Blue Lacuna — Finished

Obligatory blather and babble filling up some number of characters goes here, after which I will talk a bit about the last several chapters of Blue Lacuna. Please skip ahead to the cut if you are interested in reading that. Otherwise, nothing interesting to see here.

(Your advertisement could go in this space. For a small fee, I would be willing to fill up the blank spaces of my RSS feed with appealing descriptions of tooth-whitening dentifrices, hypoallergenic mattresses, and small Japanese-produced automobiles. I have no strong protectionist impulses and would be willing to advertise consumer goods not produced in the United States, unless of course they have not been adequately tested for lead content, in which case all the relevant laws apply.)

Whew, okay.

The pace of this is, if not exactly broken, extremely, extremely uneven. After chapter 7, there is a sudden huge rush of plot and events and characters and new locations and things happening, to a degree that is a bit head-spinning; and at the same time a relief after some of the languid quiet days I spent wandering all over Blue Lacuna looking for something to do.

There is a sense, too, of seriousness suddenly gathering in the last chapters, or at least a sense of artistic purpose. Or perhaps that the purpose shifted: what had been a pure exercise in world production (careful as it was) gives way to the desire to pose certain questions. In that respect, I found BL reminded me of First Things First, which for much of its body is a fairly substantial but fairly standard puzzle game, and then at the end turns into something else.

From a narrative point of view I found chs. 8-10 considerably more appealing than 2-7 — though there were some good scenes with Progue, and some neat dreams. It’s just that things got much more interesting later, when we again have some investment in what is going on: a clear, rather than a vague, sense of the tension between the two antagonists. A lot of the time during 2-7 there isn’t a particular story hook more developed than “you’re lost and you want to figure out what is going on”, together with a dash of “some people are trying to manipulate you but we probably can’t trust either side (but they’re both so damned elliptical that there’s nothing to do about it yet)”.

I especially liked Ch. 9. The Forest was pretty, and interesting, and also suitably creepy, and I did not (I admit) care for the Temple full of apparently brain-washed near-humans; at the same time there was something a bit too placid and lacking in individual character in it. City, on the other hand, as flawed and grimy as it was, had the sense of containing real people. I was interested in the scientist whose body I inhabited, interested in her companion, interested in the pimp, the historian, the city leader — these characters were distinctly drawn and particularly motivated, and they felt more real somehow than most of the other figures in the game, despite the brevity of our encounters.

Ch. 9 reminded me a bit of Mote in God’s Eye, which I really like; in particular in the way that it uses the foreigners’ art, buildings, etc., to simultaneously provoke sympathy and distrust. I was especially amused by the pimp.

I don’t really quibble with the length of the game overall; I think it was a good length for the gravity of what it was trying to do. But I could wish that the content of it had been more evenly distributed. I could happily have spent about half as much time on the island and correspondingly more time seeing the other worlds.

There are bunches of endings I haven’t gotten, no doubt, and I may go back and tinker further. My initial impulse, which I still think correct (and Progue apparently agrees with me) was not to give the information to either world directly, not out of an unwillingness to make a choice, but out of an active choice that neither really ought to find the other. They were better off remaining separate.

In the end I wanted to return to Rume. (Is there an ending where one stays with Progue, I wonder? I would have to replay a bunch and explore. But he always struck me as a leathery old lunatic, and aside from one bit of desperately stuck fooling about where I took off all my clothes and tried to kiss him, I did not feel we had what you would call a connection. Too much static on his end of the line.)

All the same, I think some of the constraints the game gave itself weakened Rume as a character. Blue Lacuna is determined to avoid sticking the player with a PC who differs from the player in either gender or sexual orientation (unless, of course, the player chooses intentionally to select and play such a PC); it also invites the player to take a number of philosophical stances, without privileging any of these as especially characteristic of the PC, who is essentially a blank slate.

There are positive sides of that, of course, but the result is that Rume has the burden of having to be either gender, and the lover of anyone the player character turns out to be. So he (or she) comes out being extremely generic: crafty-handed, perhaps, and devoted to us, and, we gather, a bit fiery-tempered at times, but otherwise not endowed with as much of an individual voice as I would have liked.

