I’ve decided to go through the list of XYZZY Best Games again and examine what makes them the great in my eyes or the eyes of the voters. I’m starting with So Far, by Andrew Plotkin.
Here are some things that makes this game effective for me.
As I mentioned in a review of Curses!, many of the best games have tightly-focused narratives that revisit the same themes over and over again. So Far does this very well.
Everyone can interpret the themes in different ways, because they are vague and not spelled out. One major theme is the idea of being close, but not-quite there. Examples include:
frequently thinking you see Aessa, but never actually seeing her,
the almost-earth setting of the original area,
The two pillars that have to almost-touch to open the gate, which is referenced in the ending;
The crowd watching the arena that ‘applauds’ wildly but silently, not quite connecting with the player-of-the-game’s experience
The two ‘fuel cubes’ that need to almost but not quite touch in order to work
The many doors that never open, the boxes that never open, the gates that are closed shut
The moon people that can’t touch you, and which you can’t touch
The sleeping man that you can never talk to
The darkness that prevents you from experiencing the world in a usual way
The boy that is only one level away from freedom (well, maybe)
[*]The world of shadows that you cannot interact with
This theme is so frequent that it seems the whole game is built up around it. This has the (possibly unintended) consequence of having the world seem incredibly rich, due to so much being implied that you can’t actually interact with (doors, people, areas, items, etc.)
So Far is incredibly hard. This is the third time I’ve played it through, and I had to use a walkthrough after the first couple of areas.
The puzzles are also quite fair in retrospect, but they require experimentation. Here are some examples of clever puzzles:
[*]The oily pods.It may seem unfair at first when you realize that you aren’t supposed to oil one obviously oily thing, and are supposed to save one pod. However, the only way the west pillar can ‘tug’ the rope is if it isn’t oily, so if you can figure out this one roadblock puzzle, you automatically have a pod leftover. Plotkin could have made the puzzles in a way that you could solve the ‘gate’ puzzle with no oil pods left over, but he forces you into the right setup.
[*]The ceramic square.I didn’t see anyway I could have guessed the use of this item in my first play through using the walkthrough. In the second one, though, you see a child lighting a pipe around the time you get the square, and a ceramic triangle is broken off in another area. This tells the player that the squares can be broken, and suggests a possible use. However, only careful and/or repeated playthroughs will reveal this information.
[*}The thick/thin pipes. I thought this was insane the first time, not knowing the pattern. However, once you know they move in opposing directions, it becomes much simpler. With nothing to do but explore, it is natural to test the extremes, to see what pattern will allow you to go as far as possible one way. The final solution is just going all the way one way, then turning around, then turning around again.
The one that I had the most trouble with was the sounds puzzle, as I missed out on some important interactions with them. But I think sufficient experimentation would have revealed the solution.
The setting and areas are incredibly creative, much of it borrowed (openly) from others’ creativity, which is an important tool for any author. Some examples of creative appropriation include the tension bridge and the dinosaurs, and the use of poems.
Another area of creativity in the game is the use of vibrant colors in descriptions: orange, violet, green and green animals; worlds of pure black and pure white; plants of yellow or bright purple; buildings of grey and scarlet and ivory covered in green moss.
The many dramas in the form of plays, dances and rodeos are also innovative.
Plotkin uses a variety of techniques to instill pathos. Nothing is shoved at the player; instead, everything is removed one step. Instead of a passionate argument with the player, the player watches a play about an argument. Even more removed, they spend most of the time watching others who are watching the argument. The same is true ofthe arena and the village; in each case, the attention is focused on the viewers, and not the drama itself.
The paw prints in the snow, the silence of the people in the town, the complete darkness in the sound world, the isolation the shadow world all build pathos by the absence of something rather than the presence.
The most powerful moment may very well be finding the boy trapped in the ‘pipe’ world. But nothing ever tells you to feel bad. The story focuses on how uncomfortable you are, and the claustrophobia you feel. It implies the boy has been there a very long time, and it shows that he knows about the pipes, and knows how useful it could be to him. And then it just leaves everything up to you. It sets up a big moral choice without telling you anything about it. This is extremely effective, creating pathos through inference.
There are many other excellent things about this game, but it seems clear that the creative setting, the effective use of pathos, the coherent story and the fair-but-hard puzzles contribute a great deal to its success as a ‘best game’.