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Taking A Swing
Review by: Emily Short
Game: The Weapon
By: Sean Barrett

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The recent release of Sean Barrett's The Weapon suggested the polish and care of a major production, accompanied as it was by a virtual-feelie html file. I've been arguing for more such feelies; they're a way to add color to a game and provide background, and they set off the large-scale games from their smaller and more casual counterparts. In what follows I shall discuss both the game and its virtual packaging.

Here's the good news: the game is exceptionally polished, technically, and the feelies are well suited to it. If you are one of those who have been clamoring for more long games sized large enough to be unsuitable for the competition, however, you're out of luck. It took me probably less than 45 minutes, in two sessions, to play it; it would have taken longer if there had not been a hint system, to which I had frequent recourse. (It seems that when there is a hint system, I always use it. This probably says more about me than it does about the games to which the hints belong, but it also suggests, perhaps, why people haven't been talking about The Weapon much on rgif; there is nothing to get hung up on, since if you want you can get a full walkthrough out of the game, and there are no bugs that I was able to find.) Even so I doubt it could have run more than the regulation two hours, and if it had it would have been because I'd gotten massively stuck.

The Weapon is set in a distant, chilly future, as the feelies will instantly reveal. The newspaper articles (or html equivalent) suggest troubled times for Earth, and interactions with two alien species; they are also larded with references and vocabulary that don't make any sense at all, which, I presume, is an attempt to reflect a future time in which new jargons and concerns have sprung up of which we can anticipate nothing. Considering how very far in the future this seems to be set, it seems that this doesn't go far enough-- I have a hard time believing that we will still have anything like newspapers, let alone use anything like English, if the human race is still around in 33,000 years. But some concessions must be made to the comprehensibility, and it is an effective way to remind us that the distant future will be a strange place. (Though I'd love to see what the feelies would look like for "Lighan ses Lion.")

The disappointments in the feelie department are, first, that I found a few passages unconvincing as editorial journalism, and, second, that the page abounds with what would appear to be links, but they can't be clicked upon. This is hardly surprising considering that to implement an entire future newspaper as a game feelie would be a task of wearisome magnitude, providing diminishing returns in terms of enjoyability. But, but, but, I hasten to say, I would rather have seen these as mere references to other pages I didn't possess than as bright-blue-underlined-html-style things that just begged to be clicked on and then did nothing. This is the equivalent of examining something mentioned in a game and getting "You can see no such thing."

All the same, the feelies are a useful and perhaps even necessary background to understanding what is going on in the game, and they are pleasantly illustrated. The sense of whimsy of Infocom feelies is absent; perhaps it would be out of place, though I would point out that Infocom's feelies tended to be entertaining even when the games themselves were somewhat serious. Or perhaps I just derived too much excitable dread from wondering what would happen if I swallowed the pill samples from Deadline.

The game itself bears out the coldness and strangeness of the feelie page. Your player character obviously possesses considerable and important knowledge about what is going on, but you as the player have no access to his emotions; he sees and understands much, but the descriptions are abstractly scientific and mathematical, with only the twinges of an underlying bias. Nonetheless, one begins to assemble a picture of what is going on -- which is good, considering how much you are required, at the beginning, to act in a vacuum of understanding.

This vacuum, combined with the iced precision of the object descriptions and the non-interactivity of the NPC (about which more in a moment), almost caused me to give up on this game in the early stages. There is plenty to look at, but it is not always that exciting to see; examination of each object and each component of an object becomes more a discipline than a pleasure. I always know that I've lost immersion when I pick out the nouns from a paragraph and type >X THING, >X NEXT THING, >X LAST THING in quick succession without bothering to read the answers in between. It's a kind of trick to make sure that I don't miss or forget anything, and I can catch up and read the descriptions that result afterwards. But it also tends to point to a distrust of the game as narrative, or a loss of engagement. I was looking at objects in order to garner game-progressing information, not because I was inherently interested in what I would see thereby.

Being Andrew Plotkin has, as a humorous effect, a scene in which you are seeing objects through zarf's head, and they are given with exact measurements of sizes and shapes. But the funny thing is that precision in zarf's own games tends to be in aid of, rather than a substitute for, striking imagery. The Weapon game had a sterility, a frosty quality, and something approaching emotional numbness on the PC's part. It is the antithesis of wonder.