Which leads, I guess, into a broader issue with the themes of the game. (This is sounding really gripey! I don’t mean it that way — I’m really very impressed both by the scope of this piece and by some of the particular things it achieved, and the endgame was a real rush. But on I go.)

Throughout, the game presents and refines upon this choice between love and art, as a central tension in the world, or at least a central tension for our wayfarer character. Semi-flippantly in an earlier post I commented that this is the kind of thing one tends to think about when deeply embedded in a long-term artistic project, especially if one notices regretfully that one isn’t being quite such a good friend/sibling/parent/child/significant other as one would normally wish to be, and tries to find some kind of balance between one and the other. It’s a real problem, and most people I know who have anything they would identify as a vocational calling to any form of art have run into it one way or another.

But, but, but, the thing is that the decision never takes the form of a choice between a nebulously shaped abstract Love and an equally nebulous and abstract Art. Even if we’re narrowing the field to romantic love (and I don’t think Blue Lacuna in fact does narrow the meaning in that way), every relationship is different, makes different demands, has different expectations. Some relationships struggle when one of the partners goes distant and busy; some adjust; some relationships incorporate the creative interests of the partners so that the art is shared, not a source of separation. And art, too, is not some kind of all-encompassing ecstasy, but is frequently exasperating, and individual projects deserve to be tossed aside, often enough; and yet for many of us actually giving up our chosen art form would require not an off-hand decision or even a well-intentioned commitment, but something verging on a complete rewiring of personality.

Trying to pose this as an abstract philosophical problem didn’t work so well for me, therefore. Rume seemed more like a symbol than like a character about whom I could have strong feelings. There’s just not enough self there.

The end, too, feels a bit didactic, in a way I associate with Fate and The Baron. Blue Lacuna tries to find some way to make sense of and justify your choices whatever they turn out to have been, and thus perhaps to allow the game to articulate the player’s philosophy. I’m not sure the result is satisfying as story. Some similar complaints have been leveled at Floatpoint, so I sympathize. This is an inherent challenge, I think, to any IF that offers the player a serious choice. If you want to honor whatever decision he makes, you’re stuck with either responding to it in some way that accepts/justifies/equally privileges all outcomes, or choosing not to respond at all (as The Baron does, rather to the frustration of many). In Floatpoint I tried mostly to make the endings be about how other characters reacted to (or against) your actions, so as to avoid the stickier job of telling the player in absolute terms that he’d done the right thing, or guessing what reasoning underlay his decision. Nonetheless, it’s a problem, and not one I’ve solved either.

So though I was eager to see and talk to Rume again, the final dreaming conversation with him was much too on-the-nose for my taste. Then, too, the words that Rume put into my mouth are not the words I would have spoken. (Thank goodness Blue Lacuna does at least have the humility, at one point, to let you say that he’s not correctly guessing any of your reasons, and leave a spot in which we can imagine the player character saying something else.) But I don’t think one can choose between love in general and art in general, though in many individual circumstances one must temporarily give one the priority; and for that matter I tend to think the production of art is often (if not always?) a kind of manifestation of love, driven as it often is by a desire to communicate and connect. This answer does not seem to fit into any of the categories Blue Lacuna anticipated, though it anticipates a wide range. As a result, in a few spots the ending reminded me of one of those frustrating multiple-choice quizzes in which the quizzer insists on concluding that you are an Introverted Perceiver, or a Pisces, or a member of Hufflepuff House, based on a series of options none of which describe you at all.

With such dialogues (and I say “such” because some of Victor Gijsbers’ aforementioned work ends in similar ways), I find myself wondering, what is the purpose of it? Offering the player character a fraught, important in-game choice of actions is one thing, but what is the point of interviewing the player in order to find out (and not quite accurately reflect) what he thought about your game’s theme? It is, after all, not a two-way conversation; you’re not collecting data back; there is no communication. Do these questions lead the player to a greater degree of clarity about his own thinking on the theme? Isn’t this a bit like finishing your novel with some helpful study guide questions for the reader? (Certainly plenty of novelists have been unable to resist the urge to glue an essay to their novel, but in my experience usually only one of the essay/novel pair is actually worth reading.)

