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Some places are like people: some shine and some don't, September 7, 2020
When I played Night Guard / Morning Star last year I noted that I was captivated by the writing and atmosphere and turned off by the multitude of endings. I feel similarly after playing Dalmady's Cactus Blue Motel and I'll dive further into the reasons why.
The general conceit of interactive fiction is that you are the primary character. The playing character may be a cipher, such as in Zork, or a specific character, such as Maria Elena here. Regardless, you are making decisions for that person.
In a pure puzzler, the author hopes to engage the player in the game's objective. In a comedy, the author hopes to make the player laugh, and character development may or may not be necessary. Drama, I suspect, is the hardest genre for IF authors, as they must make the player care about the characters, unwaveringly, for the entire game. The CYOA format highlights this difficult task, as there are no real puzzles to distract the player.
Dalmady succeeds, as usual, in building a fun atmosphere with compelling characters. A mystical desert motel where time is squishy is ripe for intrigue. But the game's format, unfortunately, usurps the development of Maria Elena. Eight endings are written for Maria Elena and the decisions that impact those endings are based on how you interact with her two friends, Lex and Becky, throughout the game. There are no puzzles and nothing to deduce, so all of the game's real choices are impacted by Maria Elena herself.
For my first playthrough, I made choices for Maria Elena by projecting my desires for her character. Subsequent playthroughs to find different endings required me to project different desires onto her. This requires me, essentially, to divorce myself from how I feel about our protagonist. I am no longer rooting for her, but rooting for myself to find different endings. Dalmady sidesteps the awkwardness a bit by making these choices not impact the course of the plot or even much of the game's dialogue; however, this in turn has the side effect of the eight endings feeling somewhat arbitrary (not to mention a chore to find via repetitive restarts), and Maria Elena's relationships wind up seeming so fragile that a couple of fairly innocuous comments drastically changes the course of their lives.
In the end, the focus on these three characters and their fates detracted from the game's best character, the motel. Such is the bane of CYOA: the focus dedicated to plot branches necessarily gives everything else less importance.