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IF Visionary, January 22, 2016
Aaron A. Reed is one of a very select few individuals who know and fully embrace the narrative oportunities afforded by interactive fiction. He's one of the few to have seen in the media an oportunity for more than puerile treasure hunting romps or plain boring fantasy escapism. Here's an IF that poses as mild entertainment but features some beefy political statements behind curtains. But let's take a moment at that as the IF begins reeling.
You're given the opportunity to play as a disillusioned big hollywood studio staffer willing to hit the spotlights big time. Your very first task is to pitch your next project to your current employer, Lloyd Crohan, an irascible businessman not easily impressed. It seems no ammount of passion, choices or replays you put into the pitch gets his attention at all. Which is good, because this episode is what finally gets you to quit and to roll out a new hollywood studio of your own.
This is the fifties, an era where the golden age of Hollywood from the forties was beginning to wane, old stars to sink in drugs, TV was starting to eat away audiences and commie paranoia was widespread. A tough time to be a hollywood visionary and yet a time that started seeing the blossoming of the whole indie movie scene.
In this IF you'll go through the whole process of going from a sketch of a movie, to scripting, shooting, post-production and finally releasing it. You'll hire directors, actors, scriptwriters or whatever you need to get it to the screens. Sounds kinda crappy? You know, like one of those myriads of generic resource management games that pop up everywhere from phones to PCs? Far from it. True, at it's core, that's what your fully realized protagonist is trying to accomplish. Except you go through it not by pushing buttons or by boring inventory management but by essentially reading a novel - a finely crafted and thoughroughly engaging one at that - and making your way through the tough decisions and challenges presented to you in the usual Choice of Games bottom links interface.
Aside from choices, there's also much of that character customizing we've grow used to from CoG, including all those gender choices. I've said it before: I prefer fully fleshed out characters with their own traits, but it's a minor gripe. Most characters are not customizable, only those the protagonist may or may not develop a crush onto. Given the setting, Hollywood in the 50's, having occasional gay characters struggling to have a private life away from public scrutinization is to be expected.
Other choices of customization develop a more fully fledged character towards the way how you deal with people, by being harsher or softer, more bossy or more gentlemany and so on. They shape how stats develop and may lead to unexpected plot twists. All of these choices are never presented in an out-of-world fashion that seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative, on the contrary, they simply follow from the current plot point, nicely integrated in a brief scene where the protagonist mulls over how to deal with a request from others.
Writing is top-notch, quality prose well employed in delineating character traits and courses of action when presented with tough decisions. The plot is gripping, with quite a few twists and plenty of drama, commedy, horror and romance involving quite a charming cast of characters. In fact, this is a game about movies written most likely by a huge movie fan, well researched, fully to grips with the language of cinema and with classic movie tropes. Some scenes in the narrative look straight out of some of those movies, yet are never lacking in originality. In fact, Aaron seemed to hint not only at them, but at classic IF too: a whole scene plays like an old treasure hunting text-adventure (minus the parser) and the magazine that influenced Adam Cadre's Photopia is here too.
Now, let's get to the real meet of the game, a political statement of sorts. Somewhere along all your decisions, you'll meet quite a few communists and will learn about how they're being prosecuted at the time by congressmen for anti-american behaviour. This is part of USA's history of course and very factual. Then, (Spoiler - click to show)you'll eventually be summoned to Court and there congressman Creed will lambast you and those of your brethren - all the small indie companies that took from large the studios the right to be screened in large movie exhibition chains - as losers, anti-americans who couldn't get along with the real deal of large corporates, and commies. Rings a bell? Yep, thought so: this is gamergate all over again and Aaron indeed makes a very good job of drawing parallels between the paranoia then and now, between indie B-movie makers and indie game developers subject to derision for their beliefs. So, the whole game comes to this crucial moment and it is a marvel to behold by itself. How it concludes is up to your morals.
Once this is over with, you get your movie released. Will it be a success, a failure or something in between? That's where all your efforts as a game player rest.
I'll conclude by saying I've never been a huge fan of CYOA and CoG's brethren. As a fan of parser IF the lack of immediate agency, of being there in the fictional world and messing with it at my own pace, is not quite my cup of tea. This one was remarkably engaging, though. The storytelling, prose and characters - specially Fish, so alive - got me hooked, the decisions were engaging and puzzling enough to me to keep me from merely tapping away any of of those choices and just read next - which is how I inadvertedly come to play most lesser CoG and twine games. I guess the fact that this is a story about humans - so full of sweat and joy and tears, rather than the usual vampires, skeletons in suits, ninjas and aliens that are the bread and butter of the genre - made the trick to me. The curtains are drawn, the lights are lit and I clap my hands vigorously. well done. I'm willing to replay it at least once, there are quite a few secrets and paths to uncover.