===

Not, in the end, a perfect game. But really ambitious projects almost never are: the size gets in the way, the artist changes over the course of the work, etc. It’s nonetheless major and notable (with a host of virtues and charming moments I didn’t even touch on here), and it continues to try at some formal questions about what IF can do that we’re really not nearly done exploring.

20 thoughts on “Blue Lacuna — Finished

  1. Interesting write-up. I’m really curious about the end of your post. You say “Not, in the end, a perfect game.” What is a perfect game? Can you define it? If you can’t, how do you know this wasn’t one? Then you said “But really ambitious projects almost never are [perfect].” This would imply that while they “almost never” are, there were some that you felt were perfect. Which ones? It might help to figure out how you define perfection relative to this game. Or does your wording there mean that while “really ambitious projects” are almost never perfect, less ambitious ones are perfect? Does the amount of ambition correlate to the level of perfection?

    In all other respects, I agree with you. This is an ambitious game that tries to do a lot and I think for that reason alone it’s a really good addition to the library. The one thing I don’t like that it sounds like you might is that you can end the game with a feeling of not knowing how much or how little you experience or saw. My feeling is that on a subsequent playthrough, while I may experience different things I’m still not going to know how little or how much I experienced. That doesn’t strike me as a good note on which to end a game experience but certainly this game isn’t the only one to present this issue to players.

  2. This would imply that while they “almost never” are, there were some that you felt were perfect. Which ones? It might help to figure out how you define perfection relative to this game. Or does your wording there mean that while “really ambitious projects” are almost never perfect, less ambitious ones are perfect? Does the amount of ambition correlate to the level of perfection?

    What I mean by perfection with respect to artistic projects is the degree to which the execution lives up to the artist’s vision. (This leaves aside the question of whether the vision was a worthwhile one or not — also a critical topic worthy of discussion, but it tends to lead in different directions.)

    Naturally this “perfection” is still not an objectively measurable quality, and it first challenges one to figure out what the artist was trying to do, which may lead into an exciting thicket of intentional fallacy. Despite these flaws, I generally find it a more useful critical question than “is this the ideal game out of all possible games?”, which presupposes that all art strives towards a single end, or “did I like this game?”, which often leads to very self-absorbed reviews. Those are sometimes fun to write and to read, but I think they’re less revealing about the art form.

    Once we define “perfect” this way, it’s fairly obvious why perfection might tend to be found less often in ambitious works without being absolutely linked to a lack of ambition. For instance, I think Lost Pig a near-perfect game of its kind — it’s highly polished and charming and I think quite fair — though it is also a smallish game with little formal experimentation and few profundities about the human condition. (More than some might give it credit for, though — comedy of manners tends to feel meringue-like, but it’s not nothing.) There are plenty of IF Comp entries every year that are far less ambitious and also far less perfect. Likewise I consider “Ocean’s Eleven” (the recent version, not the original) pretty much perfect, even though I think there are many movies that have more significant themes or more plausible plots or deeper characters.

    Is there any ambitious and also perfect IF? Anchorhead probably comes closest, which might explain why it tends to top charts of best IF ever written. But there is still room for improvement in this respect as well.

    I don’t think that need throw us into despair. When I think of projects that are both very ambitious and highly successful in their ambitions, the things that immediately pop into my head are: the Euphronios Sarpedon vase, the Oresteia, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, War and Peace (especially if you leave off the stupid essay at the end), Sargent’s Madame X, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, maybe Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I’m not a big fan of Wagner, politically or artistically, which is why I include him: my aesthetic approval isn’t really the point.

    In any case, IF’s failure to produce anything on this scale (viz., masterwork of human art) needn’t depress us too much yet.

    In the case of Blue Lacuna, we have more than the usual set of tools to work out what Aaron was trying to do, because he talks quite a bit about his intentions on his websites and in the paper that accompanies BL (which I should go back and read properly — I skimmed it earlier, then realized it was going to lead into spoilers, so stopped).

