: this is a review of the ParserComp version of The Time Machine — there’s now an updated version available at the itch.io link).
The Time Machine by Bill Maya is an Inform follow-up to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a confusing state of affairs that highlights the challenges of writing an unplanned sequel. If the initial work was conceived of as part of a series, that’s an easy enough situation – presumably there are enough hanging plot threads and unresolved conflicts lying about to let you to whip up a plausible plot. But where a story’s been resolved, the protagonist’s journey completed, where is there to go? Sure, a Hamlet sequel would have to be a spin-off, given that everyone north of Horatio in the dramatis personae snuffs it before the final curtain, but even murder-light fare runs into this problem: count ourselves lucky we’ve been spared such enormities as 2 Secret 2 Garden, or Catch 23 (actually, there is a sequel to Catch 22. It’s not great!)
The author’s solution to the dilemma is elegantly done in the present case: there’s a switch of protagonists, from the time machine’s inventor to his friend and lawyer (like, the friend is a lawyer), and the task at hand is to prove Wells’s rantings about Eloi, Morlocks, &c. shouldn’t get him hauled off to a late-Victorian sanitarium by retracing his travels through time. It’s a good setup, allowing the player to re-experience the highlights of the novel without forcing you to go through the remembered steps of a familiar story.
Sadly, the game still requires the player to adhere to a script, though this isn’t always communicated well. My first full playthrough ended in an unwinnable state because immediately upon activating the time machine and finding myself in the Edenic surroundings Wells had related before being hauled off in an ambulance, my first instinct was to return to safety and tell the censorious alienist he’d gotten it all wrong. But when I got back to 1890 and related my wild story, the doctor only listened, “with an accepting look on his face.” That was admirably open-minded of him after he’d stuffed Wells into a strait-jacket for telling much the same story, but that was as far as things went – and since the fuse on the machine burned out after that trip, there was no opportunity to return and bring back more definitive proof. In fairness, the game does signpost that he’s looking for a particular piece of physical evidence – a flower to match the unique petal Wells had shown him right before the game opened – but it would have been polite to fire off a losing ending to bring the story to a close, rather than leaving it to peter out.
Being on rails wouldn’t be so bad if the story the game was out to tell was a gripping one, but despite solid prose, the plot is sadly rather pedestrian. First, most of the game’s playtime is spent in the present day, trying to get into Wells’ workshop and get the machine up and running by solving a few desultory puzzles. Once in the far future, you can explore a single two-location building and have a brief interaction with some Eloi, but it’s all functional at best, and only recapitulates more exciting incidents from the book. If you want to explore off the beaten path and solve a mildly-annoying guess the verb puzzle (to get through a rusty grate, (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE GRATE will work but PULL GRATE and BREAK GRATE won’t), you can have a run-in with Morlocks, but it’s likewise abbreviated and completely optional.
The puzzles are fine, though with the exception of the first (figuring out where Wells’s workshop key has gotten to, which requires a bit of deduction) they’re very straightforward – putting a machine part in a machine, showing an interesting object to an interested NPC, that sort of thing. I had more trouble with them than was probably warranted, though, because there are some infelicities in the implementation. Prior to the nobody-cares-about-your-time-travel-story restart, I’d actually already had to restart because I’d put a watch down on a desk – after being prompted to do so by an NPC – but then was told “it’s hardly portable” when I attempted to retrieve it. And when I grew frustrated at my inability to find the workshop key and considered resorting to violence, BREAK WINDOW WITH POKER just elicited an empty command prompt, with no acknowledgment or rejection of the command. And there are a good number of typos throughout (including a missing period in the opening sequence).
I still had a good time with the game, because the writing is solid, the premise enjoyable, and the setting a pleasant place to spend time (well, modulo the tunnels where blind inbred cannibals live, I suppose). But it felt quite dry, and I was left wanting a little more there there – a little more interactivity, a little more story, a little more puzzling, just something more to create emotional engagement and make The Time Machine feel like a real sequel and not just a retread.