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IFCOMP 2006 - The Primrose Path

Game #16: The Primrose Path (by Nolan Bonvouloir)
Played: November 5th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     You've led a fairly uneventful life, perhaps; certainly you never planned on having to save your best friend's life. Now, it's up to you to unearth the secrets he's been concealing from you, perhaps learning a thing or two about yourself in the process...

     XYZZY Response:
     What utter nonsense.

     What a strange, fun game.

     Wait – I’ve already used that line.

     The Primrose Path is a little like Caleb’s Colors (a short story by Neal Shusterman) and a little like The Butterfly Effect (in which Ashton Kutcher atypically fails to annoy). It’s also a bit ironic (if scary) that I used a metaphor about paintings in a gallery in my previous review.

     I might have been able to pour more raw emotion into this review last night, right after completing the game, but it was already after midnight then. It’s half a day later now. I’m convinced it’s a “9” on my scale, but everything I want to say about it seems like criticism. The Primrose Path was actually the last game on my randomized list, but at this point I’m jumping around the way this story’s Matilda must.

     I’ll get the complaints out of the way first.

     There were a few minor grammatical errors, which seemed conspicuous in text that is otherwise well-polished. The two I noted in my transcript are due to an extra “in” and an “of” that, had they been omitted, would have resolved it. I think Leo calls Matilda Irene by mistake once. At a point, SW into Matilda’s bathroom stopped working (without any message as to why), and an attempt to unlock the door gave no response at all. Extra blank lines and missing ones later in the game threw off the presentation, but only a little. Up to the pivotal point in Matilda’s living room, the game had a smooth flow and a good pace; but afterwards, where different endings began to grab at the plot, I felt a need to dig in game-like. I ended up using the built-in walkthrough to try for the ideal ending.

     Matilda is aware of her conscience (at least, that’s my best guess) as something of a foreign influence. This is why “x me” doesn’t work (try “x you”) like it does in most other games. I never was sure what the author intended there. Was it supposed to be an IF-world way of explaining the player-versus-PC relationship? It’s a bit more than that, since later in the game it became a battle of wills between Matilda and me. There is even a point when Matilda takes over, winning the battle for a moment. This was unexpected, but really cool.

     Most of the story makes sense. It was only a little surreal, if that. Toward the end, though – toward the multiple endings – I started to get a little confused on what was happening and why. The bracelet, the ring, and the pocket watch seem to accomplish the same things. At one point, Leo explains the difference between the ring and the stone ankh-shaped key. Were the gem-colored keys just ordinary keys? Why was a completely separate key necessary for the gallery, and where is the gallery? I get the impression that it was all supposed to make sense, but I didn’t quite get it.

     The endings range from an abrupt “you will never know what happened” early on (when I spent time exploring instead of acting), to a split decision that leads to a win for Matilda and Leo or Matilda alone. I encountered a cyclic ending (very interesting, and it sheds light on the beginning), and one involving a very old painting of Irene’s sister. One allows Matilda to turn from the entire ordeal and run away. These are described in terms of who wins or loses: I win, I lose, you win, he wins, we win. If Nolan’s message is that our fate can be changed (as trite as that may sound), I think these choices work.

     The puzzles aren’t complicated, and most aren’t especially hard. My problem with the parts I couldn’t solve, though, are that they sometimes require an understanding of “what’s going on” that didn’t always come easy for me. In the simplest example, there is a point where I was stuck on a roof, unaware that I could reach in through the holes and gaps. More generally, things became confusing after more paintings were found and a sense of urgency was introduced. I don’t know how much of this is the game’s failure to reiterate the important things, and how much is just my inability to fully follow along.

     Slight problems with polish and puzzles aside, it’s just a wonderful game. It’s a story that kept me guessing and immersed well past my bedtime. Although Delightful Wallpaper remains my top pick, this is definitely one of the great experiences of IFComp 2006.

     What a year. Maybe my perceptions are skewed because I’m going for the games others have already recommended, but this just seems like an amazing IFComp. The caliber of competition this year is unbelievable. As an entrant myself, I’ll be happy (and perhaps lucky) just to place in the top 10.

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