Genre: Interactive Fiction
Release Date: 2002
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” – Daniel H. Burnham. Chief Architect of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The preceding quote is the very phrase that can be found when you open the beautiful cardboard jewel-box that contains “1893: A World’s Fair Mystery” (further mentioned as AWFM). While the expression refers to the ambitious dimension of the world’s exposition that took place in a nineteenth-century Chicago, I believe it should also have been the principle Peter Nepstad had in mind when coding and writing his game. Interestingly, both the pros and cons of AWFM stem from being an incredibly large-scale project, that extends well beyond its recreational value.
This is my fourth review for Just Adventure + and without any doubt it was the most difficult one. How come? Several reasons underlie the statement. But since I’ve been taught that examples are by far more instructive than concepts, a short description of my first ten hours of gameplay (for those wondering, total length reached almost thirty hours) should do the trick of explaining the gist of the idea. No sooner had I received the game than I started looking for eight diamonds stolen from the Mines and Mining Building, the main quest of AWFM. But no more than three hours have passed that I found myself hopeless and in the edge of despair. By that time my desk was full of paper sheets scribbled with tons of riddles and curious pointers while a quantity of seemingly unrelated maps littered the floor. And the situation didn’t improve much in the following seven hours, but quite the contrary. Why did such thing happen? The main reason is that I entered the game with a frame of mind prepared to play a typical interactive fiction (IF) game, the one thing the production we are discussing is precisely not. AWFM does not fit well in the usual nomenclature of text based games. It’s neither story nor puzzle-based while doesn’t rely heavily in conversation either. It’s rather a game to be explored and enjoyed in the fantastic, overwhelming and epic environment it offers. Hundreds of places to visit, dozens of buildings full of rooms and filled up with objects related to every cultural subject you can imagine: from cultural exhibits to replicas of Columbus’s vessels to a fully-functional anthropometrical laboratory. The game tries to recreate the World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. That fair was a real anthology of the world’s achievements and progress in terms of science, agriculture, entertainment, industry and art during the nineteenth-century. Indeed, the version portrayed by AWFW shows not only this state-of-the-art but also the general atmosphere of confidence and trust in progress that characterized the end of such century. Just to give an idea of the immensity of the map offered, AWFM setting comprises almost twenty enormous buildings to explore and many more to admire, two lakes and a few ponds, a nice maze and lots of streets (many resembling famous cities like Cairo) full of people and usable attractions, including the gigantic Wheel, which was the icon of the fair. A small experiment conducted by myself showed that making your way from the bottom of the map to the farthest point in the top requires, even after acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the terrain, almost thirty-five turns and approximately three real-time minutes. Interestingly, the game offers multiple ways to travel across the fairgrounds using public transportation (if you have the money to pay the ticket, of course): an elevated railway train, gondolas and ferries help to complete your trips around the campus. Before entering the fairgrounds of AWFM I had seen only one IF game where mastering the use of transports is a must. In Infocom’s “A Mind Forever Voyaging” the subway is a powerful tool but in AWFM automatic transportation is rather a survival strategy.
So, to get back to my narration, while I was very glad to enjoy that sense of freedom I had to admit that not only disorientation but also weariness and apathy had aroused in me. So, I restarted the game and adopted a different strategy. First of all, I printed the original Rand, MacNally and Co’s map of the fair included in the online manual (see the screenshot) which, to my surprise, resulted to be nearly identical to the game’s layout. That enhanced considerably my guidance capabilities. Second, I wrote a list of successive tasks to overcome and decided to tackle them one by one. Finally, and most important, I realized that the game presents itself as an “interactive adventure into Chicago history” and, while not disregarding the “gamer point of view”, one of its most important goals is to create an excellent historical simulation. So, the gaming experience should be intended within such boundaries.
Having said that, let’s describe the story that attracts your character to the fair. Eight valuable diamonds have been stolen from a mining exhibit. While the police chief is struggling with a series of kidnappings that require an immediate solution, you receive a telegram asking for your help to find the lost diamonds. When you arrive to the fair the first lead awaits: in the crime scene a sort of poem has been found, clearly an encrypted message, which holds several riddles whose answers will help you move closer to the diamonds. Finding both the diamonds and the responsible for their disappearance are, of course, the goals of the game. Sure, a trivial and not very original start (Infocom’s “Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels” comes to mind). In fact neither the plot nor the way it is presented encourages a deep immersion into the detective role. But truth should be said, AWFM takes its own particular way when regarding to plot development and storytelling. Quite often IF productions begin with a complex and rich story but as the game progresses you start wondering what could have happened with all the non-playable characters (NPC’s) that were surrounding you in the first turns and very often the whole thing boils down to killing/destroying/defeating the utterly evil villain who tries to destroy the world without an underlying rationale. At first, AWFM’s plot seems a rather poor disguise to add some motivation to the historical setting, but as the game makes its way the author wisely ties its different branches (the robbery, the kidnappings, among others) and manages to pack them in a solid story. This progression can be clearly observed in the NPC’s, especially in one of them: a scruffy, homeless child that roams in the wooded island, one of the game’s scenarios. In the beginning sometimes he is an obstacle, sometimes an aid, but his personality sure seems to be as thin as a paper sheet (I was tempted to write “as thin as Kate Walker’s personality in the first Syberia” but then decided not to stride off the boundaries of the text adventure subgenre). Nonetheless, by the end of the game not only you will grow fond of him but he will turn to be a valuable sidekick with strong traits, preferences and motivations. In the same vein of game design, the author decided to offer its best puzzle in the very last scene. Without spoiling anything (long live to the spoiler-free-review movement!) just consider that solving it requires careful observation and exploration, bits of trial and error, significant NPC interaction and riddle-like reasoning; all packed in a 60-turns time limit that by no means hinders the fun but instead adds a great deal of tension to the scene.
