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(based on 11 ratings)
About the Story
I was heading for a new life and my train brought me here. Nice town: friendly people, corn cuisine, mysterious architecture...
So why am I sure that I need to get out of here as fast as possible?
30th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
There’s just something about trains, perhaps because they’re the very archetype of the liminal space: in a train car you’re halfway between where you were and where you’re going, not tied to your past and not yet able to make progress on your future. So it is for the protagonist of One Way Ticket, who’s bought the eponymous unidirectional fare in hopes of finding a new life, but who can do little but speculate as to what that life will be about so long as they’re riding the train – all the more so when the train tracks are blocked by a mountain of freshly-harvested corn, and they have to descend and solve the quotidian-yet-cryptic problems of the magical-realistic town where they’ve fetched up.
Maybe magical realism is the wrong comparison to invoke, though, since the vibe I get from the game is less South American literature and more European art film. This is one weird town – they use gold sand for currency, the local shop moves from place to place, the inn only serves food made from corn, people change names depending on what time you visit them, and there are omnipresent jackals who make travel a dangerous business. While you’re simply trying to unblock the tracks, the goals of the inhabitants are far stickier things: an inventor wants to raid the stopped train for part to build a machine of inscrutable purpose, while an unlucky gambler’s on the hunt for the aces missing from his deck. Everyone’s playing an angle – except the tavern hostess, who seems perhaps a little too interested in you, and the train driver and conductor, who’d rather drink and gamble than do their jobs and help you get the train moving again.
It’s not just the existentialist substance of the narrative and characters, though: for that authentic foreign-movie vibe, the text seems translated into English, with the occasional ungainliness, but also occasional uniquely-turned phrase, that entails. Here’s an encounter with a woman trying to enlist the player’s help in finding love, in a dialogue taking place over a shell game:
“The problem with our city is that people have stopped listening to each other. And topics for conversation are another story!”
“Have stopped listening?”
“Well, yes,” she continued the chaotic round dance of cups, “once, probably, people listened to each other, but now everyone is on their own wave — and, to be honest, these waves have already overgrown with mud.”
“What do you mean?”
She abruptly stopped the run of the cups:
“I mean that people discuss the same thing all the time, but everything is so everyday, mundane, boring, trivial… I could list a few more synonyms.”
“Perhaps I understand you.”
“Well I hope.”
“And you need to talk about the sublime?”
“Everyone needs to talk about something sublime from time to time. Especially me.”
(The shell game, like everything else in this town, isn’t on the level, natch).
Similarly, sometimes you come across a simile that makes the prose come to a lurching stop – as the protagonist makes their way through the dining car, they note that it’s “long and empty, like my intestines” – but there are some great images too, like the train station being described as “a low building with a platform, long as a bayonet, cutting the cornfield in two.”
Mechanically, this kind of story seems like it’d be a good fit for a choice-based system, making it easy to read long passages of sometimes-opaque text and present options allowing the player to progress without requiring them to completely understand everything that’s going on. Subverting expectations, though, One Way Ticket uses a very adventure-gamey approach, with quite granular actions, rather than the broader strokes allowed for by less systemic choice-based interfaces. A location typically boasts three or four links for the important objects or people there, and clicking each will usually change the final paragraph of the passage to provide for detail on whatever you selected. Often this paragraph will have additional options for interaction – moving or talking or taking something or what have you – meaning the rhythm of gameplay proceeds sort of like it does in a parser game, where you examine each item in turn and then decide what to do. You also have a modestly-sized inventory, as well as a much larger list of facts or questions you’ve accumulated in your notebook. At certain times, the graphics for these will highlight, indicating that you can choose an item or topic to try to apply to your current circumstances: when talking to the hostess, for example, you can go to the notebook to mention that the Mayor told you there’d be free lodging at the tavern.
