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About the Story
You have always been different.
Winner, Best Game; Winner, Best Story; Winner, Best Setting; Nominee, Best NPCs; Nominee, Best Individual NPC; Winner, Best Use of Medium - 2009 XYZZY Awards
3rd Place - Spring Thing 2008
Those looking for a more visual novel will most likely find Blue Lacuna a little too text-heavy, but anyone willing to look past the simplistic interface will easily be able to lose themselves in the twisting, memorable story. The good news is that you'll know instantly whether this is going to be a journey made for you.
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Lacuna is not a stoic environment. Tsunamis and storms strike the island. The pale moon of the night turns into the blistering sun of day. All of these things can affect the locations on the island, changing what you can do or see there. They aren’t completely random, either. What actions you take influence what is introduced into the story and when. Around the time you start to feel like there’s nowhere else to explore, a character will arrive with something to tell you, or you’ll stumble across a clue for the puzzle you’ve been working on, or a woodland creature will inadvertently reveal a new path. All of this is done as subtlety as possible, so that it never feels like a solution was thrust upon you, but that you were simply in the right place at the right time.
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Risks and Experiments
Blue Lacuna doesn't make it to the horizon as an artistic work, and I don't even think it's entirely successful just as a game (it's a little short on beta-testing, and the puzzles are a mixed bag), but it's important in a way most recent games aren't: if you're interested in IF as a genre, you should play Blue Lacuna, and there's nothing I'd rather say about a game than that.
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Jay is Games
Emergent or branching narratives have been seen as a red herring in game development for a while. [...] This is really where Reed excels. After the prologue, you find yourself on a nearly-abandoned island. Your only companion is a mad hermit, a man who talks in broken sentences and shouts at the ocean. Throughout the game, your interactions with him (or even actions in his presence) shape his opinion of you, his relationship with you, and how the eventual ending plays out. Depending on your actions and conversation with this man, the game could play in vastly different ways.
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Universally in Blue Lacuna, the portrait of humanity and interpersonal relationships is a bleak and twisted one. People are selfish and dishonest, closed to communication, inconsistent and typically blind to their own pathology; in short, pure sociological wreckage, and it isn't clear whether this was done on purpose.
When you play Blue Lacuna, which in general I think one should, the key is to simply enjoy the scenery.
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IndieCade 2010 Wrap Up
There's no better way to describe this game than by calling it a beautifully written interactive novel. If the creators of Zork or Witness had a copy of Blue Lacuna travel back in time and appear on their computers, they would have wept openly.
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|Average Rating: |
Number of Reviews: 9
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I'll get the verdict out of the way first: Blue Lacuna is a wonderful, evocative piece of work, and you should go play it right now. I know I have to justify that statement, so here goes…
Interactive fiction games are wonderful for blind computer users, as they allow us to experience settings and scenes we might not otherwise, perhaps more so than for the sighted people in this world. That was a large attraction of Lacuna for me, the richness and vibrancy of its island setting are unparalleled in the annals of interactive fiction. Other games may have similar esthetics or similar talent for description, but none I know of simulate day and night and tide with such loving detail. The world and how the player perceives it changes radically with each passing hour, and it was a joy just to wander around the island, soaking in the ambiance of a place too beautiful to be real as it changed over the course of my playthrough. I was beyond pleased to look up at the night sky and notice that the moon was implemented, and that it had phases which changed from day to day, as irrelevant as that might be to the actual plot.
What, I'm two paragraphs in and just starting to talk about plot? Yes, the game has a plot, and it is a big, sprawling thing just like the setting I raved about so much. Sprawl here is used in a loving sense--the length is not too long in my opinion, though I may quibble, just a bit, about the pacing here and there. Being IF, naturally there's potential for choice, and while the broad strokes of the plot remain the same throughout every game, there is much potential for interpretation and outright variation. A lot of that last comes from interaction with the single main NPC, who deserves a place all his own.
The single main NPC--you'll know him when you see him--is very well done. He has his own backstory which is central to the overarching narrative, and does his own thing in a manor to make you forget for a moment that he's a mass of programmed instructions. Conversation is topic-based, and sensitive to the mood of the characters--there's some Galatea-esque tracking going on in there, certainly. All told, he's a wonderful companion throughout, or was in my playthrough.
Bugs? I feel ashamed to mention them, but there were a couple minor ones. Most significantly, the NPC will occasionally go invisible--you can still talk to him, but finding him is difficult when he doesn't appear in room descriptions. I've reported this one to the author, and hopefully a fix is forthcoming. Tiny typos were perhaps a bit more noticeable thanks to my screen reader, but none jarring, and honestly they pale in comparison to the constant mispronunciation of a character's name, but that's my reader's fault and probably fixable on my end, anyway.
