Review: Gateway

(Only two reviews on IFDB. Just thought I’d bring this classic to the spotlight a bit.)

I like saying “Heechee” over and over.

The past ten days I have been playing Gateway . The moment I heard the electronic music and saw the first screen of the introduction, I was whisked back to the early '90s. I felt the same anticipation as when I had just put a new cartridge in my Nintendo-console and watched the pictures with the background story. Good stuff. Of course, Gateway is a text adventure, and I don’t remember playing any of those on my SNES.

This is the first graphic/text game I have completed. The intro-pictures were great. Very beautiful pixel art. But this wouldn’t be the first piece of art/craft/entertainment to blow the player/spectator/beholder’s mind with an intense blast to the senses and emotions to cover up mediocre content. I was still apprehensive about if and how both inputs, picture and text, would work together in my mind.

Pretty good, it turns out. The default setting is an impossibly cluttered screen with a little picture in the top right, a little text window bottom right, and a list of every possible verb and every possible noun on the left half of the screen. Apparently, you could play this game like a point’n’clickety robot by mindlessly clicking every possible verb-noun combination.
But,…you have options. There is also the hardcore text-only option, for those who dislike pretty pictures and still think Bob Dylan should never have picked up an electric guitar.
Me, I settled on the half’n’half option: pictures and windrose on top, screenwide text below. Very handy. The pictures really add to the sparse descriptions, the compass shows exits at a single glance. What I especially liked was that clicking the pictures doubles as an X-command. So I could enter a new location and just click around instead of typing X everything. I noticed a few objects this way that I had overlooked in the text. Also, when thoroughly exploring a location or when trying out my entire inventory on a puzzle, I find myself hitting L or I every five or six turns. Here, I could just replace the picture with the room description or my inventory list. I used this a lot.

As I said, the pictures add a lot to the sparse descriptions. And the help is more than welcome. The writing isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t say it’s got any real literary qualities, like some other games that excel in two-sentence gems to grasp the feel of a room. But this criticism is about the small-scale writing. Gateway does excel at the big-picture writing: plot, pacing, overall structure…

In Chapter One, you have won the lottery and go to an enormous space station built by an ancient alien civilization, the Heechee. There, you will be trained as a pilot and get the chance to go find alien artefacts all over the galaxy. You will be payed a handsome sum for everything you bring back. The puzzles here are good, nothing too hard. They are important in setting you up for some harder puzzles in the later portions of the game. You can actually solve all of the puzzles on the space station on your very first evening there. Should you not do so, then know that at some point in the game you will have to re-explore the entire station. My biggest gripe about this first chapter is that it feels too small. You are supposedly on a huge alien satellite, but the writing does not succeed in bringing across that feeling. This is not about the number of accessible rooms, but about the very confined boundaries of the playing area. It would have helped to hint at other areas of this great space station while prohibiting the PC from ever entering there. (Turbolifts that go higher than the accessible three decks to regions where the PC does not have clearance come to mind.)
The boundaries of the storyworld on the other hand are very wide. There are some devices in the game that give you the news from earth, tell you about the history of the station, and even show personal messages from other prospectors (looking for a drinking companion or a date…). This makes you feel in touch with a much bigger society.
Also in this chapter you go on the first few missions to other planets. Nothing noteworthy though, just a teeny tiny taste of what’s to come.

What does come next in Chapter Two is amazing. You visit four alien worlds to carry out a very specific mission. Each of these worlds is one single puzzle, contained within a handful of locations. Two puzzles in particular (the spider-anemones-octopus-snake sequence on planet 2 and the Sasquatch on planet 3) were beautiful in their logic and simplicity.
Each of these worlds is also a magnificent new ecosystem, making one wonder about what the rest of the planet would look like. Here, the small size of the map does not impinge on the feeling of a bigger world at all.

Of course, just when you think you have completed your four-part mission, it turns out there is a fifth obstacle to be overcome. The three related problems in Chapter Three hearken back to your trainee days when you had just arrived at the space station. If you payed attention at the beginning of the game, you should grasp the principles of the solutions immediately, if not the practical execution. The idea behind these final puzzles is a classic and very well played SciFi trope. Unfortunately, one of the puzzles also involves “Paradise as seen through the eyes of a hormone-overdosed, raised-on-misogynistic-movies fifteen-year-old boy”. No matter how good you may find the puzzle, this part is bad. Really bad.

That’s really a shame, and the fact that it comes right before the end of the game doesn’t help. For me at least, it tainted the final WIN-sensation.

If I excise that bit from my memories with my imaginary memory-scalpel though, I’m left with the experience of an overwhelmingly good game. Very entertaining, very emotionally engaging at times (the Sasquatch again). It may be linear, “on rails” as they say, but it’s one heck of a rollercoaster ride.

Must play, if you can stomach that bit-that-will-not-be-mentioned-again.

Finally, I’d like to come back to my favorite puzzle of Gateway .
I have read several reviews and interviews where Emily Short talks about the complicity of the player in commanding the PC, especially when immoral actions are needed to advance the game. She comments that through the years, it has become more of an emotional burden for her to just do whatever it takes as an adventurer to get the proverbial Magic Crystal.
In my years as an adventurer, I have happily stolen stuff, sedated and drugged NPCs, broken all kinds of furniture or laws. I have even killed a good number of guards that happened to be in my way. All without a moral hiccup.
When I first came across the Sasquatch however, I found myself very emotionally involved. From the start, I hoped I wouldn’t have to harm it. In the end, I did have to treat it in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with (although it was not unbearable), and it was a very powerful experience to find myself caring so much about what would happen to this creature. This is where IF done right can truly shine, through shared responsibility between the player and the character.
(Actually, come to think of it, something similar happened when I played LASH, but that game had a twisted player/PC relation at its core that was aimed at just this strange complicity. Gateway is a more traditional adventure in this respect.)

A classic well worth playing (again).