by Justin Morgan profile

Horror , Surreal

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Great atmosphere, but what's the point?, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

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.

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Andrew Schultz, April 3, 2015 - Reply
This reminds me of my experience with the game--there's a lot to like, and I got exhausted near the end. While I generally remember the beginning of a game better, it's particularly strong here. The ending is something I played through twice trying to grasp, but I didn't quite.
Christina Nordlander, March 23, 2015 - Reply
I've enjoyed reading your review a lot, but would you mind spoiler-tagging the more spoilery paragraphs? Or at the very least point out at the start of the review that it contains spoilers.
Simon Christiansen, March 23, 2015 - Reply
Of course. The reviews used to be on a blog where you had to click "Continue" to read beyond the first paragraph, so I completely forgot about spoiler tagging when moving them here :).
Christina Nordlander, March 24, 2015 - Reply
Thanks for fixing it! And I apologise for being picky.
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