A Simple Happening

by Leon Lin

2024

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Commit to the bit, May 14, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

I was raised Catholic, and unsurprisingly given the wide range of material included in the Bible, I remember often being confused by what on God’s green earth some bits of scripture were trying to say. Revelation was of course both especially exciting – it’s the Avengers: Endgame of the New Testament, all sorts of cross-overs with other characters heading towards a big showdown – as well as especially bewildering, and there was one passage in particular that always stymied 10-year-old-me, an angry missive from an angel to a congregation that had fallen short in some way: “You are neither hot nor cold… because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” I was smart enough to recognize that this was a metaphor, but figuring out what hot and cold meant into this context was beyond me, and wasn’t spitting a kind of rude, earthy metaphor?

I still can’t claim to fully understand this verse, but if I could send A Simple Happening back to my ten year old self, it’d give me a substantial leg up. This parser game set in feudal Japan runs through every cliché you can imagine – you’re a samurai about to commit seppuku, but you have to write a death poem first, there are carp in the nearby river, you get a katana and a tanto and a shuriken, you get the drill, it’s all fine and correct enough so far as I can tell but just very vanilla. It also features an annoyingly slapstick vibe that throws away any gravitas the setup earns: you’ve been ordered to commit suicide because you threw a helmet at your lord and insulted him, for no real reason that’s ever disclosed; the ambient events that fire every turn include a member of the crowd of spectators mumbling that he’s late for another seppuku; you smash through a wooden door with your bare hands.

But! It’s also quite well implemented and paced, running through a linear series of set-pieces with aplomb, and utilizing a random-haiku-generator for that death poem bit that actually throws up a substantial percentage of hits. Even as I made my way through one deadly situation after another, I don’t think I ran into a single guess-the-verb issue, and the puzzles, while all straightforward, boast a pleasant variety. The mostly-pedestrian prose even has a few moments of real strength, like the response to taking inventory at the beginning of the game:

"On the day you’re to die, you’re holding nothing, just like the day you were born."

Admittedly this is undermined by the addition of “How poetic” at the end. No! Stop! You were doing fine! I’d be tempted to say that one line sums up the whole experience of playing A Simple Happening, except there’s one at the very end that’s even more perfect, the protagonist’s final moment of reflection:

"…you think, 'Isn’t this story just [literary reference redacted] set in feudal Japan?'"

That this is correct, and that redoing the cited work in this setting is a fine-but-not-spectacular idea, is completely besides the point – take just about any acknowledged classic and you could knock it down a peg with this exact formulation. Who cares!

So yeah, this is a lukewarm game – which isn’t just a matter of strengths and weaknesses cancelling out, but I think also the author feeling diffident (or at least projecting diffidence) about their own game. So per the angel, I’m cranky and spitting it out, but I’m also frustrated because it didn’t have to be this way: buddy, you’ve got good Inform skills and you can write when you get out of your own way! This game would be really solid if you didn’t undermine yourself at every turn! Be hot, be cold, be whatever you want, but just commit!

And er while you’re at it, watch out for seven trumps and seven seals and if you see a weird leopard thing with extra heads and feet like a bear, book it.

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