It’s a solid system, similar to ones I’ve liked in games by Abigail Corfman or Agnieszka Trzaska. I’m not sure it’s a great fit for One Way Ticket, though, since it serves to slow down the pacing quite a lot: while the inventory is relatively compact, the topic list quickly reaches a dozen or more entries, and sometimes the proper choices to pick are relatively obscure due to the often-confusing nature of the situation and the prose. Exploration is also challenging because sometimes clicking on the name of an object will lock you into choosing an action and progressing, meaning you need to leave and then come back, hopefully remembering which choice was the booby-trap, to fully plumb the depths of each location. Relatedly, the map is big, and often you need to click through several links to get to the travel options in a location – plus, several puzzles have a fair bit of busywork, requiring you to go from one end of the town to the other, sometimes going to the tavern to wait for nightfall too, before you can make much progress. And while this is a big game with lots of stuff to do, the first portion of it seemed fairly linear, with only one puzzle that’s possible to solve at a time even though you’ll quickly unlock a dozen locations (with different night and day locations) and twice as many items and notebook topics.
All this means that after spending an initial hour enjoyably but bewilderedly exploring my way around town and solving a few puzzles, I began to worry and checked the helpfully-provided walkthrough, which indicated I’d barely gotten a quarter of the way in. I started consulting the walkthrough more regularly after that, but still, I’d only gotten maybe 2/3 of the way through when the two-hour judging deadline hit. Usually I’m not shy about scribbling down a rating then pressing on to the finish line for longer games, but here, I found myself anxious to move on. Partially that’s because it’s only the first game in my queue and I’m very aware of the distance to go to play all of them by November 15th, but partially it’s because while I like the ingredients here, the sheer quantity of options and obstacles feels overwhelming – going back to the movie metaphor, what would be a cryptically compelling 85-minute film can get quite exhausting once it rounds the two hour mark, in my experience.
If I wrap up my Comp before the deadline, I’ll definitely try to get back to One Way Ticket, since there is a lot here I’m enjoying – if I do, I’ll go back and update this review accordingly. Part of me, though, almost hopes I don’t; there’d be something apt about leaving the protagonist mid-quest, with one of the gambler’s aces found and halfway through a flirtatious dinner with the tavern hostess, eternally poised on the threshold of resolution, forever stuck between stations.
The cover art biased me early. It was obviously a train on the front cover but not quite like one I'd ever seen. Quirky the right way. But there was more than cover art–the in-game pictures reminded me of Tove Jansson, and so did the writing. (If you don't know who Tove Jansson is, please do stop by your local library and read all the Moomintroll books as soon as possible!) The plot and puzzles and layout are great, too. And though I didn't get through OWT, I loved what I saw, and given how well put together it is, I sense I'm missing something silly. Somehow, between the end of IFComp and posting this review, I didn't figure it, either. I need to fix that. But I saw enough even getting halfway through!
OWT is set in a nonsense land in its own rules, where you take a train, but your trip is derailed halfway through. It's unclear why, but you debark in front of a very, very odd town. The mayor seems very uninterested in greeting you, so off you go to explore a store with legs (it walks away after dark) and visit some very odd characters indeed. But it's the best sort of oddity that never feels forced, and the translation gives a unique voice native English speakers would sound very artificial mimicing. For me it reinforced how far-away this place must be.
I'm still fuzzy on some aspects of why things are happening, but I suspect things will be revealed once I find my way through. It's been fun to learn the town's history and how it wouldn't fly in the real world, but it would clearly make sense to those living there for a while. A key mechanic is changing your free room at the tavern from day to night based on the puzzles. You switch out a moon and sun in a painting. This was reassuring to me–I didn't need to worry about messing up or taking too long–and it also fit in with "look! The natives are helpless!" Townspeople have bizarre reasons for not transporting you palces you need to go, and there are jackals who appear at night. One very fun scene has an NPC scare some of them away so you have a few more places to visit. It's even legitimately creepy to explore at night!
I got stuck trying to find golden sand and trying to help a man with four right arms get his pedicab going. (Just walking didn't work, due to some existential woes.) Then there was the gambling game I knew was rigged. These barriers and frustrations amused me immensely, and I don't know if any other comp entry has hit this nerve so well, and I'm eager to see more.