    The one thing I don’t like that it sounds like you might is that you can end the game with a feeling of not knowing how much or how little you experience or saw.

    Actually, I thought we were given a huge amount of information about that, especially when you compare to other similar games: Blue Lacuna ends with a detailed breakdown of how much of the story you saw and which choices you made that were significant, and offers you the opportunity to go back through the game looking at some of the machinery as you play. I haven’t yet tried this, but I think on the whole that it is less validly criticized this way than most other branching IF.

  3. Thanks, Emily, for these detailed and honest remarks– you raise some good points.

    I’ll have more to say about the ending and overall structure once more people have finished. There are different ways the ending can play out and be structured, and I’m anxious to see how they color people’s perception of the overall work.

  4. Oh dear: when someone thanks me for being honest, I always worry that I’ve hurt their feelings. I hope that’s not the case here — I found various things to quibble at, but on the whole I have huge respect for this project, and also very much enjoyed playing with it.

    Anyway, I look forward to hearing more about other experiences of the ending when people get there.

  5. Dear Emily (and Aaron),

    I really like the way there is a mature discussion going on here without rancour. I am in chapter one (!) and enjoying immensely this wonderful free work Aaron has give us! I am glad you both are able to talk frankly and appreciatively about this work. I find the flaming and dismissive attitudes in general that so pervade blog comments elsewhere on the web (related to ANYTHING) so tiresome! Thanks! This only adds to my enjoyment of Aaron’s work.

    Kevin

  6. Emily– no, I’m certainly not offended! Most of what I’ve heard has been along the lines of “this is wonderful” or “this sucks,” so more detailed reactions are always great to hear.

    I’m not sure how common this is among writers, but whenever I finish something I’m always convinced it’s perfect, and then always need to go through a crash where I realize it isn’t, see it through the eyes of other people, get the distance to really understand what works about it and what doesn’t, and see what I can learn for whatever the next project is. Since this has been a particularly huge project, it’s going to be a particularly hard crash, and I’ll need to keep stepping back for miles before I can get the whole thing in sight and evaluate it. But all the feedback coming in is helping. :)

  7. FWIW: late in the game when Progue was ill and lying down in the cabin, he was fretting about who would keep the beach clean. And I went out there and sure enough it was a mess, and so I cleaned it up for him. I don’t think he noticed, and I don’t know whether there’s ever a way in the game for him to notice, but I really liked the fact that I was allowed to do this altruistic action. It felt fitting even if it did nothing to advance the plot as such.

  8. Emily said: “What I mean by perfection with respect to artistic projects is the degree to which the execution lives up to the artist’s vision.”

    That can only be up to the artist in question. So therefore a judgment of “perfection” can’t come from a third party. Even if everyone thought an author’s game sucked, if it did live up to the author’s vision I guess it then achieved perfection. It depends on what the “vision” was.

    Emily said: “Naturally this “perfection” is still not an objectively measurable quality,…”

    Okay, which is why there’s no point bringing it up in the first place. All you can measure is how much you enjoyed the game and what the artist tried to present. Does this lead to self-absorbed reviews? Only if the person is self-absorbed. Every review is self-absorbed to some extent. All you can talk about is how the game affected you. You can point out demonstrable flaws — such as ‘guess the verb’ stuff or odd responses — but that’s still stuff that only you might care about. Others might not.

    Emily said: “I think Lost Pig a near-perfect game of its kind …”

    There we are again: “near-perfect.” What does that mean? You say “highly polished and charming and I think quite fair.” Is that what makes it “near-perfect”? Or is that just a self-absored judgment? After all, did I find it fair? Did anyone else? Did I think it was “charming”? Did the majority of people? It had, according to you, “few profundities about the human condition.” Oh, so is that what only made it “near-perfect” as opposed to “perfect”?

    I’m not trying to make fun of your responses. I’m just trying to figure out whether you take this stuff way too seriously or whether you take yourself too seriously. I can’t decide which.

    Emily said: “Is there any ambitious and also perfect IF? Anchorhead probably comes closest.”

