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Flower follies, July 9, 2021
When I was in college, I had a running conversation with a friend where we tried to determine the smallest discernable unit of various things – like, what is the band such that next-worse band is actually bad, therefore allowing you to express the goodness of all other bands as a multiplier of the goodness of that one band? We decided that there was, and it was Jimmy Eats World, for reasons I can’t currently recall or defend.
This was a weird pastime – we were taking quantum mechanics at the time, so that’s why were interested in trying to come up with discrete measurements for things that are typically experienced as continuous or analogue – but I bring it up because Yesternight is a plausible contender for a sort of text-adventure eigenunit, complete in itself but so stripped down that if you took almost a single thing away from it, you’d have something that felt more like a tech demo than a full game.
The player character has no history and no future, their only goal to work through the obviously-signposted puzzle chain that doesn’t constitute a narrative beyond the inevitability of union between one object, one action, and one barrier that it resolves. Eventually you go north, having traded all the money you had in the world (in fairness, a single coin) for forward progress on a road, with no indication of where it leads (maybe existentialism would have been a better one of my early-adult obsessions to organize this review around, since the protagonist and their world is entirely defined by absurd but compelled actions? …probably not).
Matching the thin puzzles and thinner narrative, the game is pretty underimplemented, too. It’s written in AdvSys, a fairly obscure mid-80s language that I was unfamiliar with before a quick google, and look, I’m not going to make you sit here and listen to me pretend to have an opinion about LISP-based parsers, but even with allowances for the limited technical affordances of the time, there’s no excuse for the guess-the-verb silliness that only accepts POUR FLOWER to indicate that you want to pour some water on a desiccated flower (the instructions do indicate this is a two-word parser, but even still, POUR WATER, WATER FLOWER, EMPTY BOTTLE, and various permutations thereof would have been far more intuitive!)
So like I said: plausible candidate for the eigen-venture. And yet! When I said there almost wasn’t a single you could take away from Yesternight and still have a game, I was being precise. There is exactly one superfluous item in the world, a medical book of some description (I say “of some description” because its description is “you see nothing special”, and you can’t actually read it), that serves no purpose whatsoever. It must be there because the author wanted it there; there was no puzzle-logic or worldbuilding rationale that required it to exist, after all. There’s something intriguing about its completely unnecessary presence in this otherwise minimal game, and I’m almost tempted to argue that the seed of all art is putting something like that into a work that clearly doesn’t need it – and the seed of all criticism is trying to figure out what it means that it’s there. Right now it’s not very interesting art, and it can’t lead to interesting criticism, since the medical text is an empty signifier, an invitation into the author’s mind that only leads to an empty house with no lights on. But hey, a seed is a seed.