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Casting a Critical Eye
Review by: Sam Kabo Ashwell
Game: Worlds Apart
By: Suzanne Britton

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At first glance, Worlds Apart seems to be a hippy-dippy piece of new-age sci-fi of the Anne McCaffrey type, which I, for one, would rather eat my own arm than read. On closer inspection, this impression does not appear to change. You appear to be descended from dolphins, for christ's sake. You share profound emotional bonds with trees. Everything has wishy-washy elvish-sounding names. You help small furry woodland creatures in need. You must undertake a spiritual journey of self-discovery that ultimately centres on your deep and loving relationship with your mother. Ack! And there's what must surely be the most limp-wristed bit of poetry Blake ever wrote! OK, there's a vomiting bit, but you don't even get a vomit object to poke at with a stick! I mean, sheesh. Am I the only one longing for some rough-shaven space thug with oily breeches and an unsuitable vocabulary to paradrop into the middle of the plot and stomp his manure-encrusted boots through all this crystal-healing empathy crap?

Don't get me wrong. I am not a thick-necked soulless philistine. I'm a vegetarian, I appreciate the stunning beauties of nature, and I even voluntarily listen to Enya from time to time. But after wading through Worlds, I feel a strange urge to sink my incisors into a raw, bloody lump of cow and set fire to some thatched cottages.

Hmm. So why was I hooked on the thing for about a week when I first found it, and why was it the game that got me seriously interested in int-fiction where Spider and Web and Adventure failed? Surely there must be some reason why I bothered to finish it. Okay, I'll just put on some pants, pick the ruminant out of my teeth, and fire up TADS...

Oh yes, that'd be it, this game is very verbose and detailed. The prose style's not perfect- there are occasional turns of phrase that seem a little awkward or over-colloquial for the game's mood, for example. The genre of the game influences the prose style heavily, and at times it treads the line between atmospheric poetics and airy pretension a little closely (although I don't feel it ever quite crosses it). In addition, the writing occasionally reaches textbomb levels... but despite all these caveats, it's good writing.

A lot of the difficulty with Worlds is that it never lets up. The same tone and mood persists virtually throughout, and it's such a big game that this gets tiring after a while. You start craving some comic interludes or some random, messy violence. Well, I did, at least. (Yes, there is some violence, but it doesn't feel distinct enough from the piece to provide a sufficient contrast). Although the ending manages to maintain much of its clout despite this, I get the impression that a little change of pace about midway would have breathed some vibrancy back into it. Early on in the game, Worlds seems very alive and engaging; the majority of the later scenes are intrinsically no less so, but by the time they're reached I, at least, had been exhausted by the style and found it difficult to get new things out of it. This objection doesn't make the style or verbosity any the less worthy, however; it just makes it more difficult. That probably compensates for the tree-hugging, and maybe half of the dolphins.

The setting of the game works excellently, as well. It's difficult, when building up impressions of outside environments, to steer a happy medium between useless and distracting empty rooms and feelings of incongruous claustrophobia. The central coastal forest location takes the best aspects of both; initially, it feels spacious and abandoned, but later it develops a very high density of events. I found myself getting some very vivid visualisations of the locations; this in itself isn't a wonderful recommendation, since almost any game can do that- but the impression was consistent across all the areas. Too often in IF games, I've built up a nice mental picture of a town or a building, and then have it crushed by new information; neither I nor the author have been technically inconsistent, but I've somehow inferred something from the text that the author didn't intend. I didn't experience this once in Worlds. In addition to this, the framestory locations give an excellent impression of vast amounts of surrounding scenery (and not just because a good rainforest makes my mouth water). The other locations are somewhat more restrictive, but since the vast majority represent flashbacks or similar effects, this doesn't pose much of a problem. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is the attempt to describe the inner workings of various minds as locations; philosophy of mind intrigues me so much that any way of doing this would have earned my appreciation, but for a particularly difficult subject, I think it's evoked remarkably well. Okay... the other half of the dolphins are forgiven.

