Blue Lacuna — Further thoughts

I’m enjoying settling into Blue Lacuna, and I’d like to write some more about it as I play. In the interest of controlling spoilers, though, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate posts again (as seen during the IF Competition) so that with any luck I won’t leak things to Planet IF and other aggregators that people might not be ready to see.

I hope that doesn’t annoy anyone too much, but there’s a lot here I’d like to be able to discuss while the game is still fresh and (probably) being played by others as well. And if you’re not playing it, give it a try. It’s the biggest thing to come along in years, and I don’t mean that just in terms of raw size. There is serious ambition here.

Hereafter, some thoughts about play through the beginning of chapter 2, with spoilers.

Just how flexible is the story anyway?

So I’ve now gone back (after discussion on ifMUD) and replayed the first chapter a couple of times, making different choices about my gender and my lover’s gender. This turns out to have less of an impact than it might have: if we’re a straight couple we have a daughter, but if we’re gay we adopt one; essential personality traits as shown seem not to be too much inflected by gender. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed by that… on the whole, not too much, because it would be hugely ambitious to make this already quite variable work bend so much. (And as a general rule, variability right at the beginning of a work is the most computationally and narratively expensive.)

Even so, the story feels different depending on gender-role assignments.

The player does get a lot of control, though, over the length of Chapter 1 and the way it plays out for your relationship with Rume. You can leave quickly with barely a backward glance (as another player on ifMUD reported doing, and as I tried later), or you can live out a whole lifetime of existence with him/her only to take off at the end (as I did).

I was intrigued by the passage that narrates your lifetime together, if you choose to go that route. The game tells many vignettes. You mostly can’t control what happens in them, but every once in a while you’re allowed a freeform response that expresses your emotional reaction to what’s going on. These responses are never rejected with a parser error. At first I thought that they weren’t being interpreted at all, but after playing a few times I’m sure it’s doing something with them — keyword matching, most likely — because you can lightly affect the rest of a scene through your reactions. I think it’s probably doing something Facade-like: react somehow if it can work out your meaning, but just roll onward if it can’t.

While I don’t think that works too well for a whole game, it works fine for this passage — better than fine. It encouraged me to engage with the story in a different way, think about the themes and the forces on my character more directly than I usually do in IF. And certainly it was way more effective than a cut-scene would have been.

The age of experimentation? Not over.

What about that story vs. puzzle mode?

I played chapter 1 the first time and at the end I got a message recommending I continue in Story Mode. Chastened, I played again and qualified for Puzzle Mode.

But after playing a little bit of Chapter 2, I went back and replayed and switched to Story Mode after all. It just feels righter to me, for this particular work. It’s not that I couldn’t solve some puzzles — I’m simply not as interested in them as I am in the narrative. And in the world exploration.

Favorite things so far:

The description of the commitment band: “The symbol of commitment is always a circle”, or words to that effect. Touching, because your character only knows this by visiting many worlds — and it’s that very mobility that shuts her/him out of being able to enjoy such commitments.

That CRY works and produces a sensible response after I first hop worlds. I needed to get that out of my system.

The image of the windsong tree. How strange! But I’ve thought of it a number of times while not playing the game. I’m reminded of Myst or Riven (I can see now what Aaron meant in acknowledging these sources) and also of Worlds Apart and So Far.

The crystal manta. I just wish I could do more with it. I haven’t thought of a use yet.

The sense of presence in the environment. So far I’ve lived through to nightfall in Chapter 2, and it’s really gorgeous and evocative. Again the sense of bigness — not as an arbitrary measure of gameplay stats, but as a quality of the experience.

Reservations?

I’m still feeling a little distance from my character despite the time I spent being her being Rume’s lover/wife/strongly-affectionate-other. I don’t know what she and Rume fought about, for instance. What were the problems with their relationship? It’s important, but obscure. Also, I am occasionally reminded of Sam Ashwell’s review of Worlds Apart: Blue Lacuna sometimes seems gratuitously pretty, spiritual in a soft-edged way, over-gentle. This is true even in the passages in dream sequences in which I am exploring the mindsets of other characters, so clearly it’s not just an aspect of the main character’s personality. But I find myself sometimes wishing for the gritty specificity and complexity of a character by Robb Sherwin or Stephen Bond. Though god only knows what they’d be doing in a game like this.

Well, I’m not very far in yet.

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