There is a strong sense of the Planescape setting for D&D in this: portals unlocked by keys, portal-jumpers divided into philosophically-aligned factions. While it’s Planescape in the mechanics (plus maybe a little bit of Sliders, since part of the plot is motivated by finding the window for the next jump), its world is more Quantum Leap: the one jump you make is to a culturally-familiar chunk of the US C20th.
In between the chapters there are stoned musings on the nature of space-time, suggesting that this universe actually does operate on stoner-logic.
The reason we cannot meld quantum mechanics with general relativity is because the math to describe them was arbitrarily invented and that same “math” just doesn’t work.
The protagonist, Jordan Hickey, is searching for his lost friend Jesse, who has apparently vanished among the portals. (They’re being pursued by the government because Jesse is a powerful portal guy and… government stuff.)
As is something of a theme in MTW’s games, the protagonist is two-fisted, snarling and contemptuous, and motivated by seeking someone who disappeared mysteriously. In many of his earlier games, this is justified by the protagonist being a noir detective; here, the justification isn’t quite as clearly articulated. Jordan seems to have dropped everything – living rough, using aliases – to find Jesse. That’s a really major commitment to a friendship: and meanwhile, Jesse is using his uniquely-awesome powers over space and time to go and catch a show. We’re never told very much about what this friendship was like, why Jordan is driven to pursue his friend so single-mindedly, where this imbalance comes from. I had a sense of pathos underlying all of this – the era and subject are evidently dear to the author’s heart, but Jordan feels like an Adam Baldwin character in a hippy commune, a ball of barely-contained rage.
“Of course I know about Jesse. I don’t give a shit about you.” You inform him.
“Well Jesse and Zach went to see The Grateful Dead.” He says but his face makes the sentence linger in the air.
“And?” You ask, ready to begin punching him and never stop.
Like, I can’t think of a more uncomfortable accolade than this:
>X GRATEFUL DEAD
They aren’t so much the quintessential hippies as one would imagine: just a group of regular people playing American music.
I felt as though this wanted to create a sense of community: there’s a road-trip section with a bunch of random hippies, and later there’s a street-fair – and all of this takes up about half the game. But where the usual road-trip narrative is about bonding, Jordan’s severely distanced from everyone around him. He can deal with practical, mechanical problems, but you get the sense that dealing with other people is inherently galling to him.
There are a lot of minor infelicities. A character’s described as ‘a blonde woman in her twenties’, but her description says ‘Her hair long and brown.’ You’re not given the names of characters until they’re introduced, but their names are given in responses anyway. The game offers strong hinting in places, but at least one point it suggests a command (‘REMOVE GAS CAP’) which is understood as entirely the wrong thing. While there’s some obvious effort being expended on guiding the player, it’s highly variable: sometimes you’re flat-out told what the next thing to do is, sometimes you’re cast adrift with little guidance and have to fend for yourself. About half the time I found progress quite easy; the other half of the time I needed the walkthrough.
More important than that, though, is that you don’t get the feeling that the stuff being done has very much to do with the story. I had the sense that there was this big, world-spanning plot in the author’s head, but that a lot of the important stuff didn’t make it into the game. We never get much of a sense about the Sinister Government Stuff, even though it provides a good deal of the theoretical impetus. There’s a sense that there’s a great deal to do with factional struggles, but we never get a strong sense of what, exactly, the big picture is or where we fit into it. Towards the end you encounter a thing that seems like a hidden portal facility, which never really gets explained. The story ends on a ‘to be continued’ note. But at the same time, a lot of the narrative is treading water: you end up fiddling around stealing gas and fixing VW bus engines for a great deal of the story.
That put me in mind rather of a game like Heroine’s Mantle, in which a lot of the puzzles involve a similar kind of fiddling-with-tangential-crap. But Mantle can get away with this because it’s really, really big: the tangential puzzles work as pacing elements, and there’s still room for the story.