When I first played Worlds, I had played, er, not very much IF. I think I reached a grand total of four (an AGT port of Adventure, Jacaranda Jim, Dudley, S&W) and abjectly failed to complete any. I play Worlds: suddenly, there's a sophisticated hint system at my fingertips. The POWER! Incapable of finishing a game under the power of my own meagre puzzle-solving abilities, I could now cheat like the lazy-brained scum I am! Hence, despite abject newbiedom, I could actually finish the game and get the effect of the piece as a whole. OK, it resulted in a few parts being raced through because I craved puzzle-solving vindication, but quite frankly, it made the game accessible, and accessibility is very important. So... that probably compensates for the limp-wristed Blake.

I also envy, as an aspiring author, Suzanne's excellent layout and good use of HyperTADS' html potential. Worlds looks good. It looks very good, in fact. Hyper's capabilities for colour and formatting often get used in ways that look grotesque and add nothing; here, they give the game the impression of a finished product. Minor point, worth noting.

Hmm. Puzzles. There are a lot of puzzles, and, in my humble opinion, the best puzzle on earth is nothing if the rest of the piece isn't good, or if the puzzle impedes or is anachronistic with the story. Still, these fit into the story well. And no scoring system either, yum yum. A little bit of guess-the-verb sometimes crops up, and often you're stuck in a situation where nothing much changes unless you find the solitary puzzle solution, but generally the prose drops mild pointers for you. The technique of slipping references to an actual command into prose is a delicate one, and all too often abused as an excuse for poor depth; here, it's neither so glaringly obvious as to be spotted the first time the prose is read (thus detracting from it) or being so hidden as to make the solution unrealistically difficult. Equally, there are plenty of situations where you're left to smell the roses and have no immediate apparent way of progressing. In principle, and if used properly, I'm entirely in favour of this kind of thing; balancing it can, however, be very tricky. There were sections where I got bored with my apparent inability to influence events in any way, and where conversations between other NPCs seemed to be more or less protracted cut-scenes, in situations where the PC's input would have been appropriate. It's a hard task, of course.

Worlds has a lot of well fleshed-out NPCs. Again, this is Good in Principle, and earns a Resounding Endorsement. However good a game is, if it completely avoids NPCs I always get the niggling impression at the back of my mind that it's somehow chickening out. I am also acutely aware that convincing, well-rounded NPCs are hellish to write and worse to code. Now, I am not particularly enamoured of any of the NPCs in Worlds. There are lots of possible reasons for this: perhaps the characters are too linked to a genre I dislike, perhaps it's because they all seem a little distant and unreal somehow (this could be an intentional device meant to make the amnesia-flashback device seem more convincing, of course, or it could be another genre thing), perhaps it's because they all seem too squeaky-clean. I really got the impression that the author knew all the characters very well, but wasn't giving enough away about them. When information was given about the characters, it seemed as if the author was aware that not every piece of information could be crammed in, but wasn't quite sure which ones were essential; you're left filling in a lot of the gaps yourself, which is potentially very effective but, in this case, seems to restrict the story only to critical personal-history data at the expense of personality development. (The same problem applied to the hints given about the universe Worlds was set in, as well; this is always a difficulty in sf / fantasy settings). However, I can appreciate the effort that went into 'em, and I approve whole-heartedly of what they represent in IF terms; (and the fact that I'm analysing the flaws in the characters means they have a reasonable level of depth; really terrible NPCs can be dismissed in a sentence, pretty good ones are complex enough to find real problems with). For this, I am willing to forgive the random kindness to small cute furry woodland creatures. I'm even willing to give them a ten-minute head start.

Despite finding it quite tough going to actually play, I'm very fond of Worlds; it represents a massive amount of work and a great deal of ability. And, indirectly, it gave us the superb phrase 'You only discover your identity when you look at a rock.' And if there's one thing the IF community needs, it's more injokes... er... In short, Worlds isn't my cup of tea, in terms of themes, mood, or content. However, there's plenty that I have to admire about it: scope, detail, the quality of both code and prose. Can I allow my frankly very subjective opinions, no, my prejudices, to get in the way of the appreciation of such an achievement, in the face of such qualities? Well, frankly, yes. I mean, you have to mentally heal dolphins. By singing to them.

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