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(I originally published this review on 18 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 20th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
Spiral gives the player two protagonists, one male, one female. The two don't know each other but wake to find themselves bound and gagged and stuck on a moving train. What lies ahead for them and for the player are puzzly dream and afterlife scenarios which are manifestations of the characters' various crises.
If you played the entries from the 2011 IFComp, you may have a sensation that games in which characters run a morality-tinged gauntlet in the afterlife are on the ascendancy. Spiral is of this ilk, and while it does make use of symbolically charged landscapes and a little fire and brimstone / Dante's Inferno type imagery, it also has some conceptual tricks and strengths which give off more of a sci-fi vibe. Overall, it's a game whose establishing sections I preferred to its body. The large and persistence-demanding middle section, involving the tracking down of many objects, was less interesting to me than trying to get a sense of how the whole story worked in the first place, what was going on.
After I first completed Spiral (and learned that (Spoiler - click to show)I had reached one of the Unsuccessful endings from the six available overall), I had the feeling that I should probably have understood what had happened over the course of the game better than I did. I'd begun the adventure by using the proffered REMEMBER and THINK commands to draw some initial backstory on both characters as they lay in the train, learned that I could switch between characters using the BE command, and that I could enter their dream worlds by going to SLEEP.
The core of this review discusses the game in a manner where spoilers are frequent and unavoidable, so it is entirely enclosed here: (Spoiler - click to show)Ross's dream world consists of a giant environment-destroying machine in space, Helen's of something like a flaming mountain in purgatory. The nature of each protagonist's dreamscape reflects the nature of their anxieties in life, Ross with his environmental politics which apparently became mixed up with extremism, and Helen with her self-assessed shallowness. Ross needs to find pieces of his soul in his world, Helen pages from the book of her life in hers, but I was stymied as both. When I eventually turned to the walkthrough, I found that an idea that I was never going to have tried was the key to unlocking progress for the rest of the game: that I pass objects from one protagonist's dreamscape to the other's by "destroying" them after a fashion, dropping them into the waste in Ross's world or into the flames in Helen's.
Somewhat stunned but also fatigued by this discovery after playing for more than an hour, I experienced a sense of disorientation and wondered if I should begin the game anew. The next day I decided that I should simply press on if I wanted to have a shot at completing Spiral in under two hours, however, I never felt that I got my mojo back or that I was making particularly good sense of things after this point. This is obviously just one of those things that can happen when playing a game if you're unlucky, but with the time pressure of the competition on me I didn't necessarily have the opportunity to recover from it as I normally might have in another context. I'm just describing this experience here because it's my first year experiencing IFComp from the player-voter's seat.
In retrospect, the various kinds of separation of the two characters from one another makes for a strong concept. The fact that they are together on the train and within a few feet of each other, yet might as well be miles apart because their bindings and gags basically prevent any communication between them, is reflected in the absolute separation of the dream worlds. Even in their ability to pass objects to one another, which would normally be a kind of communication, there is no acknowledgement in the prose by either character that this is what they are actually doing, no thought at all as to who might have supplied an object which just fell from the sky into their current location. The only problem of course is that with no mutual acknowledgement by the characters, the idea that they could trade objects is never conveyed to the player in the first place, at least that I saw. And this idea must be conveyed, somehow. It's too huge a game mechanic to be left to chance.
By trading puzzle solving props as required and inching their way through new rooms in their respective environments, Ross and Helen both reveal chunks of their backstory and ultimately may find some or all of their respective treasures, the soul crystals or the pages from the book. In my case I found all seven of Helen's pages but few of Ross's crystals. I have a suspicion I locked myself out of some locations in Ross's world by sending Helen a prop I needed Ė a wall-cutting sickle Ė at an inopportune moment, but I'm not sure. It was apparent to me that the purpose of the characters' adventures was for them to make some kind of peace with the less than ideal lives they'd lived up until now, in readiness for an afterlife or heaven or hell or nonexistence or something. But I didn't work out the context for all this. I don't know if the train in which the characters were bound and gagged was a metaphorical train to the afterlife or a train that the characters were really on or both. Over the course of the game, the player learned that Ross was involved with an anarchist-leftist group which eventually planted a bomb on a train. Ross sought to stop the bomb going off, but a late scene in the game of a flaming train underground suggests he failed. Or was that his imagination? Or a memory or a dream?
