The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: 1893: A World's Fair Mystery
By: Peter Nepstad
It's also pretty good-looking, if you get the full version (and you'll miss out on a lot if you don't). The pedestrian standard of descriptive writing is offset somewhat by the graphics, but without this crutch the game stumbles; descriptions of unillustrated objects are as utilitarian as those with. Although the Fair as a whole swarms with detail, its individual components are less than lovingly rendered. In terms of aesthetic, this is a staunchly traditional approach; many apparently accessible 'locations' become effectively scenery in another room, and in a lot of places scenery objects are implemented, but trivially; their descriptions are just repetitions of sections of the room description. A lot of the aesthetic burden, one feels, is being shrugged off onto the graphics.
The graphics themselves, however, are beautifully used; while they are thoroughly non-essential for play, the game's purpose is kind of lost without them. I ended up thinking of 1893 somewhat like a gorgeous coffee-table book; the text gets read only as far as absolutely necessary, but the pictures and layout are what stay with you. On the whole, however, the prose does the job it needs to do. It's not interesting of itself, but it doesn't leave anything out. The voice is the same standard blank one we've seen in a hundred IF pieces, but it's being used by someone who knows precisely what it's for and how it works. It's somewhat unreasonable to demand deathless words across the entirety of a piece this huge, and consistency seems to be a major aim of 1893. It's essential for the massiveness to work; the fact that this deprioritises everything else made it not really my cup of tea, but doesn't detract from the impressiveness of the achievement. Occasionally it works against itself too; the gameplay time is pretty hefty, and the unchanging tone kind of ground me down after a while.
In terms of structure, the sheer size of the map offers opportunity for techniques to be employed to unusually effective use: take, say, the rolling-chairs and the train. In a smaller game vehicle transport tends to be either just a connection between two otherwise unconnected map areas, or pretty useless; by the time you've worked out the syntax and fiddled around looking for the car keys you may as well have walked. 1893, on the other hand, is so huge that setting out for any given building can be an effort in itself. Similarly, it always feels artificial when one gets into an IF car and can only DRIVE to HOME or SHOPS, but here there are so many possible locations that the thing actually has a point. Again, time limits work in a much more real-feeling way in a world this big, and they have a non-trivial purpose; they contribute to wearing the player out, making him feel defeated by the sheer massiveness of the place. By the time I'd snared the first diamond, it was half-eleven on the first day, and I felt as tired as the protagonist.
A normal IF player, when presented with a static map that's obviously going to be with him for the remainder of the game, will usually try to explore it to its limits before seriously playing with any puzzles; doing this in 1893 is suicide. Being appropriately forewarned, I realised this relatively quickly. The design's robust enough to have appreciated this, and (at considerable cost to common sense but within genre convention) supplies you with a list of clues as to where to head. Aimlessly wandering in 1893 is likewise a bad idea. On the second day, I dutifully headed off to the second most obvious clue, swiftly solved half of it and then came across a pointer that could have meant a hundred things. I tried out my two best guesses, came up blank and then slipped into random wandering, which left me with nothing by the end of the day. Which brings me to the other thing: print out the main map. Have it on hand at all times. Whereas in the average medium-large IF game one can generally remember the approximate relation of most rooms to each other, there is no way that anyone who doesn't require his food to come with an exact number of toothpicks is going to have the faintest hope of achieving this in 1893.
The puzzles are not hugely difficult in themselves - there are a scattering of counterintuitive bits, but for the most part things are heavily pointered. That said, because most of the puzzles can be tackled in no particular order, it can get difficult to remember everything one has to be on the lookout for, as well as times one has to be at places - I took copious notes. It's probably fair to say that I wouldn't have solved many of the puzzles within the time given without the hints (I suck at puzzles, however) but even so, often the solution to a puzzle was so annoyingly obvious that the most difficult part of it was walking back and forth between its diverse parts. That said, another nice element of design was that generally the tools for solving a puzzle would be found relatively near the puzzle, usually within the same building.
One can hardly fail to notice that the entire thing is a very well-polished piece, staggeringly so for something of its size. There's extensive help menus (although it does use that dreadfully irritating Funny Fake Hint device), appropriate use of graphics, a wealth of feelies - all things which add to the game, and are the sort of thing which make a game that's merely good into a great one; but only if the core's good.
