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[REVIEW] Worlds Apart

by Emily Short

Posted 13 December 1999 to

"Worlds Apart" is perhaps the first real work of science fiction I've ever seen in I-F.

There are plenty of games set on space ships or in other futuristic settings, but for the most part they rely on well-established fixtures of the genre. The player may never have seen a teleporter in real life, but she certainly knows what it does. "Worlds Apart," by contrast, takes place in a setting familiar to the protagonist, but genuinely alien to the player.

This makes it a great deal of work to play. Most of my mental energy went into trying to understand what was going on on a factual level. The puzzles, such as they are, are part of this exploration: the majority of them involve trying to understand how to interact meaningfully with the world, given that real life experience offers few guides. Sometimes this can be mildly frustrating, and there were one or two points where I felt as though I was playing read-the-author's-mind. On the other hand, a majority of the solutions are gently or not-gently clued, and there is, in addition, an elegant adaptive hint system. (I relied on said system more than I should have, perhaps. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. In any case, I was more interested in making forward progress in the story than I was in banging my head against obstacles -- it's that sort of game. In fact I think one could argue that, after the first few scenes, this is a work of puzzle-less I-F that just happens to have a larger verb set than normal.)

There are a fair number of points where the player can do nothing except acquire information -- by asking questions, by typing 'z' repeatedly while another character speaks, or by reading literally pages of background-supplying text. To give credit where it is due, some of this background is quite intriguing. On the other hand, the sense of interactivity, at these junctures, is limited.

It's an open question how many people will like the world thus projected. I was initially put off by it. Location descriptions are longer than I prefer, and, especially in the opening scenes, too deliberately pretty. The game quotes Enya and Loreena McKennitt at key transitions. This is indicative. In places the plot feels random, chaotic, undisciplined, more like a dream than a story. Those who seek formally structured I-F like "Jigsaw" or spare, focused work such as "Spider and Web" may find it unsatisfying. Early on, I considered abandoning the game for aesthetic reasons (there is also some irritating mispunctuation, and occasionally the author has recourse to that evil cliche of science fiction languages, the Random Apostrophe). As it is, I'm glad I didn't. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- its dramatic and unrestrained imagery, it recalled the fluid story-games my childhood best friend and I used to act out: rambling and subject to frequent modification, but curiously memorable.

Ultimately, my greatest complaint is that the story ended too soon. There was much that I didn't yet understand, and assumed I would get a chance to discover. I understand that the author intends there to be a sequel of some sort -- either I-F or "static fiction". I certainly hope that this makes an appearance, because I felt as though the story ended before the protagonist had a chance to resolve all the issues raised.

All of this aside, "Worlds Apart" is a tremendously ambitious work, in that it attempts to deal not only with a physical environment but also with social realities, family history, and even spiritual state. It is scrupulously implemented. I ran into nothing I would qualify as a game-play bug, and there is a very large set of examinable scenery objects and of conversation topics. Though I think the story has some flaws, I hope it receives a wide audience. Considerable craft went into its creation; it is markedly different from anything else currently available; and it provides useful data for the discussion of character background and world-building in interactive fiction.

This article copyright © 1999, Emily Short

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