IFReviewed by Caledonian on 2005-02-16 17:29
Storyline: The story is about Dante Hicks, a young man on the brink of having to grow up and come to terms with being an adult as well as living like one. At a frat-style party, he buys an apparently hallucinogenic drug - and take its - just before his former girlfriend tries to reach him at the party. This sets off a surreal journey to reunite himself with Beatrice, whom he still loves and wants to be with. Along the way, he learns a lot about himself, his situation, and that of Beatrice, with some hope of redemption or acceptance (your choice) at the end. (Note: all references in the story to classical Italian literature in the names and plots are probably meant seriously.)
Criterion 1: Does the game deconstruct the rooms paradigm so effectively that no map is required to play the game? If not, does the story itself have elements that actually focus the PC on geography, so that a map is necessary to the story itself, not just to the gameplay? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
Blue Chairs uses basic map directions for movement, but the storyline is not dependent on the directions to any major extent. The game has basically 4 major scenes or groups of rooms. Only one of these is complicated enough to become confusing. That section (behind the mini-mart), however, could use some tightening up as it becomes overly confusing at times. Since part of the point is the surrealism of the trip Dante is on, it goes with the plot, but ultimately the geography could be pared back to keep the focus on the puzzles and the interesting interactions (and non-interactions) with NPCs that occur here. Thumb sideways on this point, however, because of the inherent confusion in that one critical scene.
Criterion 2: Does the author make game-related choices or plot-advancing consequences inherent in the majority of actions the player takes? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
One of the great things about this game is that almost every move or action you take is loaded with double meanings, plot drivers, or chances to learn about Dante and his quest to reunite with Beatrice. There are numerous interactions which make you laugh or raise serious questions in your mind, but that have meaning in the story. Even the most surrealistic scenes have a lot of symbolic meaning and layered literary references (Dante, get it?). Few actions are unimportant and the few objects you can take almost all have meaning. (There are a few red herrings, not many.) Definite thumbs up.
Criterion 3: Does game play and choices made as a result advance the player to multiple endings, with multiple paths to reach those endings, in ways that are both supported by and supportive of the main story trying to be told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
The author has multiple threads through the story, including a choice to not take the initial drugs in the first place. The alternate threads are plausible but basically invite you to find and follow the main thread instead, a very nice trick (and a tip of the hat to Slouching Towards Bedlam, I think). Once you are on that thread, all of the choices either enhance the story or are required for the game play. The ending gives you a fundamental choice between two alternate realities, though how you interpret those endings is again up to you. A definite and well-deserved thumbs up.
Criterion 4: Is the story itself actually worth telling? Does it have a narrative dynamic that would be worth relating in other media, so that it is not purely a technical exercise? And is that dynamic sustained throughout the course of the game so that the player essentially *knows* the story, even if he/she doesn't fully understand it or all its implications, on the first playthrough? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
The story of lost love/redemption is by no means new, but the author's choice in the manner of telling it is fairly fresh and certainly compelling. Once you get past the step of taking the drugs initially, you really want to get to the end of the game and understand the story of Dante & Beatrice. While not all the loose ends are tied up, the alternate endings make pretty clear what is going on in the final choices Dante has to make. Furthermore, there is a richness to the detail of the game (particularly in NPC interactions) and a depth to the portrait of Dante that eventually emerges that is worthwhile in its own right. Thumbs up.
Criterion 5: Do commands -- including movement commands -- really support the story, i.e., if you are using compass directions, is the player using a compass to navigate with at the time? If not, do the commands truly enhance the mimetic effect being achieved in the game? Are uncommon commands natural to the story and the responses to incorrect commands helpful? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
The author implements relatively few unusual commands. The key one required early in the game is extremely well clued. There were only a few times where the player would have to struggle a bit to find the right verb or command sequence to get the right thing to happen. Most were straightforwardly obvious. Standard compass directions are employed, but by splitting the world map into a series of major room groups, the need to wander aimlessly is very low. In only one place does the map get big enough that closely studying exits & directions is necessary in order to execute commands appropriately. (see criterion 1). There is also a very funny effect used when, after Dante has taken the drugs initially, anything he tries to say or do comes out as "uuu" because the drug has hit him so powerfully. A characteristic side effect (or so Google informs me) of the drug in question, which you can find out about in the game. Another thumbs up here.
Criterion 6: Does the author have sufficient control of the pacing, the narrative, the hints, other authorial mechanisms such as flashbacks, memories, event intrusion, etc., so that the player can't ever really get stuck and therefore fail to finish the game? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
This game has minimal puzzle solving, so the pacing is fairly tight. Most of the scene transitions, puzzles, and actions to take in this game are initiated through player actions, but the actions are so well-clued or obvious that they are very natural. The pacing is good within the major scenes and the transitions sensible in a surrealist sort of way. The hint system - a basic menu driven system - has the nice property of not allowing you to look forward past your current scene at future actions. This keeps you focused on solving the problem at hand. Players don't really need the hints if they are willing to do the appropriate surreal logic and interactions with the NPCs in the environment. Thumbs up.
