Review of The (Former) General (part of an ARG)

Introduction

Another story – The (Former) General – has been released as part of Penguin/STS’s current ARG, We Tell Stories.

This story, and the website it comes from, is all part of an ARG, from two of the key people (Dan and Adrian Hon) behind Perplex City (PXC). So … expect misinformation, deliberate errors, and stenography. I’m not playing the game (sadly; just too busy with other things at the moment), so I’m interpretting this completely cold.

Just to be entirely clear: although I worked on PXC with the Hons, I have nothing to do with Six to Start; please don’t mistakenly assume that anything I do or say has any hidden information of it’s own. Life’s too short.

Mechanics

I really like the idea – except it’s far too slow. It’s so slow that I had read 8 or 9 entries before I even discovered there were hints at the four compass points to each location – they just weren’t loading until after I’d finished reading and had already moved away from the page.

It also gradually got more and more frustrating, having to stop reading for 5+ seconds every time I finished a paragraph, or a couple of sentences, to wait for the load of the next part – or even the RE-load of a part I’d just read 10 seconds previously. It would have helped to have something as simple as: while the fancy sliding text thing is happening, and the read has nothing else to look at or do save wait and be bored, a display could be overlaid of the text of the option the player had just selected.

The length of time it took waiting for the fancy “sideways sliding text screens” to load was enough that even when I realised there were descriptions of what it “meant” to perform each of the compass point transitions, I mostly didn’t bother to read them, because I was impatient to get on with the story. I’d waited too long already.

Also, the lack of indication on the main map to tell me which locations have changed descriptions, and the lack of indication in a section to say which part of it is new undermines the value of the dynamically changing descriptions – I have to re-visit everything (with the painfull slow load times) and re-read everything anyway :(.

And why no mouse-navigation for location changing? This would seem obvious – it’s there, it’s the web, it looks temptingly clickable, but … it’s not clickable. I have to go (slowly) through endless places I’ve already been, just to get to one I want to visit.

Cardinal sin: copy/paste is forceably prevented – in order to reference or quote any of this story, I have to manually type it all out (or hack the data feed for the javascript – more hassle than I’d like to go to just to quote some material). /me raps Adrian & Dan over the knuckles for this one, they’ve both railed against such things plenty of times in the past :P.

Story

Telling a piece of story two ways – back and forth – and arranging the “locations” in a hexagonal ring visually, was a nice touch.

I found myself wondering, as the locations were revealed with their clearly manually-assigned visual pattern (which was not as regular as the grid implied by the keyboard controls used to move around it), what the final version of the map would depict – like the maps in the very first Zelda game, which in plan view looked like e.g. a skull when completed. This was part of the game in that “secret” rooms were often found by looking at the plan view, interpreting the picture laid-out, and deducing what was “missing” from the picture – that would be where the secret room(s) could be found.

A.L.I.C.E. :)

The use of time in such a story is risky – saying on your first visit to a location that it’s “ten to the hour” and then allowing the player clearly many minutes or so of time to elapse (in story terms, not in real life), then keeping the description unchanged when you return is annoyingly jarring. Up until that moment, the overall experience has been holistically reactive to actions, allowing actions in one area to change what is perceived in other areas. This may just be an un-noticed mistake – but from doing RPG adventure games and CYOA games in the past, I remember that “time” is an obvious thing it’s best to avoid because it’s so hard to notice mistakes. Ultima7 had this problem in bucket-loads, as does Oblivion to a lesser extent, with the main plotline highly time-dependent in a way that … directly flies in the face of what is happening in the story as perceived by the player. Oblivion’s plotline carefully steers clear of mentioning SPECIFIC time (it talks about “as soon as possible” and “quickly” rather than “today” and “last night” as Ultima7 did, which is what screwed things up for U7).

The visual similarity between the “story two ways” and the meeting that itself had two distinct yet identically-phrased “entrance” actions, made me wonder if I had to play the meeting both back and forth, but…

The lack of info on what had changed, combined with the painfully slow inter-location transitions, eventually drove me to so much boredom that I gave up before the end, frustrated that the story wasn’t finished (“Surely there is still something you can do?” the opening scene continues to taunt me. I say “taunt” because it offers no help, advice, or direction) but that I had no information on how to continue it on.

Post-reveal

Now, having read Adrian’s own writeup on the story, I have some more info.

Firstly, it would seem from his description that I *have* in fact completed the story – even though (as noted above) it implies quite explicitly that I haven’t. I’d take that phrase out once the story is complete.

Secondly, I like the visual arrangement of the three stories. This I noticed, except … the studio/meeting story felt much weaker than the other two. I think if the other two hadn’t fitted together so neatly, I wouldn’t have expected more from the third story. As noted above, the choice to put a fixed time reference in that story already “broke” it to a certain extent, but beyond that I felt there was lots of vagueness in that story about what might be going on, yet none of it made sense.

Adrian explains that this story is an “infinite loop narrative”, that “You can choose a number of directions here, and after you’ve read it once, a new branch opens (the ‘conditional link’) allowing you to keep looping around forever.”

If that’s so, by design, then why is it that you’re allowed into the same meeting over and over again, and no-one comments on your doddering senile self’s randomly walking in and out of a meeting?

This makes sense in it’s own way in that there are TWO frozen-time points in one story (a “meeting” and a specific time-reference), one in each half. That turns the final story into something that can only be rationally understood if it’s a non-interactive memory. Unfortunately, the other two stories were interactive, and I read those two first, so that I’d been given an expectation of fluid interactivity and of time passing.

Summary

I liked this a lot. Please, sir, can I have some more?

(but … preferably in a form that works offline, so that I can take them with me on an airplane)

I highly recommend RSS’ing Six to Start, and messrs Dan and Adrian, so you can keep an eye out for whatever they’re up to and what they do next. They like to keep inventing, and they’re good at it. Everything they’ve done so far has had quirks and is often not “perfect”, but more importantly it’s always rewarded anyone who’s tried it – their stuff is consistently worth reading/playing/exploring/enjoying, and I’m sure they’ll always maintain that high level of creative quality.

Even with the frustrations of the user-interface, I found this story a lot more pleasing and enjoyable than the Google Maps story (the 21 Steps) which kicked off the series. I think partly because the individual story-chunks in this story had more internal meaning and interest, few words conveying much, whereas the ones in 21 Steps were a much more direct form of writing, using many simple words to convey little.

But then again, I’m time poor these days, so a shorter, richer story is always going to appeal to me right now. Personal bias :).

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