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Winner, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Puzzles; Winner, Best NPCs; Winner, Best Individual NPC; Nominee, Best Individual NPC; Winner, Best Individual PC; Nominee, Best Use of Medium - 1999 XYZZY Awards
Honorable Mention - The Top Five IF Games (Adventure Gamers, 2002)
-- Duncan Stevens
Great writing, lots of dark humour, the opportunity to be really nasty and above all, the ending makes Varicella a great, unparalleled experience. Itís one of the best interactive fictions ever created, hands down.
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Jay Is Games
In Varicella, an ingenious piece of alternative history interactive fiction created by Adam Cadre, you have the pleasure of abandoning your usual scruples to play one of the most delightfully nasty antiheroes that I've come across: the eponymous Primo Varicella, Palace Minister at the Palazzo del Piemonte.
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Reviews From Trotting Krips
This game I thought would be that perfect, long game, but it's not - it has some definite flaws which, while they don't prevent it from being enjoyable, do prevent it from being a classic. If I-O is one of the most newbie friendly interactive fiction games I've ever encountered, this is probably about the least newbie friendly interactive fiction game I've ever come across.
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Varicella is a black comedy, with the accent on "black"--mayhem and self-aggrandizement are your character's primary objectives. It follows the lead of last year's "Little Blue Men" in making the PC amoral, driven by greed and unimpeded by sentimental things like compassion--but it addresses a factor that Little Blue Men did not, namely the problem of expecting the player to go along with the PC's objectives. All of the rivals you bump off, or arrange to have bumped off, are profoundly evil; most of them seem to enjoy abusing or exploiting those weaker than themselves. (It is arguable whether you, the PC, are just as evil, but certainly your enemies are unsavory folks.) The player can see Varicella as a sort of avenging force, therefore, even if there are no signs that Varicella actually feels that way or cares about the various evils perpetrated by his enemies except insofar as they affect him personally. It's a rationalization, but a useful one.
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Face It, Tiger, You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre's Varicella
We consider a specific character, Princess Charlotte, in the 1999 interactive fiction work Varicella by Adam Cadre. To appreciate and solve this work, the interactor must both interpret the texts that result (as a literary reader does) and also operate the cybertextual machine of the program, acting as a game player and trying to understand the system of Varicella's simulated world. We offer a close reading focusing on Charlotte, examining the functions she performs in the potential narratives and in the game. Through this example, we find that in interactive fiction - and we believe in other new media forms with similar goals - works must succeed as literature and as game at once to be effective. We argue that a fruitful critical perspective must consider both of these aspects in a way that goes beyond simple dichotomies or hierarchies.
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Number of Reviews: 7
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
What's it about?
The complicated goings-on at the Palazzo del Piedmonte where you, one Primo Varicella, are the Palace Minister. Despite the rather grand title, you wield little actual power and your duties generally include those of a glorified butler. But you're a schemer and eager to seize every opportunity that comes along to better yourself. And if this comes at the expense of others, well... too bad.
And now such an opportunity has presented itself. The King has just died and his son, Prince Charles, is five years old. Soon there's going to be a power struggle for the position of regent (who will officially rule the land in the Prince's stead but unofficially can do pretty much what he likes) and you intend to come out on top. Of course, that means dealing with your rivals as quickly as possible but you have few qualms about that sort of thing. "Dealing" in the case being a polite term for murder.
The introduction is good. Very good. Primo Varicella at once becomes a real and believable character, although it's easy to see why he's held in such poor esteem by everyone he meets in the game. He's a fussy little man, obsessed with manicures and interior design who considers himself the only genuinely sophisticated person at the palace. He's also quite happy to murder anyone who stands in his way, hardly a quality likely to endear him to other people. On top of that, he has an over-inflated opinion of himself and his own abilities, as demonstrated so well during the introduction:
Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.
There you have the introduction which does an excellent job of setting the scene.
Oh yes. I've played some difficult games before but none that come close to Varicella in terms of sheer, downright impossibility*.
* Okay, maybe an exaggeration. After all, I've finished the game so I have firsthand knowledge that it's not impossible, but play it a few times and see how far you get. If you're like me, you'll spend your first four or five plays through the game not having a clue how to finish it.
My first time through the game I actually felt like I was making some pretty good progress. I wandered around the palace, chatted to people, discovered a few things, got a good feel for how I felt everything was likely to pan out - and then I got killed. Yep, soldiers stormed the palace, grabbed me and a moment later one of my rivals, clearly better at this sort of thing than I was, proceeded to shoot me in the head. Exit one fussy little man. Hitting UNDO didn't undo my problems unfortunately as the event with the soldiers and the subsequent untimely demise is on a timer and the program only allows one UNDO in a row. So all UNDO did for me was allow me to relive the moment of my death. Over and over again. Oh joy.
Undeterred, I restarted the game and tried to do better this time. I didn't succeed. Before long, I found myself replaying the final events of the previous game and getting steadily more annoyed at what I felt was an unfair and somewhat premature ending. I'd have probably quit then if not for the slight problem that Varicella was just so damn good that I couldn't bear to quit.
