Obligatory blather and babble filling up some number of characters goes here, after which I will talk a bit about the last several chapters of Blue Lacuna. Please skip ahead to the cut if you are interested in reading that. Otherwise, nothing interesting to see here.
(Your advertisement could go in this space. For a small fee, I would be willing to fill up the blank spaces of my RSS feed with appealing descriptions of tooth-whitening dentifrices, hypoallergenic mattresses, and small Japanese-produced automobiles. I have no strong protectionist impulses and would be willing to advertise consumer goods not produced in the United States, unless of course they have not been adequately tested for lead content, in which case all the relevant laws apply.)
The pace of this is, if not exactly broken, extremely, extremely uneven. After chapter 7, there is a sudden huge rush of plot and events and characters and new locations and things happening, to a degree that is a bit head-spinning; and at the same time a relief after some of the languid quiet days I spent wandering all over Blue Lacuna looking for something to do.
There is a sense, too, of seriousness suddenly gathering in the last chapters, or at least a sense of artistic purpose. Or perhaps that the purpose shifted: what had been a pure exercise in world production (careful as it was) gives way to the desire to pose certain questions. In that respect, I found BL reminded me of First Things First, which for much of its body is a fairly substantial but fairly standard puzzle game, and then at the end turns into something else.
From a narrative point of view I found chs. 8-10 considerably more appealing than 2-7 — though there were some good scenes with Progue, and some neat dreams. It’s just that things got much more interesting later, when we again have some investment in what is going on: a clear, rather than a vague, sense of the tension between the two antagonists. A lot of the time during 2-7 there isn’t a particular story hook more developed than “you’re lost and you want to figure out what is going on”, together with a dash of “some people are trying to manipulate you but we probably can’t trust either side (but they’re both so damned elliptical that there’s nothing to do about it yet)”.
I especially liked Ch. 9. The Forest was pretty, and interesting, and also suitably creepy, and I did not (I admit) care for the Temple full of apparently brain-washed near-humans; at the same time there was something a bit too placid and lacking in individual character in it. City, on the other hand, as flawed and grimy as it was, had the sense of containing real people. I was interested in the scientist whose body I inhabited, interested in her companion, interested in the pimp, the historian, the city leader — these characters were distinctly drawn and particularly motivated, and they felt more real somehow than most of the other figures in the game, despite the brevity of our encounters.
Ch. 9 reminded me a bit of Mote in God’s Eye, which I really like; in particular in the way that it uses the foreigners’ art, buildings, etc., to simultaneously provoke sympathy and distrust. I was especially amused by the pimp.
I don’t really quibble with the length of the game overall; I think it was a good length for the gravity of what it was trying to do. But I could wish that the content of it had been more evenly distributed. I could happily have spent about half as much time on the island and correspondingly more time seeing the other worlds.
There are bunches of endings I haven’t gotten, no doubt, and I may go back and tinker further. My initial impulse, which I still think correct (and Progue apparently agrees with me) was not to give the information to either world directly, not out of an unwillingness to make a choice, but out of an active choice that neither really ought to find the other. They were better off remaining separate.
In the end I wanted to return to Rume. (Is there an ending where one stays with Progue, I wonder? I would have to replay a bunch and explore. But he always struck me as a leathery old lunatic, and aside from one bit of desperately stuck fooling about where I took off all my clothes and tried to kiss him, I did not feel we had what you would call a connection. Too much static on his end of the line.)
All the same, I think some of the constraints the game gave itself weakened Rume as a character. Blue Lacuna is determined to avoid sticking the player with a PC who differs from the player in either gender or sexual orientation (unless, of course, the player chooses intentionally to select and play such a PC); it also invites the player to take a number of philosophical stances, without privileging any of these as especially characteristic of the PC, who is essentially a blank slate.
There are positive sides of that, of course, but the result is that Rume has the burden of having to be either gender, and the lover of anyone the player character turns out to be. So he (or she) comes out being extremely generic: crafty-handed, perhaps, and devoted to us, and, we gather, a bit fiery-tempered at times, but otherwise not endowed with as much of an individual voice as I would have liked.
Which leads, I guess, into a broader issue with the themes of the game. (This is sounding really gripey! I don’t mean it that way — I’m really very impressed both by the scope of this piece and by some of the particular things it achieved, and the endgame was a real rush. But on I go.)
