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It's a Fair Cop
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Little Falls
By: Mondi Confinanti

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"Little Falls" is a new Glulx game from the Mondi Confinanti team. A great effort has gone into making it accessible and appealing: it features full illustrations, music, and sound effects, and is available for convenient download in several packages from an attractive website. There is an English translation of the original Italian; the English is straightforward but native-sounding, thanks in part to MC's proofreader J. Robinson Wheeler; I never felt that I was struggling against linguistic confusion and foreign idioms, as I sometimes have when playing other translated IF.

All this said, I would not recommend the game equally to all players. It would probably be fair to call this a horror story, and some players may be put off by that. As the game's website gives away, you're a police officer called in to investigate a suspected crime scene. It is also a relatively short piece with few and easy puzzles, and may feel too linear to some, though it branches at the end. And even with these caveats, "Little Falls" does not always achieve what it set out to do.

I played the game to several conclusions, none of which were precisely happy. This is a game that values the narrative shape over agency or consistency between versions: the player character has to do certain things early on, and isn't able to escape doing them; as for the endings, the ones I reached are designed so that you get the same kind of outcome regardless of how you use information from early play-throughs. The plot details, in other words, are less important than the atmosphere and the sense of fatality.

Judging from feedback I've read on other games, some players are deeply irritated when they play a piece of IF twice and the two story- lines turn out to be inconsistent with one another. Personally, I'm not opposed to this kind of IF design at all, but it works best if the player never notices (at least on the first play-through) how he's being manipulated. This places higher than usual demands on the authors' skill at evoking mood and at providing an interaction experience that feels natural and inevitable from start to finish. "Little Falls" does not always live up to the challenge.

The interaction here reminded me frequently of the interaction in another illustrated Glulx game from outside the English-speaking community, J. B. Ferrant's "Ekphrasis": sparely modeled and unusually paced.

In both games, there are long cut-sequences where the player has nothing to do but tab through text. This experience is livened up by changing pictures and (in the case of "Little Falls") accompanying music. "Little Falls" also has a brief sequence in which a telephone rings and the player's thoughts about the ringing appear in text synchronized with the sounds. Such touches give the player the sense — unusual in IF — that time within in the game is moving at the same pace as time in the real world. All the same, there are sizable sections that are mostly fiction and very little interaction.

Even when the player is allowed to type commands, the surrounding world in both games tends to be a bit less implemented than one would expect: there are many objects that can't be interacted with in obvious ways, and rooms are sparsely furnished. In the case of "Ekphrasis", I found this slightly disconcerting but not problematic: the focus of "Ekphrasis" is very often on conversation or action, and it was rare for me to get stuck in a scene. (I have not yet finished "Ekphrasis" completely, so it's possible that this changes eventually; I speak for the part that I played.) "Little Falls" is much more a game of exploration, though — and it's one of those tricky sorts where the plot will refuse to advance until you've found the necessary things. There was a long phase in the late-middle of my first playthrough where I ran across a particularly bad guess-the- right-action problem. (Hint: do not trust >SEARCH THING to reveal everything there is to find in/on an object. Investigate in other ways.) As a result, I couldn't trigger the next piece of the game, and was left wandering around in increasing frustration, the sense of danger draining away. I also had plenty of time during this period to look more closely at the scenery implementation than I otherwise would have — to try to turn on the sink ("not something you can turn on") and use the toilet (not present in a bathroom described as having "all the standard fittings") and generally prove to myself that this was not a world designed for that kind of prying.

The trigger problems are unfortunate, because the rest of my play experience was pretty smooth. At critical moments, I pretty much always knew what I should be doing; as for the cut-scenes, they were a bit longer than I found ideal, but the music and visual effects made them much livelier than they would have been in a pure text game.

What of the atmosphere, then? Again, my feelings were mixed. The text of the game tends to be spare on descriptions and a bit melodramatic on dialogue passages. And I felt that the authors did not make the best possible use of their chosen scenery. We're shown a few paintings that are supposed to be disquieting and reveal the twisted mind of the house's owner, but they're so lightly described that I didn't find them scary; instead, I was told that the protagonist was disturbed by them, which is considerably less effective.

The multimedia aspects of the game achieve more. The music is not very subtle, but even the blatantly ominous cues did have an effect on the way I experienced the game. As for the images, they're often dim; locations are rendered as photographs but people are rendered as sketched, cartoonish figures, and the effect of this is inconsistent; but the best of the character images are well-drawn and contribute to the nightmare tonality.

Overall, my experience was that the early part of the game, though frequently melodramatic, did draw me into the story and make me afraid for my protagonist; but as I encountered some of the less gracefully-implemented sections of the midgame, I got stalled and this sense of engagement and urgency drained away, so that the endgame did not have quite the impact it could have. Someone who doesn't have the same triggering problem will probably find "Little Falls" more satisfying, though.

I also would recommend "Little Falls" to anyone who is considering writing IF with a major multimedia component: it shows off some ways of combining text with other effects that have not been much explored before. Multimedia IF in my experience tends to be fairly static: it shows a picture of the room you're in, or plays a sound when you first encounter the object that would make that noise, or occasionally depicts the character you're talking to. There are a few exceptions — the prolonged story-telling in "Six Stories", notably — but even "Six" does not do as much as "Little Falls" to create a sense of passing time. "Ekphrasis" is the most similar work I know, but since it is currently available only in French, and does not make the same use of sound, it may be less instructive to English-speaking students of the form.

A final, technical note: The Mondi Confinanti website suggests playing "Little Falls" on Gargoyle for Windows; they give no suggestions about interpreters for the Macintosh, but I found that the game worked in full multimedia form under Spatterlight 0.4.8b. Zoom refused to start the game at all. For those who do not want the full sound-and-sight experience, MC also make available a version that is all text, and a version that is text with images but no sounds.

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