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A richly tangled multiverse, September 26, 2014
Stripped to its core, Invisible parties is an escape game; but it's about much more than this. Enticed, against your better judgement, to come to a party, you have been trapped in a "tangle" -- a tightly packed group of simulated locations, each having the appearance of a particular type of social gathering: a wedding, a wake, an office party, and so forth. As you move through these locations, so does you lover, Jave; but the tangle obstructs contact with her, and although you can locate ways out, you cannot take them. Can you "disrupt" the tangle sufficiently to escape, with Jave if possible?
Play does not rely on the traditional IF props (keys, hidden doors, secrets to be discovered), but on learning to use your (and Jave's) skills to undermine the tangle's fragile internal logic at points where it is weak. There are many possible solutions, and although all are essentially identical in their logic, the detail (and thus the experience) of each is different. The essential challenge is to work out the structure and "rules" of the unusual environment you are in, and then work out how to manipulate them.
What stands out about the game is the characterisation of the world. This is partly a matter of the writing, which is vigorously entertaining, with a pointed and sometimes sardonic, but not sarcastic, tone. And it's partly about the depth of implementation, which is broad, though not especially deep. There are limits to how far you can actually interact with objects in the game, logically imposed by the fact that the "tangle" is supposed to be an artificially created space provides an easy explanation for the inevitable limits, and the game is not about physical implementation. But there is plenty to look at and explore. For the most part the game plays very smoothly: in the several hours I played it for I only ever twice encountered what seemed to be a bug, and neither was serious.
What most impressed me was the characterisation of the relationship between the protagonist and other characters. The antagonist(s) (three "Rebeccas") are amusing rather than convincing, and none the worse for that. Jave is more rounded. The love-interest-as-motivator is a fairly standard trope, but it's all too easy to overdo it. Ashwell has avoided that, and produced a relationship which feels adult and true, just crushy enough to expose the protagonist's vulnerability, but not mawkish. If she is, perhaps, just a little too good to be true, that is perhaps explained by the protagonist's bias.
The game begins in medias res, assuming PC knowledge that the player lacks, but it provides just enough explanation (and some well judged hints) to enable progress. It involves the sequence of puzzlement, failure, revelation and success which makes a game of this sort rewarding. And there's enough different ways to proceed, and enough reward for it, to encourage and repay replay.
All that said, there were (inevitably!) things I thought worked less well than they might. It's hard to discuss those without spoilers, so I've tagged the discussion.
(Spoiler - click to show)
There are a few nits to pick. First, I couldn't always see the logic of the required action, and with only a limited number of possibilities I
tended to resort to randomly kicking the tyres until something clicked. In part, I think, that's because the distinction (in a social setting, as all these are) between "making trouble" and "violence" is not very clear: violence is a form of "trouble" in such a setting -- though the fact that the sex club responded not to either of these but to "textual criticism" was a nice touch. Perhaps I wasn't reading descriptions clearly enough. But I would like still clearer cues (even if retrospectively) as to why what I tried worked, or didn't, and why other things I could have tried wouldn't have worked as well.
Secondly, I couldn't really make sense of the use of Jave's abilities. Given that the premise of the game seemed to be that I was more or less incapable of communicating with her, I couldn't immediately understand *why* I should have any ability to coopt her abilities at will, though it seems I did. I *think* on reflection that I was missing some cues to the effect that in the areas where the tangle was weaker I could to some extent communicate; but even so, I'm not sure the logic was completely consistent, or at least not clearly so. It wasn't until I looked at the source that I realised all that I could do with this.
Thirdly, I had a problem with replay and planning. When I came toreplay, I began to have definite ideas about *which* areas I wanted to disrupt. But I was, at this point, at the mercy of chance: unless I happened to find Jave in the place I wanted to focus on, there was nothing I could do. This led to a rather dispiriting sequence: find Jave (where the "clues" don't really seem to provide much help). If she's somewhere useless, where the tangle is strong, or somewhere other than the place I wanted her, prod her into action, and then go and find her again, repeating until I was ready to act. In story terms this seemed inappropriately manipulative; in gameplay terms it was a bit grinding.
I'm not sure there's a solution to this. What I wanted was some way to "attract" Jave to a particular location -- to signal to her in some way where I wanted her to go. This would be consistent with the essential idea that one works with her to demolish the tangle, it would enable planning, and it would alter the game play experience to some extent. But perhaps its a fair objection that it would make it a different game.
Lastly, I got the impression (perhaps wrongly) that some of the peripheral locations -- those that open up later in the game -- were less convincingly implemented than the early ones. This is always a hard thing to judge; but while some of the later locations (the sex club, for instance) were crackers, some (the bar, the feasting hall) seemed more perfunctory, as if perhaps the author's heart wasn't quite as fully in them. But this is, it has to be said, to criticise the good because it is not as outstanding as the excellent, and perhaps reflects as much on my own interests as on Ashwell's.
In short, then, I found this a very satisfying and impressive game. It's polished in all the right ways, and rewarding to play. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in a good mix of puzzle, story, and especially in writing which is not just good but excellent with strong characterisation. (The I7 source is also available, and repays reading, though obviously only once you have basically got to grips with how the game works.)