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Great game, not sure about the interactive novel, July 31, 2019
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.