Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard
I chose to play “Prism” because it describes itself as “Contemplative Industrial Fantasy”, and I’m drawn to fantasy and sci-fi that foregrounds emotion and introspection. (I often find it easier to process certain feelings within the context of imaginary worlds.) It’s also written in ink, a language that lends itself to “contemplative” design and writing, especially in browser-based IF, so I was pretty sure that at the very least I was going to play something highly Relevant To My Interests. “Prism” did not disappoint: it is a beautifully-written game that delivers the exact experience that it promised.
The setting is the mysterious city of Conduin, a magical/industrial metropolis brought to life with gorgeous, thoughtful prose that combines environmental descriptions with social/psychological details about its citizens:
As the city grows, its residents become accustomed to wonders beyond understanding. Endless water pouring from its heart, geologicians pulling clastic stone structure from the sand in mere days, the sky itself tamed in the name of invented light and sound. Citizens carry lightning in their pockets, humming battery-wands sheathed in stone to transfer payment. You can hear the zap-buzz of commerce now, whirring contraptions winding up to fill sitting halls with constant novelty, if not harmony.
You heard once from a retired geologician - half trance-addled and bleeding sand from a barfight bottle-wound - that these buildings’ angular fractal patterns were a magnification of some existing structure in the stone itself, too small for the eye to see.
Without purpose, many reach for pleasure. The intoxicants that are entitled to citizens after work become all-consuming. Fermented beverages are common, but more addictive and more freeing is Saccharine, a distilled residue from the canals dissolved under the tongue.
Swoon. That last detail is very specific and yet suggests so much! Immediately, my imagination is like… but what is in the residue? How did it end up in the canal? Is it organic? Is it residue from the canal boats’ fuel, for example, and if so why is it psychoactive? All things that make the world feel huge, complex and strange. This game is full of details like that.
In fact, Conduin is so detailed and meticulously described that it’s almost too big, conceptually, for the size of the game. At the end, I felt that I not only could have spent much longer in it, but also that I had barely scratched the surface of this vast and complex place. It’s a feeling I’m not used to in IF - the sense of being a tiny part of something truly vast. On one hand I felt that the world could have supported a much larger and longer story… but on the other hand, the sense that I had only seen a tiny piece of the world was very powerful. At the end I felt small and almost adrift - a tiny, almost inconsequential person in a huge and ancient place.
Aside from the writing, I think part of the reason for this feeling was the way the “contemplative” aspect of the game is delivered: your character spends a lot of time looking out at the city and considering its inhabitants and history. The protagonist is a “courier”, a delivery person (and gig worker) who runs around the city, often having to choose between food and other necessities, to scrape together a living. This makes them the perfect perspective character for “contemplative” fantasy: they’ve spent their whole life in the city and know it intimately from a physical/environmental perspective. They’re also acutely aware of its social and economic systems in a way that it’s only possible to be you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy (of which more in a moment). Structurally, moments of rest and contemplation are built into this character’s routine: they spend a lot of time resting and gazing out at the city between deliveries.
Impressively, despite its thoughtful political and social commentary, and vivid portrayal of a life lived close to the edge, “Prism” is never preachy. Instead, it retains a sense of wonder because the protagonist (I felt) still retains their sense of wonder for this strange and often beautiful city. My ending (there are several) left me with a sense of quiet optimism, or at least a sense that connections between people are what give life meaning… and how important it is to act as if our actions are not futile, despite evidence to the contrary. This is a real tightrope to walk, and “Prism” pulls it off. There is absolutely a place for political fantasy that makes a rhetorical case for social justice, but Prism gently made me feel that it was worth acting through hope, not despair.
(It’s not lost on me that all the IFComp games I’ve reviewed so far have been some form of commentary about how people are manipulated for capitalistic ends. I didn’t go out of my way to choose games that explored this topic, but, well, I guess we’re all acutely aware of it at the moment.)
I mentioned in my review of “Blood Island” that I really enjoy when IF choices prompt me to reflect on how I feel about something, rather than just to make a choice about how to progress. While “Prism” foregrounds the former (it’s contemplative!), there are a few significant choices that affect how the story unfolds. Because most of the choices made me think about how I felt, when I came to one that asked me what I wanted to do, my decision felt instinctive and emotional.
Some players might find “Prism” a little slow, or that the worldbuilding and story are out of balance. I hope I’ve explained why I did not feel that, and why I think it was very clear in its artistic choices, and very effective in how it delivered the exact experience it set out to. I guess my one criticism (I’m really trying hard to think of anything) is that some of the possible choices/dialogue options were a little flippant and therefore slightly off-tone, but like I said, I’m really reaching here.
“Prism” is a gorgeous, thoughtful game that I recommend if you enjoy contemplative IF and beautifully-written fantasy.