The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: 1893: A World's Fair Mystery
By: Peter Nepstad
Peter Nepstad has performed a minor miracle. He has made money, significant money, as an IF author. According to a recent SPAG interview, he's sold about 3700 copies, at a retail price of $15-$20, mostly $20. The majority of these sales came from brick-and-mortar stores where his game is for sale. Let me say that again. Peter Nepstad wrote a game himself, made deals to get it sold in stores as well as online, and has sold several thousand copies, netting thousands of dollars.
And all he had to do was work ridiculously hard, over a period of many years. The subject of Nepstad's game is the 1893 World's Fair that was held in Chicago, Illinois. Nepstad researched the fair thoroughly, collecting hundreds of photographs (over 500 of which are scanned into the game), and recreating historical artifacts from the era. Once the game was completed, he arranged for publication on CDs and got his product onto the shelves at gift stores in various Windy City attractions, such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Museum of Science and Industry, and of course the gift shop at the World's Fair site. He sought out press attention, garnering favorable reviews from (among other places) the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Games magazine.
Then there's the game itself. People, this game is enormous, and has to be the product of an absolutely Herculean effort. Every time I thought I had a handle on how big it is, I'd discover some new aspect and have to revise my estimate upward. Here's an example: there are some places in the game in which it is necessary to bring a light source. Guess how many rooms I searched before finding a light source? 273. Two hundred and seventy-three rooms. These weren't crummy carbon-copy rooms either, not randomly generated locations from some teeth-grinding maze, but full-fledged parts of the game's faithful historical simulacrum. Why do I know the exact number? Because after my first several hours exploring the game, I had to start keeping a spreadsheet just to track which places I'd visited, which puzzles they contained, which exits I'd tried, and so forth. Not only that, but the 4th dimension is implemented and important — some areas are only open at certain times of day, certain events only happen on a particular day, and missing an appointment can mean losing the game.
The experience of exploring this game is satisfying in itself. Between the epic scope, the detailed room descriptions, and the well-chosen photographs, I often got a frisson of time-travel sensation, a level of immersion that made me feel transported back across the centuries. The theme of the fair was a celebration of Columbus's arrival in the Americas (the 21st-century political thorniness of which the author addresses in an afterword), and exploration is the order of the day both in the fair and in the game. In fact, once we reach the climactic endgame, the PC is literally tied to a chair to have the plot shouted at him, and while this would drive me crazy in most games, I didn't mind at all in 1893 — it was almost a relief from having to maintain a gargantuan mental map and keep track of a variety of temporally spaced events. Dealing with the game's size (330 rooms!) actually constitutes one of the most challenging aspects of 1893. There is a definite sense of overwhelm that lasts for a long time, until you finally get the game's geography straight in your head.
There's a pleasant sense of artistic unity to the interface, which consists of a text window, a graphics window, and a compass rose, garnished with just a bit of fancy Victorian filigree. Occasionally, the pictures and compass disappear for effect, but for the most part, we can always see exits at a glance, beneath a visual representation of the location. These photographs are a great touch, and some of the images Nepstad has chosen are absolutely wonderful, compelling images that would be interesting in any context, but are all the more arresting for accompanying such a thorough simulation of their original setting. The combination can create a potent sense of place.
The game presents a serviceable plot to motivate exploration: you play a detective called to investigate the disappearance of eight large and precious diamonds from one of the fair's exhibits. The thief has hidden the diamonds all around the fair, ensconced within various puzzly contraptions, and scattered clues to their locations a la The Riddler. It must be said that this plot does not make a great deal of sense, and contains some serious holes — at least one of the diamonds is hidden in a way that seems logically impossible to me. Still, it marries traditional text adventure concerns to this large simulation, transforming 1893 from a model into a game. The simulation is huge enough to entertain a history buff without ever having to get involved in the puzzles, while the game aspects are engaging enough to gratify text adventure enthusiasts.
