Eons of Apocalypse

Review of the interactive fiction game Andromeda Awakening by Marco Innocenti


Those works of interactive fiction that tackle the deepest themes can only really succeed at leaving the player with a powerful literary experience by embodying the theme in the world model, in the objects and locations.  Although Andromeda Awakening is neither mechanically nor artistically perfect, its use of a very traditional text adventure structure to incarnate deep, myth-laden worldbuilding creates a strong theme that can survive even a bad experience with the game.

Actually, the game weaves many themes.  The sense of apocalyptic doom at the beginning is mingled with what appears to be a conspiracy-theory subplot.  The corrupt government appears to be the agent of apocalypse, as in the television show The X-Files.  However, the plot soon becomes a survival story, abandoning the question of government corruption or conspiracy.  A subtle theme about malevolent, controlling government does creep in during the late midgame, so the suggestion of the conspiracy theory might not be a total loss.  Meanwhile, the survival horror lessens and merges with a different kind of horror, perhaps the kind called "Lovecraftian" horror (I haven't read Lovecraft).  This new horror is resolved with an entertaining twist, which should not be spoiled despite not being part of the main plot.


The player character is Ektor Mastiff, a world-weary old scientist.  Ektor's narrative voice has a quaint, grandfatherly quality that highlights the fact that the player isn't controlling an action hero, even though Ektor gets away with a fair number of physical feats in the course of the game.  There are only two NPCs, neither of which is particularly important to the story.  However, one of them serves to present a strong scene that builds both theme and character.  The scenes work along with the puzzles to move the game forward, often being triggered the first time the PC enters a location.  The messages triggered upon traveling from one room to another for the first time in part of the map makes old Ektor's struggle believable and sympathetic, but the messages disappear for subsequent trekking across the map, leaving the game feeling stale as the player roams back and forth trying to solve puzzles.


One design flaw is that the player character's motivation is not clear, at least beyond survival and escape.  A message late in the game seems to indicate that Ektor did indeed have a goal besides personal escape, but I cannot understand what he was trying to accomplish.  It probably has something to do with the abandoned plot threads of the prologue.


Despite the centrality of the theme, Andromeda Awakening can be called a puzzle game.  It seems to pay very obvious homage to the text adventure tradition, even alluding to the "underground empire."  The puzzles fit realistically into the setting, but their effectiveness and fairness varies.  The least fair of them involves both examining and using an environmental detail mentioned briefly in a room description.  It is also possible to solve at least one puzzle by accident, never knowing what effect your action may have had.  Other puzzles are fun and intuitive, and the game generally opens up through the initiation of new scenes as you explore and try reasonable solutions.  The player comes to value two important objects by continued use, while the game remains faithful to realism by preventing one other useful object from working for everything that it might reasonably be used for, giving proper reasons for the PC to seek another solution.


Some of the storytelling techniques may be a bit unusual.  First of all, the prologue contains an obvious flash-forward, as if Ektor is thinking back on his experiences.  The IF world model is used well to reinforce the story and theme, such as where a paragraph that looks like an object short description answers the narrative interlude before it.  Most importantly, the endgame uses the properties of one of the final rooms to state what I believe to be the main theme of the game so clearly that (after brief research), I feel confident that I know what the theme is supposed to be.


The main medium by which the worldbuilding is revealed to the player is a device that looks like a contemporary tablet and functions suspiciously like "some kind of Guide to the galaxy."  The game is good at cluing the player to look up specific topics in the E-pad, allowing the mountain of backstory and mythopoeic history to be built up with only small infodumps.  It is not very clear exactly how the locations of the game map are related to the backstory.  Near the end, this gradual dispensing of backstory breaks down, and three large infodumps (which fortunately are not cutscenes) tell much of the greater story that lies behind the immediate survival plot.


The descriptions are very atmospheric, often using vivid imagery.  The room descriptions are detailed, some of them to the point of being overcrowded.  Other room descriptions are effective and evocative.  The writing seems heavy with meaning, apparent in this sentence:
A crack as wide as a three lane highway and as long as the snake that once devoured the world opens before you.
I can only speculate on what the "snake that once devoured the world" is, but whether it may be a reference to the mythic meaning of the ouroboros, or whether Ektor's world has a literal myth about a snake devouring the world (I don't believe there's much room for such a myth given the Andromeda timeline), or whether it has no meaning except imagery, the simile is fascinating and profound.  In some places, the prose is awkward, but it also has moments of brilliance where the sounds of English language fit together well, as in "the curve of the collapsing ceiling covers your sight" and "an inner sanctum of inhumane proportions" (both in room descriptions).

The setting, worldbuilding, and writing make for a very complex, many-layered work.  There is space opera in the long history of the Andromeda timeline.  Andromeda Awakening is less mystical than Babylon 5, but it presents some of the same sense of cosmic mystery, the same wonder at the vastness of space that makes even a galaxy look small.  There is also some of the desperation and historic legacy found of Battlestar Galactica.  The scale of the cosmic disaster is at least as large as those found in the Halo and Mass Effect videogame franchises, and holds some of the same terror.  Then there is the intrigue of the vague conspiracy plot combined with the sheer human devastation seen in post-apocalyptic stories like The Road.

These elements present a profound theme that is revealed through the storytelling techniques.  The main theme is probably Death, and the game could not have developed this theme from its own angle without the large amount of constructed history and myth to give depth to the present Apocalypse.  By "stirring the dust of history" (as C.S. Lewis wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien's mythopoeia), Andromeda Awakening reinforces the inevitability that we will return to dust.

Comments

  1. Well, I'm blazed.

    Thank you so much! Look forward to Season Two, then, out and running (if I find the time!) on IFComp2012.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed reading this review.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great review, Paul. I hope to see more IF covered in the future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely hope to review IF from time to time. I started this blog because I didn't have an outlet for reviews, and since SPAG seems to have gone under, that now includes IF reviews. If I decide to write a short, impression-based review, I'll just post it on the IFDB, though.

      Anyways, thanks for visiting!

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