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Varicella

by Adam Cadre profile

Alternate History, Intrigue
1999

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Number of Reviews: 8
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Hints For Beating Chicken Pox, March 18, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
For a game like Varicella, that's been reviewed to death and has even had academic papers written about some of the characters, I don't know that it's all that useful to write a review that lists my likes and dislikes. (For the record, I liked the structure, writing, and setting lots and lots. I disliked the implied extreme sexual violence; I'm not particularly squeamish but this game made me squirm.) I do think the game's handling of its female characters is under-explored. (Cadre strikes me as trying to have his cake and eat it, while insisting that he doesn't even like cake.) More on that later. I thought I'd focus the review on providing some hints for new players.

Spoiler-free Hints
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.


Conclusion
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.

Comments on this review

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Christina Nordlander, March 17, 2015 - Reply
I agree with most of your opinions on the plot and characterisation in this game: I was rather taken aback by how liberally the game uses rape as a plot element or in a character's background, and Sarah is utterly helpless and devoid of agency. However, it seemed to me that we're not meant to agree with Sierra's dismissive comments about Sarah and Charlotte. The fact that Sierra gratuitously insults a child abuse victim (and a recent widow, no less) and a woman who has seen her husband gunned down in front of her, is probably there to show Sierra's amoral character, rather than to tell us what we should think about Sarah or Charlotte. At least, I hope that's the case.
Matt W, March 18, 2015 - Reply
You might be right, I hadn't considered that we're not meant to identify with Sierra. I thought Sierra was the most interesting character in the game; she has the most to say, and she has some agency. But as you point out, she's pretty un-sympathetic and she makes broad, terrible generalizations about China. I suppose she is kind of a caricature of a cold-hearted, strident feminist, which doesn't exactly help endear the game to me.
Adam Cadre, March 18, 2015 - Reply
"she makes broad, terrible generalizations about China"

...a fictional China that diverged from our China 1200 years ago.

"I suppose she is kind of a caricature of a cold-hearted, strident feminist"

As I noted in a previous comment, everyone in the game is a caricature. But caricatures are not inherently satirical. Primo Varicella's obsession with furniture is the stuff of caricature, but it's meant to make him more loveable even as we laugh at it. And again, Sierra is not a mouthpiece, but ask people who know me and they will tell you that the idea of me putting forward "stridency" as a BAD thing is pretty unlikely.
Adam Cadre, March 18, 2015 - Reply
Hi! A few responses:

* Sierra isn't a mouthpiece. I don't believe in mouthpieces. A lot of people seem to think that when they encounter a preachy character in fiction, that character must be speaking for the author. But when I put preachy characters into stories, it is because there are preachy people in the world. I never agree with my preachy characters 100%, because I never agree with any of my characters 100%.

* This review gripes that the women in Varicella are caricatures. But every character in Varicella is a caricature to one extent or another - the guards have a grand total of one trait apiece, Wehrkeit is a stereotypical Nazi, Rico is a stereotypical yuppie, Louis is a stereotypical fratboy, etc., etc. That's just how I wrote in the '90s, because I thought it was funny, and because I was misanthropic enough that I would have told you that it was accurate - that most people struggle to achieve even 2D personalities, let alone 3D ones. You can certainly object to that approach to characterization: I do, which is why I no longer employ it. But complaining that the women in Varicella are caricatures is like complaining that the women on The Simpsons have overbites.

* On rape in Varicella: the point was to depict a horrifying society in which vanishingly few women escaped sexual violence. And my impression is that in human history such societies have been more the rule than the exception. No? Is it not the case that, until relatively recently (and even now in much of the world), those born female were generally either slaves (and therefore raped as a matter of course) or else upon maturity assigned by their families to become the sexual property of men not of their choosing? "I disliked the implied extreme sexual violence"... good! I would hate to meet the person who said, "I LOVED the implied extreme sexual violence." "It's gross and ugly and unsettling"... yes, those are mild terms for how sexual violence should make us feel. So I'm not sure I understand the objection here. Is it that these horrific elements clash tonally with the puzzles and jokes elsewhere in the game, or is it something else?

It does seem like this is the sort of topic that is better handled via conversation, so if you (or anyone reading this) would like to go into this in more depth, I'm always happy to have email discussions with people. Just go to my web site and click on the stamp.
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