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Risks and Experiments
Review by: Dan Shiovitz
Game: Blue Lacuna
By: Aaron A. Reed

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Emily Short's "Play This Thing!" Review

It's 2009 now; if you look back ten years in the IF world you see stuff like Photopia, So Far, Spider and Web, and Galatea. These still get attention now because they're good games, but looking at them today obscures the fact that when they were written they were at the edges of what IF could do as a medium. Whereas today ... actually, today they're still at the edges of what IF can do as a medium. What happened? Why haven't we continued to push at the boundaries? When I ask this, I don't mean "Why aren't we writing IF that's good?" because there is plenty of good IF being written today. I mean, "Why aren't we writing IF that does things that earlier games didn't do?" Why aren't authors taking more risks?

A few are, of course. I can name a handful of authors doing risky stuff now — Victor Gijsbers, Robb Sherwin, and Emily Short come to mind — and after playing Blue Lacuna I have no problems adding Aaron Reed to the list. The rest of this review is going to primarily be about the game as an experiment; I'll touch on it as a gameplay experience and so on, but that's not, to my mind, the most significant thing about it.

The first unusual thing you'll probably notice when you start the game is the user interface. This game is very big on highlighted keywords. It's a setup something like Ferrous Ring from a few years ago, where you type the object's name to interact with it, but here it's noticeably easier to use. The system works better than the one I remember from Ferrous Ring; I think the secret is that the effect of typing the keyword is more consistent — if it's an item, you examine it (or, rarely, pick it up and examine it), if it's a conversation topic you say it, if it's a choice you make it. Some people are probably going to have a reflexive "that's not IF!" reaction to any system that involves doing something other than typing sentences into the parser, but they should give this a try before writing it off — it's not a replacement for the regular parser (you can't make it through the game just typing keywords) but a supplement to make it easier to interact with the game.

Another ease-of-use thing in this vein is the landmark system that lets you auto-move to significant locations once you've discovered them. I don't think this is the best implementation of this system (for one thing, it's really slow, even running under Git, and for another, it sometimes gets hung up and can't find a path), but it's the sort of thing that ought to become a standard in large games in the future. >GO TO LOCATION wasn't invented by this game, of course, but the game giving you a list of landmarks is an important addition and not something I remember seeing much of before. (Oh, and instead of >GO TO LOCATION, you can just type >LOCATION — consistency with the rest of the keyword system.)

There are a bunch of other interesting little experimental bits in this game that I'm not going to talk about because I want you to play them for yourself, but I should in particular call out a few: the sequence if you decide to stay at the beginning, the fact that it offers a choice between story mode and puzzle mode, the whole interaction with Progue where you have an NPC who has a variety of complex moods that change over the course of the game, the way the wandering around in the other guys' city has been subtly implemented, the — ok, you get the idea.

Ok, so those were the mostly-successful experiments. Now I'm going to talk about some things I didn't like as much.

Among the things you'll notice when you start the game is that it asks you to make some choices: if you're male or female, then if your significant other is male or female, and finally if you prefer art or love. This is strongly reminiscent of Reed's earlier Whom The Telling Changed, but it doesn't really work as well for me here. In that game, there was sort of a mythical/legendary vibe to the game as a whole, and so it was fine for the PC to be a plain archetype that the player could freely customize. But in Blue Lacuna the PC is a particular person with particular feelings and connections to other characters, and it seems like the main effect of making the PC customizable is to weaken the connection to the other characters. I assume Reed is making gender customizable because he doesn't want to write the traditional male PC/female love interest story — that's great, but c'mon, man, don't hedge your bets by letting the player tweak the PC and hope they come up with the arrangement you were imagining. Just write the story you want to write.

The third choice there, art or love, deserves special mention, since it shows up again near the end, along with some other important choices. Anyone who's seen my review of any of Victor Gijsbers's games knows that I love games about moral choices more than anything, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed by this one. For three reasons, really.

The first is that the storyline is, well, pretty conventional. A person comes to a mostly-abandoned place, messes around with the weird machinery hanging out there, gets flashbacks and two competing requests for help, and eventually has to make a decision. I mean, really? (Myst, needless to say, was also over a decade ago.)

The second is about how the choice is presented. Moral choices are about concepts and societies, but they are personified by individuals. You don't decide "Is honor better than friendship?", you decide "My best friend is cheating on his wife — do I tell her?" Blue Lacuna makes a few stabs at showing you the individual effects of the decision you'll be asked to make, but they're sparse and near the end. The most obvious person to personify the decision is Progue, but he absolutely doesn't. He does have an interesting and cool role in the decision at the end, but it's not this.

And the final one is that Blue Lacuna doesn't seem to know what it wants to talk about. The question it opens with is "art or love?" but then it spends almost no time talking about it (it does, on the other hand, talk a fair bit about "job or love?", but this isn't the same thing). But then as the story continues and you find out the climactic decision it's ... not related to this question at all. So what's up? It feels to me like Reed had an idea for how this game was going to go and wrote the introduction and then the game turned out to be about something else and he never went back and changed the introduction. I think Blue Lacuna could be a lot more focused on the issues it wants to talk about and I think it'd be a better game for it.

Reed's taking a risk here and all I'm doing is insisting he take more risks — but the whole point and reason for taking risks as an artist is to get to a position where you can see even further risks to aim at. The goal is to reach the horizon and beyond. Blue Lacuna doesn't make it to the horizon as an artistic work, and I don't even think it's entirely successful just as a game (it's a little short on beta-testing, and the puzzles are a mixed bag), but it's important in a way most recent games aren't: if you're interested in IF as a genre, you should play Blue Lacuna, and there's nothing I'd rather say about a game than that.

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