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Tonal issues mar what could have been a charming historical send-up, December 11, 2020
Typically when playing a game, I don't find it too hard to figure out what the author was aiming for, but I have a hard time getting a handle on SSG. I went into it thinking it would be a sort of edu-tainment game about physics, maybe with puzzles involving classical mechanics – it isn’t that. Then after I played for a bit and it tipped its hand by involving an actual witch (in the first real scene, so I don’t think this is a spoiler), I thought it was shaping up to be a fish-out-of-water setup with a scientist trying to make sense of magic – it isn’t that. Once the (Spoiler - click to show)time travel and alternate history kicked in I thought we might be swerving back to being educational, but nope, not that either. But even after having finished it, I have a much easier time laying out what it isn’t than what it is.
Part of this is the tone of the writing, which is generally clean but very matter-of-fact throughout. At first, this scans as jokey: in the opening sequence, your buddy greets you with a hearty “Hey, Newt!”, which is a funny way to think of someone greeting Isaac Newton. But this same sort of low-key prose style persists throughout the game and doesn’t escalate or respond to situations that are increasingly silly – which means that what starts out as jokey eventually winds up feeling understated or flat. Tone is one of the key ways an author can guide the player’s reactions to the story, but without that to rely on, I often felt unsure how to feel about what was happening, or if something was or wasn’t a joke or was meant to be incongruous (Spoiler - click to show)(X ME, for example, reveals that Isaac is “wearing the most expensive and fashionable clothes from 1673,” which is initially a bit funny because what about, say, the king? And once you time-travel to 2020 I thought this was going to set up a gag, but nobody remarks on it at all, so just add that to the list of things that happen without evoking much response).
This carries over into both the plot and gameplay side of things. Plot-wise – well, I can’t discuss this without spoilers, but my basic critique is that this really left me scratching my head, even leaving aside the presence of witches and magic and so on. (Spoiler - click to show) So the conceit appears to be that by sending Newton forward in time before he’s written the Principia and introduced calculus, the witch has deprived future scientists of what they need to make progress so that instead of coming up with the theory of relativity and helping advance quantum mechanics, Einstein has to reinvent Newton’s discoveries over 200 years late, so things that rely on advanced solid-state physics and electrical engineering are breaking down. Even leaving aside the fact that Leibniz at worst developed the calculus contemporaneously to Newton so this wouldn’t have been so bad, this really is hard to wrap one’s head around – if history has changed, why are there still empty shelves in the library for relativity and quantum mechanics? And if Newton didn’t write the Principia, just plagiarized it from future-Einstein, even leaving aside the grandfather paradox wouldn’t sending him forward in time actually put the timeline on the “correct” course, since it’s only as a result of the time travel that we wind up getting the calculus in the late 17th century? If you clicked through that spoiler, you know I’m overthinking this, but again, without guardrails for how I should be engaging with what’s happening this is where my brain starts to go.
Matching the rest of the trifecta, the gameplay is also quite puzzling. Not, I hasten to add, because there are lots of puzzles – there’s maybe one and a half, quite easy – but because it leads to very odd pacing. The first half to two thirds of the game consists of typing in heavily cued movement commands and reaching very long noninteractive sequences after every half dozen or so. There are opportunities to do a bit of poking around in this section, but the map is very linear and there’s not much scenery of interest (though everything mentioned responds to being examined, as far I could tell). Then you get the aforementioned simple puzzle-and-a-half, and then the game ends. There’s one opportunity for some fun exploration (Spoiler - click to show)(there are some easter eggs in the library, where you can type in a bunch of authors and see what the library has on offer – though there aren’t really jokes or anything interesting here, just the frisson of pleasure at guessing that you can get a response if you type in CERVANTES).
So yeah, here we are, 800 words into this writeup and I still don’t really know what to tell you. SSG is solidly implemented at least, and it’s pleasant enough to play through, which is a level of quality that’s hard to hit in a work of parser IF. And it’s got a fairly unique protagonist and setup. I’m just not sure what it all adds up to.