    So how much more ambition was there in Anchorhead versus Blue Lacuna? How much less perfect was Blue Lacuna than Anchorhead? Obviously to even answer that a certain amount of self-absorption would be required unless you believe that your barometers for this would be the same for everyone. The fact that Anchorhead “tops the charts” (assuming that’s true; I haven’t seen these charts you speak of) doesn’t necessarily prove it was “perfect” does it? If perfection is whether the artist’s “ambition” was achieved, a “best seller” doesn’t necessarily mean that was the case — unless the “ambition” was to “top the charts.”

    Emily said: “In any case, IF’s failure to produce anything on this scale (viz., masterwork of human art) needn’t depress us too much yet.”

    How do you know it hasn’t? What is a “masterwork of human art?” Since such masterworks are conditioned upon the arena in which they are viewed, listened to, played, etc then you have to judge IF in relation to other IF. Is a “masterwork” the same as having achieved “perfection?”

  9. Er, I’m not going to claim that there’s any completely unbiased, unsubjective way to critique anything. Which is fine; if there were, we could compile a big book of definitive literary criticism and be done with it.

    I take the approach I do because I find it effective in yielding conclusions that interest me, in particular about how craft intersects with artistic intention. Doing this requires posing some questions that go further than “did I like this?”, though inevitably the answers to those questions will still be affected by my own subjectivity and bias.

    I’m not especially bothered by this.

  10. Emily said: “I’m not especially bothered by this.”

    Me either. Like you said, “I find it effective in yielding conclusions that interest me.” That’s basically a form of being self-absorbed; e.g., here’s what interested *me* about the game or the art or whatever. That’s not a bad thing. That’s why I said that most reviews do tend to be self-absorbed. It’s just in how the reviewer presents it that matters. If I assume that because *I* didn’t like something, no one else would either: well, yeah, that’s pretty self-absorbed in the negative sense. But if I simply state the reasons why something didn’t work for me (or did work for me), that’s still a bit “self-absorbed” since it’s all about me and my experiences, but it’s more in a positive sense.

    Emily said: “I’m not going to claim that there’s any completely unbiased, unsubjective way to critique anything.”

    Right, so talking about “pefection” or “near perfect” doesn’t make sense and, to me, that smacks of the self-absorbed thing that you’re trying to avoid. Neither does it necessarily work to talk about a “masterwork of human art” necessarily. So you’re basically making my point for me.

  11. Right, so talking about “perfection” or “near perfect” doesn’t make sense and, to me, that smacks of the self-absorbed thing that you’re trying to avoid.

    On that line of argument, reviewers should avoid adjectives of any kind, since they are all inescapably subjective. I suppose this approach is consistent with your earlier objection to my calling Lost Pig fair and charming, but it guts discourse to a degree I’m not willing to go along with.

    It seems more productive simply to recognize that all commentary is always tainted by subjectivity, whether the author adopts an authoritative tone or a humble one.

    The distinction I was trying to make about self-absorbed reviewing was not about whether the critic achieves objectivity (not possible) or whether the critic appears conscious that dissenting views might be held by rational people (varies a great deal according to personality, but even jerks can have useful critical insights). My distinction was over whether the review is essentially about the critic rather than the work. Here’s a sample of that latter kind.

  12. Emily said: “It seems more productive simply to recognize that all commentary is always tainted by subjectivity.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. It also seems productive simply to not make universal sounding claims that something has or has not achieved “perfection” or is “near perfect.” Such phrasing does say more about the critic rather than the work itself. So you’ve again made my point for me.

    For example, you said in the review “The pace of this is, if not exactly broken, extremely, extremely uneven.” You are claiming this as fact. A good reviewer would say that “The pace of this felt uneven to me. Here’s why I say that…” and then go on to give evidence of how *you* look at pace and the evenness of pace, so people could understand the context of your judgment. You do exactly this when you said: “From a narrative point of view I found chs. 8-10 considerably more appealing than 2-7…” and then you give details about why you felt that.