Criterion 7: Does the author use timing or turn-related events or scene-cuts that give the player the appropriate forward momentum necessary to move from scene to scene and complete the game? If not, is a slow pace and relatively open player "wandering" reflective of the story and how it is being told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
The scene cuts are done almost casually, keying on seemingly inconsequential actions. But they are very believable if you view Dante as "tripping" on a powerful drug. The author uses the scene cuts cleverly to create a linear play feel to the game despite the fact that the two middle game sequences are highly surreal. Basically, the game is divided into 4 major scenes and a few minor ones, as you make progress towards the reunion with Beatrice. While they go from slightly plausible to very odd, they make sense in a surrealist world logic. The scene cuts add to the effect immensely. Definite thumbs up.
Criterion 8: If puzzles are included, are they natural byproducts of the world model or the interactions of the PC/NPCs? Are the puzzles absolutely necessary to advance the story being told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
This game has minimal puzzle solving, so the pacing is tight. What confusion does occur also nicely supports the "trippiness" of your playing character at the time. Basically, you have to solve one major puzzle in each of the first three scenes, and the general actions to do so are fairly clear even if the answers are not always in obvious sight. The first puzzle - how to leave the party - is something of a hoot. The others are wrapped with surreal meaning that is hard to grasp but still felt like a compelling representation of Dante's drug-fogged state of mind. Thumbs up.
Criterion 9: Does the game take risks in switching viewpoints (varying the PC view between one or more of the game characters), using different voice at different times (applying 1st, 2nd, 3rd and/or stream of consciousness, perhaps all in one game), and/or breaking with any other standard PC/NPC conventions (look, inventory, x me, etc.)? Are those risks successful in the context of the game? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
The game does not switch viewpoints per se. However, the mental state of Dante (he's tripping, remember) alters quite dramatically from scene to scene. This gives much of the same effect as changing voice, and since the story is solely about Dante's (head) trip, switching identities would be rather artificial here. There are many nice 3rd party NPC effects or shout-outs (the Greek chorus-like commentary from the stoners, various effects in the party, Chris's donut mania, etc.) that make the PC feel firmly planted in a solid world even while the drug-induced trip is obviously spinning Dante wildly. "Inventory, x me, and looks" are downplayed in this game, though "x me" does give a good intro to Dante's pathos as he is about to start on this trip. You also occasionally get a different answer to "x me," depending on what part of the story you're in. Another thumbs up on this point.
Criterion 10: Is it well-written, well-told, well-edited, well-tested? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.
This game is extremely well-written, particularly in the depth the author goes to at almost every turn to make interactions and gameplay meaningfully tell Dante's story and state of mind. I have to admit I almost didn't play this game when I read the words "trance bop" in the intro. Not another "cooler than thou" kind of thing, I thought. But that's not Dante's story. It is one of pathos and a degree of existential angst generated by events in his life that you begin to understand in richer and richer detail as the story unfolds. The choice at the end seems very real, very human for someone in Dante's state when you get to it. It's hard to ask for much more than that in any novel, story, or IF game. Regarding editing and testing, I saw no major typos or bugs. I thought the game should have won the IF Comp 2004, hands down, because of the depth of this story (even though in some ways ATD is still my favorite). Definite thumbs up.
Extra Credit Criteria: Does the game break new ground in the story being told, new genres, new plots, new structures, etc.? Does it avoid complete cliches (amnesia, underground empires, etc.)? If yes, extra credit. If no, then no extra credit.
The new ground broken here is difficult to gauge, but I would say it deserves extra credit for the completeness and the grace of its story arc, as well as the implications of the final choice to be made. Each segment of the game feels about the right length, and the alternate paths all encourage you to go back and play the main path, which is something Dante desperately needs to have resolved. There are some good Inform visual programming effects as well when Dante embarks upon the "drug trip" at the beginning of the game. This may also be a first in the "game that starts at a party" genre, or at least the best example thereof. An extra thumbs up for these features, as well as for a hard-to-describe feeling I have about the game. It's just compelling, somehow, and that quality always seems to deserve an extra dose of enthusiasm in my view.
Thumbs Up: 9 out of 10.
Thumbs Sideways: 1 out of 10.
Thumbs Down: 0 out of 10.
Extra Credit: 1.
Net Score 10.5 thumbs up out of 10.
Final Comments: Since my standards are meant to be the minimum criteria for a modern, high-quality IF story, this would suggest that Blue Chairs more than meets the minimum standard. While I personally would tighten up the scene behind the mini-mart, I think this is a game whose quality will continue to be recognized over the years. This is the one game where the author seems to have studied the best of what Slouching Towards Bedlam accomplished last year, then ran with it to a new level. The drug-induced start and the surreal environment of this game may not appeal to everyone, but if you can get past that, Blue Chairs evolves into a traditional, even romantic, but very compelling coming-to-terms-with-life story. High applause.