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Game #3: MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness Part 2: Explanation (by Bill Powell)
Played: October 8th (1 hour 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 6+

     Game’s Blurb:
     Having attempted murder in your landlady's front garden in Edwardian London, you receive a private trial in the dining room. Enemies expose your wretched past: burglary, desertion, polygamy, murder...but you remember these incidents a bit differently...

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     Despite a level of implementation that actually seems worse than the first half, MANALIVE Part 2 is less frustrating and more fun. It was much lower on my random play-list, but I bumped it up so that I could finish the story of “Innocent Smith” the same day I played and reviewed its beginning.

     Initially, it’s frustrating. The game is coded in such a way that nothing works. My all-caps notation in the transcript might have been real yelling if my baby wasn’t asleep and my wife wasn’t nearby. The beginning text was like film on a pond – I could poke at any part of it, but nothing was underneath. The most amazing part is that I even took the three paper shapes, yet nothing happened. When I went to the hints, I really wanted to scream. The answer – completely unprompted as far as I can tell – was to touch each of them. Didn’t I already?

     Ordinarily, this might be unforgivable. How many judges will give up then, and never play further? Some? Many? Most? I didn’t give up, and I’m glad I got to see the rest of the story. As it all unfolded, though, it was easy to see how the details in the G. K. Chesterton story were completely overlooked in Powell’s interactive implementation.

     You can’t rake the lawn, even though you find the rake. You can’t swim in the sea, because there isn’t enough water. When the story refers to “liquer”, you get a valid response only by referring to it as “brandy” (as it appears in your inventory). When rowdies blocked the way, the game told me I saw no such thing. In fact, not seeing things that were plainly described (even seemingly clued) in the text was a common hurdle through all of MANALIVE Part 2.

     The game succeeds only because the source material is interesting. Also, it’s presented in a way that works better than the first half, by letting Smith leave the boarding house in his memories. Equally welcomed – and probably Powell’s own creations – are the losing endings. They allow Smith to remember these incidents the wrong way, which causes him to truly go mad. I liked this. The hints were a necessity (not merely a luxury) in spots, but it was shorter and more focused than the first half.

     G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive” was, according to Powell, published in 1912. It’s interesting that it reminded me of newer works. Most notably, the scene with Eames carries with it the same message Tyler Durden gave to the clerk in Fight Club: take nothing for granted, and live tomorrow as though your life might have ended today. The ending, too, had hints of Stranger in a Strange Land, in that there are better ways to treat people, and better ways to live life. In this case, it’s a vague connection, but one that hit me nonetheless.

     Even so, this is a credit to Chesterton – not (unfortunately) Bill Powell.

     In Part 1, I had very little sense of who Smith really was. To some degree, that’s probably intentional. It didn’t occur to me, though, until playing Part 2 that Smith seemed to have no purpose, no real characterization aside from the vaguely eccentric, and no real motivation for doing anything in the first part. This is resolved by the end of the second part, and I can see why Powell picked this for adaptation. It’s a good story, and one that’s worth telling. It just suffers from a weak and lackluster implementation.

     I have given MANALIVE Part 2 a “6” (which is “average” by my scoring definitions). Implementation is weak, but fewer things go wrong and nothing seemed to break the game entirely. It also gets a plus, because Chesterton’s story did make for an entertaining read. Eventually (maybe after I have played and reviewed all the other entries), I would like to read the original. It’s probably a story I would like.

     I also encourage Bill Powell to polish up both halves of MANALIVE the game. Don’t rush it. Go back and add in the detail that’s lacking. Really bring the story to life, have it tested by several people, revise, and re-test. Then re-release this game, letting your implementation shine like the story itself. You might even merge the halves, by compiling to GLULX instead of ZCODE (excuse me if it’s not quite so simple – I’m not an expert on Inform development, but I believe you can avoid the Zcode size limit when you target this alternate model – it might even be possible just by going to .Z8 instead of .Z5). This could really be an incredible game, but it needs a lot more work.

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