Nepstad has a keen sense of spectacle, and effectively conveys how breathtaking some of the fair's wonders must have been to its visitors. In addition, he throws some fun twists and turns into the plot, generating moments of real excitement to punctuate the player's long journey through his game. He demonstrates a real flair for action sequences — there are a couple of terrific set-pieces worthy of any period thriller. The whole thing winds up in an ending that I found absolutely spectacular, an enthralling finale that provides a fitting close to the game's very slowly rising action. I finished 1893 feeling, overall, happy and satisfied.
Given all that, it feels a bit churlish to complain about the game, but it must be said that there were some aspects of 1893 that I found disappointing. Foremost among these is, believe it or not, its widespread underimplementation. I know I've just extolled the game's largesse and emphasized how much work it must have taken, but while its scope is immensely broad, its implementation is often frustratingly shallow. Often the wonders of the fair seemed more like a background painting, because so many of them lacked descriptions. Worse, some of the basic functionality around them was all too thinly provided. For instance, when the PC finds a full pack of Cairo cigarettes:
>look in pack
This, this is the kind of thing that earns IF its reputation as perverse and obfuscatory. Who but the masochists among us (and I include myself) wouldn't type QUIT after a sequence like this? It makes me wince to think about newcomers to IF (some of whom this game surely found) encountering such obtuse implementation. There were some serious parsing problems throughout the game — for instance, SEARCH means something different from LOOK IN, so you could search something and still not find a crucial item that "look in" would have found. Synonyms were lacking in numerous instances, and some very basic verbs were missing, such as WAVE, CUT, ARREST, and WASH. When I'd attempt one of these commands, the game would respond, "There's no verb in that sentence!", which is of course patently false. Poor parsing and thin implementation are a deadly combination, especially as the suspense ratchets up. As I said, Nepstad has a flair for action sequences, but the game's failure to understand or meaningfully respond to reasonable commands could be a serious tension-deflater in crucial moments.
NPCs in 1893 suffered from the same sparseness, most lacking responses to all but a very few topics and actions. The details that are included with them are often well-chosen, so some (such as a small boy and a Japanese woman) manage to be evocative despite their flimsiness, but very rarely do any of them ever feel like real characters rather than code constructs. The biggest sin here is when characters fail to respond to actions that absolutely should compel them — for instance, as a suspect very very slowly escapes, the PC can go straight to the headquarters of the fair's security staff, but inexplicably can't get their attention: "They are all hustling about so quickly you find it impossible to interrupt any of them," says the game. Really? I'd rather have seen the office empty than have the game so willfully deflect a logical action. It isn't a virtue to turn underimplementation into a puzzle, and that's what happens at several junctures in 1893. Sensible alternate solutions aren't accounted for, and actions that deserve a response go begging.
In addition, there are some persistent problems with the game's writing, led by my personal nemesis, the its/it's error. I must have found at least 20 instances of this, a circumstance tailor-made to drive me crazy. In addition to mechanics, there are just some really weird, illogical pieces of description, such as the Mysterious Case Of The Androgynous Seamster(ess?):
A small loom of antique design, made entirely of wood, is being used by an old woman, moving the treadle by foot, and the shuttles by hand, while all around him, the new mechanical looms weave several pieces at once and in a fraction of the time.
(My emphasis.) Finally, there are a number of flat-out bugs in the game — freaky TADS errors, strange scoping problems, or moments when it simply does not respond at all to player input. And of course, there's always the classic "Which buildings do you mean, the grand buildings, or the grand buildings?"
For the most part, this stuff boils down to "needs further testing," but then again I can certainly see how there's plenty of room for mistakes to remain in a game this huge. Moreover, I'm sympathetic to the fact that with all the nouns included in this game, the prospect of describing a significant number of them might feel too overwhelming to face. I'd posit that perhaps projects of this size, especially if they are intended to be commercial ventures, could use one more person "on staff." That person could not only serve as first tester and copyeditor, but he or she could also perform the tedious but crucial duty of filling in descriptions for first-level nouns and coding for alternate solutions, providing richness that might be too much to ask of one implementor but which can make the difference between immersion and infuriation for the player.
