by Mike Verdu, Michael Lindner, and Glen Dahlgren

Episode 1 of the Gateway series
Science Fiction / Space Exploration / Literary

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I like saying "Heechee" over and over., November 28, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

The past ten days I have been playing Gateway. The moment I heard the electronic music and saw the first screen of the introduction, I was whisked back to the early '90s. I felt the same anticipation as when I had just put a new cartridge in my Nintendo-console and watched the pictures with the background story. Good stuff. Of course, Gateway is a text adventure, and I don't remember playing any of those on my SNES.

This is the first graphic/text game I have completed. The intro-pictures were great. Very beautiful pixel art. But this wouldn't be the first piece of art/craft/entertainment to blow the player/spectator/beholder's mind with an intense blast to the senses and emotions to cover up mediocre content. I was still apprehensive about if and how both inputs, picture and text, would work together in my mind.

Pretty good, it turns out. The default setting is an impossibly cluttered screen with a little picture in the top right, a little text window bottom right, and a list of every possible verb and every possible noun on the left half of the screen. Apparently, you could play this game like a point'n'clickety robot by mindlessly clicking every possible verb-noun combination.
But, have options. There is also the hardcore text-only option, for those who dislike pretty pictures and still think Bob Dylan should never have picked up an electric guitar.
Me, I settled on the half'n'half option: pictures and windrose on top, screenwide text below. Very handy. The pictures really add to the sparse descriptions, the compass shows exits at a single glance. What I especially liked was that clicking the pictures doubles as an X-command. So I could enter a new location and just click around instead of typing X everything. I noticed a few objects this way that I had overlooked in the text. Also, when thoroughly exploring a location or when trying out my entire inventory on a puzzle, I find myself hitting L or I every five or six turns. Here, I could just replace the picture with the room description or my inventory list. I used this a lot.

As I said, the pictures add a lot to the sparse descriptions. And the help is more than welcome. The writing isn't bad, but I wouldn't say it's got any real literary qualities, like some other games that excel in two-sentence gems to grasp the feel of a room (Metamorphoses comes to mind...). But this criticism is about the small-scale writing. Gateway does excel at the big-picture writing: plot, pacing, overall structure...

In Chapter One, you have won the lottery and go to an enormous space station built by an ancient alien civilization, the Heechee. There, you will be trained as a pilot and get the chance to go find alien artefacts all over the galaxy. You will be payed a handsome sum for everything you bring back. The puzzles here are good, nothing too hard. They are important in setting you up for some harder puzzles in the later portions of the game. You can actually solve all of the puzzles on the space station on your very first evening there. Should you not do so, then know that at some point in the game you will have to re-explore the entire station. My biggest gripe about this first chapter is that it feels too small. You are supposedly on a huge alien satellite, but the writing does not succeed in bringing across that feeling. This is not about the number of accessible rooms, but about the very confined boundaries of the playing area. It would have helped to hint at other areas of this great space station while prohibiting the PC from ever entering there. (Turbolifts that go higher than the accessible three decks to regions where the PC does not have clearance come to mind.)
The boundaries of the storyworld on the other hand are very wide. There are some devices in the game that give you the news from earth, tell you about the history of the station, and even show personal messages from other prospectors (looking for a drinking companion or a date...). This makes you feel in touch with a much bigger society.
Also in this chapter you go on the first few missions to other planets. Nothing noteworthy though, just a teeny tiny taste of what's to come.

What does come next in Chapter Two is amazing. You visit four alien worlds to carry out a very specific mission. Each of these worlds is one single puzzle, contained within a handful of locations. Two puzzles in particular ((Spoiler - click to show)the spider-anemones-octopus-snake sequence on planet 2 and the Sasquatch on planet 3) were beautiful in their logic and simplicity.
Each of these worlds is also a magnificent new ecosystem, making one wonder about what the rest of the planet would look like. Here, the small size of the map does not impinge on the feeling of a bigger world at all.

Of course, just when you think you have completed your four-part mission, it turns out there is a fifth obstacle to be overcome. The three related problems in Chapter Three hearken back to your trainee days when you had just arrived at the space station. If you payed attention at the beginning of the game, you should grasp the principles of the solutions immediately, if not the practical execution. The idea behind these final puzzles is a classic and very well played SciFi trope. Unfortunately, one of the puzzles also involves "Paradise as seen through the eyes of a hormone-overdosed, raised-on-misogynistic-movies fifteen-year-old boy". No matter how good you may find the puzzle, this part is bad. Really bad.

That's really a shame, and the fact that it comes right before the end of the game doesn't help. For me at least, it tainted the final WIN-sensation.

