Story: The protagonist is a janitor at a Science! institute; when play begins, he has just locked the base down and then murdered everyone inside it. The actual game involves him walking around the base and figuring out how to mess up the experiment in order to explode everything.
I think this is aiming to be a psychological thriller, but it doesn’t have quite enough going on in either department.
On the psychological drama side, this is a story about a mass shooting/suicide, told from the perspective of the shooter. The shooter has serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment, and uncovering this is a major focus of the game. Most of this doesn’t add much to ‘serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment’, though. On encountering the dead bodies of his former co-workers, we get a little information about how he didn’t like them.
The media res opening suggests that it might be intended as that venerable old saw of psychological thrillers, the Dreadful Past Conveniently Obscured by Amnesia, but – thankfully – this turns out to just be the effect of the player’s limited knowledge, rather than the protagonist’s.
And on the thriller side, there’s kind of a lack of thrills. You’re fortified inside a base, with The Authorities hammering on the door – that’s a reliable premise for building tension over the course of a story, but beyond its initial introduction, it’s basically ignored. You have an objective at the outset of the story, and advance steadily towards that objective until you accomplish it. That’s OK for gameplay purposes, kinda, but really bad for story.
The story isn’t hugely interested in the SF part either; we never really learn what the science guys are studying or why. The parts you can interact with are all rather pulpy: Big Machine With Buttons, Huge Shiny Crystal – but the overactive enthusiasm and melodrama that I generally take as hallmarks of self-conscious science pulp are absent. The principal reason to situate the action in a science base, rather than in any other workplace, is so that puzzles are required to complete the action.
You speed read the document which is your annual appraisal written by John Myers. Although the document does mention your overall performance it seems to be mainly be about your mental stability. A number of lines stand out, “prolonged depression”, “strong feelings of anger”, “delusions and hallucinations”, “inability to cope with daily problems and activities”, “denial of obvious problems”, “suicidal thoughts” and so on.
One further section catches your eye. “Williams has a habit of introducing himself as a Junior Technician and has stopped wearing his Maintenance badge.”
This kind of verges out of the normal territory of an appraisal and into a psychiatric report – the language is largely about the PC’s internal states, which you don’t really care about if you’re seeking justifications to fire someone – but in writing terms, the problem is that it’s a big old violation of Show Don’t Tell. I was put in mind of an old Adam Cadre review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s approach to characterisation and worldbuilding:
To a great extent, the purpose of narrative is to explore people’s psychological makeup. We follow characters around and watch what they do, what decisions they make, and come to understand what makes them tick. This process is entirely short-circuited by having a character sit down in a chair and say, “Here’s what makes me tick, doc.”
The symptoms and behaviours described don’t form an implausible background for a mass shooter, but at the end of it you don’t feel as though you know Peter Williams much more deeply than the police report and news articles that’ll come out in the aftermath. Fiction’s great strength is its ability to go beyond what an outsider could reasonably know, to go beyond the general to the acutely-personal specifics. Without that, it’s just non-fiction without the credibility. 2.
Puzzles: The mechanic here is that you have to set up the testing chamber in such a way as to destroy the base. You have a checklist of things to do, and the action principally comprises walking around the base, searching for the things you need to do and then doing them. This is fundamentally a bit tedious – there’s no creative thinking required for any of it, and the activation sequence involves a certain amount of pointless busywork (the doors around you lock, and you have to reset everything before you can unlock them).
The one puzzle in the game which does involve an ingenious approach is as follows: late in the game you need a small iron object, so you tear down a shelf in order to get at the nails. Perfectly reasonable, and if I had been doing this kind of puzzle all along I might very well have got it; but by this point I didn’t have much expectation of anything beyond ‘find thing, use in the obvious way’, and my brain had pretty much disengaged.
Finally, the narrative integration could stand to be stronger: if, for instance, we had more about the science of the project and Williams’ interest in it, this could have developed into an OK theme. But since we don’t even know what this stuff is for, ‘I’ll show them all’ – and thus the main motivation of the puzzle – is kind of disconnected. 2.
Theme: At one point it’s mentioned that it’s only a few hours until sunrise – this is tied to a clock, but as far as I could tell there’s no significant time limit, nor any particular reason why things have to be wrapped up by sunrise. Present, but an insignificant detail. 2.
Technical: I did not encounter any significant bugs, and it all pretty much works fine. 3.