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A Dream of Lethe
Review by: Gunther Schmidl
Game: Lethe Flow Phoenix
By: Dan Shiovitz

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Here be, as always, spoilers. You have been warned.

Dan Shiovitz' Lethe Flow Phoenix is different from other games.

First of all, its style of narration at the start of the game reminded me of C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew or, perhaps more flattering, Tolkien's The Hobbit with editorial comments like

The rock is oval, fairly heavy, and about the size of an apple or maybe even slightly bigger. Useful as a paperweight, I suppose.

and charmingly drawn NPCs like a grumpy old tree trying to prevent you from climbing him:

"Hah!" says the tree. "That'll teach you." "Ha!" you say back, grabbing the apple.
    "Oh," says the tree. "I hadn't thought of that."

This changes later as the game's tone grows more serious (again, much like Tolkien's prose changed between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but the entire game is beautifully written, with funny and compelling descriptions. The world it is set in seems like a condensed version of Once and Future (which it pre-dates by several years, of course) sometimes, in that it is not a generic fantasy world but alive with strange beasts and vivid locations.

One small critique must be permitted amid all the praise: the game suffers (not much, though) from small oversights:

>PUT IT IN CAGE

>

(You receive no message to the effect, but the action has worked). Later on, there are a number of the TADS equivalent of rtrue; missing, and you'll get the default response to an action displayed after Dan's own, like here:

You grab hold of the glider bar and adjust your position on it. You're ready to fly! Okay, you're now wearing the hang-glider.

Again, this doesn't really matter much, and you'd probably have to be a programmer to realize these are oversights (but then again, maybe not).

And I couldn't resist throwing in part of one of my favourite funny descriptions of all time:

Well, if you've ever wondered what was going on, you seem to have found the place where whatever it is that is going on happens.

The game is also one of the very few to use TADS' file input/output features (the two others I can think of off the top of my head being Losing Your Grip and Lost New York; I know I have forgotten at least one here). The first time you start it, you will be asked a few questions, the answers to which are stored in a configuration file so you won't have to answer them again until you delete it.

Another thing I don't remember having seen in any other game are transitional messages as you walk from location to location, things like

>N
You walk north, and soon arrive back at the open field.

One more thing of note: the game does not keep score in a traditional way. Instead, it divides solvable puzzles into major and minor tasks and tells you how many of those you have achieved, then rates you according to that. Since all major objects must be accomplished to win the game, SCORE can give you an indication of how far along you are.

(Note: just as I'm writing this, I'm reading through the help system again, and notice it contains something akin to this paragraph. I didn't steal it from there, honestly!)

So much for game mechanics - what is the game about?

It begins harmlessly enough -- or, actually, it doesn't as you quickly come to realize. It seems an accident that you fall off a cliff, but something rescues you -- bluesilver wings -- the Phoenix that gave the game part of its name?

Whatever it is, you are transported to a fantasy world and are left to explore. It seems peaceful at first but, when you come across some mushrooms, things change quickly.

Plot spoilers below -- mark the seemingly empty space with your mouse if you want to see this. Lynx users: sorry.

It seems you are the phoenix -- or at least one of many phoenices placed upon the Earth by a Fallen Angel to guard against an alien race known only as Them, as they have no pronouncable name in any Earth language. They know that you are a threat, and They decided to kill you, but the Angel, Daniel, brought you to safety. Now the fate of humanity lies with you...

The puzzles that are there are mostly logical, but some things will most likely involve a fair amount of trial and error. There are plenty of clues given by the narrative itself -- either in the actual game text, or by NPCs (also in the form of little notes left lying around) -- and the help menu also contains several generic hints. Be sure to check it out after you win for a number of fun things to try.

Lethe Flow Phoenix is a medium-short game (though Dan seemed to think it was too long for the first IF Competition), but that doesn't make it any less good. The only gripe I had with it is that it was over before I wanted it to be over. Things are left unresolved, and while the ending certainly isn't what you would expect, I felt it was better that way.

The only thing that's left to say to you is: play the best game ever: You are a CHEF!, also written by Dan Shiovitz, nominated for Best Writing in 2000's XYZZY Awards.

The other thing, left to say to Dan: write another game!

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