Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home

by Andrew Plotkin profile

Science Fiction

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Number of Reviews: 13
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Meh?, February 21, 2011
by Irfon-Kim Ahmad (Toronto, Canada)

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.