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About the Story
A far-future story of discovery.
Nominee, Best Game; Winner, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Implementation - 2010 XYZZY Awards
1st Place - @party Interactive Fiction Competition 2010
Play This Thing!
The game-play is extremely ingenious at teaching the player to manipulate and appreciate something completely unrecognizable. Most of what you do will consist of navigating your ship, borne along by giant sails. Even though the commands to do this are novel, by the end of the game I found myself understanding the basics of how it all worked and navigating new types of situation with some confidence -- even though they were situations unlike any in real life.
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Number of Reviews: 13
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Heliopause looks, on the surface, like far-future SF. It's a veneer. A very good, lovingly crafted veneer, rich with knowledge of astronomy and the knowing evocation of tasty SF tropes; but the heart of the game is fantasy, and this is understood, and it's very adeptly handled.
The framing of the story makes it clear that we're dealing with a tall tale, a reliable signal not just of narrative unreliability, but of entry into realms of Story where versimilitude is beside the point. The threefold repetition, the fisherman's-wife motif of a fourth greedy wish cancelling the previous three, the three gifts whose use emerges only at the moment of crisis -- these are solid motifs of the fantastic, and deftly employed. The protagonist gives lip-service to the idea that he's collecting stuff for its unique scientific properties, but really what's being sought isn't something with a technical application so much as Herodotean wonders.
SF treats space as a rational quantity to be managed in some way or another: an ocean to chart, a frontier to advance, an empire to administrate. In Heliopause, space is the Great Forest of Arthurian knight-errant and Grimm fairytale, or the ocean of the Odyssey: anything might be encountered there, but you won't be able to plot it on a map. The principal controls, which you're given enough time to figure out intuitively but not enough to really master, feed into this feeling, as does the low-level approach to scenery; the standard IF game encourages a rather Aristotelean, sift-through-lists approach to one's surroundings, but this feels more like fable than fieldwork. The problem with this in a game context is that things end up feeling quite linear; the sense of vast possibility in the early stages gets closed down towards the end.
It's a weird experience to have such a flat response to the work of someone whose games you normally like so well, and to a game that caused such a splash of interest (also to a game with such an interesting title). However, while I liked the concept of Heliopause quite a bit, and a lot of the imagery was beautiful, I wound up not really enjoying the gameplay experience a whole lot.
A lot of it feels to me as if it were done on a dare rather than out of an attempt to make a compelling game. There's a great deal of customization, which do show of the flexibility of the tools and do sort of prod authors to think in new ways about what interactive fiction could look like. As other reviewers have mentioned, there's even an attempt to make a non-annoying maze -- something which worked for many people (but not really for me). However, in some ways, the game feels like a collection of these things. It's not without story, but the way the story is executed seems more at the service of showing these things off than building engagement.
The distance mentioned in other reviews is at least part of the issue for me -- you never feel very personally engaged with the game. However. there's more to it than that. There were more undefined objects than the usual Plotkin game, some of which were incredibly obvious ones to try to interact with, and this hurts the gameplay and the sensation of depth for sure. I spent a lot of time "guess the verb"ing, even in some cases where the verb the game wanted was one of the basic IF game verbs, because it's so seldom apparent when these do and don't apply. The "maze" was certainly less confounding than many mazes, but it was also very nebulous (pun intended) and poorly defined and I didn't feel like my actions had any relationship whatsoever with my "solving" it -- in fact, I know that understanding and thought had nothing to do with it, because I just did random actions and boom, it was solved. I don't think I built an understanding of what was going on there at all. And there were a lot of times where the game's attempt at hinting things to me clouded rather than enlightened things. The sum of all of these plus "driving" using a totally new system of controls is that it was always very front-and-center that you're manipulating a construction -- I never achieved any degree of immersion in the story at all.
And because it's often the case that these days one of the foremost questions is whether or not the game is accessible to new players (outreach being on everyone's minds lately), this is kind of the polar opposite of that. Now, I don't think making a game to appeal to dedicated players is a bad thing, but I think that this game will be lost on all but the most patient and forgiving players, and that most of what it has to offer is just turning conventions on their head. It's almost designed to specifically narrow the audience as much as possible. Not so much an in-joke, in that there's no joke in it, but definitely the dramatic equivalent. I don't know if that's a horrible thing, but it did stick out to me, especially as I was hoping that the unusual theme would be useful in order to draw in some of my friends who aren't bowled over by their internalized stereotypes of what IF covers.
It sounds like I really hated this game, mind you, and I didn't. I don't think it's horrible, and there are interesting things about it, although I do think that its ratings and buzz have been exaggerated by the reactions of die-hard community members who got into its newness and/or authors who were interested in the implementation. There are things to like about this game. I just came out of it with an overall, "Meh," which really surprised me.
I really enjoyed this work. It was short and linear, but very creative and the setting was very evocative. Plotkin is quite good at using a few well-chosen strokes of the literary brush to allude to an extensive backstory, while letting the reader fill in most of the details themselves.
The style nods to classic SF of the pulp era -- Jack Williamson's "rhodomagnetics" makes a distinctive appearance early on, and I'm sure I missed many others. In style and tone I was reminded powerfully of both John Clute's Appleseed and the works of Jack Vance. The society of d'Accord is so advanced that the mechanics and time scales of space travel are of no real relevance to the protagonist, and the nautical metaphor Plotkin uses maps very well onto this setting.
And there's a maze. I don't mind mazes as much as some do, but even maze-haters should enjoy this one. The "room" descriptions are well-written and the mechanics are both novel and thematic.
The ending sequence was a nice finishing touch as well -- I won't spoil it here.
Overall, an excellent short work by a master of the art.
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