The final stages of the game added another layer of perplexedness to my experience. The player can suddenly use the BE command at this point to take control of a wasp trapped in the train carriage with the protagonists. Then you can sting them to death. This is the only way for them to die, as suicidal actions taken by the humans only result in them being kicked into or out of their dreamscapes. And in truth, I really wanted the game to end at this point, as it seemed there had been several scenes in a row suggesting the end was imminent (Helen finding all her pages, an escape from the flaming train, the murder of some symbolic Eraserhead / mutant Voldemort type baby on the flaming train) but the end still hadn't come. I only switched to the wasp after visiting the walkthrough for the umpteenth time. The ending I finally reached dropped me back into the initial predicament in the train carriage. So here was the spiral. Perhaps without sufficient atonement (enough treasures gathered) both characters are condemned to wander their dreamscapes of failure until they get things right.
While acknowledging that I experienced this game in a more confused than average state, I imagine I'd have been more involved in the whole thing had I been more involved with the characters. In spite of their initial elaborate (overwritten for Ross) statements about the predicament of being bound and gagged, I felt the information about the characters was delivered in weird disjointed chunks which, in combination with the nature of the information, never formed a clear picture of either person over the course of the game. The business of solving the puzzles across the two worlds is normally something I would really like, but it felt like hard slog here, probably because I wasn't digging the carrots, the dollops of backstory. There's lots to admire in Spiral; the solid programming, the conceptual strengths of the design, the scope of the whole thing. But I found it to be at least as confusing as thought-provoking.
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.
Spiral is a dark surreal game about despair and the possibility of getting a second chance. It is very well implemented, and quite atmospheric at times, but the relentless darkness gets tiresome after a while.
(Spoiler - click to show)The game begins with one of the more original beginnings Iíve seen in an IF game: Two people Ė a man and a woman Ė wake up in a mysterious train, tied up, gagged and unable to act in any way. The player starts the game as one of the characters, but quickly discovers that itís possible to switch between them at will, using the BE command. Itís never quite explained how the player can do this, but the game does imply some answers, which I will get to later.
To make up for the initial lack of agency, the game introduces both a THINK and REMEMBER command, so you can learn about the two characters. At first I thought this might be a game entirely about thinking and remembering, but there turned out to be a lot more too it. A game where you are completely unable to act might be pretty cool, though. Sort of like Rameses, except with actual physical restraints instead of mental ones. Stuck as a passive observer, your only options would be to think and observe, trying to make sense of your situation. But I digress.
Anyway, while the game turned out to be about a lot more than being tied up in a surreal hell-train, I did spend a lot of time just examining everything and thinking. This was in no small part due to the impressive depth of the implementation. Not only can you think, and think, and think, gradually remembering a massive amount of information about the character you are currently playing as, but you can also examine both yourself and the other character several times, getting different perspectives each time. Even the room description changes subtly depending on the perspective. On the one hand, this is technically no different than just writing one really long description, and maybe having the player press a button to get the next text-dump. On the other hand, it totally worked on me, and I felt completely immersed in examining and thinking over and over again. Somehow, deciding which piece of information to read next felt like a meaningful choice, which helped me identify with the characters.
The male character, Ross, is a young radical leftie whose friend tried to bomb the London Underground, and may have succeeded. He is also traumatized by the death of his mother, whom he called by her first name for no particular reason. He seems to have become disillusioned with the socialist cause, and no longer believes that society can be saved.
The woman, Helen, is a religious girl, who suffers from both guilt and depression because she got pregnant after a wild party, and had an involuntary abortion. She considers herself a horrible sinner beyond redemption.
After spending some time getting to know the backgrounds, you are told that you are sleepy, and this is where the real game begins. Going to sleep sends you into a symbolic dream world where the locations and items represent the neuroses of the character. Each of the two characters have their own private hell to explore: Rossí is a gigantic machine funnelling everything, including his soul, into the maws of a giant beast. Helenís is the fiery hell in which she feels she belongs, filled with fiery lakes and reminders of her life. As you explore these hellscapes, new topics become available for ďrememberingĒ.