So, once again, play this game. Explore its setting, indulge in the plot at your own pace and according to your own whims, be swept away by the many good qualities here and enjoy a modern masterpiece of IF. I can say no more.
The words 'interactive fiction' imply a story you can truly influence - that you're part of the process of telling the story. Unfortunately, few titles actually accomplish this. Even when the game contains multiple paths, you're still essentially playing through a detailed puzzle box. Blue Lacuna is an outstanding piece due to its true interactivity.
You, as the PC, have the ability to Wayfare - to travel between worlds and places by creating art. When called by another of your kind, you rush to the rescue - only to find yourself on a near-deserted island with a crazy old man and some very creepy trees. Who called you here? And what do they want with you?
This game goes far beyond multiple paths: you genuinely do shape the story. The characterisation of the PC is entirely up to you and you're able to act in almost any way you feel fits. In turn, your actions shape the environment, the outcomes of the story, and the attitudes of the one main NPC in ways that frankly boggle the mind. Progue is an incredible NPC; your behaviour towards him influences his towards you, as well as what encounters you will have. He can be your mortal enemy, love interest, or anything in between. No two playthroughs will be the same. Sadly, the game is so huge and time-consuming that it's difficult to live up to the near-unlimited replay potential.
The setting - the island of Lacuna - is a character in itself. Complete with succinct but vivid descriptions, day-night and weather cycles, random environmental events and an expansive but intuitive map, it's the most detailed setting I've ever seen in a work of IF. Even on third and fourth playthroughs, I'm still discovering new treasures hidden away. Exploring Lacuna even without a plot to drive you would be well worth the effort. Speaking of the plot, it's one of the few things that don't replay so well. The main events of the plot (particularly the (Spoiler - click to show)dream sequences) are less adaptable than the rest of the game, so even the most haunting parts grow dry and familiar after you've read them once or twice.
Aside from the story itself, Blue Lacuna breaks ground in other ways. You may select between story and puzzle modes; this adds to the re-playability, and means the game will appeal to both fans of narrative (like me) and those who like a challenge. I loved this touch and wish more games would offer it. While not exactly a new idea, the (optional) compass-free movement commands heightened the realism and made it feel like you really were exploring the environment instead of a game map. (Spoiler - click to show)The backstage commands were a brilliant touch; they made it way easier to find new endings and to otherwise mess around with the game environment, which is always fun.
Unfortunately, with great interactivity comes great complexity, and with great complexity comes great bugginess. (Is that a word?) On my first playthrough, an essential plot event (the (Spoiler - click to show)tsunami, if you're wondering) never triggered and the game was rendered unwinnable. Though nothing that bad ever happened again, the interpreter kept crashing during one of the conversations and there were way too many bugs and minor inconsistencies to count. I understand that the huge scope of the game makes it impossible to debug completely, but I had so many issues dodging bugs it's enough to lower the game one star in my estimation.
Blue Lacuna is a groundbreaking game that is likely to take an important place in the history of IF. If you enjoy immersive games that reward persistence and patience, then I would definitely recommend giving it a play.
A couple of caveats before this big long review: I played Blue Lacuna in Puzzle Mode, so my experience of the story and pacing will probably be different to Story Mode. I also played this in 2019, having only taken a serious interest in IF a couple of years ago - I understand that Blue Lacuna was hugely influential (at least I keep seeing it in lists of Important Games), and perhaps my sense of what it got right in 2008-9 is underdeveloped.
This is going to be one of those wishy-washy reviews where I give the game 4 stars and then complain a lot. I honestly do like Blue Lacuna. Its story is nice and twisty with some well-done reveals, the puzzles are satisfying and logical, the setting is vivid and gorgeous, and I appreciate the obvious tons of work and craft that went into the game. It's just... Blue Lacuna is a fun ride, but it's also a bumpy one.
The game certainly starts ominously. Aaron Reed's prose is mostly pretty good, especially when he's describing the island most of the game is set on (more on that later), but he waxes a bit too poetic in the prologue. This is because the PC has just felt a distress call from a fellow Wayfarer - one who can travel between worlds through their artwork - and now needs to leave their life and love behind to give aid. Reed is trying to sell the angst of destroying one's own life and prospects to do what's right, but the trouble is, it's always going to be hard to make someone care about being uprooted from a life they've lived for all of one minute.
