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The game Photopia should have been..., March 4, 2008
Okay, confession time. I've never been a big fan of Adam Cadre's work and have spent the last few years wondering if he's heavily into bribing people to say nice things about his games because I could never see what the fuss was. Photopia left me cold; Lock & Key confused me so much I don't think I managed to do a single thing right; I gave up with Narcolepsy five minutes into it despite telling myself I'd at least give it a fair go before passing judgement. So when I was looking around for a game to play and chanced upon Varicella I wasn't, despite its reputation, really expecting much. I figured that at best it would be a well written mess that had been heralded as a masterpiece for reasons which I would never understand (which is pretty much my opinion of Photopia). So imagine my surprise when not only did it turn out to be very good, but also one of the best text adventures I've ever played.
What's it about?
The complicated goings-on at the Palazzo del Piedmonte where you, one Primo Varicella, are the Palace Minister. Despite the rather grand title, you wield little actual power and your duties generally include those of a glorified butler. But you're a schemer and eager to seize every opportunity that comes along to better yourself. And if this comes at the expense of others, well... too bad.
And now such an opportunity has presented itself. The King has just died and his son, Prince Charles, is five years old. Soon there's going to be a power struggle for the position of regent (who will officially rule the land in the Prince's stead but unofficially can do pretty much what he likes) and you intend to come out on top. Of course, that means dealing with your rivals as quickly as possible but you have few qualms about that sort of thing. "Dealing" in the case being a polite term for murder.
The introduction is good. Very good. Primo Varicella at once becomes a real and believable character, although it's easy to see why he's held in such poor esteem by everyone he meets in the game. He's a fussy little man, obsessed with manicures and interior design who considers himself the only genuinely sophisticated person at the palace. He's also quite happy to murder anyone who stands in his way, hardly a quality likely to endear him to other people. On top of that, he has an over-inflated opinion of himself and his own abilities, as demonstrated so well during the introduction:
Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.
There you have the introduction which does an excellent job of setting the scene.
Oh yes. I've played some difficult games before but none that come close to Varicella in terms of sheer, downright impossibility*.
* Okay, maybe an exaggeration. After all, I've finished the game so I have firsthand knowledge that it's not impossible, but play it a few times and see how far you get. If you're like me, you'll spend your first four or five plays through the game not having a clue how to finish it.
My first time through the game I actually felt like I was making some pretty good progress. I wandered around the palace, chatted to people, discovered a few things, got a good feel for how I felt everything was likely to pan out - and then I got killed. Yep, soldiers stormed the palace, grabbed me and a moment later one of my rivals, clearly better at this sort of thing than I was, proceeded to shoot me in the head. Exit one fussy little man. Hitting UNDO didn't undo my problems unfortunately as the event with the soldiers and the subsequent untimely demise is on a timer and the program only allows one UNDO in a row. So all UNDO did for me was allow me to relive the moment of my death. Over and over again. Oh joy.
Undeterred, I restarted the game and tried to do better this time. I didn't succeed. Before long, I found myself replaying the final events of the previous game and getting steadily more annoyed at what I felt was an unfair and somewhat premature ending. I'd have probably quit then if not for the slight problem that Varicella was just so damn good that I couldn't bear to quit.
Part of its difficulty stems from the sheer shortness of the game. There is an incredible amount to do to reach an ending which doesn't involve one of your rivals killing you before you kill them and a lot of what needs to be accomplished to steer the game along the path you're after isn't at all straightforward or obvious. A lot, in fact, is the sort of thing you're unlikely to stumble across through sheer luck and instead needs to be plotted out very carefully over a period of many, many games. It's possible to make a few wrong moves here and there, waste a bit of time, but the shortness of the game and the available time you have to complete everything you need to do means that time-wasting just isn't an option. If anyone tells you they finished this game on their first play through they're either a) lying, b) lying, c) lying or d) relying on a walkthrough. Even knowing roughly the sequence of events that you need to go through in order to win, it's still far from easy to actually get there in one piece.
