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ADRIFT's Photopia, September 10, 2012
Unraveling God is linear, but non-chronological, puzzleless, story-centric IF (some have questioned whether or not it is truly IF, though I would vote 'yes'). It shares a lot in this way with Photopia. In fact, its opening uses a single, thematic word (optionally in color), almost exactly like Photopia. I think the game is different enough, though, that we can see this as an homage, a clear acknowledgment of Unraveling God's predecessor rather than merely a copy. Generally anything other than Photopia is going to fall short of Photopia, and I'd like to try to look at this game on its own merits, but the comparisons are inevitable.
That being said, I admit that Unraveling God's religious themes initially made me (an atheist) hesitant to give it a play. I expected it to be preachy and poorly-written, with foregone conclusions, as in some other religious IF I have attempted to tackle. That is not to say that religious IF can't be done right, but I hadn't seen one in the ADRIFT community capable of grabbing my interest. Still, Unraveling God has a high star rating, it placed well in 2002's IFComp, and it's been on several lists of recommended ADRIFT games... so I had to be wrong, right? Well... mostly, yes.
The specificity in setting pulled me in, especially being at a university. The writing is well done, and I finished the game with a feeling like, “Hm. Yeah. That was good.” In particular its protagonist, Gabriel Markson, a distinct character voice and style. This especially comes through even early on, after reading a fluff piece he's written about his experiments (in which he necessarily sounds upbeat), followed immediately by intensely cynical-- even sinister-- internal dialog. From the first few interactions I saw him in, I already got the sense that the protagonist was a ruthless cynic and a power-hungry jerk-- Varicella with less flair and more tenure. Especially in an ADRIFT game, a character of this style-- and this strongly written-- is a rarity. I had to play on.
Lots and lots of little things kept chipping away at my will to see the game through, I admit. A couple spelling or grammatical slip-ups I was willing to abide, but mostly I don't think the game's design has aged well. In particular, the granularity of the actions the game is willing to accept is super annoying. One must stand from a chair before looking at a bookshelf, you have to explicitly open doors before going through them, have to open a folder before reading an article, have to be holding the folder to open it, have to look at the desk to see the folder so you can pick it up first... these things really grated on me more than I suspect they might have a decade ago. At the very least, though, this character still intrigued me enough that I wanted to see his story to its end, so I persevered.
Then we hit the game's dialog. Again, these sections are all linear-- you can express Prof. Markson however you like, but you'll get the same outcomes anyway. The writing is believable to an extent. The supporting character, Claudia, is a stock religious alarmist character, questioning whether or not the advances of the professor's experiments should move forward. But she's also supposedly a science grad student, so I don't buy her dialog when, for example, she calls Galileo's notions “obscene.” (Really? So she believes in a geocentric universe?)
Admittedly, Mr. Watson likely had some difficulty putting himself into the shoes of a Christian believer in writing this dialog (he mentions his own leanings in an afterword), but it doesn't come out sounding incredibly natural. The dialog choices for Markson do feel more natural, especially given his character, but that feeling is damaged a bit by the fatalistically linear structure of the game.
Unlike Photopia, the writing lacks the subtlety and sympathy necessary to make me want to explore my expression of this character. I might have felt it mattered a little more had I interacted with Markson as another character, the way players jump between characters in Photopia, but this never happens. While the flexibility of the dialog does make me (as the player) feel the author has considered his audience rather than just feeding them all of the plot while they're tied to a chair, as a player I felt more concerned with just seeing what Professor Markson would do and what would happen to him.
Although Unraveling God is structured in such a way that it offers players an either/or moral choice at the end, the value of these choices is so clearly telegraphed-- and the quality of those endings varies so drastically-- that it can't really be imagined as a choice. The game's events, its cosmology, everything points at one answer and says, “Choose this because it's right.”
By contrast, (I guess this is a spoiler unless you've already played Photopia and have an idea what's coming) (Spoiler - click to show)Markson makes a drastic moral choice on his own in the climax of the story which the player is powerless to stop. Instead, it's more like we're an absent conscience watching, but unable to inform. In terms of affect, this moral decision by the player character is the more powerful than the one taken by the player in the ending.
On the whole, I think this might have been a 4 star game back in 2002-- even a 5 star game amongst the ADRIFT community-- but I'm just not sure it holds up as well today. It's still definitely worth a look, especially for those who like strongly characterized player characters, but do I judge it according to its importance and uniqueness from 2002 or against the relative quality of just other ADRIFT games or do I judge it on how it stands amidst a wider, evolving field of IF today? This seems more like a choice with no clearly right answer to me. I think the answer for me is to fall back on my own personal IFDB rating system: 3 stars-- I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary.