I Contain Multitudes

by Wonaglot

2021

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Number of Reviews: 4
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wherein mask wearing leaves you vulnerable to (redacted), November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

ICM was a bit intimidating for me to start, and not just because of the title. The introduction didn't say so, but I pictured being told "You'd better contain some seriously meaningful multitudes if you want to keep up with this game, kid." And I don't think wasting time on several very different websites every day counts a lot. The first moves, too, promise challenge and variety. There seems like a lot to do early on. You're Chandra Fitz, a junior engineer on a ship, and you're tasked with finding who murdered the Bishop of Elmee, one of the passengers. On the first move, you see a bunch of masks you can wear, and once you leave, there are all sorts of exits. So certainly I got the impression that this game will be very, very big. That, coupled with the captain saying "you have an hour to do things," left me worried I'd have to do a lot of mental calculus, and fast. I steeled myself for an initial mapping run before actually getting things done.

The reality wasn't so weighty. There was certainly more than enough, with interesting characters of noble birth, as well as the gruff captain and helpful ship's mate. Masks are only used for a few puzzles, though when they are, it's quite satisfying. They help give the fetch quests a bit of weight. This is reductionist, because the fetch quests do have a bit of dialogue and push the story forward, and the noblemen and women (and a chanteuse and a slightly mad doctor) who push you around, replete with appropriate highfalutin names and highfalutin dialogue, just can't be bothered to do things themselves. Too many, and the game might start to wear. But there are enough. If you please them, they may give you a key to their suite. And as you help them, you learn more about them. And the ship. It's not powered by the usual sources.

The nobles' needs certainly seem trivial. And each is a bit odd in their own way, and yet, they know something is wrong. Someone has film to be developed that they lost. Another person needs medicine or something resembling it. Another person wants you to sing with them. If you behave well enough, they may invite you to their room in the passenger's quarters, briefly. However, fetch quests aren't really the way to bring out the multitudes in you. And sometimes there's a bit of a fight to search promising locations that look likely to hide something. For instance, I had to SEARCH CABINET instead of X CABINET. Here's where the usually helpful Quest interface backfired. It will generally highlight things that are clearly important, but halfway through the game I got a bit lazy and relied on highlights to tell me what to do. Between that and a parser slightly less sophisticated than Inform's, I got slowed down a bit. These faults are likely not in the author's bucket.

The boat isn't a very huge place. Once you've pleased all the nobles, you find out there's something sinister happening in the engine, to which you have a one-way passage. I admit to poking through the source post-comp and having several a-ha moments. It's not quite spiritual possession--but the boat doesn't exactly run on high-octane gasoline or anything scientific. You do just need to be prepared. Here a choice of mask matters. There's a bit of retcon for certain masks. For instance, for one mask, you realize (Spoiler - click to show)you were the one that committed the murder. This conflicts with someone completely different planning the murder if you take the straight-up no-mask ending, where you get something about generally learning to be your own person, etc. That's all well and good, but it's a bit plain compared to the others. Stuff can get macabre. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the "where are they now" at the ending: choices you made during a dialogue can, for instance, cause a lovesick nobleman to enter or avoid a duel depending on how flowery a love note you ghost-write for him is.

ICM may have buried all this, and I don't think it gave an adequate technical carrot-on-a-stick to go look back--perhaps even a "you should try" option at the end. Though it does signpost that you should save before you visit the engine. So if you're reading this, save before you reach the engine, and take all the masks. It should be rewarding.

But given that, the concept of a ship powered by what it was powered by, and the end revelations (yes, the captain has a reason not to hire an actual detective,) makes for a good sort of creepy story that feels like time well spent. Certainly the final moves add a good deal of tension and some explanation. The biographies at the end add a lot of closure and explanation and, yes, a carrot-on-a-stick to say "what if I'd X instead?" I just felt I had a lot of adjusting to do after first impressions, and it wasn't until I replayed and looked at the source code that I realized who in the story got to say "I Contain Multitudes." It's only shown in one ending, perhaps the trickiest to get to, and one only hinted in the walkthrough that comes with the game. I don't blame the author for giving you the "plain good" ending in the walkthrough, though--discovering new endings, even cheating by looking at the source code, gave me a deeper appreciation of what ICM was doing.