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Adventures wide shut
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Narcolepsy
By: Adam Cadre

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I've known that Narcolepsy was being written for quite a long time; Adam asked me for a scene contribution months and months ago, and I wrote it as a break from coding up my game City of Secrets. So I've been anticipating it all year, and I was both pleased and disappointed by it when it came out. Like Adam's other works, Narcolepsy features entertaining prose and a wry take on modern culture. It has multiple plot paths, branches, and endings. It has a large collection of inserted dream sequences written by other IF authors, and many of them are creepy, funny, or visionary in their own right. On the other hand, pacing problems detract somewhat from its impact, and the stories it told had less substance than I might have liked.

The webpage introducing Narcolepsy contains the following difficulty assessment:

Easy or difficult? Easy; if stuck, just keep exploring.
This statement is accurate, but it's also a little misleading. The main mode of interaction in this IF story is that you wander around and around your town, reading wacky and often funny descriptions of the people and places, exchanging witty repartee with the other characters, and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. What is actually going on depends on which of three possible directions you take at the very beginning, so it's really as though there are three stories here which happen to have the same protagonist and some of the same elements, but the background explanation changes radically between the three. There's no element of conscious choice here, since the player has no reason to think (at the time) that he's doing something important.

There's not a lot of conscious choice for the character in most of the later stages of the game, either. I rarely felt "stuck" in the sense of having an action that I wanted to take or a goal I wanted to achieve, and being unable to achieve it. Very often, however, I did feel aimless. There are times when it's not at all clear what you're supposed to do next. For long stretches, I did nothing but travel to different locations over and over again, hoping to trigger some sort of event this time around. There wasn't even much for me to play with in those locations. Narcolepsy has extremely spare room descriptions (no more than a listing of items after the initial viewing) and few props. I did blink a few times when items mentioned in the primary room description were unimplemented -- I think that's a mistake, even for a work like this -- but in general, I see the purpose of the spare description. It keeps the player from expecting puzzles and puzzle solutions where none exist. It sends the clear message that fiddling with objects is not the point of the game. It gets the player out of the house. But I did feel a little foolish when a lot of my interaction consisted of typing "GO TO CITY HALL. GO TO LIBRARY. GO TO DOWNTOWN." over and over even though there was absolutely nothing for me to do at any of these locations until I happened to hit on the one place currently occupied by an interesting NPC.

Narcolepsy shares some structural features with I-0, to which it is a sequel of sorts. In I-0, however, the player always has a clearly defined goal -- to get home -- and probably some idea of how to start on that process, given that the methods are common ones we would use in the real world (or that we could use if we were more inclined to public nudity). Moreover, items that you could logically assume were present and useful -- the important parts of your car, your clothing, etc. -- mostly did turn out to be implemented. In Narcolepsy, the goal is usually just trying to figure out what is going on, and the more you figure out, the less use you have for real-world methods. To be fair, there are a few points where the player receives a definite clue, something to encourage him to check out a specific location or try to find a specific person. For the most part, though, what happens in each of the three story branches is so bizarre that it's often hard to come up with any sensible reaction to what's going on. Once or twice I did things I thought were obvious reactions to the crisis I had on my hands, and found they were unimplemented.

In short, although it would be a bit of a misnomer to call such a widely branching work linear, Narcolepsy shared some of the frustrating features I associate with very linear games: relatively few interesting possibilities are available at one time, and a lot of time is spent on hunt-the-trigger to get the next piece of the story to unfold.

The good bits, when they occur, are fairly entertaining. The writing of the scenes is amusing. Non-default responses are often quite funny. The characters are typically Cadre-esque, a collection of the very stupid, the very naive, and the gratuitously evil. Quite a few provide amusing inversions of stereotype -- goons who turn out to be unexpectedly intellectual, for instance. I particularly liked the main character's sister. She was annoying, but I nonetheless felt a certain affection for her eventually, and this is not an easy line to tread.

Then, too, the world view is less dark than in some of Adam's other work. There's not too much emphasis this time around on child abuse or other extreme trauma, especially compared to the content of Varicella and Shrapnel; though there are some dark events in the main character's background, they seemed a bit less horrific. Opinions may vary, but from my point of view this is a positive feature: Varicella's unrelenting grimness got to be a bit much for me at times.

The dream sequences, some contributed by other authors and some written by Adam, are also quite neat. These sequences are of various lengths, styles, and directions; some are creepy, some funny, some attractive, some intentionally a little irritating; several play like miniature twilight-zone episodes, tiny vignettes that couldn't possibly be stretched to a full-length game but function just fine all on their own. I was impressed by how well some of them reflected the central themes of the game, considering that (unless Adam gave more information to other authors than he did to me) none of us had much idea what the overall project was going to look like. Though these are a digression from the main plot(s) of Narcolepsy, I found them a highlight of the game.

All that still leaves a few things to be desired, though. I was entertained by the style of Narcolepsy's writing, but disappointed in the substance. Some of Adam's previous games (Photopia, Varicella) have had fairly structured and interesting narratives, while others (9:05, Shrapnel) have been largely about prodding at our expectations for IF and exploring the boundaries of the medium. I don't think Narcolepsy did as well at either of those things. It told some stories, but they were rather intractable, as startling and funny and illogical as dreams. Presumably (given the dream thematics of the work as a whole) that was intentional, but it still wasn't entirely satisfying. I found various story paths, but mostly (after a while) for the sake of completeness, not because the stories themselves moved me or involved me much. Similarly, Narcolepsy's (many) bits of IF reference and parody were written in a stylish and amusing way, but there is nothing new in the basic message, "ha ha: mazes are lame and outworn". Dear lord, we know that already; sometimes it seems as though there are more parodies written than non-parodic works of IF, and it sometimes seems as though it requires more self-discipline to keep a straight face and leave the nudges and winks out. I laughed at the references in Narcolepsy, but after a while it was a faintly exasperated laugh, the one you do at Thanksgiving dinner when your uncle trots out his annual pun.

My other complaints were mostly minor. I found it somewhat annoying that I had to keep typing "SAY 1", "SAY 2", etc., instead of being able to enter just the numbers as verbs. Along similar lines, there were numerous occasions when a reasonable phrasing had been omitted -- e.g., "GO INSIDE" often works, but "GO OUTSIDE" seems not to work all the time and sometimes "OUT" is required instead. Probably more beta-testing would have helped there, but I don't know.

I also had the misfortune to play the game on a Mac, which means that the interface is broken: one window displays every piece of text twice, some windows that are supposed to contain cute graphics in fact contain nothing at all, and the whole thing looks a bit off-kilter. I understand what a pain it is to try to make a Glulx game perform to spec on all the systems on which it can be played, but I do wish that there were an alternate mode for this one which looked better on my computer.

Fans of Adam's writing will no doubt try Narcolepsy, and they'll probably enjoy it. Despite the complaints just enumerated, I laughed quite a few times and had a better time with it, overall, than with all but a handful of other games released this year. I don't think it represents the best of his work, though. There's promise in the idea of a story that unfolds more or less without puzzles, but as a player I still want to have some sense of choice and control; I can't appreciate how many branches and variations there are unless I understand what actions trigger those variations. In Narcolepsy, I never felt as though my control over the plot was significant, except when it came to the very end of each scenario. And those long stretches of aimless, clueless wandering were really killer for the pacing. It's not exploring if you've already been to each location fifty times. It's just going through your catalog of place names over again. How is that any better than trying to use every item in a lengthy inventory?

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