Taking apart the previously described outstanding final puzzle, the remaining ones tend to be a sort of mixed-bag. The game shows its best when tries to behaves as a usual piece of IF. Conversational puzzles are ok, while inventory based ones have a fair logic, though here is where some (potentially serious) problems arise. Sometimes you know that you need a certain object, let’s say an axe. While in the best of the situations the item, or its equivalent, is in the vicinity of the puzzle-room, in other occasions it might be found in a building located hundreds of meters away (thus compelling to do a lot of backtracking) or, to make things worse, maybe you have no idea where it could be. While in other games this situation wouldn’t stand as a problem, here it poses a big threat to the gameplay’s fluidity since the player deals with a wide array of locations and in each of them is confronted with several crammed rooms verbosely described where more often than not it is really difficult to separate the historical important items from those relevant to wind up the game. Append to the last statement that each item you collect add up to your “inventory total weight size”, a game feature that forces you to drop some items here and there in order to leave space for new ones. Since it is not the case that every item counts equal but each one has its own unknown weight, you will never know when the game will tell you “You've already got your hands full”, so creating silly-non realistic situations such as when I was arrested because I had to invest some precious turns in making myself “lighter” instead of solving an easy but timed-puzzle. And of course, shame on you if you dropped a vital key without writing down its location because I bet you will be wandering maybe a whole hour just to recover it. Did I say “keys”? Oh, yes, many puzzles involve finding keys and solving riddles. While pretty predictable, they are interesting, mind-challenging and difficult enough to attract experienced and newbies players alike. Sometimes the pointers are quite ambiguous and may confound when not attacked one-by-one (as explained earlier), but, well, that’s part of the game.
Finally, the remaining puzzles are either mechanical or involve finding a number of seemingly unrelated items and placing them in seemingly unrelated holes/pedestals and/or pressing them in certain symbolic order. While complex in their design they suffer from a lack of in-game hints, minimal feedback and shrouded logic. Moreover, they are utterly unrealistic and do not fit in the general context of a mystery/detective-like game. For example, while every morning the playable character has to wake up at six, read the daily newspaper, eat his breakfast and discuss possible suspects with his boss (realistic details that are greatly welcome since they enhance the game’s appeal) a few turns later he is faced with a chain of totems that, according to the author, hold some symbolic relationship with another object of the surroundings which, in turn, presents a rather ambiguous riddle when it is combined with the totems in the “correct” way.
I can’t finish the review without mentioning the excellent job the author has done in terms of game’s interface. I have to go back to Legend Entertainment's early games (for instance “Gateway” or “Eric the Unready”) to remember such a good one, and when considering its contemporaries only the excellent recent work of Emily Short (“City of Secrets”) is at par. As can be observed in the screenshot, while the left side of the screen is reserved for the text the right section encompasses both a context-sensitive photograph (that is, it changes as a function of the place and/or object the player is examining) and the game’s menu. This menu has buttons for saving/loading/quitting and a handy clickable compass as well, tools that markedly reduce the steep learning curve faced by IF novice players. By far the almost 500 photographs are the most enjoyable item. What’s more, these photographs are very handy when it comes to puzzles since they help considerably to differentiate the relevant objects in terms of gameplay utility. Another relevant feature is that the command “hint” triggers an online help system that provides from subtle and general indications to step-to-step solutions for each of the game’s puzzles.
As always, it is rather difficult to collapse whichever game’s overall evaluation in a single statement or letter, let alone for such a complex, ambitious and unique multimedia piece as AWFM. However, from a strictly gamer point of view, AWFM suffers from some obscure puzzles and also lacks a bit of balance between its historical recreation and the more entertainment-directed tasks and puzzles that hinder receiving a top qualification. Apart from that the game deserves to be highly praised, especially for its educational value and I am certainly looking forward to future Peter Nepstad/Illuminated Lantern’s products. AWFM receives a grade of B+ from this reviewer.
Final Grade: B+