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About the Story
Bigger Than You Think is a choice-based interactive narrative.
Nominee, Best Puzzles; Winner, Best Individual Puzzle - 2012 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 3
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This is a game about exploration, about discovering strange and wondrous worlds. It'd be easy to consider it a companion-piece to Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. In general, it's structured like a classic IF adventure: explore a cave network, collect objects, use each object to solve its one puzzle, thus opening up new areas and new objects. Monsters attack; keys must be found; there's something of the sense of an old-school Zorkian cave, all juxtapositions. The structural difference is that it's rendered in a CYOA format: each exploration reaches a dead-end and then returns you to the start, retaining any inventory. (The protagonist, in each playthrough, is both different and the same.) This is classic adventure gaming boiled down to its structural essence: get thing, go to place, use thing. And as such, it's skilfully executed: it's fair and easy, but not a cakewalk.
Invisible Cities ranks highly among my desert-island books. For me, this puts Bigger Than You Think in a precarious position; I'm comparing it to a book which, well, I would cheerfully throw every IF game written before 1995 into the fire to preserve one page of Invisible Cities. And my intuitive reaction is to see if Bigger measures up. (That general reaction, as well as not being hugely fair, is probably a sign that I'm not really cut out for fanfic.)
Where Invisible Cities is very much about personal experience (melancholy, nostalgia, romantic longing), Bigger Than You Think is less personal, more rational. There is a good deal of aesthetic and intellectual wonder, as well as action-horror adrenalin, but it has a generally cool affect. The protagonist(s) are academically-minded archaeologists; on making a new discovery, they are often described as dedicating the rest of their lives to its study. The strange worlds are ultimately not an unreliable reflection of personal experience: there is a central mystery to work towards, and in doing so you will reveal a unifying logic to the world. The direction provided by that mystery is perhaps a necessary change to make it work as a game. But compared to the rich emotional landscape of Calvino's original, it feels a little arid.
That said, it's a fun game with capable writing, well-established motivation, solid design and an attractive setting, which is not to be sniffed at.
(Also: at one point, the game adopts an Arabian Nights structure, with stories told by an NPC that lead the player into alternate worlds. This was a cool thing that I'd like to see used more extensively.)
Bigger Than You Think, a riff on both Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and XKCD's Click and Drag comic, is a new CYOA/parser-based IF hybrid by Andrew Plotkin. It was created for a fanfic gift exchange at Archive of Our Own. BTYT uses keywords that the player can type in or click on to use, and even an inventory that is always displayed at the top of the screen, along with the word "start", which is the keyword that begins a new playthrough of the game.
BTYT is about exploration, not just of the cavern the game starts in, but of different worlds, other lives, potential futures, alternate realities. This is highlighted by the way the inventory works: instead of limiting the player to things and ideas that they have picked up in one playthrough, the inventory is designed to work across multiple playthroughs, so that something you picked up in one is available to use in another. Contrariwise, once something is used properly in a playthrough, it stays that way for all playthroughs afterward (to pull this off, the game makes use of an autosave function, I think through Glulx's ability to write to an outside file). It is literally impossible to beat the game in a single playthrough; too many objects, too many ideas are in dead ends, and BTYT smartly makes use of this fact to call attention to what this might suggest: Perhaps merging realities, or reincarnation, or maybe just different stories that got smooshed together in the telling.
Stories, after all, are a part of BTYT's makeup, as the game is framed as a tale told by Marco Polo to Kubla Khan, a device inspired directly by Invisible Cities. There's references to stories throughout as well, mostly through the traditional CYOA intonations along the lines of "Your story must end here," but also through at least one case of recursive storytelling (I am thinking here of (Spoiler - click to show)the monk, and the tales of the lost cities you can access through him). What I found most compelling, though, was the ending: (Spoiler - click to show)at the end, Marco Polo stops his tale just short of revealing one last mystery to the Khan, telling him to get off his duff instead, although not in so many words. The player, who is heavily identified with Khan ("I did not undertake this journey, these discoveries! You did, o Khan. Always, it was you."), is too the recipient of this message to do something real now that the story is done. The fact that Marco essentially leaves the story to Khan to complete is, in a fan-work, a perfect detail, almost an invitation to create. I'm not lying when I say it was a big motivation for the writing of this review.
Bigger Than You Think is not a perfect game. There are too many times when figuring out which item to use in which situation can be a frustrating exercise in finding something you haven't done yet. And it's not always clear whether there is something you can try (though to its credit, BTYT mostly gets this right). But the worlds are dazzling, and the prose is pure Zarfian beauty. It's definitely worth your time to give this a look.
Bigger Than You Think is what you get when a master of parser fiction writes a Twine game. The result is a Twine game with an interesting, complicated map; large inventory system; and interesting narrative. It's a sort of hybrid between traditional games and modern twine games.
Does it work? It's certainly fun to get started. For me, because I didn't draw a map, it felt more or less overwhelming; you are basically searching through a binary tree repeatedly until you have exhausted all options. After a few runs, I just used a walkthrough to see the end.
The repetitiveness comes from the fact that you have to repeatedly restart the game.
The inventory system is fun. It's more merciful than I had supposed; I used up a one-shot item in one run, and was worried that I had lost my chance. However, the item was still used at the critical moment; once it is used, it is always used.
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