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A tedious middle chapter, September 22, 2023
In one review or other I know I mentioned a game I used to play with my college friends, where we’d try to determine the smallest possible unit of goodness in a particular field – like, we determined that when it came to music, Jimmy Eat World’s song The Middle was the example to pick, because while it was good, it was good in a minor, sort of boring way, and if it were any less good, it would be bad (I could not now reconstruct the rationale for this determination if I tried, but I remember we were very confident about it). The reason this memory came back to me while I was playing Jesse Stavro’s Compass is that I uncharitably wondered whether it might be the mirror image of the thing we spent so much time looking for: a piece of IF that’s somehow only an inch away from being good, but nevertheless winds up slightly, boringly bad.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that based on the setup: the game opens with the protagonist reaching an empty motel in the desert in search of his friend Jesse. All is not as it seems, though; Jesse and the protagonist are both part of an occult underground who can travel through space using what are basically magic portals, which are locked and inert unless you happen to know the key, and this motel happens to be a nexus of many different gates. Jesse’s been able to travel through time, too – last you heard, he was following the Dead – but he also might have run afoul of one of the various larger factions with their own agendas for the network of portals. It’s not a bad pitch – some of the specifics feel a little derivative of the DnD Planescape setting, but hey, I like Planescape – but it’s conveyed in a very dry, expository fashion via a series of short journal entries that communicate what’s going on but aren’t especially engaging.
This slightly-downer vibe of solid ideas with low-energy execution stuck with me through the rest of the game. There are fair number of different locations to visit, for example, including a nice apartment building and a riverboat, but the maps are too big, with multiple empty locations and redundant, copy-and-pasted descriptions that make exploration feel enervating rather than exciting. There are cutscenes that progress the story, but they assume deeper investment in the game’s lore than I was able to muster, and often go on too long (there’s an extended tarot reading where you need to sit through a maundering explanation of ten different cards, with the only interactive element an occasional “Do you understand? Y/N” prompt). There are a bunch of characters, but none of them have voices that stand especially out from the baseline, often-profane authorial style – like, there’s one rich guy who owns the penthouse apartment and we’re told his every gesture “conveys an aura of refined sophistication”, and after you take a shower he tells you that he’s glad that you “no longer look like ass”.
The puzzles and challenges are the same way, too, reasonable in theory but underwhelming in practice. There’s one where you need to lure a cat in from a ledge using some cat food, but if you drop the can right next to the cat or right next to the window rather than the intended spot in the middle of the ledge, there’s no feedback that you’re on the right track or rationale for why nothing’s happening. Midway through, one of the factions mentioned in the backstory mount a surprise attack, and you need to shoot your way through a bunch of near-identical goons; the combat is governed by chance, so all there is to do is blast away and undo-scum if things don’t go your way, which doesn’t lead to much in the way of pulse-pounding excitement (this sequence did elicit an emotional response, though, since I felt awkward when I realized that the only Asian characters in the game were a legion of interchangeable goons whose only purpose was to show up and take a bullet).
I should emphasize that there’s clearly been a lot of effort put into the game; it’s technically clean, the world is big, and there’s even an achievement system. Plus I suspect it suffers from being the middle part what appears to be a trilogy – the bottom-lined recap that opens the game presumably would land better if I’d actually played the prior installment, and the low-context infodump at the ending would presumably be more compelling if I could immediately see where it leads. Middle segments are hard!
Still, they’re not impossible – The Two Towers and Empire Strikes Back are the best parts of their respective trilogies, after all. For example, that dull summary that opens the game could have been turned into a more engaging flashback that actually gave the player a reason to invest in their relationship to Jesse, and did some showing rather than mere telling to establish the supernatural elements of the setting (honestly, this would probably have been a good idea even for folks who’d played the first installment, given that it was released almost a decade ago and under a different authorial nom de plume, at that).
Circling back to my extended and not-that-illuminating Jimmy Eat World metaphor from the top of the review, despite all these cavils I didn’t have an awful time with this one. But unlike how I would listen to The Middle, think to myself “this is fine”, but notice my foot tapping along nonetheless, I played the game, thought to myself “this is fine”, and then my foot resolutely refused to move. Jesse Stavro’s Compass could rock, at least a little, and it might not take big changes to get there – just a lot of little changes to flip all those moments of slight irritation, slight awkwardness, or slight boredom to their opposites.