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An entertaining and puzzling tale of adolescence, December 13, 2020
To me, there's something deeply satisfying about a text adventure set in a (Spoiler - click to show)school with hidden passages. It evokes a kind of nostalgia, not perhaps for the puberty years themselves (they were mostly terrible), but for the particular flavour of escapism that appealed to me at the time. The writing is often adolescent, in a way that can be embarrassing or off-putting to an adult reader, but which also paints a raw and honest picture of what's going through the mind of a seventeen-year-old.
And here we get to what I consider the most brilliant aspect of this story: While reading it, you (Spoiler - click to show)gradually realize that the story, which starts out mundane, veers into wish-fulfillment territory, and then turns increasingly preposterous, might just be the rambling fabrications ("bullhockey", as it were) of an unreliable narrator—whom you keep humouring because you just have to know how it's all going to end. And this is a brilliant move on the part of the author, because it turns the tables on the reader: What seems at first like a rather puerile and sexist case of self-insertion must be reassessed as an astute portrait of the adolescent narrator-protagonist. Of course the story doesn't pass the Bechdel test, and of course the protagonist suddenly finds himself surrounded by fawning, attractive love interests, because the story is told in the voice of a self-aggrandizing, stereotypical straight male teenager. It was style all along—and the joke's on us for not realizing it earlier.
Mechanics-wise, a lot of effort has gone into making the game merciful. At one point I managed to put it in an unwinnable state (if you (Spoiler - click to show)wear the robe too early, it's not possible to get back into the school building), but that was an exception: Overall the implementation is robust. The story feels on rails, in the sense that many of the puzzles have a linear dependence on each other and can only be solved in one particular order. But for a story-driven game of this size, it can be a blessing to know what your immediate goal is, and where you're supposed to be looking for a solution. Unfortunately some of the puzzles are insufficiently clued. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show)to get into the announcer booth, you need a certain remote controller that you may have stumbled over in an earlier scene. But the clue for why this would be a reasonable approach is hidden in the examine-text of the remote controller. So if you fail to notice and pick up the remote controller, you'll be stuck outside the announcer booth with no idea where to look. When you get stuck like that, it really hurts the flow of the narrative, which otherwise does an admirable job of keeping up the momentum and urgency.
Halfway through the game, I already had a habit of checking the walkthrough whenever I got stuck. Seeing the solution, I'd occasionally kick myself for not figuring it out. Just as often I had figured it out, but the game was expecting a particular turn of phrase, and gave misleading responses to my attempts. Sometimes the solution didn't make sense until after I'd typed it in and seen what happened. But I believe that with further testing, more nudges, and better support for different ways of expressing the same intent, all of these problems could eventually be fixed. In its current state, though, the game cannot be completed without the walkthrough.
But here's the thing: Despite those mild misadventures of game design, I kept going for hours upon hours, in part because of the agreeable setting, but mostly because I wanted to see how it all ended. And I'm not talking about the mystery of whodunit: I had figured out the identity of (Spoiler - click to show)the culprits and victims quite early based on the law of conservation of detail, so the dramatic reveals felt more like checking off boxes (which again worked beautifully in the narrative context, and was probably just what the author intended). No, I kept going because I wanted to see the full extent of this rambling, crazy story that was, above all, entertaining. So thank you, B F Lindsay, for all those hours of fun!