If I excise that bit from my memories with my imaginary memory-scalpel though, I'm left with the experience of an overwhelmingly good game. Very entertaining, very emotionally engaging at times ((Spoiler - click to show)the Sasquatch again). It may be linear, "on rails" as they say, but it's one heck of a rollercoaster ride.

Must play, if you can stomach that bit-that-will-not-be-mentioned-again.

Finally, I'd like to come back to my favorite puzzle of Gateway.
I have read several reviews and interviews where Emily Short talks about the complicity of the player in commanding the PC, especially when immoral actions are needed to advance the game. She comments that through the years, it has become more of an emotional burden for her to just do whatever it takes as an adventurer to get the proverbial Magic Crystal.
In my years as an adventurer, I have happily stolen stuff, sedated and drugged NPCs, broken all kinds of furniture or laws. I have even killed a good number of guards that happened to be in my way. All without a moral hiccup.
When I first came across (Spoiler - click to show)the Sasquatch however, I found myself very emotionally involved. From the start, I hoped I wouldn't have to harm it. In the end, I did have to treat it in a way that I wasn't comfortable with (although it was not unbearable), and it was a very powerful experience to find myself caring so much about what would happen to this creature. This is where IF done right can truly shine, through shared responsibility between the player and the character.
(Actually, come to think of it, something similar happened when I played LASH, but that game had a twisted player/PC relation at its core that was aimed at just this strange complicity. Gateway is a more traditional adventure in this respect.)

A classic well worth playing (again).

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deathbytroggles, January 25, 2021 - Reply
I didn't mention it in my review, but thank you for pointing out the puzzle-that-shall-not-be-named in yours. While I don't mind gratuitous sexual situations in games, this one just really didn't jive with the game at all. At no point while playing did we get the impression that the character we were playing was even male, let alone led by the simplest of fantasies. To this point the player could project their own image of the hero, and this section of the game ruined it. In the section after in the mirror room it's once again confirmed you're playing a male, but I don't think there's any reference to it before. Just seems like the game took a dump on female and non-cishet players for no reason.
Rovarsson, January 25, 2021 - Reply
"Just seems like the game took a dump on female and non-cishet players for no reason." I think that might be 2020 sensitivity and awareness projected on a 30 year-old work. The scene is definitely unfriendly / downright insulting to women, but I don't think there is conscious misogyny behind it. To me, it feels more like automatic, kneejerk pandering to a perceived gaming audience. Hence my comment about a fifteen year old boy raised on hormones and 80's action movies.
I liked the fact that the PC was not explicitly male up to that point too. In more modern works with deeper story and themes, I love getting into character, but in a straightforward SF adventure such as Gateway, I prefer actually being the protagonist, without the game pushing me into a box. And I like that this goes for all players. Which in this game, right at the end, it definitely doesn't. Really did sour up the win for me, as I wrote.

I'm just starting the final chapter of Gateway 2 now, and there is no sign of anything like this until now. Great NPCs, some surprisingly deep philosophical and societal themes, and even more of the delicious worldbuilding we know and love from part one. Now lets hope the endgame keeps it up.
deathbytroggles, January 25, 2021 - Reply
Aye, we're on the same page. I was just alluding to how gaming has treated women for generations, intentional or otherwise.
deathbytroggles, November 28, 2020 - Reply
Years ago I got to the second part and got stuck and stubbornly avoided a walkthrough. I need to get back to this!
Rovarsson, November 29, 2020 - Reply
If you get stuck again I'd be happy to nudge you along. You could PM me or just post a request on the IF Forum.

Good luck.
deathbytroggles, January 24, 2021 - Reply
Only needed a few hints and I just went to a walkthrough :)
Rovarsson, January 25, 2021 - Reply
Good for you! I've been up to my neck in Gateway 2 for the past few days. If you download it off the Digital Antiquarian website ( the original Cluebook is included. It contains a list of puzzles and objectives, then vague hints, then more specific hints, then outright solutions. Yaay.
deathbytroggles, January 25, 2021 - Reply
Hey, thanks for the tip. Shockingly, nobody ever did a UHS hint file for the Gateway games.
dutchmule, November 28, 2020 - Reply
Your review makes me want to play the game! Thanks!
Rovarsson, November 28, 2020 - Reply
You really should!

I've been checking out older games for the past few weeks, and this one was high on the list of classics. It has almost none of the oldschool disadvantages like keys gratuitously hidden on the complete other side of the map from the door they're supposed to open. The puzzles are all tightly linked to the story and they are just hard enough to get a real sense of accomplishment when you solve them without getting walkthrough-hungry and frustrated.

I can also recommend The Abbey of Montglane. Same year, great puzzles and a fantastic wide-open exploring space.

Enjoy and thanks for the response.
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