One Way Ticket

by Vitalii Blinov

Surreal
2022

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IFComp 2022: One Way Ticket, November 6, 2022
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Midway through this our mortal life: “The train seemed to be slowly moving towards its goal. To my goal, to be exact. The iron car, puffing to its destination, will go back in just a couple of hours — for me it was a one way ticket.” When the train breaks down, waylaying us in a mysterious village, we’re primed for a metaphorical journey of pilgrim’s progress paused, but quite quickly we’re handed a map, given a quest, which opens up another quest, which requires us to manage our inventory, and voila – you have stumbled upon the latest Russovian convergence!

Through this custom system, Twine in form but parser in spirit, characters nod us toward puzzles with glib pretenses: a character wants to get into the train for Reasons, but “I am not on the best of terms with the miserly driver, and without his cap it is simply impossible to get into the cab!” Yes, to get into the driver’s cab, apparently all you need is the driver’s cap. This whimsically arbitrary knockabout of “asking questions will only slow you down” fetch quests sets the tone for a puzzlefest that delights in both continually posing story elements while also subverting them with cheerfully blatant gamey surfaces: ““That the train is drawn on the map, as if it always stands there, like buildings in the city! What is this nonsense? And then, when did you manage to draw the train on the map?” / The mayor slowly drew the tobacco mixture into his bowels and passed his hand in front of my face as if he was stirring something in my head. / “Firstly, relax. Secondly, you are mistaken about buildings. Thirdly, the train stands exactly in the place where it is drawn, I don’t see a mistake here.”” Don’t be concerned about the how, definitely not the why, but the what, oh, we’ve got plenty of the what around here.

Charmingly surreal enthusiasm keeps you always one headscratch behind. You stumble onto the public transportation system, only to be taken for a ride: ““Why doesn’t the tram go?” / “Because there are not enough passengers, it’s clear!” / “Let’s say your passenger is in front of you.” / The man slapped himself on the forehead so that dust rose: / “Kh-kh! Oh, and I wonder why this face is unfamiliar. Are you off the train? The whole town is already talking about you. Let me explain how our trams work. / I tell you: trams run very rarely, basically we can do without them. But sometimes we have to poison jackals, otherwise they rush to people.”” So many questions, but rest assured, none of them will be answered. One Way Ticket commits to the bit, even as it enjoys thinning the bit as much as possible without causing the fourth wall to snap. Taunting you through the graphene grins the game’s humor: “The fence did not look very unapproachable, but I had absolutely no reason to pretend to be either a bee or a monkey, which at all costs had to get close to the flowers.” The implication being, of course, that you will need to puzzle through the fence to collect the flowers.

That creative tension between offhand grabbagging ideas and then committing to them with ebullient certainty bestows brilliant paint, “even yellower than the yellowest cadmium sulfide used by artists to represent the color yellow”, on what might otherwise be industrially mechanical. A statement like ““And what is this city?” / The little man beamed with genuine joy and answered: / “This is the city of which I am the mayor!”” manages to turn a character’s utilitarian flatness into a disarming joke. One character, having finally had his state changed by your successful completion of his fetch quest, shares your relief as we progress to the next set of unexpected whatsits needing whotsits: “"I’m so glad I can finally leave this basement. Frankly, I’m already fed up with the taste of the local hookah — it’s like playing with someone who knows only one opening: boredom is death, the very sense of the game disappears…” The sense of the game, then, appears in the dislocating weirdnesses that keep you guessing, not just through the puzzles, but in the much harder to parse contexts.

Unfortunately, the game dislocates you much more than I think it intends to, which dials up the confusion to migraine. Firstly, the inventory management necessary to solve puzzles is kind of unclear. You have two inventories, a journal full of notes you’ve made and a bag full of items you’re carrying, and you oscillate through them basically at random: to meet the priest for the first time, you need to use a note from your journal about meeting him in the evening to solve a puzzle about turning the sun to change the time, but when you get the fetch quest item for him, you have to use that item from your inventory to turn the sun to change the time. Then, once you give him the item, you need to make it day again, which requires you to use a journal note to change the time. In each instance, the UI obliques the puzzle through an obfuscatory layer roughly correlate with “guess the verb” frustrations.

Secondly, the occasionally haphazard translation can make disambiguating between what’s weird intentionally and what the language barrier has rendered confused difficult: ““Here is the last passenger!" the tram driver exclaimed when he saw me. / “An extremely curious passenger!” the python passenger looked at me angrily. “Here you are, in order to dispel possible misinterpretation.” / The passenger pulled out of his high boots first one, and then another one… hand. / “I’m a right-four-handed, haven’t you met someone like me?” / I was petrified to the point where I couldn’t even shake my head. The two right hands were fingering with the numb fingers pulled out from narrow boots.” So in this scenario, we have the zany puzzle that someone has all their limbs on one side, but when I first read this, I thought it was someone with four arms but who was right handed, a misconception that obscures the puzzle solution you have to later intuit. And uh, why is he a python? “He was like a python put in a box for a hamster serving a python a light breakfast.” Uh. Okay. I guess, um, that clears it up?

Thirdly, the Twinesque UI requires you to click through a lot, but requires precise input on specific screens, which is both more difficult than it needs to be and results in a lot of lost time cycling through or pausing to think if you should intervene in some new way before moving on, etc. Plus it makes movement around the map much more difficult, since each location requires you to click through the same introductory material each time, which can be annoying. Compounded this annoyance, the map is segmented into quadrants, which slows you down by forcing you to travel through hubs to get to the location you want. Given with the sheer amount of needing to wander around and try random things or notice random things that might have inexplicably changed from one moment to the next, it can become exhausting.

But if you can keep pace with the wayward logic, you can enjoy its complex layers of interdependence that lets you trace disparate elements as they course to an emotive core, slowly recognizing the life inside the inexplicable architecture: “The whole building looked crooked and oblique and rather resembled some kind of creature, molded from plasticine and not falling apart only because somewhere inside there were thin, but rigid wires hidden, with invisible ties connecting all unsightly protrusions and corners into a single whole.” Indeed, the game’s delight in inventiveness manifests most obviously in that everyone you meet, even the tavern hostess, is an inventor in disguise, and your job is to help them build their machines and improve the world in excitingly unexpected ways. Perhaps the game describes its madcap inventiveness best: “Some kind of harnesses and chains, which seemed to be randomly wound on the axles and gears of the mechanism, led from wheels to pedals, and from pedals to other wheels, creating a kind of mechanical tangle that I could not unravel at first glance.” And if it all breaks down, leaving you stranded indefinitely? Well, you ought to try the local corn wine.