The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: So Far
By: Andrew Plotkin
Because of its considerable reputation, I tried repeatedly to play it myself, and failed the first four or five times. The opening of the game is involving-- almost oppressively so. I felt almost claustrophobic playing it, so vividly are the crowd and the summer heat evoked, so that it was a relief to escape from the first of the game's environments. At the same time, I had the sense that I had left behind some important bit of plot, something that I could or should be interacting with, and I wasn't sure whether I would ever be allowed to go back. The subsequent puzzles stumped me, in part because I was trying to make logical sense of the history of the worlds in which I was traveling, in part because I am not particularly good at visualizing complex machinery in the way required to manipulate it properly. One of the times I gave up, I complained to a friend that this was a game that required to be read slowly.
I am no opponent of dense prose, and I don't mind spending time reading. But I have always found that when I am deeply involved in a piece of interactive fiction, a sense of urgency builds so that I am too impatient to read deeply and receptively. I want short pieces of prose, not long paragraphs. And I don't want flowery writing, either, or anything that stands between me and the most rapid possible comprehension. How am I supposed to know what to do when I am busy trying to ferret out the significance of lines upon lines of metaphor? Correspondingly I try for brevity in my own IF writing; I try to layer description through deep implementation, so that one description leads to another rather than the first surface description hitting the player with pages of prose. So I struggled with So Far, because my normal mode of playing IF is one in which I bash at things in order to understand them. I explore and summarize first, then tinker with the details to see what they will yield up.
And that's the wrong way to play this game, if one can talk about right and wrong approaches. This is the kind of game where you not only have to read each piece carefully and thoughtfully the first time, you also have to stand permanently apart from what's going on. You're doing things that make no real logical sense -- by the hundred, it seems. Graham Nelson's Player's Bill of Rights is triumphantly defied by some of the acts of intuitive leaping, save-and-restore decipherment, and hindsight required to get through the game properly. Even so I only managed with liberal use of Lucian Smith's Invisiclues and suggestions from friends on ifMUD. As Duncan Stevens says in his recent SPAG review of the same game, _So Far_ works thematically, but the plot doesn't entirely make sense.
So it's involving, as I said, because of the vivid landscapes and the portentous sense of meaning that pervades everything, but it is perhaps not immersive in the classic sense. The save-and-restore method of solving problems is one that quickly teaches you to disregard your PC's life; danger is diminished thereby. (Adam Cadre's _Varicella_ carries this effect perhaps to its ultimate extreme, but it is present here as well.) I didn't feel that I was the player character, exactly. After all, he would have had access to the background knowledge to explain (and wouldn't that be convenient?) exactly what was going on between himself and his beloved(?) Aessa, among other things. I the player could only guess. The experience in that respect was a bit like reading a work of static fiction in which much of the background is deliberately withheld. I'm reminded of trying to read _The English Patient._ (I didn't like it as much as the movie and stopped after page 2.)
Thus far we have fiendish puzzles, a density of prose and concept that challenges the average approach to IF, and a certain amount of narrative distance between player and PC. Something relatively inaccessible, in short. But what the game gains by being obscure, by demanding intellectual attention at a high order, is the ability to address itself to abstracts. Interactive fiction is a medium that principally deals with the concrete: objects that you can pick up and move around in standardized ways, without resorting to too complex or elusive a vocabulary. Various people have proposed, for instance, NPC interaction systems that would make use of complicated verbs such as PROVOKE, APOLOGIZE, etc., but I have yet to see such a system that worked particularly well, despite having tried to devise one myself. Likewise important choices of a personal nature -- not choices about how to fend off the alligator who is about to bite off your leg if you don't feed him the ham, but choices about ethics or emotion -- have always to be cast in terms of physical actions. Jigsaw, Spider and Web, and Tapestry all come to mind as having moments where the player's moral choice is encapsulated in a physical action, the significance of which has been carefully developed and spelled out in advance. What So Far achieves that distinguishes itself even from these (which are themselves moments of high artistry in the genre) is not teaching the player how to regard a single action as representative of moral choice, but presenting the whole world in such a way that it seems redolent of such choices, tying the physical environment intimately to the emotional one in ways that are sometimes visible only in retrospect.
To say that it relies on symbolic vocabulary is to understate the issue. Jigsaw, for instance, relies on symbolic vocabulary as well, especially in the endgame. But Nelson's symbols are isolated and recognizable, and stand out from the landscape in their symbolic significance like a girl in a red dress. 'Note this!' they say. And they are organized with a tidy symmetry, perfect and mathematical, so that the meaning of anything unexplained may be worked out by its relations to other symbols and the oppositions between them. Plotkin's symbolism is merged wholly with the landscape; it *is* the landscape. The pieces are polyvalent and connotative, any given thing suggesting an array of connections and meanings, not denoting a single concept in its purity.
I am not sure whether any subsequent work has approached it in this regard. I am not sure that anyone has tried.