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An impossible follow-up, August 8, 2022
(I beta tested this game, so this is more a short series of impressions than a full review)
If ever there was a tough act to follow, The Impossible Bottle is it. Co-winner of the 2020 IF Comp Ė out of a field of 103 Ė TIB dazzled with a space-warping gimmick for its puzzles, but was more than merely clever, adding winning characters and impeccable implementation. It also proved an excellent demonstration of author Linus Ňkessonís bespoke IF system, Dialog, allowing for interaction just as smooth and deep as anything you can manage in Inform or TADS while also letting the player get through the game without typing and just using hyperlinks instead. Anyone of sound mind would think twice before asking players to compare their game to TIB, but thatís just the situation The Impossible Stairs is in: the present author, Brian Rushton, offered to write a sequel game as a prize in that yearís Comp, Linus picked that prize, and here we are.
Wisely, TIS mostly doesnít try to one-up TIB; itís a smaller game, and while it too has a gimmick (thatís actually a rather elegant complement to that of the former game, messing with time while TIB messed with space), said gimmick is comparatively straightforward, and the scope of the game, and difficulty of the puzzles, are both much more modest this time out. Thatís definitely not a bad thing Ė thereís nothing here like that &^% dinosaur from TIB, for one thing, and this is still a satisfying slice of game, probably taking an hour or so to solve and offering at least one or two aha moments as you figure out how to use the strange properties of the titular staircase to resolve the trickier conundrums.
Still, there is one area where itís at least competitive with TIB, and dare I say it, maybe even one-ups the original, which is the cast of characters. Both games are family affairs, casting you as a daughter doing chores before a party. TIBís Emma is a child of six, and her interactions with her loving but distracted parents Ė and kinda-jerky older brother Ė are sweet but donít draw from too rich of an emotional palette given her youth. TISís CJ, though, is an adult (well, mostly), and gets to interact with a broader set of relatives, including her father, grandmother, a cousin, and an uncle, in the course of checking the items off her (well-implemented) to-do list. These conversations are also spread over several different time periods, with characters aging, changing personalities and circumstances or even sometimes passing away as the decades progress. The gameís definitely not a downer, donít get me wrong, and while the menu-driven dialogue is well-written it isnít an elaborate focus of gameplay like in an Emily Short game Ė but still, thereís a surprising poignancy to seeing these kind, well-meaning people at different stages of their lives, and learn to hold on to their memories once some family members are no longer there.