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Thoughtful sci-fi let down by its last act, April 10, 2021
Graham Nelson’s adage about an adventure game being a crossword at war with a narrative doesn’t fully apply to Some Space, but it came to mind when I was playing because while both the puzzles and the story are robustly worked out, it didn’t seem like they interacted with each other all that much. There were some loose thematic links, and some minor fallout for success or failure, but nothing that felt commensurate with the difficulty of the puzzles, which are occasionally quite involved. And then I got to the end and it turned out the game’s concerns were actually quite different than I thought they were, and I felt like the narrative wasn’t just at war with the crossword, but with itself.
Backing up, said narrative is one of space-immigration, as the main character is a human who’s decided to take a new job on an alien planet. The overall setting is lightly sketched – it appears to be somewhat Star Trek-y, with multiple species all more or less getting along in a single interconnected society, albeit the economy is clearly still capitalist and the different species still strongly retain their native culture. That sketchiness works because this isn’t a space opera with deep politics or galaxy-shaking revelations: the main character’s new job is in marketing, and the story is about being far from where you come from, trying to make new friends and fit into a new home that plays by very different rules.
Some Space starts in medias res, as the main character is chatting with a fellow human expat also on his way to that same alien planet. We never get much of the main character’s backstory, but this expat – named Amar – plays a significant role in the plot, as he’s one of those gregarious types who makes friends everywhere, and as it turns out is soon the only other human the main character knows on the whole planet. The story’s structure alternates between three kinds of scenes: the main character starting the new job; exploring the city and running errands on their own; and hanging out with Amar and, eventually, his friends. Transitions between the scenes are usually punctuated by the main character checking their phone for news and messages, usually getting one from Amar or another friend – which will typically lead into another scene – and almost always having one from the main character’s mom – which they invariably ignore and leave unread.
Speaking of messages, that’s also where the puzzles come in, because your new hosts, the Koilians, communicate via “puzzlespeak,” which means that you can’t read an orientation memo without looking for hidden meaning. There are a number of puzzle types, mostly different kinds of ciphers, and you need to demonstrate you’ve solved them by choosing the right option for where and when a meeting is being held, or occasionally by typing the answer into a text box. I’m not a cryptographic maven, so I found the puzzles rather challenging, or at least I did until I decided to bend the rules and use various online solvers to expedite matters – I figured the main character has a smartphone and access to a forum for expats swapping tips about how to understand puzzlespeak, so it’s not implausible that they’d be doing the same thing!
For the most part the puzzles don’t gate progress – rather, you can solve them and behave appropriately, or fail to solve them and irritate the Koilians by your inability to follow simple directions. As far as I could make it, there aren’t significant consequences, though, with a missed message meaning that you might be in for some minor embarrassment but no real plot impact. Puzzles that lack much narrative impact are fine, I think, so long as they’re simple – which these aren’t – or if they’re thematically connected to the narrative. Here, the puzzles are all cryptographic, and as an immigrant, the main character faces lots of difficulties communicating, so there’s some general linkage – or at least I thought there was, until I got to the last fifth or so of the game.
Despite appearances, Some Space isn’t primarily about the immigrant experience. I’ll put the rest of this discussion behind spoilers, but to summarize, a different theme becomes very prominent towards the end, and I thought it didn’t fit well with what came before as well as not having any resonance with the codebreaking puzzles.
(Spoiler - click to show)What Some Space actually wants to talk about is domestic violence. This is part of the main character’s backstory – a primary reason we’ve left earth and are ignoring our mom, it appears, is that our brother hit his kids, and our mom is defending him. And it’s also part of the main action, as the final sequence hinges on Amar being beaten up by his Koilian boyfriend, and then arrested by racist (Koilian) cops who blame him while letting the abusive boyfriend go free. I didn’t feel like this twist worked. First, it undermined the rest of the story for me – I was enjoying the experience of learning about another culture and trying to fit in with it, so seeing that society and one of its main representatives suddenly portrayed in this way made it feel like the main character’s efforts to get along with the Koilians were misguided. Second, it didn’t feel like it rang true with Amar’s characterization, as he’s portrayed as a kind, outgoing, talkative person, while his boyfriend comes off as a monosyllabic grump even before he’s revealed as an abuser; it was very hard to understand what we were supposed to understand Amar saw in him. I get that it’s hard to write this stuff in a way that doesn’t come off as melodramatic Lifetime-movie-of-the-week material, but all the more reason not to cram such a plot into a small part of the story. And finally, the swerve into melodrama made all the time spent on letter-substitution ciphers seem even more incongruous and unrelated to the story Some Space is telling.
It didn’t help matters that I sometimes found the game a bit clunky. There’s timed text, and I thought the custom font the author used wasn’t easy on the eyes. I did run into a few technical issues, with the game once hanging and forcing a restart after I failed to type in the correct answer to a puzzle. And while the writing is generally good, beyond the characterization issues mentioned above sometimes I found the worldbuilding didn’t fully hold together. For example, even though the Koilians are portrayed as hard for humans to understand, the main character often decodes their emotions with no difficulty, noting that one looks aghast, or perks up when you enter, which is at odds with the sense of displacement that the main character should be feeling.
Still, none of this slight wonkiness did much to detract from my enjoyment of the game, since for the first 80% of the game I was having fun as a code-breaking fish out of water – but for me, unfortunately the final act left Some Space less than the sum of its parts.