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Puzzles vs. History
Review by: Adam Cadre
Game: Lost New York
By: Neil deMause

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LOST NEW YORK by Neil deMause sends the player character bouncing around in time, from 1880 to 1905 to 1954 to 1780 to 2040. But none of these dates has anywhere near as much effect on the shape of the game as its year of publication: 1996.

For in 1996, the conventional wisdom asserted that the remaining audience for text adventures was after just that: text adventures. Games were essentially just series of puzzles, with the story as a backdrop, the model world as set decoration. Yes, that backdrop and set decoration could be and often was masterfully designed, but the idea that simply building a model world for the player to poke around in or telling a story in which the player could participate constituted valid IF only gained widespread acceptance over the subsequent five years, as increasingly daring games placed less and less emphasis on puzzles and were rewarded with plaudits from an audience that found it rather liked that sort of thing. But in 1996, how the audience might respond was an open question. Given the amount of effort that goes into a full-length work of IF, most authors elected to go with the proven approach. LOST NEW YORK is no exception. But while it follows the crowd, it does so with obvious reluctance.

In the spirit of time travel, let's jump back about 400 years, to the time of Shakespeare. But not our Shakespeare -- this Shakespeare lives in an England where theater audiences are mad about juggling acts. Day after day, the Globe is witness to trio after trio of balls, pins and torches being flung into the air. But the audiences didn't want to see just juggling; they wanted the juggling folded into a little story. Enter Shakespeare, who soars to fame on the strength of "Romeo and Juliet", in which a pair of young people fall in love at a masked ball (the chief entertainment there: juggling), but then the boy's friend and the girl's cousin get into a ill-fated juggling contest and it all goes downhill from there. Now Shakespeare decides he might like to try writing a history, perhaps something involving King Henry V... yes, a piece tracing his evolution from carousing prince to the inspirational leader of his countrymen in a great victory over the French. But he can't just tell that story -- where's the juggling? If there's no juggling, it's not a real play! So the first act ends up foregrounding a bunch of jugglers at the bar while Falstaff and Prince Hal talk in the background, and proceeds to the point where the jugglers accompanying the army are told that the English have won the battle... and the audience response is tepid because while the historical stuff is interesting, the juggling isn't as accomplished as that in in RITO AND IMITA. Shakespeare is left to mutter to himself about the constraints of the medium.

Similarly, it's clear that in LOST NEW YORK, deMause's heart is in the geographical and historical material. Virtually all the prose is extremely deft, but never is the writing more alive, more joyous, than when you die and the author gets to tell you another wacky story about a long-dead mayor; never are the quips funnier than when they're playing off the geography of the city (try going east from the City Hall area in 1880, or north into Hell's Kitchen later on.) The fact that the game begins with a slideshow and ends with a bibliography is another indication of where the author's interests lie. Hint: it's not in fiddling around with hairpins and stopwatches.

But because this was written in 1996, the author felt obliged to fill it with juggl-- I mean, puzzles. And these are mostly not very good, being chiefly of the type where you're wandering around and find a fishing pole, which you take because, well, it's implemented; later on you find a stream, and go fishing because, well, that must be what the pole's for; you catch a fish and, when you cut it open to cook it, a key falls out. What was the key doing in the fish? Well, one of the conventions of the genre at the time was that you weren't supposed to ask questions like that. That's not actually a puzzle from LOST NEW YORK, but many similar ones abound.

Of course, while the "take everything that's not nailed down, look under and behind and inside everything that is" ethic works fine in a dungeon, it gets to be a little absurd when transplanted to the island of Manhattan. In LOST NEW YORK, Manhattan has like twelve things. And that's too many. (Bet you thought I was going to go a different way with that, huh?) Again, to avoid spoilers, I'll disguise the details a bit. Let's say that the Upper West Side, circa 1965, has been reduced to a single location with a mailbox in it. Now, the problem is not that each street corner should be a separate location, nor that every item in every store and every apartment should be implemented. As it stands, the location works just fine as a representative area of the Upper West Side, and the mailbox works just fine as a representative mailbox. BUT! As soon as you fish around in the mailbox and pull out a live monkey (which you then stuff into your knapsack) you are no longer dealing with the Platonic Mailbox -- you're dealing with a specific, highly unusual mailbox. And by extension, this is no longer just a representative street corner: it's the particular street corner with the strange monkey-containing mailbox. And once players lose the sense that the locations they're visiting are representative, they're no longer wandering around Manhattan; they're navigating a diorama of Manhattan with twelve things in it.

But it didn't have to be this way. LOST NEW YORK is as much about the New Yorks that might have been as the ones that actually have, and in that spirit, I can't help but muse about what might have happened had Neil deMause had his notes stolen one day in 1995. Disheartened, he puts off the project for a few years, till his enthusiasm revives -- only now the IF landscape is different. A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING is no longer a low-selling oddball; lots of games now revolve around exploration instead of dinking around with inventory. And so this alternate, post-'96 version of LOST NEW YORK takes on a different shape. Instead of players getting little more than a glimpse of New York's evolution, whatever gets mentioned in passing as they're messing around with goats and baseballs in curiously limited regions of the city, they can now roam the entirety of the city freely, watching the different neighborhoods evolve. Perhaps the interaction with figures who clearly fascinate the author -- Robert Moses, Emma Goldman, the various mayors -- is more substantial... leading to more New Yorks that might have been, perhaps? A fully implemented Moses-free New York, say, or one where Goldman's ideals took root... perhaps even a modern-day New Amsterdam, if you diverge early enough. And hey, TADS has multimedia now: why not throw some pictures into the mix?... oh, and...

...and at this point I've got the blueprints for a 21st-century skyscraper and am waving them at the base of the Empire State Building. The game has been written, and if deMause is anything like me, the idea of revisiting a project that was long ago declared done is hardly an appealing one...

...but hey, it's New York. If it were ever really finished, we wouldn't have that old story about the visitor from Nebraska.

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