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Featuring Five Formidable Folks
Review by: Emily Short
Game: The Frenetic Five vs. the Seven Deadly Dwarves
By: Neil deMause

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This is a game about not knowing what the hell you're doing.

You start the game drunk. You're too drunk to see straight, walk straight, or think straight. This is so persuasive that I tried >PUKE in case it would clear things up a bit. No go.

Still drunk, you get in a car, where someone else drives (thank goodness) while you fiddle around. Eventually, you do what you need to do to cause the game to progress (not something that would've been obvious from the outset), and the car ride comes to a close.

You then receive your mission, which you complete in a state of vague disorientation. The bulk of the puzzles in the game are designed in a way that makes maximal use of IF conventions and minimal use of common sense and intentionality. You see an object; it is hard to acquire; yet, by some trick of the prose, you are made aware that possessing the object is your goal. What you want it for is not necessarily clear, because, as mentioned, in this game you do not know what you're doing. The solution to the puzzle is also unintuitive, but fortunately, you have a bunch of buddies whose sole purpose in life is to come up with unintuitive solutions to bizarre puzzles. There's guess-the-verb puzzleage, there are red herrings galore, there are deeply peculiar combinations of objects, and there are lots of bits that consist of sitting around quietly until the moment comes when you can act. Not only that, but the setup for the puzzles is about as anti-mimetic as humanly possible, with items that have no conceivable excuse to exist in a given setting, objects possessing qualities they don't possess in real life, and set-pieces that show a grotesque disregard for the physically plausible. The game points out these issues and revels in them.

Having not played the previous two installments of the series, I can't say whether they're the same in this regard; I have the impression that they are, at least to some extent.

The experience is interesting because the game is playable despite having broken most of the major tenets of Accepted IF Design. Not necessarily easy, but playable. There are some points at which it's hard to tell which of your sidekicks you're supposed to call upon to help you; there are also some points at which the help you get is too vague to make much sense, at least to the more puzzle-impaired of us. There was one case where I saw a certain obstacle, but misunderstood why it was an obstacle, and all my approaches to dealing with it were from the wrong end, while my compatriots gave me seemingly pointless and random hints. For the most part, though, what you need to do is clear enough, and your options for handling it obvious enough, that you can move forward even though you don't know exactly where you're going.

The problem with this is that it removes most of the gratification of a puzzle game. Intentionality is wiped away; in my most successful moments, I couldn't say, "yes, this is what I hoped would happen!", but "oh, okay, so that's what results from doing the thing that the game obviously wanted me to do". I feel that there is a point to this, and that it is woven into the nature of the game's story, but it was still a kind of pleasure that was missing.

What's present instead is a lot of verbal humor, both in the character conversation and in the descriptions of objects, much of which is based on parody or reference, with the occasional terrible pun thrown in. This sort of humor is heavily dependent on the player sharing the author's cultural milieu and background, with the result that I probably got only about half of it. What I did get was fairly amusing; the remainder passed over my head with a loud Zing! noise. The map, similarly, is a parody of well-known IF tropes; here, at least, it's fairly likely that a seasoned IF player -- that is, anyone who would be able to play this game in the first place -- would be at least passingly familiar with what's being parodied.

Combining these elements, what you wind up with is a parody of playing IF, set in a parody of an IF universe. The effect is amusing, though distancing; the sense of engagement with your character and his (her?) adventures is fogged because of the ludicrousness of it all. It might stop there, as an entertaining and basically frivolous piece, except that the game's story is also about not knowing what you're doing, and about things not turning out the way you think they ought to, and about being manipulated and confused.

Which makes it possibly deeper than it would have been otherwise, but also, to my mind, quite a lot more depressing. Here is a competently written, amusing, decently coded and well-tested game that seems to assert that IF -- or perhaps life as a whole -- is an exercise in jumping through bizarre hoops in order to achieve some unspecified goal that may not even be what you wanted to start with. I've been in graduate school long enough to find out that life can be like that at times; nonetheless, it's not a view of the universe I'm particularly fond of, nor is it representative of the kind of IF I personally enjoy playing. Maybe it takes an interactive medium to really drive home a point about the helplessness of man's condition. But I think I preferred Rameses, for that one.

So do I recommend it? Yes, if you played the first two and liked them; yes, if you have a sense of humor attuned to IF parody and puns. It didn't leave me entirely satisfied, though, on several scores, and even though that was intentional, I haven't quite forgiven it.

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