    That’s perfect. It lets me know your specific thoughts without having to think you are making broad claims based on some inflated ego or some inflated value of self-importance. An example of confusion on this is when you said in the review: “So he (or she) comes out being extremely generic: crafty-handed, perhaps, and devoted to us, and, we gather, a bit fiery-tempered at times, but otherwise not endowed with as much of an individual voice as I would have liked.”

    Here you have “as I would have liked” but earlier you have “we gather”. The latter would presumably apply to all players, unless you consider yourself a pluralistic entity (a “we”). The first part is, again, a bit of a universal statement: “So he (or she) comes out being extremely generic:” Maybe to you — maybe not to “we”. I guess my point is that your style of communication varies — sometimes even within just one sentence. It makes your reviewing a bit uneven and, I would say, making you seem a bit self-absorbed in your style rather than your substance. It then does become about the critic rather than the work because the context is missing.

    Once again consider your closing comments: “Not, in the end, a perfect game. But really ambitious projects almost never are.” Contrast that with the parts I pointed out where it was clear you were using specific examples and non-universalised statements of opinion. Then consider this statement of “fact” you just issued about lack of perfection. Even though in these comments you admitted perfection is not something you could quantify anyway, which makes it curious why you would bring up that it’s not perfect.

    Given your apparent standing in the community of IF-ers out there, I think it’s important to realize when you make what seem to be dogmatic statements. Like it or not, you have a certain standing in this community of people and as such people will listen to what you say, often uncritically. I think it’s important to therefore take extra care in how you present things. I’d say that about anyone who had a respected place within a community.

  13. Glad to have you back from your recent working hiatus, Emily, and I look forward with great interest to seeing how many sponsors you pick up.

    (Will your next work of IF feature product placement?)

    Conrad.

  14. Conrad: Heh. I was just running out of things to type in that space, I’m afraid — no actual banner ads are forthcoming. If you want product-placement IF, though, try Coke Is It!

    Greg: I fear I’m unpersuaded by your dogmas on good reviewing. Your paragraph deliciously beginning “That’s perfect…” did make me smile, however.

  15. With such dialogues (and I say “such” because some of Victor Gijsbers’ aforementioned work ends in similar ways), I find myself wondering, what is the purpose of it?

    They can give the chance for the player to have the final word on their experience of the game–that was my experience with The Baron and Fate, at least. The questions allow the player to articulate and reaffirm, in-game, their reactions to and motivations for the PC’s actions. But Blue Lacuna tried to predict the why of the player’s answers, which is where it’s less effective IMO, especially with a question as broad and personal as “art or love?” where the answers will be as nuanced and individual as a player’s own neuroses.

    But I actually liked the lack of response in The Baron, so.

  16. You know what Blue Lacuna reminded me of? Worlds Apart! Similar ambiance, I thought. Or something like it; I’m probably rationalizing an irrational connection, but that doesn’t mean it has no chance of being correct…

  17. Blue Lacuna is the first interactive fiction title I’ve heard someone mention to me; given that I’ve been playing and thinking about IF for years, it’s quite amazing that it took this long. I think this perhaps is why there is discussion of “great masterwork” in a quasi-ironic sense. There’s no question that IF has been a community (that reminds me of the ‘post-avant’ poetry blogging scene, itself I think generically unhealthy for an art) that is a bit impenetrable from the outside, and well what if we had a party and everybody came is a question.

    I have not played it! But there is a huge potential audience out there for IF, wider, possibly than for most science fiction. So I think a good thing to ask is how BL got so much attention, and why. The “Event” nature of it is part of it, but I think there is also more reproducible stuff that others can watch.

    Emily, your own website, where you talk about IF in intelligent ways, and also write “unusual” games (from the insider perspective where Zork is a reference point) has been very big as well. If I think of the avant gardy poetry that has become “big” and influence the culture (Anne Carson, e.g. — also a classicist), it is generally unconcerned with the immediate priors of the field (Carson is not interested in taking on, say, Charles Olson, or some other vital figure in poetic historiograpy) and goes straight for the grand-heart nexus.

  18. Pingback: Passing comment on the latest SPAG « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

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