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An overwhelming, narratively ineffective introduction to Something, November 12, 2021
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.