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The Consolations of Philosophy, October 1, 2013
"This game is made up of nine different chapters. Each chapter explores a different question in philosophy. As you play, the game builds up an idea of how you feel about that question." So goes a passage from the How to Play section of this game. What could have been a dry, pedagogical exercise, however, turned out to be a winsome philosophical adventure with lots to recommend it.
The game's presentation via Twine is clean and sharp, with clear navigation and strategic use of images that almost look like woodcuts from a book of fairy tales. The writing is also very strong: lyrical without being forced, and--an important point in a game like this--not overly didactic. That is to say, I didn't feel throughout that I was somehow stuck in a philosophical experiment. Yes, the narrative was always informed by Big Philosophical Questions but the consistent tone and pacing gave the narrative a warmth that gave these questions more emotional weight. The birds who are your companions--blackbird and robin--take different sides of philosophical questions and what's fun is how you as a player/character feel like you've stumbled in media res into their own (rather friendly) arguments.
Besides that, the game meanders through many locations and scenarios, and one's choices always felt effective in moving the story forward in interesting ways. Some of the settings were from Fairy Tale (and perhaps Interactive Fiction?) Central Casting but it works in a game like this. There's a lot you can get away with when the writing is good.
My only real criticism:
(Spoiler - click to show)The game uses the "cycling link" macro in Twine, which allows one to scroll through various potential choices before settling on one--these are indicated in yellow. Here, I didn't quite understand how my choices in these links really affected the story. It didn't really indicate, if I settled on choice A, B, or C, how that moved the story forward--since there were OTHER choices (in blue links) that were the main story branches. And they were usually in the middle of a paragraph; so, for example, you'd give a response to a 3-headed giant but he would have the same reply to you, no matter what your choice was.
Although I only went through this once, it seems like this would have high replayability, which several alternate paths to take. The ending (Spoiler - click to show)also has a GREAT mapping function which showed you the paths you took through the story--and displayed which philosophers from history your choices aligned or clashed with. The connection to Open University's philosophy department didn't feel forced at all--this in itself is a fantastic achievement.
With lots of food for thought, a compelling story, and a strong sense of design, Castle, Forest, Island, Sea is well worth your time.