One word about the interface. It's not immediately obvious, but once you see how it works, it makes sense. The text for each location has clicky bits that either lose all their links (a compass appears below to show a big picture map to pick your next location) or just let you cycle between the scenery--this gets a bit awkward as you open more locations, and it would be nice to jump, but this is quibbling. A notepad in the upper left, when highlighted, lets you remember clues you picked up, and a knapsack in the upper right lets you use items. Clicking on the location lets you save a game. At first I panicked when I didn't see how or when to save (it's quite possible I skimmed the instructions) but quickly I acclimated–and I was glad not to have even the hint of a save/restart menu tarnishing the fantasy world I was in! TLDR: the visual design is very effective, and maybe it can't be used everywhere, but I hope OWT inspires others to improve their own.
OWT feels like it might not get the attention it deserves because 1) it has a custom format (I think) and is hosted outside IFComp and 2) it is translated. And there is one instance where the translation misleads the player–the "say goodbye" option in the tavern actually means "don't talk to the owner this time," and there's one instance where being called "buddy" feels jarring and too condescending and "friend" would've worked. These are very subtle degrees of connotation, though, and if something was lost in translation, well, what's left is very special, and we have more than enough. I've never been as disappointed in myself for not finishing a game as I have for OWT. It's legitimately, organically odd, the sort of oddness that won't jump in our face and beg us to experience it fully now for our own good or be stuffy squares for eternity. In other words, the kind our souls need more of.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
This is a fine example of a work that embraces deeply weird, vaguely sinister and supernatural-tinged narratives. But rather than commit to the well-laid Twin Peaks tracks, instead has the nerve to be its own thing instead! I'm sorely tempted to add a special grading system for this stripe of game. I have a great hook for it too, the pseudo-Lynch scorecard!
Is there cherry pie/coffee? Kind of. There’s (Spoiler - click to show)corn liquor
Is there a Log Lady? Eeh, no but there is a (Spoiler - click to show)Contemplator
Is there a Laura Palmer? No
Evil behind a cookie cutter face? Can’t tell at the 2hr mark, no.
Imagery pulled straight from our collective unconscious? No
Lynch-ledger: 1.4/5, Between Dune and Blue Velvet.
The protagonist finds themselves on an unscheduled stop on their bid for a new life, in a tiny town, just left of normal. Must solve puzzles to resume journey! The presentation is appealing. Crude uSoft Paint geometrical pictures and jaunty music pepper the experience. There is a map to follow, with a unique NPC guardian at each location. The map amusingly changes state with the world in a nicely weird touch. The NPCs range from deadpan, to flighty to just deeply weird, all of it combining to present a deliciously off-kilter vibe. The puzzles have some flair, but don’t seem to match the environment in weirdness. They are oddly pedestrian (Spoiler - click to show)deliver envelope, find matches, buy stuff. The main mechanism is simultaneously clumsy and clever - matching narrative notes or items to characters/places. It has a little more textual flair than TELL X ABOUT Y, but it requires multiple clicks on multiple screens to effect, and can devolve to mimesis-breaking exhaustive trial and error.
There’s a lot to like here, but a lot of it is qualified. None more so than the text itself. At its best, the text disappears and just straight-forward describes the weirdness around you. All too often though, it throws in flourishes that come out of left field in a distracting way. “long and empty like my intestines” “Tall green pillars stuck out their immature cobs like rattlesnakes” “door opened the silence of the room, releasing it right in my face.” See if you can guess what this one refers to:
"However, the snake opened its mouth, and I got out of this bell, as a lost sound finally flies out of the French horn, scrolling and traveling through all its convolutions, bends and nooks."
(Spoiler - click to show)Exiting a series of alleys! I had literally just done it, and took a minute to realize that’s what it was describing. I think it's the snake that doesn’t work there, I probably could have gotten on board with just the French Horn. Between the textual excesses and the puzzles that didn’t seem on the same level as the rest of the narrative, I couldn’t breach into Engaging here, but definite Sparks of Joy. No bugs found!
FTR, the Lynch Ledger scoring system:
0 - The Straight Story
1 - Dune
2 - Blue Velvet
3 - Twin Peaks original series and movie
4 - Lost Highway
5 - Eraserhead
Playtime: 2hr, Day3 (incomplete)
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? No, my sweet spot is Blue Velvet+
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
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