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Phone booth to the stars, Microwave to the past, April 4, 2021
A big review for a big game.
Finding Martin is an extremely big and extremely difficult game. I would not have been able to finish it without external hints and peeking at the walkthrough.
However, it’s also a very long, complicated and well-conceived story that ties together the lives and fates of many characters. It was a great experience to see this play out over the course of many playsessions.
The intro is somewhat hurried. It pays little attention to character exposition or context, instead just telling you the bare minimum of information. A former college mate, Martin, has disappeared. His sister calls you up and persuades you to help find him. That’s it. No big emotional reminders of what close friends you were or what splendid memories you share.
In fact, this detachement in the beginning of the game is one of the first points of criticism in Adam Cadre’s and Janice Eisen’s podcast about Finding Martin. And I have to agree with them… to a point. Were one to come to Finding Martin empty-slated as it were, it would be very hard to muster the determination to wade through that much pointless puzzles without any in-game motivation. Having read reviews and forum-posts about the game though, as I expect almost any player attempting it now would do, I anticipated this. I was prepared and actually looking forward to these puzzles-for-puzzles’-sake.
And I have to say, it is very much worth it when the story starts unfolding to have bit your teeth hard into these unmotivated puzzles. They turn out to have meaning after all.
Technically, Finding Martin is a monster-achievement. The room descriptions follow the many and varied changes in game-state almost seamlessly. There are some points where a repeated description of a device in motion hints at the cogwheels of the game straining ((Spoiler - click to show)the Fuzzy Room in action), but I believe eliminating this would have been very difficult to program.
There is another point of criticism I’d like to bring up: the huge amount of micro-management. There are a few puzzles where you have to sit in front of a desk or a piano and where you have to explicitly SIT and STAND UP every time. There is also the main puzzle/clue mechanism of the game that requires you PUT X IN POCKET every time. Well, okay, I guess… But then you put on a jacket and get disambiguation prompts the whole time. (“The trouser pocket or the jacket pocket?”.) Maybe there could have been a designated pocket for this object? I’m sure I could have shaven a few hundred moves off the +5OOO I took to finish the game.
Ah well, technicalities…
The map is actually not so big. There is Martin’s house, which comprises the main game-area. This area contains a number of hidden passages that expand the map, but not by that much. Then there are quite a number of small submaps to journey to that are easily explored. Together they give a feeling of possibility, of a wider space than is actually in the game.
You begin by exploring Martin’s house. I got the impression that a mad genius had been in charge of installing the domotics technology and went all out. “Hmmm, what if I tied opening the oven to the turtle drawing its head into its shell?” (Not a real example, but close enough.)
There are hidden or unknown mechanisms and controls everywhere. An enormous number of the objects you come across come with a puzzle. This amount of puzzles also means that by the time you’ve gone through the house once, you’ve been bombarded with a veritable barrage of clues. Very hard to keep track of.
Luckily, there are some things to help the player. For one, the writing. It is clear, descriptive and detailed, with just enough flair as to not become dry.
Then, there are two in-game hint/clue systems. Unfortunately, one of them (the one that tells you how to do things) takes some intricate puzzle-solving all by itself to activate. The other one tells you what to look for next. It hangs just outside the front door.
By meticulously following these clues and experimenting with everything, the player finds more and more ways to open doors and make seemingly trivial things happen ((Spoiler - click to show)running a bath for instance…). This gradually shrinks down the pile of clues to a more manageable size, making it easier to plan ahead.
Also, I found that after a while, my brain adapted to the bizarre-yet-consistent logic of the game. I came to expect certain kinds of solutions to work.
In the second part you find a device for travelling that is reminiscent of a certain doctor’s means of transportation. This allows you to leave the house and pick up objects necessary for solving puzzles in the house (by solving more puzzles of course).
During these travels, the backstory finally starts opening up. By listening to old cassettes and through the cunning use of your sense of smell, you learn more about Martin and his family. In the rest of the game you will get to see how their lives and yours entwine to make a possible future.
You also meet the first people. NPCs in Finding Martin are very unresponsive. But they do have a lot to say and do without you having to ask them to. In a bunch of pleasant cut-scenes you will meet half a dozen or so people that will aid you on your quest. They also provide welcome paragraphs of rest and exposition to ease your by-now-overheating brain.
The puzzles in this part are easier, most of all because you have clearer sub-goals and a clearer course of action. This is also a part where you get to experiment and train with the training wheels still on. You are gently prohibited from going on a trip if you don’t have a necessary object. Not so in the last part of the game!
And last but not least, you get to re-explore your surroundings with a cool new gadget! It will change the way you view the world.
And now we come to the third part. A long, dense and insanely difficult buildup to the finale.
Through a series of time-travel trips you have to resolve a number of paradoxes in the desired timeline to make it reality. You will need to coöperate with your past self to set up the necessary conditions for the following time trips, plant objects for your future self to solve puzzles and eventually make the intended future a reality instead of a mere possibility.
Finding Martin’s world and logic are bizarre, unintuitive and twisted. However, there is a strong consistency throughout the game. An unseen interlocking machinery is at work underneath the surface and gives the piece its coherence in tone and style. There is method to the madness, it’s just nigh impossible to grasp it.
Therefore I was disappointed to see the coherence crumble in this part as the game descended into gratuitous zaniness (Spoiler - click to show)(Peter Pan and Captain Hook show up…
It’s only one scene during one overseas trip, but it did break the atmosphere for me.
But soon the game shook off this temporary lapse and continued to a truly satisfying finale. It was a joy to see all those carefully laid out pieces come together, tying together timelines as well as the lives of the characters I had come to care about. The road was long and hard, but the reward is very much worth it.
Highly recommended game!