The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: The Light: Shelby's Addendum
By: Colm McCarthy
The Light: Shelby's Addendum (LSA) is a strange game. The title itself is bizarre; I can't tell at all what it means. And why is it called an 'addendum' when the game bills itself as the beginning of a bigger story? Unanswered questions like these seem to be the usual fare here.
The game begins in 'a strangeness'. From the descriptions, one might almost believe we are in the Twilight of the Gods (except that LSA goes to pains to make sure we understand there are no such things as gods). This atmosphere of things not quite right continues right up to the end of the game, but there is never any real explanation given for why it occurs.
Early on, the game makes reference to a catastrophe called 'the lunar demise' which involves the decay of the moon's orbit, and there is also reference to devices known as 'phase modulators' which create a dimensional field. Apparently, when the moon crashed into the earth's surface, the shadowy Commission used advanced science to somehow create the illusion that everything's all right. People go on living their normal lives while the Commission is (we are told) trying to restore Earth. And yet, there's no evidence that anything of the sort is actually happening.
To be sure, disaster happens if we do not keep the dimensional field working, and Shelby's perspective is limited, but I had a suspicion that the Commission might actually be dragging its heels a little bit to enjoy the money and power that would come along with keeping everyone in the world alive. Power corrupts, and all that.
The 'strangeness' comes about because one of the phase modulators has suddenly been removed, and the field is beginning to collapse, but although Shelby seems to know something about what's going on, we ourselves don't really learn anything until much later in the game. (I still haven't figured out why the phase modulator is installed in a lighthouse, except that possibly it keeps the public from asking questions.)
Given how much LSA tries to make one NPC your ally and one your enemy, it's odd that I found myself wondering which one to trust. From the very beginning, Holcroft is presented as your natural ally, because he's trying to keep Barclay from shutting down the phase modulators, with Barclay a dangerous madman. And yet, I can't help wondering.... What if, after all, the gateway that Barclay is trying to activate really will save the human race? All of Barclay's actions could be explained as those of a desperate man struggling against a massive conspiracy. We've seen it before, after all. Even Holcroft seems to confirm these suspicions:
>ask holcroft about commission
So much for promise. The game could be really great, with a plot like that, but it never quite measures up. The prose is quite often weak, and it needs to be the exact opposite. In his reviews of commercial video games such as Ico and Riven, Andrew Plotkin has often effectively used words to describe spectacular visuals. This same sort of effort doesn't seem to have been put in here, and so the scenario that should be so compelling leaves me with a ho-hum attitude.
This is a puzzle-heavy game, for those of you who like such things. Personally, I don't. I found myself stuck often, and finally resorted to a walkthrough to get through the game. (Though this is nothing new; I needed a walkthrough for Photopia, though THAT was because I couldn't figure out the right way to phrase what I wanted.) Some puzzles, such as those involving obtaining fuel for the generator, are well-designed, but others are just plain unfair. With a limited carrying capacity, there's no reason for me to pick up a piece of driftwood unless I know I'll need it to save my life later on. The scoring is messed up as well. I scored 205 out of a possible 200! There is, however, one puzzle which stands out for sheer brilliance. The puzzle itself is one of the most common ones, a locked door, but I have never seen this solution before. Even here, I won't go into too much detail, save that the solution revolves around going around the puzzle, not solving it.
Not even the ending satisfies: Status quo is restored, but I am left concerned. Is nothing to be done about the way people are living in an illusion? Either we should restore the Earth or, like Barclay, we should look for somewhere else to go. Shelby seems completely unconcerned about this. Staying still doesn't seem to be a very ethical option, but it's the one Shelby picks, which is one more way that I failed to identify with him. As a PC, he's definitely lacking.
Overall, LSA is not too bad. Its shortcomings are only particularly noticeable when you see how much better it could have been. If Shelby had had the option to ally with one side or the other, as well as the opportunity to see more of the 'darker side' of the Commission, LSA could have given us a chance to make a real choice. As it is, hurried along by the limited plot, I never connected with the characters or environment. I never had the investment in the story-line that I did in Riven or Photopia. I felt much like Andrew Plotkin said he felt with Myst: I didn't feel towards the NPCs what the designer had intended, and so I was left with a disconnected annoyance at 'More pages, more pages! Save the phase modulator!' If you're a puzzle fan, try the game. If not, you might be better off not spending your time.