Andromeda Ascending by Jim Warrenfeltz (Inform 7 / glulx)
(There are spoilers in this review, but no massive specific ones)
This lively, character-driven and big contents entry into the Andromeda saga is set during the 8140s, a time when humankind in the Andromeda Galaxy are living up on the mechanosatellites in the wake of the first cataclysmic Event. With this sentence, I’m sure I have made myself sound tremendously knowledgeable, but trust me; this shared universe has already grown dense and complex enough (including the two entries in this year’s Andromeda Legacy competition, there are now six games going on seven!) that its chronology is no longer a place for wimps, if it ever was. I thank Marco for his potted history cheat notes and his walking library-esue knowledge of backstory.
In Ascending, the player takes on the role of Quin, a resourceful smartarse of a young woman who lives on Mechanosatellite 3 (MS3). Quin is also a reasonably clouty member of the gang called The Vipers. Her playful skirmishes with both the military police and a coy rival gang member who wants to woo her (Rici) result in her having a day of chaotic adventures of unexpectedly great import.
Ascending is the most overtly funny entry into the Andromeda series to date. It has lots of dialogue (probably too much for me), a range of amusing and peculiar characters, a great inventory of in-jokery in relation to other Andromeda games and a good deal of farce. It’s generally linear and not into puzzling, but the amount of content is impressive – the author describes it as novella length, and that’s how it feels to me.
My problem with Ascending is that the ultimate chronology and import of the events depicted within it began to get away from me during its second half, and had almost completely escaped me by the end. I offered Marco my interpretation of the game, and it was quite different to his – and what with him being the father of the series, I put more store in his interpretation. In terms of getting the “big” meaning (for the series) out of this game, you might need to be an Andromeda fanboy, and even then you might be struggling.
The tension between the military and civilian inhabitants of the satellite shows that the broad power structures described by Paul Lee back in Tree & Star (http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=chbf0ssnxha0jpqx) are still in place, but by this point in time, those structures are beginning to acquire a farcical dimension. It’s clear that living in space for centuries has slowly been driving humankind dotty. Most of the civilians encountered in Ascending act like classically rebellious teens, even though you get the sense that some of them are probably in their 20s (including the heroine?). The military are their killjoy adult foils, but neither group seems to take its role, or life in general, very seriously. Civilians form harmless-seeming gangs because they’re bored, and the military try to shut the gangs down because that’s what they do, and they’re bored, too.
In physical terms, the arrangement of MS3 isn’t described too explicitly, and I don’t think that matters because the geography tends to be suggested by the social setting. People gossip and fight in the cafeteria. The Vipers chill out in their Viper Pit, and motormouth geek Pip performs her experiments in The Back Room of the Viper Pit. This situation changes in the second half of the game when Quin is kidnapped and taken to another satellite. On her own and in hostile territory, she’s confronted by seemingly endless, circling and empty white corridors. I don’t know for sure that the satellites are spherical structures, but this passage strongly makes me imagine that they are.
Probably the first thing that struck me about Quin was that her particular brand of smartassery coincides strongly with the kind of smartassery IF players have come to expect from many a parser. I don’t know whether the chicken or the egg came first for the author of Ascending, but the upshot is that this game gets to wield that smartassery with good justification. The downside could be that Quin is made a little bit more generic in the process. The dialogue sequences are menu-based, and the often verbose choices available to Quin show the velocity and farsightedness of her fantasy wit. At times these were a bit much for me, but there’s no doubting the game’s commitment to this particular tone throughout its writing.
Rici is the rival gang member who gets Quin in trouble (more so) and he behaves in many capacities: as a potential love-hate romantic interest, as a bumbling teen type, and as a guy I just wanted to throttle occasionally. Sometimes when talking to him, I was all like - “Argh!”. I realised that being, like, all like, was the operative phrase here. Most of the gang members come across as excitable teens, and the game is good at capturing their spirit, as irritating as the spirit may occasionally be to bedraggled adults.
If the boredom of satellite life has made young adults act like teens, it has done much worse to the adult-adults. Members of the ruling military families on the satellites behave like doddering fin-de-siecle British Raj. Supreme General Hick’errs routinely kidnaps young women to add to the harem of his son, Major General H. Hick’errs. These men’s plans are mostly pathetic and ineffectual, their characters weak, and in this sense the ultimate ascension of the civilians which begins to take place at the end of the game makes perfect sense.
Technical delivery of the game is strong. Even though there are lots of different scenes with people coming and going, and some obvious causality demands, everything stays on track. This is aided by the story being of a linear type overall, and by the fact that there are no puzzles which have ramifications beyond the next move, and extremely minimal puzzling in general. My only complaints are nitpicky: Almost no synonyms are implemented (this is the major of the minor complaints, because I felt it all the way through) and more mundanely, there are infrequent spelling and punctuation mistakes.
Girl Andromeda Power, yeah!
Ascending is rife with specific and affectionate references to other games in this series, as well as placing itself at a relatively important point in the chronology. Characters here talk about dreams they have had or theoretical situations they’re speculating on which recall scenes from the other games. There’s often a light-hearted jabbing at some fictional or adventure gaming devices that have been used across the previous games, and for Andromeda followers, these observations help clarify the lighter tone of this game, given that nothing that came before has used as much humour. This aspect of the game is well executed, being entertaining for the people who can identify the references and unlikely to get in the way of anyone else. Unfortunately, such a benefit is only of theoretical value when a lot of the macroscopic machinery of the game, including the explanation of its denouement, is likely to be opaque to the majority of players, whether or not they have followed the other games – and especially for those who haven’t.
Given the unusual situation of its characters (living in satellites as refugees from a galactic disaster) a lot more or even a little more needs to be said about this situation. These aforementioned facts for starters. Then: Why is there a civilian/military split? What is the relationship between the populations of different satellites? Who has what awareness of what (if anything) is going on down on the planet’s surface? Who is hiding what from whom, and why? The trouble at the moment is that the context-creating answers to all of these important questions have to be formulated by studying some of the other Andromeda games at length, and the fictional historical materials contained within them, and perhaps even the out-of-game chronology chart. And even then, your answers will often only be guesses. While the game is entertaining enough and in-the-moment enough that most players are likely to enjoy it superficially at the very least, it is called Andromeda Ascending for a reason, and builds to a significant conclusion, but one which is significantly underexplained and chronologically confusing.
Andromeda Ascending is a fun and busy game, with a bunch of human vitality and talky characters of the kind still thin on the ground in this series. (Understandably thin, given that this galaxy is always exploding or collapsing or experiencing some other cosmically drastic shiznit.) It is most similar to Tree & Star, linearly, puzzle wise, setting wise, but Ascending’s main flavour comes from its more absurd outlook, which is an interesting take on stir craziness in space. The game knows the other Andromeda games well, references them all and ultimately moves to be of heavyweight consequence in the overarching chronology, except that the details and mechanics of this consequence, and the real reasons behind it, remain elusive. Fortunately, the game is easy and enjoyable in spite of its confusing finale.
PS The game already has snazzy in-the-style title page artwork, though it’s not easy to see at the moment.