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Impressive as a setting, but in need of more plot to accompany its backstory, September 2, 2008
Emily Short's longest and perhaps most ambitious game, City of Secrets wowed me completely for the first hour or two I spent with it. The plot has you, a rather naive tourist, arriving in a large city for the first time. Your sightseeing there is quickly complicated by a mess of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that you discover. You must sort out what is really going on, figure out who are the real good and bad guys, and finally choose a side to support. While doing all this, you also get the opportunity to explore the City and learn something about its culture and history.
Indeed, it's the City that is the real main character of the game. It's part of a fantasy world of Ms. Short's creation in which magic and high technology co-exist, and are (predictably enough) frequently at odds with one another. The most obviously unique feature of the City is that there is no such thing as night -- it's daylight all the time, apparently due to some sort of human tampering. (This memorable little wrinkle of course has the added benefit for Ms. Short of saving her from having to code a realistic day-night cycle.) Short doesn't just depend on this one gimmick to define her setting, though. Her city and her whole world are worked out in impressive, subtle detail that includes not only the present but the last several thousand years of history as well. It's some of the best, most complete world-building I've ever seen in IF, and the greatest strength by far of the game.
Plot-wise, things start off almost equally strong. The early stages of the game perfectly capture the "stranger in a strange land" feel of a tourist in an unfamiliar city. When inexplicable things start to happen at the margins of your existence, the effect is suitably creepy, and then when you are taken before the head of one of the City's factions and enlisted rather forcefully into his cause, things get downright compelling. The writing is excellent, Ms. Short by this stage of her career having shed the slightly cloying preciousness that dogged her earliest work.
During the middle game, though, the plot machinery begins to break down. There's far too much wandering over a rather expansive map, far too much talking to a huge cast of characters about essentially the same topics again and again, and not really that much to actually DO. In fact, when Ms. Short wrote recently on her blog about the challenges of maintaining dramatic pace in games with lots of conversation, I thought immediately of this game as an example of said challenges. One problem is that the sheer number of NPC's here preclude anyone from really taking center-stage. There are lots of personalities, tons of conversations, but only the most superficial of relationships to be formed. This makes it hard to really care about the plot once the novelty wears off, and eventually even the hugely rich and imaginative scenery and back-story start to become mind-numbing without a compelling foreground story to enjoy there. I found myself on several occasions reduced to wandering around from place to place trying to shake something loose and drive the plot forward -- not exactly a compelling narrative experience.
I get the impression that Ms. Short may have simply bit off more than she could chew with this one. I sense a bit of authorial exhaustion in the latter stages. Regardless, its failures shouldn't detract too much from its strengths -- it's a near masterpiece of world-building. Every IF tourist should spend a bit of time wandering around inside it.