Saving your game regularly - the sort of thing anyone who has played more than a few text adventures knows to do instinctively - is less effective in Varicella due to the game's shortness. Several times after dying I reverted to a previous save only to find myself in another no-win situation because I hadn't performed a certain action by a certain time. In a lesser game this sort of thing would have driven me to distraction (and sent the game off to the recycle bin) but here it's almost forgivable considering the game's other strengths. Almost. When you've just died for the tenth time in a row because you missed something not particularly obvious right at the start of the game, it gets increasingly harder to keep feeling positive.
Persistence seems to be the best way to get anywhere. A couple of times I didn't even try to finish the game, I just explored different avenues that were open to me and if one avenue didn't seem to lead anywhere I restarted and tried something else. One entire game I sat by my surveillance equipment and watched everything I could through it, seeing what I could discover about my rivals that they might not want me to know. In the end, persistence does pay off in that you finally manage to put everything together but you might be forgiven for thinking that you're getting nowhere.
Lots, and very good they are, too. They're a pretty despicable bunch for the most part and at times I was reminded of films like Pulp Fiction where every character, no matter who he or she is, is a nasty piece of work. You might find it hard to sympathise with them - they are, after all, a bunch of back-stabbing, conniving, evil little hellions who would throttle an old woman for her last coin - but it's possible to relate to them all the same. They're all interesting characters with a fully fleshed out background and while none are as well detailed as Varicella himself, they nevertheless perform their duties admirably in giving the player some worthy adversaries to pit himself against.
Not that everyone is against you. With a little bribery, you can find one ally and some detective work and inspired questioning will get you another. Asking as many questions as you can of the characters is a good way to learn things but this is best done in a session when you're not planning to finish the game as the sequence of events that trigger after a set amount of time are likely are come around long before you've exhausted every conversation piece you can think of.
Charlotte is perhaps the only character in the game who doesn't fall into the despicable category, although she has more than a few despicable acts done to her. She spends the majority of the game locked up in the asylum atop one of the palace towers following a mental breakdown after her husband was shot on their wedding day. Several of your rivals regularly rape her (an option, fortunately, you're not able to pursue yourself).
Not a game for kids
There are several dark threads running through Varicella. Charlotte's rape is one of them. Spend enough time checking your surveillance equipment and you'll find an unpleasant scene (mercifully interrupted before its conclusion) with another of your rivals about to molest the young Prince Charles.
Now I started the game thinking that Primo Varicella himself was the lowest of the low due to his plotting to wipe out his enemies, but it quickly becomes apparent from playing through even a portion of the game that he's actually quite a lot less despicable than of his rivals. While more than happy to indulge in power-grabbing games and murder of people who haven't actually done anything to him, he's certainly more tolerable than his rivals. It's probably true to say that he's bad but not half as bad as anyone else.
The tale of the unsatisfying ending
You know on internet forums how when they're about to tell you something that you might not want to know they tend to put a row of dots or SPOILER SPACE with the letters one per line so there's no way anyone can glance at the spoilers without realising what they're looking at? Here we have a single row that says SPOILER so skip over the next few paragraphs if you haven't reached the end of the game yet and don't want it spoiling for you.
The ending was the game's weak point for me. Is there more than one ending? I'm not sure. I finished the game a couple of times and the ending I got was the same each time so I'm assuming it was the only one. If so, well... what a poor way to finish the game.
You win, defeat your adversaries, become regent for the land... and then the Prince grows up, turns into a real terror, stages an uprising, overthrows you and has you tortured to death. Hmmm....
While this certainly made a change from the usual run-of-the-mill game endings where you live happily after ever or find the big treasure chest or slay the evil dark lord and save the world, it's the kind of ending that makes me wonder what the whole point of the game was. Surely there must be a better reward for all that hard work than being tortured to death? Even the endings where I failed and got shot were more satisfying.
Of course, it's altogether possible that there are other endings that offer a more fulfilling conclusion to the game. But I finished it twice - once on my own (and slightly aided by the walkthrough) and once solely with the walkthrough - and both led me to the death-by-torture ending.
Better than Photopia?
Definitely. Now if people spoke about Varicella in the same kind of hero-worship tones that they do Photopia, I could understand where they were coming from. But whereas I finished Photopia and was left wondering just what the big fuss was, when I finished Varicella I immediately played it again several more times just to see what else I had missed. Recommended.
9 out of 10