Considering all this polish and robustness, there are a few design flaws that I wouldn't have expected. The inventory limit, for instance. Given that 1893 is an epic scavenger hunt that makes few attempts at realism on other fronts, it's a little incongruous that there be a limit; but this is really a quibble. The real problem is that the sheer scale of the place turns what would otherwise be a minor matter of convenience into something that could potentially kill a game. I've been forced by inventory limits early in the game to drop an item that becomes essential much later; the game's length and map's size made remembering where I left the damn thing pretty difficult, and searching for it a mammoth task. In a smaller game, faced with a similar problem I might restart - but 1893 is so long that I couldn't stand the idea of abandoning all my savegames and going through every single damn puzzle all over again to find this one thing.
The map shows a handful of the problems usually associated with real-world map predating game location layout; some connections change orientation slightly so that one can't return in the same direction one arrived from, the classical Map Design Error. I only noticed this very occasionally, however, and usually there was a good reason for it.
Occasionally, the terseness (particuarly with regard to inventory objects) makes gameplay awkward. For instance, I was able to pick up a 'homacoustic commutator'; curious as to what exactly one of those was like, I examined it and got the message 'The homacoustic commutator is equipped with an electric signalling device.' Okay, maybe that'll give me some more information.
Boy, I feel enlightened. Fortunately, an orang-utang stole it from me shortly thereafter.
Now (random personal subjective rant warning; feel free to ignore) a major point of the World's Fair was American self-congratulation, and while patriotism of any type leaves me cold the American variety is particuarly tedious. It's inevitable that some of the flag-waving would filter through to the work; the choice of subject alone is to do this. That said, it's relatively muted to an extent where an American audience might not even notice it; on me it has much the same effect as encountering, say, a straight-faced use of a racist term in a Waugh novel. You can understand it and withold condemnation, but you can't feel comfortable about it. Further, I generally dislike (merely as a matter of taste) the Victorian era as a backdrop and particuarly the tone of imperial pseudo-classical self-aggrandisement that the era had such a fondness for. 1893 therefore seemed custom-designed to get my goat in terms of setting, particuarly as the star of the piece is the backdrop.
At first, I thought "This is really just a great big artshow entry; the story's incidental, it's just a device to keep you moving through the scenery." I immediately realised the flaw in this; the point of artshow entries is generally expressive writing and highly detailed objects. 1893's writing is anything but expressive, and while as a complete piece it's staggeringly detailed, when you look at it up close it's a great deal less so. The moment of realisation dawned when I glanced at the back of the case and saw the word 'educational'. The best way to view 1893 is not as a fiction piece, but as a historical piece that uses fictional elements, much as a historical documentary might stick in some down-on-their-luck actors hitting each other with fake swords to liven things up. Looking back to the title menu, it's not presented as interactive fiction but as interactive history; this isn't intended as fiction in a historical setting, it's intended as a historical piece that uses fiction as a framework.
As such, the story itself has some advantages; the treasure-hunt aspects of it ensure you have a purpose to scurry back and forth across the map, looking closely at the details of everything; the lack of strong characters or flowery prose ensure there are few distractions from the real focus. But really, for a singularly historical piece there's actually quite a bit of focus on the story. (In particular, the few action scenes, while never threatening to steal the limelight from the Fair, do manage every now and again to share some of it. They're aren't bad when you're engaged in them, for what it's worth, though this impression isn't sustained on reflection). The dreaded word 'edutainment' springs to mind. Not that such things can't work; Oregon Trail springs to mind as a good analogy. Certainly, 1893 is immersive insofar as one gets a very strong feel for the place; after several days of trekking back and forth across the fairgrounds, a connection of the sort that history teachers would dance for joy over becomes established. And at times, when one's on a roll with a series of puzzles, it goes so far as to become compulsive; but on the other hand, at times it was a struggle to keep at it. Engaging, yes, but often far from it; when it engages it's not exactly a happy accident, but it's certainly not a prime motive.
Viewing 1893 in this way NPC interaction, for instance, is staggeringly utilitarian. One of the great old problems of IF is how to distinguish meaningful NPCs from ones that are merely scenery; while 1893 manages to imply the existence of crowds enough to prevent things from feeling eerily deserted, you know damn well that if a character's mentioned seperately they're part of a puzzle; to put it another way, 1893 falls back heavily on IF convention. Were this intended primarily as fiction, this would be jarringly annoying; since it's more game than fiction and more historical documentary than either, it becomes less of an issue.