Worse still is the railroading into conflict during this prologue. I tried to say goodbye to the PC's partner Rume only to be told they're asleep - but as soon as the PC's ready to Wayfare, Rume appears, accusing the PC of trying to leave without saying goodbye. Argh. This turns out to be some unfortunate foreshadowing for the climax of Blue Lacuna, the way in which the player's input doesn't matter that much if there's a dramatic scene to set up... But more on that later.
Luckily for Chapter 1, though, Reed has a saving throw. (Spoilers for something cool that can happen in Chapter 1:)
(Spoiler - click to show)I tried to resist the choice I thought the game was pushing me into. To my surprise, Blue Lacuna accepted my resistance, and I was treated to a whirlwind series of vignettes describing a whole life lived in one run-on sentence. Reed shows his real gift for prose here - he's excellent at settings and worldbuilding, and this series of glimpses into a wider world and history completely won me over. (There are allusions to the Wayfarer's lives in other worlds throughout the game, and these are similarly enticing.) One or two reviews complain about this sequence because it ultimately forces the result the game needs anyway. But, well, it does take place over 20 years. That's enough time for the situation to plausibly change.
After this, we end up on the island of Lacuna, and it's a lovely place to spend a game. Here's where Reed's really done his best writing. Reed's descriptive prose brings in colours and the senses to make the geography of Lacuna as vivid as possible. And the island is not static - the island changes according to the weather and the time of day, so that the same location may feel totally different during a clear night and during a stormy afternoon. More dynamic text draws your attention to the feeling of the sun on your neck, the wildlife crawling along the ground, and so on. Lacuna may be the most immersive world I've been to in interactive fiction.
The geography of Lacuna is navigated and interacted with using a keyword system, something I should have mentioned earlier but forgot about. That's a high compliment, I think - Blue Lacuna's gameplay is not common to text parser games, yet it feels so natural I didn't even think to compliment it until now. So keywords in room and item descriptions and in conversation are highlighted, and you can type the word to interact with that thing. If you see a rock, type "rock" to look closer; if there's a forest nearby, type "forest" to go into it. Traditional verbs are used if you need to take a more involved action (e.g. "turn wheel"). The keyword system facilitates examination and exploration, and it just feels good. (The one problem I had was that I had trouble navigating the island by keywords alone, but there's a compass you can find early on that lets you map the island more traditionally. Sorry, every author working to move past compass directions - I just like to be able to map!) The best feature of the keywords, though, is that they're integrated into conversation - you can see at a glance what topics you can pick up on, and taking these from the last thing someone said to you lets conversation flow naturally, even when your side is just one-word responses.
This brings us to the game's main NPC, the hermit you share the island with. I was nervous when I first met him, because he's introduced being mad and doing mad things, and I don't tend to like characters whose personality is "I'm mad, me!" But once the plot gets going and he settles into his role in the game, he's quite likeable. He's another feat of implementation all by himself - he follows his own schedule around the island, does his own chores, strikes up conversation with you (admittedly annoying when you're just trying to powerwalk past him to solve a puzzle), and even gets ornery if he notices you stealing his stuff. He also keeps track of what you've asked him about, and what he's shared of his own life. He's generally a pretty convincing NPC, and apart from the occasional conversation you don't want or the occasional bug some people have reported where he'll disappear, he's fun to share an island with.
The puzzles are pretty decent too. Reed acknowledges the Myst series as a chief inspiration, and yes, I see the resemblance in the puzzle design. There are paths to open up, there are machines to figure out, there are codes to interpret and use somewhere else. The puzzles scratch that Myst itch of "ah, I forgot about this odd thing! I wonder if it has anything to do with...?" They're generally easy but not trivial - I needed just one hint, as a result of making a false assumption about a machine. The best design lesson Reed's taken from the Myst games is to integrate the puzzles into the world. All the machines serve an identifiable and plausible purpose, and there's very little in the game that felt like a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle. (Apart from that bee, maybe.) There's no outstanding puzzles in my opinion, but no mediocre puzzles either - they all work for me.
(One caveat about the puzzles: there is a maze. I don't actually mind mazes, but I understand that to some players this is like saying "I don't mind thumbscrews". As mazes go, though, I think this one is mild. It's small and well-described enough to map with due care and attention, and it hides a much smarter navigation puzzle.)
So far, so good - Blue Lacuna checks all the boxes for a well-implemented game. But it's not billed as a game - it's an interactive novel. How does the player actually interact with this novel? How do they shape the story of Blue Lacuna? Well... I have issues here. Pacing issues, for a start. Blue Lacuna's scope expands as the game goes on, and towards the end some completely new areas open up for the player to investigate. An awesome expansion of the game world on paper; in practice, having a lot more space to explore halted the narrative momentum towards the end. (I could have just run through as fast as possible, but then what would be the point of sending me to these areas?) I'm not sure how you could fix this without messing with the plot significantly, but it's still a problem.
