Thursday, 24 October 2013

Moquette by Alex Warren


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(Version reviewed: Original)

Moquette is a Quest hypertext game in which you play a hungover security guard who begins to feel the weariness of his lot too heavily during one morning commute on the London Underground, and who then begins to wander the network in some kind of attempt to do anything differently.

This is the first Quest game by the author of the Quest engine, Alex Warren, and I think it makes sufficiently good on views expressed in his blog over time about trying out different things in IF. It's not going for radically different, but it has its own feel and structure and some effects which are novel enough to make me say that the author has walked some of his talk. I found the game fascinating at times, well written as often, though in a way which underutilises (or just doesn't utilise) experiences the protagonist has had earlier in the game. Another problem is that no specific background emerges for the character. And I wasn't crazy about the ending; it seems really hard to end existential IFs in a way that is equally or more satisfying than the game content. There is a fair bit of content in Moquette, and its attention to geographical and other details of the London Underground give it the smell of the real. Overall, a mix of good elements and others which didn't work so well.

Considerably longer and more spoilery musings below.

The run of decisions you make during the game consists of looking at various strangers who get on and off the trains, deciding when to switch train lines, when to stay on a train and when to get off. There are a lot of strangers and a lot of lines to switch between, so eventually the player is likely to start wondering: Does this game have a trajectory or an end, and if it has an end, how deep into my travels will that end be? I wondered all of these things.

The protagonist's view of both himself and others as unthinking cogs in the machine of life is one of the classic concerns of modernity, a concern emphasised in this game by the fact that the whole thing occurs on trains, those classic symbols of the Industrial Revolution. With all this in mind, it seemed to me the game could have gone on forever, making a conceptual point of pointlessness while annoying a lot of players in the process. Thus I was glad of my random encounter on the trains with Heather, a potential flame my character almost hit it off with in the past; her presence opened the possibility of distinctly forward movement. What began to bother me after my first meeting with her, and in general as the game went on for quite awhile, was the lack of attention in the prose to the fact that it had gone on so long. The streams of prose speculating on Heather, or on my sick and hungover state, seemed isolated from the streams describing the train travel and the passengers. In other words, the nature of the descriptions of passengers seen late in the game was no different to that of passengers seen early in the game; the protagonist's narration didn't change to reflect the passage of the day, his wobbly health or things that had happened earlier. (I've only played through the game once, so I haven't studied the programming of the game's passenger inventory, which I am curious about.) In a game with Moquette's emphases, I'd find it stronger if the narration changed over time.

Moquette also sports some novel text-based visual effects. An animated storm of letters accompanies the protagonist's blackout. Heather's heartstopping effect on his psyche (okay, that's not my greatest bit of writing) is visualised by the way her big, bolded name blitzes into view. My favourite effect was that of the text rolling away with the increasing inertia of a train leaving the station. I also appreciated the gentle fades in and out which bookended the game and the title page photograph. Obviously you don't want a non-stop cavalcade of text fireworks going on in the average IF game of the future, but the effects are choicely used in this game, and I figure they double as a demonstration of some of the features which will be available to authors in coming builds Quest.

To the game's finale, and the controller room gent met at day's end who has an omniscient attitude backed up by a CC recordings of the protagonist's train roaming: The broad meaning seemed clear enough, that some entity was encouraging the protagonist to shake up his life by opting to make changes. I wasn't sure if I should interpret this in a sci-fi sense (that this was a real alien entity telling him this, like The Adjustment Bureau or something) or if it was a scene the character imagined, maybe during a blackout. Another layer emerges here which addresses the player directly, with the gent's talk of people with whom all the day's events have been shared (players/readers) and which reminded me of almost the first decision I made in the game, or perhaps the first, which was explicitly a challenge to free will: 'I dare you to click the other link and do something wacky with this character's day.'

What I didn't get, after getting all of that, was a final scene of possible suicide by train. But was that what it was? I wanted to reread the text here carefully, but then the game was starting to wrap up and was beguiling me with its text effects, and then the game was over, and I had no transcript, and I experienced a minor panic as I wondered whether I'd read the words right, and I flashed back to my first grade report in which the teacher said my comprehension was "satisfactory, and sometimes unsatisfactory". My impression of the game's last moments is that I separated from the protagonist somewhat, and was invited to save him from the oncoming train. But maybe I just got totally confused. I don't understand how a suicide scene would fit in at all since I thought the protagonist had just been encouraged to change his life in a positive manner. Plus, now I've let myself read others' reviews of the game and I haven't seen suicide talk yet. So, I guess I got it wrong. I like to think the lesson here is about how games should always let you make a transcript.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the ending was intentionally ambiguous about whether the main character was suicidal or not, but was challenging the player to let go of controlling him, which would mean giving him the freedom even if that meant the freedom to destroy himself, if that was what he wanted. But it was a bit ambiguous. I suspect I would have been more concerned about this if I had been more invested in the protagonist personally.

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