by Ian Finley

Mystery/Science Fiction

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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful:
A towering achievement?, September 25, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

I started playing Babel with high, very high expectations. Right now, the game has 27 5-star ratings, 24 4-star ratings, and only 7 ratings below that. This game, I was thinking, must be a towering achievement, one of the true classics of modern interactive fiction.

It is obviously very hard for a game to live up to that kind of reputation, and Babel did not. But I was somewhat surprised at how great the discrepancy between the critical consensus and my own judgement about the game turned out to be: what most people apparently see as a nearly flawless game revealed itself to me as a very problematic piece -- interesting, mostly fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Just because other critics have been so almost unanimously positive, I believe it will be most useful if I focus on the reasons why I did not like the game. It's not a bad game. I could say many positive things about it. But you can read up on those in the other reviews (see also here). So, with the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, let's move on to my complaints.

Babel is set in an abandoned scientific base on one of the poles, far from all human contact. It becomes apparent very early on that the amnesiac player character has a special ability: he can touch certain things in the world, that he perceives as glowing, and these will then project forth emotionally-charged scenes that happened nearby at some time in the near past. Much of the game consists of the player hunting for such glowing objects, so that he can trigger these flashbacks.

Although justified in the narrative, this is obviously a plot device thought up only so that the author can bombard the player with non-interactive cut-scenes. Rather than telling a story in which the player (note that I'm not saying "player character") participates, we get to slowly uncover a story that has already taken place. In other words, Babel has fallen into the dreadful trap of excessive reliance on backstory. As Stephen Bond memorably puts it: "If Lord of the Rings had consisted mostly of Frodo recovering lost pages of The Silmarillion, then no one would ever have read it." But this is almost precisely what Babel does.

Playing the game consists of the tired old routine of thoroughly searching everything you encounter, writing down all the clues, collecting keys, and then opening doors that you couldn't open before you found the right key or the right piece of information. This will open up new areas that you get to search thoroughly, find keys in, and... well, you understand what's going on. Except that this time, we also get to read very long cut-scenes whenever we find a glowing object.

It's not that this is unenjoyable per se. Although the puzzles are nothing to write home about (expect combination codes for safes and fiddling with intricate machinery), the environment is interesting, the cut-scenes are generally well-written, and the story, although hardly fresh, is worth perusing. But look at it this way. As an author, you have thought up an interesting story. Now what would be more exciting for a player: (1) being dropped into the middle of that story so you get to perceive it first-hand and act in it, in other words, experiencing your fictional story as interactive fiction; or (2) solve a bunch of thirteen-in-a-dozen IF puzzles and be rewarded by reading excerpts from a static fiction story that you have written out beforehand? Of course (1) more exciting. It is also harder to implement, but nobody said making good interactive fiction was easy.

Okay, so the gameplay is uninspiring and to a great extent detached from the story. Not entirely detached, of course, and Finley attempts to tie in the backstory with the interactive present in several ways. The most important of these is that you get clues to solve puzzles from the cut-scenes. But that's still me just experiencing the story from afar and then opening locked doors. The others are that (a) the back-story gives vital information for understanding who the player character is, which is finally revealed at a dramatic moment; and that (b) we learn the end of the back-story only in the present. But again, all of this is non-interactive. (And the big revelation about the player character will surely be guessed by every player long, long before it actually happens.)

Which leaves me somewhat baffled. This game is more than adequate, but it is definitely not great. It's very standard interactive fiction with a relative standard story pasted onto it a totally non-interactive way. So why do Andrew Plotkin and Paul O'Brian give it a 10 and a 9.8 respectively? Why do half the reviewers on this site give it 5 stars? I have no idea -- but if you wish to comment, please do.

Comments on this review

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streever, April 19, 2014 - Reply
I'm resurrecting this thread--I think I have something to add here.

I think the reason why Babel earned so much acclaim is two-fold. It is very well-written; I hate blocks of texts, but I read & enjoyed the entire story. Yes, there are a few tired chestnuts, but for the most part, this was crisp and solid writing and plotting, which I'd say holds up to the bulk of modern IF.

The second reason is the timing; I think this was a really strong game in 1997. It was highly accessible, with puzzles that could be completed with a little patience. Looking back at the other IF Comp entrants from 1997, I think this game really sticks out as one of the strongest pieces.

Is it the greatest IF game ever? No, but it had strong and robust text parsing, to the point that I couldn't find any errors or confusion in my first play through. I can't say that for many other games which get an equal level of fanfare and heralding.

I think the attention to detail is very good, and the actual narrative and quality of writing is also of a high enough level, to earn this game some merit. It was affecting, moving, and used strong imagery well, in a way that made me feel exceptionally clever as a player when those images were involved in puzzles.
deathbytroggles, April 1, 2018 - Reply
I agree with streever, that I think a lot of the high ratings come from this being released in 1997. At the time, I had only played Zork and Wishbringer, so this blew my mind. If I had played it for the first time now, I would probably have been similarly underwhelmed. Though, I am a sucker for games about Arctic research stations gone amok. See: Enclosure, a free AGI horror game.
smartgenes, January 16, 2011 - Reply
I wholeheartedly agree with the points in this review, as I couldn't understand the high rating either. Yes, it has a good atmosphere, and it is a good game, but it doesn't feel like anything new. Rather than comparing the game with one or two individual games, the reviewer like me has considered it as it stands in the whole realm of interactive fiction, and to me it is just an average/good game, hence I gave it a rating (before this review) of 3 stars. The "touch" plot-device it seemed to me would have worked better in a different game, or with more to be revealed in the plot later. Ultimately I anticipated more from the game.
Victor Gijsbers, October 11, 2010 - Reply
Yes, I guess so -- but if you are looking for pure discovery, it seems to me that the Photopia-model (put no barriers between the player and progress) is better than the Babel-model (put barriers between the player and progress that aren't really fun to try to overcome).
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