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By Glenn Engstrand (writing as “Plone Glenn”)
Played On: October 25th (5 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 3)
Merk’s Score: 4+
Have you ever been in a conversation with people that you just met or barely knew and what seemed like an innocent exchange at the time became threatening on reflection?
Nothing I can write about Reconciling Mother will come close to capturing what it’s like to play Plone Glenn’s IFComp 2007 entry. This is one of the strangest yet most memorable works of interactive fiction I have ever played. If I were to rate it strictly on unabashed bizarreness, it’d be a sure “10”.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s so poorly constructed, confusing, and frequently incoherent. It’s trippy, but not convincingly surreal. It’s as though the author took concepts from half a dozen potential game ideas and put them all together into one, perhaps forgetting what the game was supposed to be about along the way.
There are suggestions and references as to his inspirational sources (certain books and movies, ranging from science fiction to philosophical to just plain odd), and trying to emulate or pay homage to those sources may have led to this hodgepodge of ideas. Is it an investigative spy story? Is it a huge maze? Is it about time travel, or is it about space exploration? Is it a dream world? Is it about insanity? Is it a fantasy, or is it a creepy horror story? Is it about self-discovery? Is it just a vehicle for a few soft-core porn or fetish love scenes (which can be pretty unexpected at first -- some of this game isn’t workplace-safe)? Is it a mansion crawler? Is it strictly about experiencing a series of bizarre, disconnected scenes? Are the NPC interactions the point of it? Is it merely a hunt-and-gather game? I guess it’s whatever you think it is.
This kind of thing isn’t new. My own early TRS80 text adventures from the late 1980’s (including a few I planned but never wrote) are full of wacky, disjointed concepts. This comes from being blown away by the idea of what’s possible in interactive fiction, without the ability to temper it with rational thinking and good design. This seems like it could be a pretty common pitfall for new authors, especially those who look strictly to the games of the 1980’s for inspiration.
Two things make Reconciling Mother noteworthy, where other similarly-styled games are easier forgotten. First, the author backs up these seemingly random elements with descriptive and sometimes evocative writing. It’s flawed in some ways, but it beats the more traditional minimalist approach of “You are in a big cavern. Go east? You’re in a desert. Now what? North? A purple jungle of floating orbs. You see a blue orb. Get orb? Ah, a robot from Mars steps on you.” It’s like that on a fundamental level, but with the meat of descriptive (if sometimes too lengthy) text to cover its skeleton.
Second, you just don’t see games like this as much these days. (Well, I don’t, at any rate.) Today, we design and judge by a different (I hesitate to say better) standard. Perhaps more evolved is the right word. Stories make sense and games have a purpose and meaning. Because Reconciling Mother seems to lack any clear plot (and the one offered at first sure seems to get lost along the way), it’s a throwback to an earlier time.
The game can be won in only seventeen moves, consisting entirely of directional commands. I suspect there is a much longer alternate route, but it might require more than just movement (although I doubt it -- I haven’t tested it out). However, the game’s map is massive (especially given the IFComp’s focus on games of a shorter length), having at least 150 rooms (but probably more, given that one repeated section is really an alternative of the original). Getting through it without making a map would have been difficult or impossible for me.
It has the appearance of puzzles, but even these seem to just require directional movement. One particular bit that’s built up as a challenge involves escaping a dungeon labyrinth area (it’s not really a maze) by tricking a dragon, traversing a volcano, boarding an airship, reaching an island, and having a nap. However, this really just requires moving. It’s solvable by accident (and in the normal course of exploration) without ever realizing it’s supposed to be a challenge. What seemed difficult at the time, upon reflection, wasn’t. The hard part (but also awkwardly fun) was just in making my own map.
The only gameplay elements at work besides directional movement seem to be picking up items found around the game world and showing or giving them to various NPC’s. Some respond specifically to certain types of items, and every once in a while it’s pretty impressive how much effort the author has taken to write short scenes for the recognized combinations of “item” and “NPC”. It’s nowhere near complete (usually the NPC isn’t interested), but there is enough possibility involved that some fun can be derived just in amassing a large collection and then taking it around to show.
“Giving” an item to an NPC can be repeated too, because the item never actually leaves your inventory. That may be a bug, but I found it helpful in holding onto items that could trigger reactions from more than one NPC. Oddly, no dialogue is presented in quotation marks, so it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the dialogue from the rest of the text. I got accustomed to it after a while, but it leaves me wondering if maybe the author just hadn’t figured out how to quote dialogue in his TADS source code (which, I’m guessing, probably appears within quote-enclosed text already).
