IF Comp 2013: Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is parser-based science-fiction/horror, with a fair number of puzzles, as well as feelies, cover art, and design notes. It took me somewhat over an hour to play even though I sometimes resorted to hints.

In Coloratura, you control an alien entity, though it’s the kind of alien that comes from the ocean depths rather than from space. It is sentient but incredibly unlike humans. The alien has been brought aboard a research ship — a realistic, meticulously designed ocean-going research ship, based on real vessels — and it wants to get back home immediately. But the human crew can’t understand its attempts at communication, so it has to convince, control, or manipulate them — somehow — to get them to put it back.

The alien has the ability to influence human emotions and feelings, and also possesses some unusual physical features. As the alien can’t pick things up and carry them around in the same way a person would, but you can influence temperature, erode substances, and affect mind states. Most of the puzzles turn on one or the other of these alien aspects: either you’re affecting the game world in novel-for-IF ways, or you’re getting the characters to do things by tweaking their emotional states.

To handle the puzzles successfully requires understanding both what the alien was doing and why, and what the humans were thinking in response. Coloratura is in a sense a horror story, but it is that most interesting type of horror story, one in which no one is motivated by evil or perceives themselves as monstrous. They’re all trying to do the best they can, and even to behave with empathy towards other creatures, despite often paralyzing fear and terrible danger.

I love this. I love the emotion-pushing concept and the fact that it did interesting things more of the time than not. I love the strangeness of the alien mind. I love the careful research that went into setting, and the provided maps that help ground it in human experience. I love that it has consistent puzzle mechanics and puzzle challenges that are deeply essential to the story, not just glued in. For all the weirdness of the premise, I found Coloratura’s puzzles mostly accessible enough to solve. To the extent that I resorted to hints, it was largely because I really wanted to see the whole game before the end of my two hours, and because I was getting anxious about what would happen to the characters if I didn’t solve the problems fast enough. The shipboard setting and well-integrated puzzles reminded me a little of Piracy 2.0, but the atmosphere and alien concept was doing something else entirely.

In particular, I value the way the emotional puzzles require the player to do the mental work of empathizing with characters. Though there are also some object-manipulation tasks, a significant amount of gameplay is about understanding and influencing how people feel and how they’re motivated. What’s more, even though the protagonist has limited abilities to communicate with humans and no context to understand their lives, the human characters are drawn with very distinct personalities and (to the extent we can see) personal backstories that affect their reactions.

I know some players found the prose style off-putting, but I felt it conveyed just enough information about what was really going on (especially in conjunction with the map) for me to comprehend and navigate the game world while at the same time fully inhabiting the alien’s point of view. Other reviewers have also mentioned some bugs. I don’t know whether I was lucky or whether these bugs have been eradicated since the initial release, but either way, my play experience was not marred by any discernible coding errors.

One scene in particular explains why this is one of the top games of the comp for me.









Partway through the organism’s exploration of the ship, it discovers a freezer locker full of meat. It finds this terrible and shocking, but not the way a human vegetarian might. Rather, it apprehends the meat pieces as currently and perpetually suffering, because they’re organic entities wounded and screaming and separated from the Song. In an act of heroic rescue, the aqueous entity thaws the meat and imbues it with a healed consciousness so that it can move as a single united body. The Newsong, joyous and well, gains enough mobility to escape forever.

From the entity’s perspective, this is a beautiful moment: part rescue of a prisoner in pain, part new birth, facilitated by the entity’s careful intervention.

From the human perspective, what happens is that several months’ worth of steak dinners spontaneously form a meat golem, burst out of the freezer, and rampage through the cafeteria before wandering off the back deck into the ocean.

That’s an event you’d have a hard time putting into a human-viewpoint horror story without it just being too garish, unmotivated and weird. But because we view it from the point of view of the aqueous entity, it is clearly motivated, even reasonable. And once we’ve accepted the event enough not to laugh at it, we can sympathize with the human perspective that, if something like this were to happen, it would signal such a drastic breakdown of the expected rules of the universe as to be utterly terrifying. And we also have the human knowledge to know that the entity has only rescued a very small percentage of the meat stores world-wide, and it would fold a very bleak song indeed if anyone ever successfully communicated to it the concept of Whole Foods.

I found this scene all at once surprising, touching, scary, hilarious, and sad. And it captures one of the major themes of the game throughout: that when communication is poor enough, both sets of beings can do one another terrible harm without intending or perceiving it.

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)”

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