Barcarolle in Yellow

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A stylish and ambitious miss, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

Film noir and gritty crime movies are a passion for me, and so the cover and blurb for Barcarolle in Yellow hooked me. The cover is a gorgeous red background superimposed by large haunting eyes and a yellow line falling from one eye to a police chalk-outline, reminiscent of the film posters of Saul Bass. The blurb tells of Barcarolle in Yellow as a lost exploitation flick with an ill-fated production and alternate endings only found on Betamax. (The blurb is so deadpan, I Googled to see if it was a real movie.)

The game itself is an homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, stylish entertainments of beautiful women, fashionable set and costume design, sensuality, and violence. The first scene opens with the police grilling the protagonist, who finally launches into a flashback: “From the beginning? That was a long time ago…”

You are Eva Chantry, a British B-movie actor seeking your big break. You’re phoning in a bit part in a film of another infectious Italian genre, the spaghetti Western. News of a starring role in a giallo sends you to Venice, where the intrigue proper begins.

Barcarolle in Yellow toys with the line between reality and script. It is difficult at any point to know if you’re in-scene or in “reality.” Illusion, film, and photography are thematic elements, which draws to mind movies like Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Still, the game always remains closer to it’s giallo roots—there’s at least three scenes where Eva’s clothes come off, and one span where they remain off for a surprisingly long time. Some of the notes in the final scenes are psychically jarring, and not mere horror-movie gore.

The blurred line between reality and script is most visible in you, the player, being coached—and often forced—through game scenes. The restrictions are usually framed in terms of Eva remaining in her movie part, although it’s hard to know when the cameras are rolling in front of her, or only rolling in her head. At first, I found playing the actor directed to stay on script an interesting choice for interactive fiction. As the game progressed, the novelty wore off.

There’s so much that could have been expanded upon—after all, you’re in Venice, a beautiful city of so much history. Straying off the dictated path will get you scolded by the narrator urging you on to your next goal (which I took as Eva’s psyche, and the dissociative disorders actors sometimes experience off-stage).

The largest problems, by far, are parser-related. Too often I found myself struggling to find the right term, when some basic programmed synonyms and clearer descriptions would have saved me some hassle. It’s surprisingly easy to die in places. The tight timing of some scenes mean that you have not a turn to waste or be killed. In other places, I found myself flailing around trying to find the right trigger to move the scene on to its next beat.

I really wanted to love this game. It opened with great promise. Eva could have been developed more, the scenes allowed to breathe, and the parser problems cleaned up. Barcarolle in Yellow feels like an early draft of an ambitious interactive fiction that needed more time in development.

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