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Brilliant introspection, February 20, 2013
The player's first encounter with Endless, Nameless (which I'll call EN) suggests a nostalgic trip to the 1980s: a neatly executed facsimile of a BBS leads one to what appears to be a decidedly adolescent Zork-like "fantasy" quest -- arbitrary puzzles, a cardboard environment, unexamined motivation (you are to slay a dragon), and, of course, sudden death. But sudden death that turns out to be surprisingly productive, for rather than proving final it transports the player to a different world -- a 1980s beach-house, full of facsimile adventurers "just like you", from whom you can obtain hints (Spoiler - click to show)(not always accurate) which will enable you to re-start the quest and do better next time.
It rapidly becomes clear, however, that this is not simply an ingenious hint system. These parallel worlds comment, not just on each other, but on interactive fiction both as an art and as a community. Layers of meaning are gradually revealed.
The "adventure" world is arbitrary, apparently thinly implemented, Infocom-era; it exists only for the sake of action -- and though there is almost nothing to see, there is plenty to achieve. The "interlife" world is described in detail, richly textured, full of multi-layered detail. But nothing can be done there; it is a place in which the most that one can hope to do is to acquire information. It is passive, enervate. The puzzles and "action" of the adventure world -- a world in which things happen -- are more compelling. To return to the adventure world is an escape.
This is, in a sense, playing with fire. Cadre sets up two caricatures: one of "old school" treasure-hunting adventure games, and one of "new wave" puzzle-free exploration and interaction. Each is taken to a sort of extreme, not just warts-and-all but warts-above-all, and the two are allowed to play off each other. Yet, caricatures though they are, they are incredibly finely judged and crafted. The craft and implementation are rock solid; the design subtle and knowing (Spoiler - click to show)(for instance, just as the leaflet in the mailbox points ingenuously at Zork, so the way in which you cross the labyrinth gestures, but far more subtly and in terms of the conceit that one is playing an "old school" adventure anachronistically, towards the most famous device in Cadre's Photopia)
And the message, too, is subtle. For the argument (and the real story) emerges not in either of these worlds, and not even in the contrast between them, but in their interaction. A back story is gradually revealed, and the back story poses questions about creativity in interactive fiction in an absorbing way. As the game proceeds, the back story comes to dominate the action, and this lays the ground for a fascinating endgame.
All this, I thought, worked superbly. What I found more difficult was a set of reflections on artistic communities, and probably the interactive fiction community in particular. Since this can hardly be discussed without giving away quite a bit about the ending of the game, I'm going to spoiler-tag the whole discussion.
(Spoiler - click to show)
At the bottom of the heap (literally) are "trolls". They are, EN indicates, poison to a community: they cannot be reasoned with, ignored, or conquered. Any contact with them sullies. The only solution is to exclude them, point blank. Not much higher than the trolls, however, are "hangers on": people who having entered the community by participating in its proper activities are now simply using it as a site for undirected and pointless social activities -- not directly destructive (as the trolls are) but parasitic and ultimately damaging. Above them are those who actively participate in and create the "adventure world". And still further above are those who have "got a life" -- who have appreciated that no amount of care will enable the artifice of the adventure world to resemble the subtlety of the real one.
Perhaps it's not fair to treat this as a sermon (Cadre himself has said that it isn't didactic); though it is couched in terms which seem to me to invite that reading, rather explicitly. As a diagnosis of community ills it's arguably reductive, simplistic, even inhumane. It insists of classifying not behaviour, but people. And there seemed to be (but perhaps it is my imagination) a degree of venom about it. As a more-or-less outsider to the community, it is hard to put my finger on what is going on; but this aspect of the game had the slightly uncomfortable feeling of walking in on the aftermath of someone else's marital row.
All in all, it's a great piece -- in many ways a brilliant piece. It has many levels, and many of them are impressive, thought-provoking and enjoyable, even if seasoned by a hint of acid.