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IFCOMP 2006 - Mobius

Game #17: Mobius (by J. D. Clemens)
Played: November 6th (1 hour 40 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Another mission. Just when you had settled in for a nap.

     XYZZY Response (varies, but is initially):
     Nothing obvious happens.

     Note: I’ve tried to be vague where possible in this review, but I do talk about some specifics at times. To avoid spoilers, you may want to play the game first and then read my review.

     Having just played Mobius, I haven’t reflected on it long enough to figure out just what went wrong. I liked it well enough, but I somehow expected to enjoy it a lot more. At first, I really did. When the first cycle happened, and I realized exactly what the gimmick was (I had read that it was a time-travel game, but I’ve tried to be careful in avoiding specifics), I was really into it.

     It’s a little like All Things Devours (at least what I can remember of it – that was two years ago), but the point here isn’t to avoid paradoxical encounters. Instead, you use them. I guess the way time works in Mobius actually prevents a paradox, so it’s not really that. The idea – and I hope this isn’t a big spoiler – is that anything you interact with in the last cycle becomes insubstantial in the next. This makes it impossible, for instance, to hide an object that your past self is going to take a couple turns later, but it also allows access to certain things that would otherwise have been blocked or hidden from your present self.

     So, exactly how does this go wrong? Several things (the wrench, the aspirin, and the rations patty come to mind) can be used in certain ways, but otherwise turn out to be red herrings (as far as I can tell – and the walkthrough doesn’t say otherwise). In a game where every move matters and failure means a do-over, red herrings seem out of place. Not enough feedback from the game is another part of it. It does try, though. The beginning of new cycles give hints, but the later one didn’t seem helpful enough for me to figure out why what I had done wasn’t good enough. There is a way to open the shield which prevents it from being closed again, and maybe a clue to discourage that on the next cycle might have helped. I was very close to the solution, but I just couldn’t mentally connect all the pieces in a way that would work.

     So, I resorted to the walkthrough, to arrive at the point where the cycle starts with the reactor stabilized. I could see that this was nearly the end, but I wanted to at least solve the last bit on my own.

     If I had continued with the walkthrough, as most players very well might, I wouldn’t have had any further problems. Instead, I managed to ruin the “damper” without realizing it, making it impossible to use again, which was (as far as I can tell) supposed to have been the trigger for the rest of my team to arrive. So, I piddled around for a few turns, uncertain what to do next (but not really aware that something was supposed to happen), and finally went back to the walkthrough. It’s a good thing I had saved just before that.

     Even getting the ending seemed a little disappointing. It makes me think maybe there is a better ending. I haven’t tried the walkthrough from start to finish, but a glance doesn’t show anything special or obvious that I missed earlier.

     I went back through the last part, though, just to see if maybe I did miss something. At first (and I couldn’t reproduce it later), answering “restore” to the endgame message (as was a choice in the prompt) gave a strange message about specialist Thorne and the stowing of his tools (sounds crazy, but I have a transcript to prove it). I had to restart and then reload. I found that the game described me as being knocked unconscious by touching the reactor (probably a throwback to the prior part), yet I could keep going as if nothing was wrong. Some of the things I could do earlier (such as removing the TDU) would no longer work due to “mission protocol” that hadn’t been a problem before. Even before the last bit, it was strange that trying to talk to my past resulted in “your hand merely passes through your previous self” twice in a row.

     The game isn’t broken in any way that an hour or two of touch-up wouldn’t resolve. Like All Things Devours, the game has to remember everything your past self did, so it can be repeated on the next cycle. This works almost flawlessly (I did see one quirk once, but it didn’t seem to matter). It’s evident that a lot of time went into designing the main portion of Mobius, and the problems I did encounter seem small compared to all that does work right.

     You do the same actions over and over on the road to understanding how everything works, but with ten turns (at most) before the next cycle, it never feels like a large amount of work wasted. Making good use of SAVE and UNDO was a big help, though. I was hesitant to overuse “undo” at first, because I wasn’t sure if some attempts or failures would be necessary for later success.

     Mobius has only a superficial story. It wasn’t really a problem, since the point is the time-loop puzzle, but a little more story at the beginning at the end might have been nice.

     The beginning seemed to borrow phrases right out of Star Trek (“temporal anomalies” and “multi-phasic radiation” being most obvious). You report to the transport pad, the TDU seems like a tri-corder that you wear over your eyes, and the “drop team” could have just as well been an “away team”. Clemens even uses the word “trek” near the beginning, which is just suspicious enough to make me think the similarities are no accident. The only thing truly un-trek-like is the openly condescending attitude of Sergeant Jacobson.

     Even though Mobius was in some ways a disappointment, it’s still a good game overall. It’s a solid “7” (meaning “good”) on my scale, and could have edged up a bit if the competition version was more polished and a little better clued where the main puzzle is involved. My transcript is available to the author upon request.

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