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Number of Reviews: 3
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To those of us who aren't fluent enough in French, German, Italian, or even Spanish to tackle a piece of IF in those languages (every other command turns into a guess-the-verb-issue, unless you know a language well enough)—to us the French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. IF communities are in effect parallel universes.
There may be all kinds of interesting things going on there that we know nothing about, and only all too seldom do portals open up into those other worlds, as with Montfort’s translation of Peláez’s Olvido Mortal or, now, JB's first (I think) game adressed to an English speaking audience: Works of Fiction.
JB is, judging from the information that does trickle between worlds, one of the fixed stars of the French IF universe (he seems to be best known, perhaps, for Filaments and Ekphrasis). Also, it seems that he has a soft spot for Glulx effects—at least Ekphrasis is said to make extensive (and essential) use of images and sounds.
Works of Fiction certainly relies heavily on Glulx: there is a slideshow, there is music, and there are split windows. Actually, the game is a full scale implementation of the idea found in Zarf’s Glulx-demo Two Columns. The story unfolds largely in several parallel worlds at once, with the game’s window split up to show all the worlds separately and simultaneously.
You play Gerard Lescroc, literary agent of an author about to receive the Philip K. Dick Memorial Prize at an SF-convention (you've bribed the jury to make sure of that). However, due to an overdose of extra strong black French coffe, laced with absinth (or whatever—apparently the recipe is a professional secret known only to the guild of SF-writers), you fancy yourself Paul Atreides, Messiah of the Fremen of Dune, Luke Skywalker, the Last Jedi, and Kevin Flynn of Tron fame, all at the same time.
The player, then, has to guide Lescroc around in his native world, to achieve the goals of some one of his alter egos in their parallel worlds. This includes entering several commands telling Lescroc to do things in and to his world that he himself is prevented from doing and that can only be carried out in his world via corresponding actions of his famous alter egos in theirs. (The previous sentence may actually make sense, once you’ve tried the game.)
Unsurprisingly, this gets Lescroc into trouble. Apparently, there are limits to how weird you may behave even at an SF-convention (though the security guard at the convention really goes to some extremes to constrain poor Lescroc in the ordinary, ‘mundane’ world).
Before his troubles are anything but over, Lescroc make a bad joke about David Lynch, whereupon Orson Welles makes a cameo appearance, and after that things get really strange and messy, with Lescroc jumping back and forth between worlds in a way not unlike the protagonist of Dual Transform and with another dozen or so of pop culture references thrown in for good measure.
In the latter part of the game, the player may well feel quite at a loss as to what he’s supposed to do (as does Lescroc, to be sure). Actually, the first part, too, is somewhat underclued and underimplemented. Navigation between rooms often uses IN and OUT instead of compass directions (which frustrated me a bit before I found that out). And, yes, you can see plainly at times that English isn’t JB’s native tongue.
And then there’s the problem with making the story file work with the interpreter you run on your operating system. The author says, at the game’s web page, that Linux and Mac users may meet with varying success. Well, on the Mac the game wouldn’t even open with Zoom under OS X.4. Unexpectedly, the best result (though not perfectly successful) was to be had with Spatterlight under OS X.3.9! I haven’t tried the Windows version, but it seems that it is the preferred one.
Yet, in spite of these nuisances, I’d still say the game is most definitely worth a play.
In Works of Fiction, you play as a shady publisher who drinks a drug cocktail he probably shouldn't have and begins experiencing multiple realities simultaneously. The way this plays out on-screen is certainly innovative: the text begins branching into more and more columns; performing actions in "reality" will have corresponding effects in every other universe open to you. This opens the way for some clever puzzles, and it's worth a play just to see this device in action.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't live up to its premise. Much of it can be explained away by the fact that English isn't the author's first language: phrasing and spelling range from awkward to nearly incomprehensible. This in itself spoils a lot of the game's one-liners and makes a few puzzles needlessly difficult. However, there's more than just a language gap here. Navigation is difficult, as most rooms descriptions don't list exits. There's also at least one non-standard verb; (Spoiler - click to show)although the game teaches it to you when you'll first need it, it crops up several more times, with just enough space in between that you may have forgotten about its existence. There are also times when something seems like a puzzle, but in fact is simply window dressing; later in the game you'll move the story forward by increasingly arbitrary actions, while meaningful ones are ignored. In all, this results in a hideously unbalanced experience: some puzzles are laughably easy, whereas others seem to require psychic abilities. And interacting with items is always a mixed bag: half of the things described in the text don't actually exist in play.
And then there's the overall tone of the game. The split-worlds thing was cool, but about halfway through it degenerates into a meaningless series of pop-culture references, pointless jokes about Orson Welles and David Lynch, and music and images that seem to exist for no reason other than to increase the size of the download. Reading in another review that the author is one of the stars of the French IF scene, and waiting upwards of fifteen minutes for the download to complete, I expected, at worst, a flawed masterpiece. What I got instead was a smart premise that falls apart halfway through in favor of poorly-designed puzzles and a series of unfunny in-jokes. I can only conclude that JB's IF is best savored not in translation.
Nice touches to the writing throughout, but what really got me was the main device, which is a corker, like nothing I've seen before (so much so that I'm surprised that no-one's talking about it).
Unfortunately I didn't get more than about halfway due to technical trouble (tried Gargoyle and Git on Linux) -- don't know if it's the game or the terps. But lookit anyway!