I should mention that a number of details are well-attended — for instance, the "can't go" messages in each room usually help the player out by naming the exits. The puzzles, for the most part, are also logical and well-cued. A few times, I found myself wishing that the game had given me a clearer indication towards some important aspect necessary for solving a puzzle — in particular, there's a crucial demonstration that only happens once a day but is not announced anywhere I could find. Still, this was the exception. Most of the game's puzzles (and there are many) are solvable and fun, and while there were a few instances where I turned to the hints, they turned out to be mostly due to my own boneheadedness. There were a few times when a puzzle stretched plausibility, such as the time I was handed a baby and treated it as just another inventory item.
Then again, I'm willing to believe that the business with the baby could have been a subtle joke on the game's part. One of the more enjoyable aspects of 1893 is its light tone and affable wit. A few parts of the game are outright comedy, and hilarious comedy at that. An outstandingly pompous tour guide can lead you through the fair, speaking in the prose of the most overwrought Victorian novel, to humorous effect. There's a wonderfully funny scene with a mouse, and some excellent parser responses, including one I can't help quoting, from a room with a huge pillar of anthracite coal:
Okay, it's a comma splice, but still damn funny. Other nice touches include the occasional cameo by historical figures, such as when you spy Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan discussing the design of the Japanese temple.
Alongside this clearly intentional comedy were some instances of a murkier sort. Sometimes I wasn't sure whether the game intended a wink to accompany its message, such as this statement from the tour guide: "The French have often been called the most polite nation in the world, but France must surrender the palm to America." I dunno, maybe cultural perceptions have shifted radically, but from my 2008 perspective, I thought, "Oh yeah, America is the capital of politeness. Trailed only by France." Or take another instance, a pomological exhibit featuring a Liberty Bell replica made of oranges:
Or, for that matter, what kind of person would spend his time making a replica of the 1893 World's Fair made entirely out of TADS code? Is it dry self-deprecation or straight-ahead ingenuousness? Oh, and then there's the mysterious matter of the "homacoustic commutator", an object defined (as far as I'm concerned) with two nonsense words, and described thus: "The homacoustic commutator is equipped with an electric signalling device." Say what? I had to conclude that the game was joking with me here. Either that or it decided to edge for a moment into a steampunk version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
Actually, that's not as outlandish a prospect as it might sound. There were a couple of cases where the game suddenly, jarringly threw in a dose of science fiction or magic, for no easily discernible reason. These moments are certainly exciting (and shocking) when they happen, but I think they weaken the game overall. In such a realistic simulation, these easter eggs deal a killing blow to mimesis, throwing me right out of any period immersion I might be feeling.
Speaking of easter eggs, I am ready to declare that 1893 has, hands down, the best easter egg I have ever found in any IF game. I don't want to spoil it here, except to recommend that those who finish the game definitely try all the amusing actions laid out in the game's afterword. There's an easter egg tucked into this game that could practically serve as an entire comp game all by itself. That mini-game is plagued by much of the same underimplementation that appears throughout the rest of the game, but it also has the same great witty responses, the same sense of excitement, and the same clever puzzles as the rest of the game too. There are even easter eggs within the easter egg, if you can believe that. It's terrifically impressive, in an "even his muscles have muscles" kind of way.
Other hidden actions might award the player a "bonus point", and it's a great feeling to get one of these, because it's usually for some very satisfying action. 1893 isn't shy about using the scoring system, and I think it exploits the system quite effectively, with the main score serving as a progress indicator and the bonus points as pure lagniappe. Speaking of bonuses, there are various fascinating historical texts embedded in this game, such as Lincoln's first inaugural address, as well as some texts by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells making the case for African-American representation at the Fair (though of course they don't use that term.) I quite liked the way Nepstad handles race in 1893, presenting the accurate historical simulation but making sure to include the voices that at that time were protesting the exclusion of African-American culture.
There were a few parts where that accurate simulation broke down, anachronistic references to jacuzzis and homeless people, as well as this:
Not exactly the thought an 1893 detective would be having, given the fact that Miranda was born in 1909. Still, these slip-ups were minor and rare against the huge tide of very well-researched content with which 1893 is overflowing. It's a game that richly rewards exploration, that provides hours and hours of engrossing entertainment, that charms with its cleverness and awes with its magnitude. It has its flaws, but it's well worth your twenty dollars.