A New Life

by A O Muniz


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Awesome setting, OK game, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This review was originally posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)

Bear with me through one more comparison: I recently read Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I'd had it recommended on the basis of its setting, which did not fail to impress—the novel's set in a city in which a variety of fantastic creatures rub elbows in a Dickensian social milieu. It's incredibly rich, which is why it was utterly perplexing to me that the plot is a DnD-style monster bash. It felt like a waste of a fascinating setting, to fall back on such a bog-standard narrative.

In much the same way, A New Life immediately drew me in by presenting a novel and evocative religious system, a society in which gender is continually and individually constructed, and an interesting central character who boasts a backstory nicely revealed through layered remembrances. Unfortunately, none of this has very much to do with the actual plot, which is kicked off by a peddler who wants you to rid a cave of goblins. While the story eventually becomes more interesting that the premise suggests, it never managed to sink its hooks into me - the history of some kingdoms I didn't care about and political machinations undermining a marriage whose ramifications I didn't quite grasp didn't seem all that compelling, when what I really wanted to know was about what happened to the player character's brother, and the girl s/he had fallen in love with when s/he was young, and how s/he felt about the religious figures depicted in the shrine, and whether s/he was ever going to acquire a gender again. This is clearly a testament to the author's skill at getting me to care about the world and the protagonist, but again, it felt perverse to have all the really interesting elements shoved aside in favor of something pedestrian by comparison.

With that said, the game is by no means bad. The writing remains strong throughout, the cave lair boasts some distinctive features—a planetarium and underground tower—the dialogue is sharp, and the puzzles are original and entertaining, especially the final sequence in which the player must recover another's lost memories by interacting with mnemonic seeds and a dragon reminiscent of the one from Grendel. The map in the upper-right corner is a welcome convenience—though the gameworld isn't particularly huge, it's still a nice barrier to getting lost. Many obstacles boast multiple paths around them, and there are a few actions which aren't strictly necessary, but which better flesh out the world and make for a more satisfying narrative.

If all of this had been in the service of a different story—or if the author had employed a different player character, one with a personal stake in the proceedings—A New Life could have been my favorite game of the comp. As it was, though, each twist of the story earned little more than a shrug, which is really a shame, given the overall high quality of the game. My favorite parts wound up being sideshows that didn't really have much to do with anything—I was eager to try to tease out as much of the player character's past as possible, to explore the pilgrimage site's carvings, to manipulate the planetarium so it showed an alien sky. Helping the genocidal peddler-woman paled by comparison, but all that other compelling stuff ultimately turned out to be inconsequential. I'd very much welcome seeing the author further explore this world, but A New Life winds up being a very good introduction to the setting but only a fair game as a result.

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