And then there's the player's choices themselves. Blue Lacuna tracks a lot of variables in the player's decisions, but I'm not sure about their integration into the story. Possibly this is one of those cases where if you get it right people won't notice it - I'll give Reed the benefit of the doubt and say that many of my choices impacted the story so seamlessly I never questioned what I was playing.
But gosh, when it's wrong, it feels very wrong. Reed asks the player to make a few binary choices throughout the game, but these often feel false, or manufactured. For example, some reviews have complained about the dichotomy between art and love that runs through the game, a binary that Blue Lacuna itself arguably undercuts (much of the art you find in the game, as you learn, is motivated by love, or the grief of lost love - some of what you find arguably came at the expense of love, but, well, there are extenuating factors at play...).
Even more troubling to me is the looming choice that emerges as you learn what happened on Lacuna before you arrived. To be as vague and non-spoilery as possible, and to go back to Myst comparisons, there's sort of a Sirrus and Achenar thing going on in the background - two sides are vying to convince you of their trustworthiness, but the more attention you pay, the more skeptical you should be of each. But whereas success in Myst depended on the player trusting their instincts on Sirrus and Achenar and looking for other options, in Blue Lacuna it all comes down to a choice between two unlikeable sides, and no matter what you choose (or even if you try to dodge the choice), you'll be forced to defend a choice you don't like. It's possible there was another way, but I don't feel like checking, since that seems to be locked behind an action that also feels dirty to me. This ultimately meant that the game ended in conflict for the sake of conflict, and it left me feeling very sour.
I want to explain that last paragraph better, but I'll have to go into big spoilers to do so. Fair warning, this spoils the whole game from the end of Chapter 7 onwards:
(Spoiler - click to show)So Lacuna turns out to be an intergalactic geopolitical flashpoint between two alien civilisations who want the blue crystals on the island for themselves. (This sounds silly when I write it like this, but it's handled well, revealed slowly enough for the player to accept and buy into.) One civilisation is peaceful but mind-controls other races in order to manufacture and expand; the other values freedom, but it's waging war on a rebel faction, producing propaganda and controlling information to support its own aims, and it seems to have plans for the first civ. So, which aliens do you want to give the crystals to? Another way to phrase the question: do you prefer slavery or fascism?
I tried to take a third option by opening the island up to both of them, but no such luck - Progue (the hermit) confronts you on your way, demanding you give the island to one or the other. (It's been 20 years, and he makes his choice now??) He gets very angry very quickly, although I think I was friendly and open with him throughout the game, and he fistfights you if you oppose him, though he was at death's door from a suicide attempt about 36 hours ago in my save file. It looked like the only way to stop him was to hit him with a rock, and I didn't feel like killing a guy with dementia, so I relented and let him have his way.
I should say I haven't tested different outcomes here, because frankly Blue Lacuna is a long game and I'm tired of playing it, but I'm not sure what I could have done to change this confrontation other than been manipulative throughout the whole game. Maybe I couldn't have done anything - David Monath's SPAG review seems to suggest that Progue will oppose you no matter what you've chosen to do. Reed notes in the hints on the official website that one of the themes of Blue Lacuna is that you can't always have what you want, and I suppose that's true, especially if somebody's programmed an NPC to always demand the opposite of what you want to have. But forcing the choice and the conflict like this left me feeling very dirty, like I was being forced into an ethical dilemma for no other reason than that Reed wanted to do an ethical dilemma. I did not like the ending.
The only other thing I think I ought to mention is bugs. Luckily, I didn't have the same game-breaking bugs that one or two other reviews have reported. The only noteworthy glitch I experienced was completely benign, but kind of funny. At a certain point in the story, I led the hermit to a shocking revelation about himself; shellshocked, he told me he needed time to think; he jovially punched me in the arm; he sat on a bench and stared into the distance for the rest of the day. I think the conversation system forgot to tell the dynamic text generation that the hermit wasn't feeling very jovial right now. Issues with typos and inconsistencies in the dynamic text like this were the only bugs I saw. Maybe a little annoying if you're taking the plot seriously, but totally forgivable given the sheer volume of variables in the text that Reed must have had to juggle.
Good grief that's a lot more words than I meant to write. And I forgot to write about the actual plot, which is mostly good and has some cool little reveals and worldbuilding. Look, Blue Lacuna is a good game. The setting, the puzzles, the plot, the implementation, it's all lovely. I just wish it had nailed the interactivity and the ending.
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