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First Reviews First
Review by: Emily Short
Game: First Things First
By: J. Robinson Wheeler

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First Things First is J. Robinson Wheeler's newly-released but long-in-development TADS game. He warns in the documentation for it that it is unlike much of his other work: after Being Andrew Plotkin or The Kissing Bandit, it's startlingly broad in design. And puzzle-oriented. And a time-travel story. We've seen time travel in IF before, as a major feature (Jigsaw) or as a puzzle set in a larger game (two Infocom games come to mind), but I don't believe I have encountered any in which the time travel implications are so extensively implemented. In Jigsaw, one either leaves a time period in an acceptable state or one doesn't, and failing to do so doesn't allow you to glimpse the alternate realities that resulted in any detail. FTF's scope is more limited-- a handful of locations, a few characters one knows personally rather than the whole world-- but one can travel freely to and fro, making modifications and then viewing their effects. An ambitious scheme, and it is easy to see why such a game would have taken a long time to develop and then (my mind cringes to think about it) beta-test.

FTF is considerably larger than your average game these days (since, as noted, most of recent releases seem to be roughly competition sized.) Not as fiendishly difficult and long to play as something like Heroine's Mantle, but it still took me numerous hours, including staying up until dawn once and then a couple of further playings to check out avenues I'd failed to explore.

It begins as an old-school sort of game, as the author freely admits and as is evident from the first few moves. There's lots of scenery that can't be used or interacted with. There's an inventory limit, and limits to container holdings, but these limits are the frustrating sort that don't emulate any feature of real life as I understand it: you can scrabble up the side of a house with your hands completely loaded. (No, I don't mind this, because it facilitates game play; I just find it odd that, given that I can do that, I can't also carry a bazillion objects around in other circumstances.) A tightly wedged drainpipe is capable of containing large objects. Descriptions, at least in the early part of the game, sometimes fail to change when they ought to; you get 'you finally step into ' every time you go to a certain location, for instance.

Early NPC characterization takes the form of one-line answers to keywords, and then randomized actions. There are points where you are surrounded by people, milling around and doing things, but none of them is 'important': you can't look at them or address them or interact with them in any way.

The gameplay is similarly old-school, in that it consists of solving assorted puzzles for the sake of solving them, using some often widely distributed and peculiar components. There are hints about what to do, granted; some of them are rather broadly placed. There are also moments where it isn't clear whether you've just lost your chance of victory or merely had something made less convenient. At several such points it seemed that it would have been useful to have a >WINNABLE command, to find out whether I had really just ruined everything or whether I had merely placed it into a state from which I would be able to rescue myself again later.

What else does an old-school game require? Well, easter eggs, of course: check. And some in-jokes: check. References to old Implementors, to classic IF such as Curses, to popular ifMUD sayings, sprinkle themselves about in such a way as to almost-but-not-completely blend into the background.

But, though the puzzles and some of the implementation date from a less enlightened age, the archaic features are treated with a mocking, retrospective humor. You have to use >SEARCH sometimes. Sometimes you have to use it a lot. I'm just warning you now because I thought this was one of the most potentially annoying aspects of the game, but it was also hilarious. "Deprecated," says Rob about some of the puzzles. Here I am deprecating them, right on schedule. But they are so self-conscious, so exuberant in their old-schoolness, that they were fun anyway. Paradox? Maybe.

Puzzly though the game is, I was able to solve the whole thing without resorting to external walkthroughs or hints, which is something I almost never do. I had to ask someone after the fact for some information since I won with less than the optimal number of points, but the fact that I got that far at all is a testament to the fact that the game is designed, if not forgivingly, at least with an eye to being comprehensible. There are many points at which you can lock yourself out of victory. On the other hand, there were few puzzles that left me scratching my head and wondering how I was supposed to have read the author's mind. The game is also developed to provide hints; not only can you ask NPCs about topics and get useful nudges, but they will even occasionally volunteer things unsolicited about problems that you've been bashing your head against. The realism of this effect may vary, but as a piece of game design it's excellent, a sort of in-game adaptive hint system woven into the story.

So the game presents itself as an old-school puzzle romp with a touch of wry self-mockery...

...only, somewhere along the line, a plot begins to coalesce around you, and themes emerge. The NPCs cease to be just means to an end and become the end in themselves. The decisions that you have made blithely in pursuit of the game's agenda begin to take on deeper significance, as their effects ripple through time. To say too much about this would be to give the game away, but FTF is about more than it initially appears to be; the change of perspective is itself part of the story. Classic old-school IF posits an anonymous adventurer with a casually egotistical view of the world: everything is, obviously, there for the taking, and one does what suits one's own immediate ends, without qualm, because the player, of course, knows that the universe has indeed been arranged for the player-character's use. Not convenience, exactly; if it were arranged for his convenience there wouldn't be so many problems about lamp-oil and twisty passages. But there's nothing wrong with taking what you can use and putting it to whatever purpose you desire. One of the curious things about this game is that it progresses into its more modern, thoughtful stages, it also becomes less about the player character per se, who remains essentially a cipher in terms of personality, and more about the NPCs. Somewhere along the line the player character must begin to act as though he has a conscience.

How well the plot works for you may vary from person to person. There were aspects of it that did not wholly satisfy me, despite the fascinating transition in the form of the game. One of the necessities, perhaps, of plot-heavy design is that it tends to become railroaded, and the moments where the most is happening are also the ones where the player has the least control. There may not be any easy ways around that problem, but I found myself, at certain points, to be no more than a spectator in the evolution of someone else's life. Or of my own: it's evident that my character does, or has done, or will do (figure out the temporality yourself) some interesting things, but at the moment I barely understand them and have little to do with them: there's an element of faith in the preparation for events yet to come.

This is not true of all aspects of the game, however. There is one part of the plot that you must journey through, in prescribed fashion, to arrive at victory. But there is another part that is wholly optional, and depends upon your personal compassion and determination; it reminded me of the optional rescue of a certain creature in _Worlds Apart_, but whereas I didn't find myself motivated to figure out the puzzle in that case, here I was sufficiently bothered by failure that I replayed the game until I got a solution that pleased me. I don't know what to call this kind of development: new-school, perhaps? But it represents the author's willingness to back off and leave part of the story truly in the hands of the player, spelling out the implications of success and failure while leaving the choices to the protagonist.

I approve, of course.

Whatever your reaction to the later aspects of the game, you're likely to find it at the very least an entertaining play. At its best moments it is also surprising and thought-provoking. There is an idea at the very core of it that I would like to talk about, as it touches upon IF and as it interacts with the time-travel scene, but I haven't done thinking about it yet. And, in any case, that belongs in a spoiler-proofed venue. In the meantime, go and play the game.

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