Throughout, the game presents and refines upon this choice between love and art, as a central tension in the world, or at least a central tension for our wayfarer character. Semi-flippantly in an earlier post I commented that this is the kind of thing one tends to think about when deeply embedded in a long-term artistic project, especially if one notices regretfully that one isn’t being quite such a good friend/sibling/parent/child/significant other as one would normally wish to be, and tries to find some kind of balance between one and the other. It’s a real problem, and most people I know who have anything they would identify as a vocational calling to any form of art have run into it one way or another.
But, but, but, the thing is that the decision never takes the form of a choice between a nebulously shaped abstract Love and an equally nebulous and abstract Art. Even if we’re narrowing the field to romantic love (and I don’t think Blue Lacuna in fact does narrow the meaning in that way), every relationship is different, makes different demands, has different expectations. Some relationships struggle when one of the partners goes distant and busy; some adjust; some relationships incorporate the creative interests of the partners so that the art is shared, not a source of separation. And art, too, is not some kind of all-encompassing ecstasy, but is frequently exasperating, and individual projects deserve to be tossed aside, often enough; and yet for many of us actually giving up our chosen art form would require not an off-hand decision or even a well-intentioned commitment, but something verging on a complete rewiring of personality.
Trying to pose this as an abstract philosophical problem didn’t work so well for me, therefore. Rume seemed more like a symbol than like a character about whom I could have strong feelings. There’s just not enough self there.
The end, too, feels a bit didactic, in a way I associate with Fate and The Baron. Blue Lacuna tries to find some way to make sense of and justify your choices whatever they turn out to have been, and thus perhaps to allow the game to articulate the player’s philosophy. I’m not sure the result is satisfying as story. Some similar complaints have been leveled at Floatpoint, so I sympathize. This is an inherent challenge, I think, to any IF that offers the player a serious choice. If you want to honor whatever decision he makes, you’re stuck with either responding to it in some way that accepts/justifies/equally privileges all outcomes, or choosing not to respond at all (as The Baron does, rather to the frustration of many). In Floatpoint I tried mostly to make the endings be about how other characters reacted to (or against) your actions, so as to avoid the stickier job of telling the player in absolute terms that he’d done the right thing, or guessing what reasoning underlay his decision. Nonetheless, it’s a problem, and not one I’ve solved either.
So though I was eager to see and talk to Rume again, the final dreaming conversation with him was much too on-the-nose for my taste. Then, too, the words that Rume put into my mouth are not the words I would have spoken. (Thank goodness Blue Lacuna does at least have the humility, at one point, to let you say that he’s not correctly guessing any of your reasons, and leave a spot in which we can imagine the player character saying something else.) But I don’t think one can choose between love in general and art in general, though in many individual circumstances one must temporarily give one the priority; and for that matter I tend to think the production of art is often (if not always?) a kind of manifestation of love, driven as it often is by a desire to communicate and connect. This answer does not seem to fit into any of the categories Blue Lacuna anticipated, though it anticipates a wide range. As a result, in a few spots the ending reminded me of one of those frustrating multiple-choice quizzes in which the quizzer insists on concluding that you are an Introverted Perceiver, or a Pisces, or a member of Hufflepuff House, based on a series of options none of which describe you at all.
With such dialogues (and I say “such” because some of Victor Gijsbers’ aforementioned work ends in similar ways), I find myself wondering, what is the purpose of it? Offering the player character a fraught, important in-game choice of actions is one thing, but what is the point of interviewing the player in order to find out (and not quite accurately reflect) what he thought about your game’s theme? It is, after all, not a two-way conversation; you’re not collecting data back; there is no communication. Do these questions lead the player to a greater degree of clarity about his own thinking on the theme? Isn’t this a bit like finishing your novel with some helpful study guide questions for the reader? (Certainly plenty of novelists have been unable to resist the urge to glue an essay to their novel, but in my experience usually only one of the essay/novel pair is actually worth reading.)
Not, in the end, a perfect game. But really ambitious projects almost never are: the size gets in the way, the artist changes over the course of the work, etc. It’s nonetheless major and notable (with a host of virtues and charming moments I didn’t even touch on here), and it continues to try at some formal questions about what IF can do that we’re really not nearly done exploring.