The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
By: Robb Sherwin
The oddness won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows Sherwin's previous work. His games often incorporate eccentric characters, difficult or dysfunctional romantic relationships, crude material handled so deftly that it comes out not being offensive after all, and many, many references to modern pop culture. Pantomime conforms to type in all of these respects. If anything, it's a little less eccentric than some of his earlier work: not quite as much crudeness, not quite as much reference, and a romance more often pathetic than tragic.
Sherwin also tends to juxtapose ideas that one wouldn't expect to find together: picking up women with grave-robbing, for instance, or D&D-style combat with a serious troubled-romance subplot. Sometimes these juxtapositions work; sometimes they just produce thematic confusion. This is where Pantomime stands out. It goes beyond the merely confusing and enters the realm of deeply incomprehensible; and while I'd like to believe that Sherwin had something particular in mind that would tie it all together neatly, I never figured out what that explanation might be.
Individually, the ideas are good ones. The game begins on the human colony on Phobos, at a time when Phobos is about to be broken up and destroyed. This setting affects what the player can do, sometimes in defiance of our earth-bound expectations. The dialogue, too, is full of bizarre anecdotes about life on Phobos, and these are presented with such conviction and imagination that they carry the player along even when they seem fairly implausible.
The pantomimes of the game are human clones implanted with the memories of their progenitors, and there turn out to be quite a lot of them around. Even the main character has cybernetic alterations. These technological advantages raise questions about humanity, identity, and relationships. I was reminded of Blade Runner and (to a lesser degree) Neuromancer, and many of the conclusions of Pantomime are similar: people are what they are partly because of the way we treat them, and discounting the humanity of someone else may reflect badly on our own. Still, Sherwin hints at these things without heavy moralizing, with well-chosen and evocative details of life in his chosen universe. The main character is characterized in part by the way he interacts with these clones, and the use to which he puts them.
But there's also another odd twist which comes into the game too late in play to feel entirely natural, and which seems to belong to another universe entirely. It was surprising and funny — and perhaps my favorite thing about the game — but at the same time it played like a deus ex machina solution to an impossible problem. The game would have been much less interesting without it, but much more unified and comprehensible. As it is, we're left with some fundamental questions about what kind of universe this is and how it works.
The plot is similarly not quite cohesive. On the one hand, the player character is working through his troubled romantic history (and we are shown more of this in flashbacks); on the other, he's trying to resolve a partly-related murder mystery (which is where most of the action of the game occurs). Both subplots are left with some unexplained loose ends.
This would be more frustrating if I'd cared more deeply about the mystery aspect of the game; but in fact that isn't where most of the interaction lies. The player does follow up clues and interview people who might know something useful, but as a rule he gets told where to go and what to do next; there are few things that would qualify as genuine puzzles in Pantomime. For the most part it felt as though I was having conversations with people while the mystery plot moved forward more or less under its own steam. In the three or four spots where I got temporarily stuck, it was usually because I'd forgotten that maxim and was trying to do some practical, physical action rather than talking to people. The dominance of dialogue over plot is obvious in other ways, too: frequently characters go off on long tangential discussions even though there is a pressing circumstantial reason why they should keep to the point.
I did care more about the personal side of the story, but I felt as though the ending gave this short shrift. There were some pieces of the backstory that didn't quite fall into place; I also found it hard to believe that our PC managed to come out of this experience without changing his attitude to the woman (or women) in his life. I suppose in a sense that's appropriate — he's obsessive, and that isn't going to change — but the ending felt raw and unfinished to me. Perhaps Pantomime suffers by comparison to my favorite of Sherwin's games, Necrotic Drift, which brings its romantic plot to a painful but very effective conclusion.
I found no outright bugs in Pantomime, but I still struggled with its implementation. The action is frequently underclued. Doors and gates are especially bad. One door flatly tells you that it is not something you can open. In a second case, it's suggested that you'll need an access code, but the actual solution to getting past the barrier is something else entirely. In a third case, if you try to open the door before you've gotten the proper unlocking code for it, you'll be told you can't (but get no description of how it's locked). There's nothing you can do with the code once you learn it, though, and attempts to unlock the door are met with the confusing message that you don't have the proper key. What you're supposed to do is learn the code and then just walk through the door: transit is now permitted, but there's no narrative describing you using the code on your way out.
Along the same lines, the main room descriptions do a terrible job of focusing the player's attention on what matters. At one point, I encounter a character and am told "X is here." In fact, X has some striking physical features that I would notice if I examined her, but this entirely matter-of-fact description doesn't encourage me to do so. If I start talking to X, the narrative text assumes that I've already seen her strange features and goes on from there. The whole interaction would be much smoother if the relevant details were in the room description instead: if I saw this person in real life, "X is here" would not be my first impression. In another case, I open something and get no description of what's inside — I have to specifically look inside — even though in real life my first thought on opening the object would have been shock and surprise at what I found.
More trivially, there are a number of described items that can't be examined and plausible actions that aren't implemented.
I was going to blame these flaws on a lack of beta-testing, but the credits list quite a few testers, so perhaps that's not the problem. Nonetheless, quite a lot of the time I felt that not enough had been done to anticipate how a naive player would interact with the environment. These points are especially unfortunate in a game that is otherwise mostly narrative and low on puzzles: the strengths of a game like this are most evident when the pacing is swift and there are few impediments to progress. Getting stuck on game mechanics takes some of the punch out of the punchlines.
Despite all my gripes, I did find Pantomime enjoyable, if less focused than some of Sherwin's other works; his dialogue and narrative style are unique in IF. What's more, despite the linearity of the plot, I did feel as though there was a value to presenting this as IF rather than as a piece of static fiction. At several points in the dialogue, the player character gets to make a choice of tone and attitude, especially one that reflects his opinion on pantomimes. I chose to characterize him as friendly and unbigoted, since this seemed to fit the PC and my own preferences best. The presence of the alternate options on the dialogue menu reminded me that this was an active choice on the PC's part, though, and that he could have acted much differently.
In sum, this is a game that Sherwin fans will enjoy. It's not his best work, but it has some fine moments.