The reason I harp so much on this problem of examining is that it constitutes most of what you have to do in the game. There are indeed puzzles, but most of the puzzles consist of using the behavior of items that you have examined. Usually fairly directly. I know I have come out in favor of something very like this in the case of, say, Spider and Web, and that a similar complaint could be leveled at my own Metamorphoses, but I think there's a fundamental difference between examining something to find out what it will do and examining something to be told what you should use it for. Descriptions in The Weapon seem to be all hint and puzzle component and nothing else. This might be workable in a game with a clearer sense of plot (for the player, I mean; the author has a very good sense of the plot of his game, and it is a compact piece reminiscent of an old-series Twilight Zone episode, featuring no deviations or variations.) But for the player, it's not clear why he's doing what he's doing, at first, so there's no pay-off at the story level for doing things. The problem is that what the player has to do in the short term isn't especially fun (no toy value) and one starts with no sense of the overall procedure or plot (no story value).

The other irritation (as I mentioned above) is the problem with the NPC. Sean Barrett has relied, here, on a conversation system based on >TALK (a la Kaged or Masquerade), combined with more specific commands like >ASK PERSON FOR THING. There is no way to inquire about topics of the player's choice, either through menus or with ASK/TELL. The monolithic >TALK worked (for me, at least) in the plot-heavy games referred to above: not only do you have a pretty good sense of who your character is and why that person acts a certain way, but you can also guess, within reason, what is likely to come out of the character's mouth if you do choose to use talk. Moreover, the momentum of both stories is sufficient to make it desirable to move forward through conversation scenes according to a script.

Here there wasn't a script so much as a few rather dull exchanges, most intended to shed light on the puzzles at hand. I had lots of questions and things I wanted to bring up, but I wasn't allowed to. The fact that I wasn't allowed to itself probably has something to do with the shape of the story, but it was still kind of irritating. My PC only speaks when spoken to and never seems to generate particularly lengthy or interesting replies. The NPC speaking to him in only slightly better in this regard; she reveals her attitude towards the PC and her goals in game terms with an iron straight-forwardness that reveals no particular of character. There's not much by way of tension, or emotion, or flashes of humor however dark. And-- and I can't tell you why this bothered me so much-- she tends not to reply to what I say until a turn after I said it. So some of the exchanges looked like this: >TALK. >WAIT. >TALK. >WAIT.

I would have forgiven that if the conversation itself had been more interesting, however. I believed in the existence of some kind of relationship between the protagonist and his interrogator in Spider and Web (to which this game has certain distinct similarities of approach). Limited as that interaction was, I felt the emotional content of it. Here there are hints of some kind of history between the PC and the NPC, enough to provide the beginnings of an interesting conversation, but that goes by the wayside. In fact, come to think of it, if I wrote a game like this I would have them talking constantly, the conversation not a mere functional backdrop to what is happening but an important and integral part of the story. Instead-- silence, or extreme stiltedness. And my disappointment here is not the disappointment of an NPC fanatic but of a person forced to stare off in the other direction while a fireworks display occurs. I think there is the material for a very striking story here. It's just not the one that gets told.

I can mentally hear the author's response now: That Was Intentional. Yes, there may be an in-game reason for these things, just as there is an in-game reason for the obscurity and peculiarity of certain works by Mr. Plotkin. But the point is that you cannot let the service of an in-game goal make the game itself unrewarding to play in the short term, or people will quit. I did quit, but then I found myself wanting so badly to explain what I thought was wrong with the game that I had to go finish it anyway. You can consider this, if you like, a backhanded compliment; usually if I don't like a game I don't bother to review it, and finish it rarely unless it is quite easy or short. But there was considerable purpose and skill in this particular effort. It accomplishes some complicated tasks of parsing and object interaction creditably, is thoroughly implemented within its scope (ie, that everything should be examinable), and showed, as I said, no signs of bugginess that I could find.

Bottom line: at some level flawless, but also without the passion for its characters, the sense of wonder in its environment, or the wacky humor that distinguish my favorite games. A careful execution of its concept, but not one that elicited much of a response from me, other than a vague curiosity to see whether my hunch about where it was all going was correct. (Answer: yes.) There were several puzzles whose solutions I would have been unlikely to guess on my own, even considering the hint-filled nature of the descriptions, but that's okay, since there are also hint-filled menus. I'd say, I suppose, that it succeeds quite well as a piece of programming, and that where it falls down is in the writing.

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