Flattened London

by Carter Gwertzman

Adventure
2020

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Number of Reviews: 5
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The opposite of falling flat, December 7, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

I try not to bang on about my own entry in the Comp in these reviews, but for yíall who havenít played it, itís an Ancient Greek mystery-cult initiation as told by P.G. Wodehouse. I share this because Iím excited that Iím not the only one offering a bizarre British-literature mashup, and in sheer creativity, Iím quite sure ďlate-Victorian geometry satire meets steampunk browser gameĒ beats me hands down.

For all the potential outlandishness of the setup, though, Flattened London goes down easy. Iím only dimly familiar with the inspirations (I read Flatland maybe 20 years ago, and have maybe played two or three hours apiece of Fallen London and Sunless Seas before bouncing off them), but the author doesnít assume too much advance knowledge, providing enough context to make the player feel sure-footed, without overloading things with too much lore or too many exposition dumps. There are certainly lots of things that didnít make a lot of sense to me, but I suspect most of those were places where ambiguity and mystery were intentional, and I generally had a solid enough understanding of how things behaved to be able to move forward.

The structure here is interesting. Thereís a clear main plot Ė the player character (a triangle) is tasked by one of the eldritch overlords of the post-lapsarian city with tracking down a forbidden treatise adverting to the existence of a heretical third-dimension, and once obtained, there are a number of different things you can do to dispose of it. But if you just stick to that, youíd maybe see only a third of the game Ė perhaps I just got lucky with where I chose to start exploring the fairly-large game map, but I resolved the plot and got a perfectly satisfying ending in about 45 minutes.

Below (can we say ďbelowĒ?) this more modern, story-driven structure, though, is a Zork-style treasure hunt. You have a 13-slot trophy case in your apartment, you see, and as you explore the world, poke into ancient mysteries, and solve various side-puzzles, you accumulate various valuables that can be deposited back home. Itís hopefully not a spoiler to share that something fun happens if you find all of them, and I found tracking them down sufficiently engaging that I kept playing until Iíd caught them all (in a bit under two hours, for those who might be intimidated by the ďlonger than two hoursĒ estimate on the blurb).

There are two reasons this way of doing things works well for Flattened London, I think. First, exploration is rewarding in its own right Ė there are lots of places to poke into, secret histories alluded to, endless libraries to get lost in, and even a whole (Spoiler - click to show)parallel dimension to discover. The writing here is never as rich and allusive as what Iíve seen in the Failbetter games, sounding a bit more prosaic than the antediluvian ruins and dimension-hopping monsters on offer might seem to merit Ė and Iím not sure it does as much as it could with the Flatland part of the premise Ė but there are definitely moments that are enticingly weird (Iím thinking especially of the (Spoiler - click to show)bit with the pail), and the clean prose keeps the focus on the puzzles, which are the other reason the structure worked for me: there are a lot of them, but I found all the puzzles pretty easy.

Most involve a pretty direct application of a single inventory item, with generous clueing, and even the slightly more involved ones donít give much trouble (there is a maze, but itís pretty easy to map using the old drop-your-inventory-to-mark-where-youíve-been method, and you donít even need to do that since thereís a clue found elsewhere that enables you to run straight through it). Thereís a game of Mastermind, but I think youíve got infinite time to solve it so thatís no big deal. There was one puzzle that Iím still not quite sure how I solved (Spoiler - click to show)(getting the treasure on the shelf in the elevator shaft Ė after I made it through maze, suddenly this was accessible on the way back, but Iím not sure what Iíd done to open that up. I also might have sort of broken it, though, since Iíd realized that while you canít take the object on the shelf as youíre whizzing by, you can take the shelf itself, which Iím pretty sure isnít intended). But overall the game plays as a romp, as you wander around a large map plowing up treasures and secrets practically every five minutes.

Iím not sure how long Flattened London will stick with me Ė thatís the down side (argh, ďdownĒ, I did it again) of being so easygoing Ė but thereís a lot to be said for just rewarding the player! This is probably some of the purest fun Iíve had so far in the Comp.