The writing is dark, brooding and metaphorious. Everything is described in dark, depressive terms, with metaphors scattered everywhere like the dead wasps littering the floor of the train car. At first, I found this to be atmospheric, but as time passed it started to grate on me. Everything is horrible and depressing to these people; Their lives, society, their friends; Itís all terrible. It would have been nice if the characters had had some kind of positive passions and interests to break up the monotonous darkness, but everything in the dreamworlds seems to represent some kind of neurosis. Nothing is ever just an interest, or a neutral character trait.
The objectives to be completed are basically scavenger hunts: Ross is trying to recover the pieces of his soul, which have been scattered by The Beast. Helen is similarly trying to collect the pages of the book of her life, to figure out what it all meant. This serves the usual scavenger hunt purpose of making the player see all the interesting parts of the game world, but also starts to seem a bit mechanical after a while. None of the items to be collected have any unique properties, you are not even allowed to read the pages of the book, so they are basically just tokens that prove you managed to reach them.
The actual puzzles are generally good, avoiding the usual problems with surreal games that only makes sense to the author. I loved the little surreal puzzle features, like being able to peel a door off a wall, and use it to gain access to other locations. Unfortunately, the game suffers from the fact that the central puzzle mechanic Ė being able to pass objects from one dream world to another Ė is completely unintuitive. I donít think I would ever have figured it out if I hadnít spoiled myself by peeking at some of the other reviews before I wrote this one. The problem is that the thing you have to do to transfer the objects, either feeding them to the beast or throwing them in the lake of fire, seem like they ought to be destructive, and is not really something most players are likely to try spontaneously.
To make matters worse, the game has no hint system. Instead, typing HINT results in one of those infuriating messages where the author pedagogically encourages you to keep exploring, and tells you to write him if you really need help. Please do not do this. I am not interested in writing e-mails when Iím in the middle of playing your game, especially not when Iím trying to finish it before the Comp deadline. And are you really sure that your e-mail address will still be valid ten years from now, when some starry-eyed IF enthusiast digs up your game from the archives? And will you still remember the puzzles by then? Luckily, the game does come with a walkthrough, so I was able to finish it, but using the walkthrough is never ideal since itís hard to avoid spoiling yourself. Please always include a hint system.
For some reason, there are a lot of puzzles involving the creation of bridges by placing poles in holes. If this has some kind of symbolic significance it went completely over my head.
After you manage to completely at least one of the scavenger hunts, you are transferred to the burnt out wreck of the train that has been bombed by Rossí socialist/anarchist friend. Here you have the opportunity to kill some kind of horrible humanoid thing, after which you are back in the train car, where you get to possess a bee and kill yourself, which somehow brings the other character back to life, after which you, as the bee, commits suicide and you get a long ending cut-scene. Somehow getting one of the characters killed prevents the tragic event of the other characterís life from occurring, maybe providing a possibility of happiness? You are then somehow rescued from some kind of horrible facility, which may be connected to the train car, maybe, and the other character turns into a still-born infant or something, and Iíve long since stopped trying to make any sense of this.
I am, to say the least, not entirely sure what this is trying to say, if anything. Did I change the past by sacrificing one character for another, or were the events not determined in the first place before I somehow chose which possible world to actualize? Were these characters connected by some kind of karmic thread that meant only one of them could get to live a happy life? Perhaps you are a single soul trying to choose a destiny, which is why you can change between the two characters? I have no idea, but it was a pretty engrossing experience none the less.
I actually gave this a much higher score in the Comp. I was thoroughly engrossed for the first two hours, but as I played through the rest of the game, I got more and more tired of the relentless darkness, and increasingly inscrutable surreality. Itís still a very well implemented game, and definitely worth playing, but I think it could be improved with some editing. Iím not sure how, though.
In this darkly atmospheric game, you play as two different characters bound on a train. The game allows you to switch back and forth between these characters.
The main gameplay is set in two seemingly disconnected areas: a giant pit of hell, and a vast machine chewing up the earth and feeding it to a horrible beast.
In both areas, you are trying to collect pieces of yourself or your memories. Painful recollections come to mind.
This game is nonintuitive; there are some pretty crazy leaps you have to make to get the game started. The very biggest leap (which you need to know pretty early on) is that (Spoiler - click to show)by destroying something in one world, you can make it appear in another. A much milder spoiler is the command to switch between worlds: (Spoiler - click to show)BE [PERSON].
I got one bad ending and one good ending. I like this kind of story. If you like this game, you may like Sentencing Mr. Liddell.
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