Part of its difficulty stems from the sheer shortness of the game. There is an incredible amount to do to reach an ending which doesn't involve one of your rivals killing you before you kill them and a lot of what needs to be accomplished to steer the game along the path you're after isn't at all straightforward or obvious. A lot, in fact, is the sort of thing you're unlikely to stumble across through sheer luck and instead needs to be plotted out very carefully over a period of many, many games. It's possible to make a few wrong moves here and there, waste a bit of time, but the shortness of the game and the available time you have to complete everything you need to do means that time-wasting just isn't an option. If anyone tells you they finished this game on their first play through they're either a) lying, b) lying, c) lying or d) relying on a walkthrough. Even knowing roughly the sequence of events that you need to go through in order to win, it's still far from easy to actually get there in one piece.
Saving your game regularly - the sort of thing anyone who has played more than a few text adventures knows to do instinctively - is less effective in Varicella due to the game's shortness. Several times after dying I reverted to a previous save only to find myself in another no-win situation because I hadn't performed a certain action by a certain time. In a lesser game this sort of thing would have driven me to distraction (and sent the game off to the recycle bin) but here it's almost forgivable considering the game's other strengths. Almost. When you've just died for the tenth time in a row because you missed something not particularly obvious right at the start of the game, it gets increasingly harder to keep feeling positive.
Persistence seems to be the best way to get anywhere. A couple of times I didn't even try to finish the game, I just explored different avenues that were open to me and if one avenue didn't seem to lead anywhere I restarted and tried something else. One entire game I sat by my surveillance equipment and watched everything I could through it, seeing what I could discover about my rivals that they might not want me to know. In the end, persistence does pay off in that you finally manage to put everything together but you might be forgiven for thinking that you're getting nowhere.
Lots, and very good they are, too. They're a pretty despicable bunch for the most part and at times I was reminded of films like Pulp Fiction where every character, no matter who he or she is, is a nasty piece of work. You might find it hard to sympathise with them - they are, after all, a bunch of back-stabbing, conniving, evil little hellions who would throttle an old woman for her last coin - but it's possible to relate to them all the same. They're all interesting characters with a fully fleshed out background and while none are as well detailed as Varicella himself, they nevertheless perform their duties admirably in giving the player some worthy adversaries to pit himself against.
Not that everyone is against you. With a little bribery, you can find one ally and some detective work and inspired questioning will get you another. Asking as many questions as you can of the characters is a good way to learn things but this is best done in a session when you're not planning to finish the game as the sequence of events that trigger after a set amount of time are likely are come around long before you've exhausted every conversation piece you can think of.
Charlotte is perhaps the only character in the game who doesn't fall into the despicable category, although she has more than a few despicable acts done to her. She spends the majority of the game locked up in the asylum atop one of the palace towers following a mental breakdown after her husband was shot on their wedding day. Several of your rivals regularly rape her (an option, fortunately, you're not able to pursue yourself).
Not a game for kids
There are several dark threads running through Varicella. Charlotte's rape is one of them. Spend enough time checking your surveillance equipment and you'll find an unpleasant scene (mercifully interrupted before its conclusion) with another of your rivals about to molest the young Prince Charles.
Now I started the game thinking that Primo Varicella himself was the lowest of the low due to his plotting to wipe out his enemies, but it quickly becomes apparent from playing through even a portion of the game that he's actually quite a lot less despicable than of his rivals. While more than happy to indulge in power-grabbing games and murder of people who haven't actually done anything to him, he's certainly more tolerable than his rivals. It's probably true to say that he's bad but not half as bad as anyone else.
The tale of the unsatisfying ending
You know on internet forums how when they're about to tell you something that you might not want to know they tend to put a row of dots or SPOILER SPACE with the letters one per line so there's no way anyone can glance at the spoilers without realising what they're looking at? Here we have a single row that says SPOILER so skip over the next few paragraphs if you haven't reached the end of the game yet and don't want it spoiling for you.
The ending was the game's weak point for me. Is there more than one ending? I'm not sure. I finished the game a couple of times and the ending I got was the same each time so I'm assuming it was the only one. If so, well... what a poor way to finish the game.
You win, defeat your adversaries, become regent for the land... and then the Prince grows up, turns into a real terror, stages an uprising, overthrows you and has you tortured to death. Hmmm....
While this certainly made a change from the usual run-of-the-mill game endings where you live happily after ever or find the big treasure chest or slay the evil dark lord and save the world, it's the kind of ending that makes me wonder what the whole point of the game was. Surely there must be a better reward for all that hard work than being tortured to death? Even the endings where I failed and got shot were more satisfying.
Of course, it's altogether possible that there are other endings that offer a more fulfilling conclusion to the game. But I finished it twice - once on my own (and slightly aided by the walkthrough) and once solely with the walkthrough - and both led me to the death-by-torture ending.
Better than Photopia?
Definitely. Now if people spoke about Varicella in the same kind of hero-worship tones that they do Photopia, I could understand where they were coming from. But whereas I finished Photopia and was left wondering just what the big fuss was, when I finished Varicella I immediately played it again several more times just to see what else I had missed. Recommended.
