Another IF Comp review, following my format for this comp. There is a cut, then any spoiler-free comments I have, and then spoiler space, and then more detailed feedback that assumes the reader has tried the game.
But first, we have some obligatory filler to try to make sure that the RSS summary does not accidentally contain any review. Filler, filler, la la la…
Okay. Here we go.
A polished puzzle game, where problems stack and stack until you finally know enough to start popping the stack instead. Because of the subject matter (lunch with an attractive stranger), it reminded me a little bit of Dinner with Andre — though here the protagonist is more of a generic American tourist of a not-very-clueful kind. The hints are thoroughly implemented, which is good, because I wouldn’t have made all of the leaps myself.
I realize that that is a fairly noncommittal description, and that’s because I found it hard to decide what I felt, for reasons that are at least as much about me as they are about the game.
The problem is, essentially, that I love Paris. Paris is almost the first place I ever traveled alone, and that trip was beautiful and lonely and humbling. Once I was there at the golden beginning of a relationship, and once I broke my heart there. In Paris I went through a difficult rethinking of my faith; on the same trip I wrote some of my best work. This is not to say that Paris is for me somehow free of the farce of ordinary life. It is there too that I discovered how to make an emergency dental appointment in French, and how to unplug a sink in a building 300 years old, and how not to get to Charles de Gaulle on time.
A few of my visits would have left a permanent stain of emotion on a lesser place, but Paris is hard to ruin. All the pretension and silliness, the creepy pomp of Napoleon’s tomb and the fetishizing of the Revolution, the long lines at the Louvre and the Metro’s weird perfume, the price of a glass of orange juice, the terrible TV programming, the stuffy furniture of French hotels, Sarkozy grinning from a magazine cover: all this cannot in the end devalue the Parisian patrimony of raw human experience. Everything that happens in Paris has already happened there many times before, to many other people. If you can’t take the long view of your situation in Paris — with a good meal in you — lounging in one of the green metal chairs in the Jardin du Luxembourg — gazing down an avenue of shaped trees, while little boys with sticks push toy boats around the pond — then your case of self-absorbtion may well be terminal.
This is a city that invented gourmet recipes for rat during the Prussian siege.
I wouldn’t claim expertise in Paris. There’s too much there to be expert in, and anyway I most often hang out in one specific area, having found a few years ago an idyllic vacation apartment. What I do have are heaps of my own memories of eating in Parisian cafés, deciphering Parisian newspapers, ordering Parisian wine, and flagging down Parisian waiters. The accumulated images and sounds and sensations are so numerous and so emotionally charged that I found myself constantly comparing game’s setting against my Paris — especially since the title “April in Paris” seemed intended precisely to evoke the city as sentiment, not merely as geographical location.
For instance: the sidewalk cafés I’m familiar with in Paris do not have a railing to fence them off from the road. That’s the point. You may pay extra to eat en terrasse rather than inside — which is to say, they slap an extra half euro onto your pastis so that you can have the privilege of being jostled by passers-by — but it’s worth it, because you get sunlight and the world at your fingertips. There is no proprietress guarding access. You seat yourself. The waiters certainly can be busy, but their interest in doing business is greater than any sartorial snobbery, and they will get around to you in time. Despite their reputation, I have almost always found French waiters to be gracious.
I do not remember ever seeing anyone served a gigantic roast beef sandwich. There may be cafés where it is possible to get a gigantic roast beef sandwich, but I personally have not seen one. This is partly to do with the relative absence of roast beef sandwiches and partly with the fact that portions of anything are usually smaller than in the US. These establishments don’t usually have trays of pastries by the door; the chef who prepares entrées is not the same person who prepares pastries, these being quite distinct skills; and anyway an entrée in France is not the same thing as an entrée in America (though I accept that our protagonist might not know that).
I also wasn’t quite sure what era “April in Paris” was attempting: at one point the game talks about the possibility of throwing the accordionist a few francs, but then a moment later you find a two-euro coin for him. Possibly the explanation is that the protagonist is still romantically thinking in terms of francs (hard to blame him — the French still list prices with their franc translation a good part of the time) even though the euro conversion has already happened.
Along the same lines, I don’t think child support works the same way in France that it does in the US — at any rate I believe Therese would be eligible for nontrivial state support without having to attach Jacques’ income.
Anyway, the “April in Paris” café felt to me like a drab and stereotypically American notion of what Paris is like, and none of the protagonist’s thoughts could get me to regard it as equally vivid with the Paris in my head. That might be because the author hasn’t observed the city closely, but it’s also possible that bits of this are accurate to parts of Paris I don’t know, or that the author intended to portray a stereotype, because that’s what the tourist protagonist would be predisposed to see. Subjectively, I can only say that these factors distracted me from the game, and impeded my imagination of the layout of the place, because I kept trying to impose my own ideas over what the game was trying to create. One of the curious things about the human enjoyment of mimesis is that we’re desperate to see what we already know, to recognize some telling detail. I was looking for that. I didn’t find it, but I couldn’t stop trying.
It’s funny how much these things affect one’s reaction. I am not sure I enjoyed “April in Paris”, or that I can even guess whether most people would enjoy it. I could see that it was not ambitious in story or concept, but that it was polished and solid. I have certainly liked games fitting that description in the past. In those cases, though, the deciding factor was charm or atmosphere or some similar X-factor — precisely what I can’t judge about this game. So I gave it the score I thought I would’ve given it if it had been set somewhere else, somewhere I haven’t been and don’t have any special reason to care about.
Sadly, “April in Omaha” doesn’t make it to 10. But it’s not bad, either. You should probably try it for yourself.