I wish this game was half as long as it was. That’s unfortunate, because much of the narrative and mechanical complexity comes in the second half of the game, after Laurie is kidnapped, and you begin your quest to rescue her. But that quest, and the associated complexity feel meandering and overlong.
The spam zapping is really fun. The emails capture well the feel of early internet (or, at least, what I imagine it to be–I was too young to experience it), the characters are well defined and pleasant to spend time with (I especially liked Dad, including Zap’s commentary and his WordArt email; and alice, whose anti-consumerist grounchiness speaks to me), and the spam is genuinely funny. The game astutely observes that much of the corporate or consumerist messaging we sign up to read is essentially just spam we decided we’re interested in, and there’s a natural climax with the email worm.
I figured the worm storylet was the end of the game, and was disappointed it had ended–though that’s usually a good feeling to have at the end of a comp game. Instead of concluding, however, the game transitions into a substantially different experience: a rescue mission to get your Human’s friend’s father to return her computer.
This second half largely did not work for me. There are some bright spots: hiding clues in past emails and then testing the player’s memory is a smart bit of puzzle design that works well within twine’s natural limitations. Getting to read one of the Human’s emails is exciting, since you haven’t heard their voice for the whole game, and the ephemeral representation of the inside of the computer does a good job turning the functional, amorphous realm of a program into a setting.
What happens in that setting is less enjoyable. The programs are essentially two dimensional characters: they have a personality trait loosely related to their function (wizard is refined, chime is bubbly, zapper is neurotic), and they’re servile. This is perfect for the first half of the game–you want Zap to have a voice, but you don’t want him to be too defined, since the focus is on the emails. Unfortunately, when he becomes the main character, he doesn’t have enough personality to hold a dramatic role. The game wants you to care about these programs’ emotions and relationships, but I found it hard to empathize with programs that were ultimately fairly shallow.
The lack of character depth also causes some focus issues. The game wants the player to care about Laurie’s plight, but much more attention is paid to Zap, Wizard, and Chimes’ remorse at being unable to help her. They come off as self-centered, and sort of pathetic. Possibly their angst was meant to convey the seriousness of the situation to the player, and ramp up the dramatic tension, but since the focus is more on their discomfort than Laurie’s, and I find their discomfort unmoving, it, ironically, makes me take Laurie’s situation less seriously.
The nous concept may have been a good place for the author to include more definition to the characters. If these programs are just one incarnation of many, they can be more defined; they can have diverse experiences, memories, opinions, and personalities from their past lives. But the nous concept is fairly insubstantial, and doesn’t affect the characters much. It mostly just states that everything has a soul, including computer programs, and you can distill and/or manipulate that soul if you analyze it deeply enough and know the magic words. That’s a fine enough justification for why these plugins can think and talk, but the game spends paragraph after paragraph talking about it without saying very much, and its impact on the story is small. This is illustrated by the Fulcrum, an imperfect nous copy of Laurie, that the game treats as incredibly important, but does little besides prophesy. Perhaps I’m missing something here–maybe the Laurie/Wizard relationship is the first human/program relationship, and sets the stage for the bonding that you see in the tomagachi future?–but it feels very extraneous.
What’s unfortunate about this is that it could almost entirely be solved by cutting things out. The writing and mechanics are good, and the plot’s interesting. If you trim all the theorizing and fretting, I still don’t think I would’ve liked the second half as much as the first, but it would’ve been a fun bonus instead of an anchor.
This is, in some ways, a compliment to the game: it’s good enough to be dragged down by its weaker bits instead of brought up by its strengths. Overall, this will rank highly for me, but I wish the second half had been more aggressively edited.