9 out of 10
The king is dead. Within your palace, all will happen, and you will have to plan your way to the throne. That is: get rid of all the opposition. Within 100 moves. You are a vile, treacherous man, and you will behave as such.
You have a very limited amount of moves before Varicella ends, and you have to plan everything with a huge amount of accuracy. Personally, I totally hate games with time/move limits. But this was not the case. Because this game is wonderful. And because I was prepared.
You gotta think of yourself as a time voyager. Varicella is simply the body that you will evilly posses in your journey. Thus: you have a mission, but you also have time-voyager curiosities.
Begin by satisfying the curiosity. Dedicate a number of games just to the discovery of what happens in the palace, and when. It will not be boring at all, because the world you'll get immersed into, is a deep and fascinating one. And in it, a lot of things change during those 100 moves.
After you know what's going on, and possibly when, you can get on the puzzles/treacherous-plannings. Start by solving a puzzle a game. Then, when you think you have solved everything, put them in the right sequence for the final rush.
Other than that, if you're not a lover of draw-the-map-yourself, you might also want to download the map.
If played the right way, this game will totally capture you. The palace is rich and detailed. Almost everything is interactive. And, while some NPCs are quite interesting, others are totally fascinating. Plus, for once we have an IF where you play a vile, immoral, and clever character: and this adds a lot more depth and fun ;-)
1) The game has a reputation for being impossibly difficult. It's really not. I suspect it's the intended playstyle that throws people off and gives them this impression. The puzzles are clever, but logical and well clued.
2) There are multiple solutions to many (all?) of the game's major problems. Some of the solutions are exclusive to each other (e.g. by using one, you preclude another), but there are multiple ways to combine the multiple solutions to ultimately solve the game. (Though I'm pretty sure there's only one 'winning' ending.) This creates the initial impression that there are lots of red herrings in the game (and I suspect that there are still a few), but most of what seem like red herrings are actually used for other solutions to your problems.
3) You will die. Many times. This is, I think, what lends the game its aura of difficulty. But if you expect it, it's kind of freeing. You can experiment: spend a whole playthrough standing in or watching a room to see what happens there, try various methods of solving puzzles, feel free to do dangerous seeming things, etc. This playstyle is apparently known as 'accretive protagonist'; it's like the movie Groundhog Day, where each playthrough allows you the opportunity to learn something and over many runs, you can build up enough knowledge to complete a successful one. The protagonist hints in the introductory text that he has a master plan. You can view your task as the player is to discover what that plan is and put it into action.
4) The time restraint is somewhat tight, but there's some slop built in for mistakes. Since the solution to the game is mostly modular, you can focus your experimentation in one playthrough on trying to achieve a particular solution to one problem, then in the next on optimizing it. Then move on to another problem, etc.
5) There's a jpeg map that comes with the game. It's worth printing it out. The geography of the game is simple and logical (though with many rooms), but the map helps keep your directions straight.
6) There's a lot to discover about the setting of the game and the characters that isn't vital or even useful for the solution. It's worth it to spend a few playthroughs wandering around, examining things, and asking questions.
About the Women (heavy spoilers)
(Spoiler - click to show)I've read a few reviews that mention Cadre's use of Sierra as his mouthpiece. If asked the right questions, she'll discuss women's political and cultural status both in the Piedmont and in the geopolitical reality of Cadre's setting. She comes off as something of a freedom-fighter for women's equality. Then she takes Rico's money and wields a team of assassins to assist him in cementing his power (which may actually be the good ending in the game.) She's obviously based a trope: the femme fatale. And Sarah is the weeping, simpering, weak woman. And Charlotte is crazy. (Note that Sierra herself seems to despise these other female characters, or at best evinces no sympathy for them.) And what are their ultimate fates? Sarah is murdered by her own son (who only ever refers to her as 'bitch'), and Charlotte gets locked back up in her cell. These women aren't agents, they're caricatures intended to be manipulated by the player, then pushed back into the background. Maybe that's Cadre's point, but then you have to look at the rapes.
Sarah was raped by her stepfather (crudely revealed by Sierra), Charlotte has been raped by Rico and Louis, and Sierra herself has been raped by Modo. In other words all of the female characters in the game have been subject to repeated sexual violence. Sarah's and Sierra's rapes serve very little purpose to the story: perhaps Sarah's is used to justify or explain her temperament and maybe Sierra's is used to make Modo look more evil. Charlotte's and that of Prince Charles are even more unsettling -- they're used to advance Varicella's agenda. You wouldn't be able to solve the game without those rapes. And maybe Cadre is trying to implicate the player or make a statement about agency or something. But it's a cold, disturbing, alien thing.
I'd give this game 5-stars for its great imaginative setting, for its thoroughly complicated but fascinating plot, for its very strong writing, for its technical accomplishments and for its engaging play-style. But I found that the implied sexual violence jarred both with the tone of the narration, with my desire to sense more agency from NPCs (especially female ones), and with my tolerance for utterly depraved human monsters stalking the halls.
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