Friday, April 18, 2014

Through Time, by MC Book

With only three games I didn't test left, I was faced with a choice of three Choose Your Story games.

Anyway. Through Time is, unsurprisingly, a time travel story. Everyone should write one, whether or not we publish it, because the paradoxes are interesting. And while reading too many leaves us feel like we've seen it all, there's always a possible twist or two. Even if we're analytical enough to see it coming, a good story can make us want to change it.

Side note: you've probably read Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder (if you forgot the title, it's the one you think it is) which is sort of the #1 changing-the-past story as it's quick and to the point. If you haven't read it, get an anthology of his early stuff. SoT is very economical about dealing with time travel issues. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife is a good example of the long-form where, even if you can guess part of what happens, there are a couple time-threads but nothing gets confused.

But books/movies can only do so much. They ask "what if" but don't let you ask the next "what if." I mean, you can do that on your own, but you can't see what the author would've meant. At least, not easily.

This adventure makes good use of that, with four different people to learn about, and, yes, ways to goof up. And in this medium you can (except if you REALLY mess up in that Douglas Adams game) take things back without destroying the space-time continuum. If you succeed once, you have a chance at the Big Enchilada ending. So there's definite incentive to see about other characters.

I found the game to be good and workmanlike, if not spectacular. The PDF flowchart walkthrough was well-annotated. I'd have liked more detail in the writing style, but I know the writer is interested in fixing things. The only problem? It deletes save states to update, so known stylistic errors won't be fixed for a month. I hope the author finds time to add touches that will make this work more immersive or maybe do the same for their next work. They've certainly put in a lot of work and time at the Chooseyourstory forums, and they responded immediately and positively to a nitpick I found in their PDF walkthrough. It's good to see that and to see Spring Thing allowing that. People deserve mulligans when we probably know what they meant--it's not like they have paid, dedicated editors for this. And as a judge I don't feel like I get easter-egg points for finding a mistake when I know what someone meant. I've been on the other side.

Because Through Time has its faults, but for me, it worked.

TT starts with you and your friend Ian, ten years out of high school, working at a boring job, wondering what could have been. Unfortunately, it feels like a Job Job, the sort that someone just out of college fears they will wind up in. The first page seems like a clear "tell" that the author doesn't have much life experience--either that, or they showed it poorly.

I know I feared a lousy job a lot when I was young. My fears were vague. Office Dynamics and interviews seemed frightening, and I didn't even seem to have as much fun being scared of a lousy job than others. I think everyone in college has written a story called "The Job" or something similar...and that said, this does more with that concept than most.

 Because it kicks you ten years in the past, where you're in high school with Ian, and you meet a girl you don't remember. Actually, two of them. They're sort of Generic Goth Girls, and between them and the initial totally random choice (room 134 or 135?) where *not* finding the right room moves the story forward, I had my worries. Not one goth girl, but two?

But then things start to make sense. There's Olivia, whom you really should know. There's Tina, who's your sister three years younger. And Allison--well, the game does seem to pull you away from actually trying for romance.

Finding out the backstory for each character has interesting mechanical twists. You can make Tina happier by not being a jerk to her, and then the game informs you of the Super Win Ending, which is now unlocked. You can find out about Ian's home life and why he dropped out of school and also Olivia's secret, which seems a bit unlikely you'd forget, but it kept me interested. The best ending, unsurprisingly, revolves around the mysterious Allison.

The branches in the game generally determine whether you get information on someone or not, which feels a bit mercenary, as opposed to, say, Groundhog Day where the Bill Murray character kept trying stuff until he was less of a jerk. Because the main things that unlock your being able to help someone is finding information about them, sometimes at the expense of directly helping them. And when that person was not Allison, I always felt a bit like I was just racking up brownie points with person X to see what Allison's story was.

The dilemma also opens up some obvious paradoxes--the game totally breaks the fourth wall to explain that the final ending makes more sense if you helped everyone else first.

The problem is that once you help one person, even if you get to go back in time again, the story would be altered. I think it'd be interesting to allow for different endings based on what you already solved e.g. you patch things up with Tina and then help Ian and somehow Tina is part of that story. That makes potentially 24 cases (3 people * 2^3 combinations of the other people being 'rescued' or not) but it could offer interesting variety.

Through Time did keep me on the edge of looking at a walkthrough long enough that it does what text adventures should do, and it had that alpha-factor of keeping me interested. This is despite a a huge lack of detail and subtlety in this story--the main event is a fair that's described pretty generically, and other things like detention or class are described generically. There's also unnecessary flabby narrative that could be hammered into something more interesting. The author spent too much time explaining things that didn't keep interest or move the plot forward or tell me about the characters & an aggressive red pen would help. If the author pays as much attention to proofreading the text as they did to organizing the alternate timelines, this game will start to shine.

But for all that, it's a good work. You may really not like it if you're sick of time travel stories. But I hope the author sits down and fixes the weaker passages post-comp.

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