Oh, and it does use hearing and smell in a few places. This doesn’t seem to impact the game or even be a requirement to advance, but it’s interesting that the author did include these actions in several areas.
The implementation is otherwise sparse, static, and generally just doesn’t support the text. Very little of what’s mentioned in a room is actually implemented as an in-game item, which leads to many “you don’t see that here” or “you don’t need to use that word in this game” kinds of messages. Actions suggested (even instructed) by the text are almost never allowed by the game (it usually just requires “entering” the right location or “looking” at the right item, to trigger the necessary action automatically). What’s said about an item sometimes includes an action (the colored disks are perfect examples), and the action relies on being in a room that you may have already left (the IF Clichés list at the IFWiki calls this being “painted on”). Items that are listed as being “here” after the room description are sometimes described as being “discovered” (as if the item wasn’t already mentioned) when picked up. Some actions described in room descriptions (or references in conversations or in other item descriptions) mention specific items or locations you haven’t even found yet, indicating that the author intended the story to be experienced in a specific way -- yet he left the map so open to exploration that it’s likely it won’t be. The built-in hints cover only a few periodic game points, and the included walkthrough is just a short list of suggestions. Disambiguation is avoided not in a logical way, but by simply not implementing conflicting reference words for most items that are described with a word that has already been given to some other item (meaning you often have to refer to a thing by its adjective instead of its noun).
Dead-end locations are actually endings that don’t end the game. This could be intentional, but it doesn’t seem to be. I think the author is so inexperienced with TADS that he must have had difficulty really implementing anything more complex than moving around, picking things up, and showing them to characters. So, a fatal drop down a broken cave floor or a too-high waterfall puts you in a location with an “ending” room description and no possible exit. Even what appears to be the “winning” ending works the same way. A good deal of time could be wasted here just by trying to “get out” of the ending (which is impossible except for an “undo” or a “restore”).
I haven’t touched much yet on the writing. I don’t have much else to say about it that I haven’t already (it being descriptive and sometimes evocative). Some passages felt very familiar (no dying person ever wished he’d spent more time at work, for instance), but not enough that I can place the source. Some parts are odd but comprehensible, while a few bits become nonsensical phrase-building of the sort you might expect in the lyrics to Beck’s “Loser.” A few segments are long (and without any paragraph breaks), making it tough to read. In fact, some of what appeared to be supplemental filler bits I skimmed in spite of myself.
It also has a few minor misspellings and general mistakes. This includes suspicious word choice, where the meaning might not actually fit the context of the sentence (a class had to “convene” during a discussion, but it’s implied that this means they left in a hurry -- maybe they had to go convene elsewhere; a six-sided pyramid is described as having an octagonal base, which is either impossible for me to visualize, or perhaps intended to have eight sides).
I lack the first-hand experience, but I imagine Reconciling Mother is a little like how it must feel to be addicted to narcotics. When the game began to get painful (in the “I should quit while I’m ahead” sort of way), I found myself playing a little further, just to map out that next new area, or just to see what eye-widening madness I might encounter next, or sometimes just to figure out what I needed to show or give to any of a number of female NPC’s to loosen their libidos. There is also a driving power to the question “what’s the point of it all” even though it’s being countered with “what point? Can’t you see there is no point?” This is about the only thing that makes Reconciling Mother recommendable in any way. It can be a very memorable experience, even while an all-around poorly constructed game.
I think I saw most of the game, but I’m sure I didn’t try giving and showing every collected item to every NPC (which would require some back-tracking). I’m of a serious mind to write a walkthrough (with maps) for Reconciling Mother, but then again, I do have more than a dozen other IFComp entries yet to play. It might be more revealing if the author would provide a complete walkthrough himself. I’d certainly be interested in finding out what things I missed, and whether there really is a meaning or a point to the game that simply eluded me.
I’ve rated it a “4” (with the same vote cast at exactly two hours of play), but if any game deserves a “plus” for weirdness, it’s Reconciling Mother. I often suggest that authors of poorly implemented games consider a post-comp update, but that’s just not practical for a game like this. In fact, polishing it up would take away some of the charm, such as it is. If it had been implemented with the detail a game of this size needs, it might be a fifty-hour game, not a five-hour one. So, for what it’s worth, it’s just fine as-is.