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About the StoryAt some point, going back would have been inevitable anyway. And why should I not have been allowed a bit of rest? After all, no one could say I hadn't tried to run. But when you're running, you need to stop eventually, or else you risk running into people.
41th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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I’m having a hard time figuring out how to organize this review, so let’s go with a good old tripartite structure, plus a summing-up.
1. Plodding literalism
Viewed strictly as a parser puzzle game, FoPPSA has some early high points. I found the opening enticingly odd, and the first set of tasks, while sometimes feeling arbitrary and lacking conventional logic, were motivated and fairly clued (the first significant puzzle, a minotaur-and-maze jobby, prompted a fun “aha” moment once I figured out the trick).
Once the second set of tasks opens up, however, I often found myself flailing, both to identify what I should be working on, and how to accomplish my goals. There were some guess-the-verb issues (Spoiler - click to show)(making the Molotov cocktail was probably the worst offender here), incomprehensible dialogue referencing events for which I had no context, and puzzles that didn’t seem like they’d have any connections to my goals (Spoiler - click to show)(I’m thinking most immediately of the bit where you have to skin-dive into a shipwreck at the bottom of Tokyo Bay in order to obtain some plane tickets). I mostly typed in the walkthrough for the second half of the game. Beta testers aren’t listed in the ABOUT text, so in this frame I’m tempted to think the author ran out of time and didn’t have outside eyes helping to figure out where to focus their work.
2. Anime club in the basement
After I finished playing and I was making my first attempt to figure out how I felt about FoPPSA, I thought first of all about anime club.
See, when I was in college, I had a girlfriend who was big into anime (I was not). This was in the late 90’s, so rather than that meaning she had a subscription to a bunch of specialty streaming services, this meant that once a week she liked to go to the school’s anime club, which met in a basement to watch inconsistently-subtitled (or, God help us, over-earnestly overdubbed) episodes of two or three series which they ran through concurrently. Every once in a while I would go along with her, but without seeing most of the shows from the beginning, to this day I unfairly associate anime with the experience of squinting nearsightedly at blurry text (again, this was the 90s, we had CRTs) while attempting to figure out why Japanese teenagers were yelling at each other while obliquely referencing grievances and events that I’d missed by coming in late.
You see where I’m going with this.
And I don’t say that intending to be unkind! Just that in that first assessment, I thought part of what FoPPSA was doing was genre emulation of a genre with which I don’t easily get along, and which often can be intentionally alienating. Some of the tropes were fun – – but the overall structure isn’t one that’s trying to provide easy answers.
3. Bertolt Brecht
OK, here’s why I used the past tense in the paragraph above. As I was going to sleep after playing FoPPSA, one detail suddenly jumped out at me – oh, and I can’t really say what it was without a spoiler. Actually:
(Spoiler - click to show)So the detail is that the floating casino that hosts the game’s climax is called the “Mahagonny”. One might be forgiven for thinking that’s a misspelling of a type of wood, but I think it’s actually a reference to a Bertolt Brecht opera (I haven’t seen it, but that same ex-girlfriend was also interested in opera and once described the plot to me). And once I realized that, I thought to myself, hang on, the author isn’t (just) doing anime, they’re doing Brecht.
I am not anything resembling a theater scholar by any means, so most of what I say here is probably wrong. But my understanding of Brecht is that he was a devout Communist and critic of capitalist society who developed a theater focused on an ethic of estrangement that interrogates the role and complicity of the audience in what they’re watching. And it sure seems like there’s a lot in FoPPSA to support a Brechtian reading!
The slow ascent up the apartment-tower of privilege, for example, with the player becoming further compromised with each step they take, is a relatively straightforward critique of capitalism (I found the dialogue options here a little wonky, but I believe it’s possible to end the game after getting each apartment if you say you’re content with it – it’s just that you get a “bad ending” so you’re pushed to try for the next). And speaking of allegories of capitalism, the horrifying fish-canning factory is if anything a bit too on the nose. Plus the dialogue with and about the trio of dudebros has a lot of references to revolutionary theory and practice.
Beyond the focus on class, there are also parts of the game that might be intentionally estranging. The host of Japanese words, likely unfamiliar to most Western players, put a layer of effort between the player and the game. There are interspersed quotations, I think mostly from the Brothers Grimm, that unsettle the narrative. There are several random sections where you just need to keep trying the same things over and over until you happen to get lucky. One might even view some of the fiddliness of the parser and puzzles as attempts by the author to engage the player-as-audience in a Brechtian sort of way!
4. Summing up
I mean, if you read the giant spoiler-block above you know that I can’t really pretend to sum this up. There’s a lot going on in this one, with some real intelligence behind the game, but also some messiness, bugs and flaws. I’ll need to go back once the comp ends, including playing the prequel, and see if I can get any further. I also hope there’s a post-comp release, because I think some clean-up would help delineate which bits of oddness are intentional, and which are bugs. In any event, FoPPSA was an intriguing start to the Comp for me!
(I’ll wrap up with a small bit of service-reviewing: there were two significant bugs I ran into that even the most devout Brechtian wouldn’t include on purpose: while trying to solve a disambiguation issue, I tried to drop one of the items and got a “fatal error: Out-of-bounds memory access” crash (this terminates the transcript, since I didn’t remember to start a new one when I re-opened the game); the game also didn’t end for me after I performed what I’m pretty sure (from the walkthrough) should have been the last few moves. (Spoiler - click to show)This means that my antagonist/rival/romantic interest was left forever bleeding out, gasping out the same final bit of dialogue, no matter how many turns I waited or tried to keep talking to her.) I believe these may have been fixed in a mid-Comp update, though).
I liked most of this game a lot, both its story, puzzles and the humor. This game has several endings. However, it is clear whenever a better ending can be obtained, so the player will probably "undo" when reaching one of these less good endings. Unfortunately, the final ending was a bit confusing, and I couldn't help thinking that this game might have been a sequel to the author's other games. At least I noticed that the author has made another game set in Japan (Gotomomi). Thus "Putrid Sea" may be excellent if you have played that game first, I don't know. I have rated it without having played Gotomomi.
Perhaps if I had read all messages thoroughly several times, I could have analyzed the text to figure out what was going on with the final ending. Personally, I don't think that should be necessary and thus I rated it even though I didn't get the final ending. Still, I can recommend this game, as most of the game is easy to understand and well done (except the few bugs I hope the author will fix). You can just stop at one of the earlier endings, if you don't like the final ending.
In this game, you return to the same scenes, but your path is a lot more constrained at first. The main goal seems to be finding better and better housing.
There are elements of the game that seem surreal, especially near the end. I wouldn't use the term magical realism, because there's not any magic here, but maybe 'enhanced reality'? There is violence in the game more surprising in how it is reacted to than its existence.
Overall, the game's narrower focus than Gotomomi aids it in telling a coherent narrative. However, many required actions are things that, while dramatically sensible, don't make much sense in a typical parser game. I ended up using the walkthrough for most of the game.
+Polish. The game uses an in-depth conversation system and has a lot of interesting moving parts (like a gambling game and holding your beath).
+Descriptiveness. This game is very descriptive.
-Interactivity. I often found myself at odds with the parser.
+Emotional Impact. The ending was very intriguing. I don't know if it was moving, but I'd describe it as a thoughtful game.
+Would I play it again? I'd be willing to give it another go some time.
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This is version 9 of this page, edited by Zape on 25 October 2020 at 9:31pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item