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Simply magical, December 8, 2020
(I beta tested this game)
As modern video games get more and more complex, and the hardware gets more and more powerful, AAA games are capable of overwhelming feats Ė I gasped in wonder the first time I saw the crowded streets of Assassinís Creed Unityís revolutionary Paris, for example, and thatís more than five years old! But for whatever reason, when I run through the times when a game has just bowled me over with amazement, a disproportionate number are things from IF, like the power-fantasy of Hadean Lands, where I cackled with glee at the way I could type ďWĒ and see the game visibly pause before spitting out the results of the twelve different sub-puzzles Iíd automatically solved with that single key press. Perhaps itís that the flexibility of text means itís always capable of surprising you, whereas once you understand the systems at play in something like an Assassinís Creed game, youíve pretty much got the whole thing figured out. Or maybe thereís something to the old saw about imagination, and picturing what the text is describing, being more evocative than just seeing.
Anyway, add the Impossible Bottle to the list. Iíve seen a number of reviews that bounced out of this one early, before getting to what makes the game so amazing, so while Iíll be putting the rest of this under a spoiler block to preserve the surprise, I do want to clearly say for those who havenít played yet that there is something amazing here and itís not just a game about a six-year old picking up a mess, so stick with it through those first ten minutes.
Okay, with that out of the way, letís get spoilery:(Spoiler - click to show) when I first realized what the gimmick here was, it made me smile Ė the idea of a magic dollhouse that lets you change whatís happening in the real house is a clever one, and the initial puzzle where you figure that out leads to a lovely aha moment that made me feel smart. But oh man I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. You can move things around, sure, makes sense. Putting a small thing in the dollhouse turns it into a normal-sized, real thing in the real house, OK. Putting a big thing into the dollhouse to shrink it, now weíre starting to get more complicated. Then add on that you can sometimes blow things up twice, or shrink them twice, and that changing their size might make them come to life or otherwise slightly shift? It stops feeling like a gimmick and starts feeling like magic, especially once your dad makes a fateful decision, and you figure out how to get into the titular bottleÖ
The dollhouse opens up a huge possibility space, but TIB does a masterful job of helping you stay on top of what youíre doing. Thereís a handy GOALS command that lists what you could be working on at any given time, and a progressive hint system to keep you on track. More than these external crutches, the game also provides solid direction via suggested verbs and cueing from other characters, and while the magic of the dollhouse is very versatile, you generally have a good understanding of what kinds of things you can accomplish so youíre rarely left floundering. And itís all implemented incredibly smoothly, so that itís easy to do anything you can think of. Iíve only played a few Dialog games, but it really shows its strength and versatility here Ė I mostly played by typing in commands, but a few times when I ran into disambiguation issues (primarily when I was trying to mess around stacking furniture to see if I could break the game), the ability to click links made it incredibly robust to mischief and player screwing-around.
While the puzzles, and the size-changing mechanics, are the real stars of the show, thereís plenty to like about the narrative side of things too. The other members of your family donít rise much above stereotypes, but theyíre lovingly drawn and appealing nonetheless. TIB is another game that references the pandemic, but instead of using it as a tool of horror or isolation, instead it focuses on the way people and families can come together and support each other through a tough time, which is always a lovely message but is especially so right now.
Is TIB a perfect game? No, probably not Ė the solution to the dinosaur puzzle feels a little too unintuitive to me, for one Ė but it is a delightful one (you can get all the way through to the end and never realize that you can play the-floor-is-lava!), and, as I keep repeating, really just magic.
This was my favorite game of the 2020 Comp.