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So Far

by Andrew Plotkin profile

Surreal
1996

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Number of Reviews: 5
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Myst meets Trinity meets The Twilight Zone, March 14, 2014
It's like Myst in the sense that you act as a sort of sci-fi anthropologist while figuring out strange mechanisms and cultures, I was reminded of Trinity by the scene-hopping and overall structure, and I'm mentioning The Twilight Zone because I have no better shorthand to describe this game's surreal nature and general weirdness. But make no mistake--So Far is much darker than all three, and one thing I would never call it is derivative.

The going gets weird soon after the (frankly overwrought) introduction, with two moons hanging in the sky and funny things going on with the lighting. Then we're off to dreamland, or wherever it is that the rest of the game takes place. Plotkin's writing can be a bit stiff and doesn't read snappily, but there is no shortage of atmosphere or imagination in these environments. At the outset, things aren't too freaky, since it's hardly the first game to feature lonely ruins and mysterious structures. In turns, however, the places you visit become more dangerous, eerie, unsettling, and perhaps even nightmarish, depending on your phobias. The details are there if you slow down and focus--by reading carefully, I was able to visualize these places in a way that really stuck with me. Much more so than Plotkin's later work Shade, I think So Far truly captures the feeling of a disquieting dream. A recurring one, at that, because the effect is increased by the game's cruelty. The worlds themselves are often unkind, if not outright hostile, and whenever I was stuck on an obstacle I found myself stumbling around as scenes played out over and over, reset either by me or the game itself.

The cruelty in general is something that caught me off guard. Yes, I know the game advertises itself as such, and I am no stranger to the dead ends and deathtraps in old-school titles. What I was not prepared for was all the gosh-darn red herrings. Extraneous detail that suggests a world beyond the scope of the playable area? Fine. Red herring objects to avoid "find the door that matches this key" syndrome? Fine. Red herring objects that would clearly be, in any other game, crucial or even plot-related items? Not fine. A puzzle consisting of nothing but red herrings? Not fine. (Though, having played System's Twilight, perhaps I should have expected the last of these. Fool me twice, shame on me.)

In the beginning, it's not too bad. There are only so many obstacles to push up against, and you keep trying on the ones that seem to have the best chance of giving. Fair enough. I made it a little past the halfway point before my determination started to waver. Part of the problem is that many small details are not extraneous, with a fair amount of noun-hunting required in the room and object descriptions. Too many loose ends--too many potential loose ends--meant the fog was more than I could navigate, so I caved and went to the hints. In a sense I actually wished the game was crueler. Trinity, for example, only gives you one chance to visit various parts of the game, which narrows the range of possibilities. You know you don't have to do any hopping back and forth with different items at different times, and that helps you sort out the order in which to tackle things. Now, So Far is certainly not as big and broad as the massive dungeon crawls of the past. For what it's worth, I never had to make a map. But I still feel that there is an intentional nastiness to the design here that was not often present in the cruel games of old--a sense that Mr. Plotkin was a little too pleased with himself at the traps he had laid.

That's a lot of whining for a game I'm giving four stars, but I try to have some humility about these things. For anything specific I might point out, I'm sure someone out there can say, "Oh, I figured that out right away." My frustrations only partially diminish the game's other strengths, especially considering it came out in 1996. There are several puzzles I would say are very well done, unreservedly, and some scenes have an impressive amount of stuff going on around the player. Aside from the evocative writing, on a technical level I was hard-pressed to find obvious cracks in the simulation. I even liked the occasionally chiding tone in the deaths and refusal messages. Probably the most praiseworthy statement I can make about So Far is simply that it's memorable. A gentler design would have been nice, sure, but there is something to say for leaving things unexplained, for planting a haunting image in the player's mind, and So Far does this many times over.

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Christina Nordlander, May 30, 2015 - Reply
Late, but I want to point out that "Plotkin's writing can be a bit stiff and doesn't read snappily" is pretty subjective. I personally find his writing style to be among the best in IF, and So Far is, in my opinion, probably his best-written work.
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