The Wheels Must Turn

by Heal Butcher

Surreal/Horror
2001

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- David Whyld (Derbyshire, United Kingdom), April 16, 2012

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Hamster existentialism a go-go., August 21, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT, ADRIFT 3.9

If certain scenes from the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were more serious in their theology, and were also molested by Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury and some poet, the result might be one of those awful what-if mixed metaphor things of the kind you have just read in this sentence. But the result might also be something like the short game called The Wheels Must Turn.

The game opens with a quote about misery from a fatalistic tome called The Book of Servos, and the first location is 'Walking in the Hamster Wheel', the latter fact a sure sign that the player's lot is not going to be a splendid one. You do actually play a hamster in this game, albeit one with great sentience and the power to communicate.

The setting is something like purgatory or machinery hell, where you and other hamster slaves manipulate wheels in a Big Brother like environment. You can't do much, nor does the voice of your consciousness urge you to do much. The clotted cream poetry of the game's prose could irk in a longer game, but to me, this is about the right duration of game to make such a delivery work.

Wheel's strongest quality is that it will inevitably prompt thoughts along the line of 'What was that all about?' when it's over. It's not very long, and your interactions mostly move the happenings of the game forward, rather than making them turn in any directions. There is one puzzle (in a sense, it's almost overkill to call it a puzzle, but it is a moment where there's only one thing you can type to make the game conclude) and if you can't pull the answer out of your brain, the good news is that nothing is spoiled by pulling it out of the walk-through.

On paper, the idea of this game wouldn't have appealed to me in that I like gamey games - gamey defined by me as being able to offer tons of different states, based on the number of moving parts. Wheels is a line from A to C with very few states, but the writing and the ideas are interesting, and it's short and idiosyncratic, so in playing it I demonstrated to myself again that you should keep on trying different things. It's a game probably best talked about with other people who have played it. It's difficult to describe more than I have without spoiling it or indeed dumping the game's contents. Ultimately I think it's a good sign that something this small can promote this much mind activity.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Darkly fatalistic, tinged with absurdity, ultimately pointless., August 13, 2011
by DB (Columbus, OH)

Densely overwritten, yes, but nobody could charge Heal Butcher with unoriginality-- characters, setting, and diction all are out of the ordinary and strongly support the story's mood of mystery, horror, and the uncontrollable. There is even a shade of absurdist humor amidst its toil and suffering. At the very least, the quasi-flabbergasting verbosity of "The Wheels Must Turn" offers a refreshing break from the fairly rote descriptions one sometimes finds in interactive fiction. On these strengths, it warrants a play or even just a gawk.

On the other hand, the interactive element feels pointless to the extent that I cannot offer it more than 3 stars. Aside from conversation subjects, second-level descriptions only offer repetitions of what has already been said, and the plot structure, short as it is, is strictly linear-on-rails. The winning action seems overtly symbolic, but since what exactly it represents in the world is never clear it just feels empty. Perhaps these detractions were due to competition restrictions (I haven't been able to find the constraints of the ADRIFT Spring MiniComp 2001 anywhere), but player action holds so little meaning in this text that I have to wonder if it could have been better presented as static fiction.

Overall: strongly atmospheric, but left me scratching my head.



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