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A fictional game-within-a-game with fictional metacommentary, May 6, 2023
This is a large, ponderous game with many attachments. The image I had when starting was of a gigantic hamburger, one that you'd get at an artisanal place that is far too large to fit in your mouth. You pick it up; it looks good. You eye it, go to bite, hesitate, turn it. A piece of lettuce drops out. You grab it, but an onion is slipping out the other side. So you just start eating, bits dropping here and there, no longer able or willing to manage it all, just enjoying the burger.
The concept of this game is that there was a (fictional) game released in 1996 that was like Photopia ahead of its time, less focus on puzzles and more on story. But it's intentionally made to be like other games of that period, so I guess less like Photopia and more like In The End, which is referenced several times.
Seven years later, someone releases a transcript of the game, which becomes well-known, so a new round of criticism is generated.
This game, in the fictional history, was buggy and received poor reviews. Then, in 2021, the author was approached by some critics/fans who want to do a critical version of it, which he agrees to while they update it (kind of like the Anchorhead update and the Cragne Manor tribute, I suppose).
This game consists of the 'revised version', with an accompanying booklet with the transcript and some art. The revised version has art as well. An in-game guide consisting of critical materials is available in-game, slowly increasing in scope as you proceed.
The art is one of the highlights; the style is unique and well-executed, and the game may be worth playing for the art alone.
The game concept is that you have the ability to remove entropy from some sources and imbue it into others, having been gifted that power by an orange-eyed demon woman in your youth.
It serves as a metaphor for involuntary inaction, similar to ADHD or depression, where you can only use some external impulse to compel yourself to complete some task.
Your mother is dying in the hospital, and you need to go see her. There are several obstacles in the way, though.
Besides the main goal of the ending, there are many mini-deaths along the way. The more you get before the end, the better ending you get!
Except...even if you only get a few, you can see what the ending would have been for the other options. I only got 6 points, but I wasn't super motivated to see the other 27.
And let's talk about why.
This game is very polished. It had numerous testers, and it feels like it. There were only a few times I felt like there were 'bugs', like trying to (Spoiler - click to show)OPEN DOOR while on the roof and having it say that that's not something you can open. Overall, though, I'd say it has a high level of polish for a game in general, especially one of its size.
Where I found some difficulty was in knowing what to do a lot of times. I felt like the game swung between no details and overfull details for clues sometimes. Like finding deaths; I really couldn't figure out the mechanics behind finding deaths at all. There were no exposed electrical lines or broken glass that could obviously hurt me. And things that were dangerous (like a heavy tree branch) didn't respond to what I thought were death-inducing things (like pushing them). The hint menu has dozens of hints, but none of them at all are for the deaths except for an explicit listing of the exact actions you need. In the main storyline, too, I often found that the things I got most stuck on weren't in the hints at all. I suppose I was just on a different brainwave.
It might have helped to highlight relevant features in some way. For instance, the (Spoiler - click to show)AC unit is mentioned early on in the first line of the paragraph, in the middle of a list of a bunch of non-useful material. Given its significance in the story, it might have merited more prominent place, nearer the end of the paragraph.
Fortunately, the game is implemented well enough that even while struggling there are generally good responses to obtain while looking for something to interact with.
The three layers of Drew Cook (the real one, the author one, the PC one) all blend in interesting ways, positive ones, I feel.
It's hard to evaluate the quality of the in-game writing. I think I would like it, had I found it in the wild; however, all of the in-universe reviews, mostly written by the (real-world) author, praise the quality of the writing. They'll say (paraphrase) 'the writing was excellent, but the bugs were terrible'; it came up more than 4 or 5 times. It's kind of like trying to judge the natural light of the moon when someone has set up a dozen spotlights aiming up at it in an attempt to brighten it. Does this artificial praise really affect my perception of the prose? It's hard to say, and it would have been interesting to see how I felt about the writing quality without simultaneously reading a great deal of manufactured praise for it. However, I do see the reasoning for it, for otherwise why would this game have been preserved?
Overall, I think of lot of people when looking for parser games to play are looking for something that's not super buggy, that responds to most inputs in a helpful manner, and that has a nice outer shell of story, setting and/or (in this case) art. So I think most people will be pleased with this. It made me think quite a bit, and I could see myself revisiting it.