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Thought-provoking but difficult and strange., November 12, 2012
(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 – a wall-cutting sickle – 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.