How it was then and how it is now

by Pseudavid


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Number of Reviews: 6
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fearful geometries, November 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This Comp has had a good number of surreal games featuring relationship allegories pitched at varying degrees of abstraction, and most of them haven’t grabbed me very hard, making me wonder whether this subgenre just isn’t for me. But here we are with the last one of these, and I actually kinda love it? The premise sounds absurd when you state it flat-out – the world is being taken over by Platonic solids, and you need to go on a puzzle-solving mission with your ex to try to save it – but it winds up being surprisingly rich, and the writing is a joy, allusive yet precise in just the right measure.

How it was… has the courage of its convictions, meaning it’s not afraid to lean way, way into its conceit, but also doesn’t get stuck there. There’s not a simple, one-to-one mapping between the rather-bonkers central metaphor and the issues the main characters are confronting, at least so far as I can decode, but it’s clear there are deep veins of meaning being mined. The weird shapes are breaking down and fraying, maybe suggesting the way clear ideals and emotions get muddy and messy in the crucible of a relationship. The main character has more specific associations, recalling analogies to the domestic geometries of the house they shared with their ex as they traverse the hostile landscape. And the puzzles are all about decoding fuzzy signals, trying to wrest meaning from ambiguity – given that the relationship ultimately fails, maybe it’s appropriate that I sucked at them.

On the flip side, the game doesn’t stay at this high, abstract level, showing a keen eye for detail and making clear that idiosyncratic specificity has just as much importance as totalizing thematics. Here’s an early bit, which also shows off the strength of the prose:

The first street where we lived together was lined with orange trees. In January, when everything else was pale and lifeless, our street would be bursting with radiant spheres.

The oranges were bitter, of course. The metaphor is too evident to be useful: too hard to wrestle into a different meaning.

Similarly, Clara, the main character’s ex, comes across as a person, with a distinctively laconic lilt to her dialogue – she’s not simply a vague stand-in for a generic beloved. Putting all the pieces together, the writing creates a compelling allegory about how this specific relationship failed, rather than issuing mushy-mounted platitudes about how any relationship can fail (though of course there’s universal resonance and relatability in this very specific story!)

As for the puzzles, there are two kinds, one about translating an image into numbers and the other about recognizing deformed shapes. As mentioned I thought they were thematically resonant, though I also found them pretty tough. Even once I basically figured out the gist, there’s some fuzziness baked into them, sometimes literally, that made it hard to be sure I was getting the right answer (I was also playing on mobile, which might have messed with some of the layouts).

As a result, I wound up getting a really bad ending – the weird geometry took over everything, meaning my poor communication skills doomed not only my relationship with Clara but also what felt like the whole world (per a later note from the author, actually it's just the main character, so yay?) I guess that’s a little harsh, but losing your partner can certainly feel apocalyptic, so while I wish the story had resolved on a more positive note, the ending I got did feel like a satisfying resolution. Did the world need another game in the surreal relationship-issues drama? On the basis of How it was…, yes, certainly – and now when I run across one in next year’s Comp, I’ll know I can really like the genre.

Highlight: fittingly, this is a bit abstract, but one of the strongest elements of the game is its pacing. There are a lot of elements here, from present-day dialogue with Clara, flashbacks to the mission briefing, deeper flashbacks to the relationship, and puzzle interludes, and the game shuttles between them with a light touch, keeping the momentum up without the central narrative thread feeling disconnected.

Lowlight: as mentioned, I though I destroyed the world through incompetence so that feels like a big lowlight even though I actually just got the protagonist killed?

How I failed the author: this was a near-miss failure, thankfully, because when I first started the game on my iPhone none of the text other than the links was coming through. Happily the author put in a theme select to tweak the colors, which allowed me to read the rest of the words.