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Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Winner, Best Story; Nominee, Best Puzzles; Nominee, Best Individual PC - 1997 XYZZY Awards
-- Carl Muckenhoupt
In the realm of science fiction, very trodden ground indeed, Ian Finley's Babel does not seem profoundly original; you have an experiment in an isolated lab that goes wrong, an unscrupulous scientist, dramatic confrontations, even a countdown of sorts. But the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and there is more to Babel than might appear from a thumbnail sketch. The puzzles are few and not particularly remarkable, but for simple storytelling power, this one ranks among the best in the competition.
-- Duncan Stevens
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>VERBOSE -- Paul O'Brian's Interactive Fiction Page
Babel is not only one of the best competition games I've ever played, it's one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I've ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story.
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Number of Reviews: 7
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It is obviously very hard for a game to live up to that kind of reputation, and Babel did not. But I was somewhat surprised at how great the discrepancy between the critical consensus and my own judgement about the game turned out to be: what most people apparently see as a nearly flawless game revealed itself to me as a very problematic piece -- interesting, mostly fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Just because other critics have been so almost unanimously positive, I believe it will be most useful if I focus on the reasons why I did not like the game. It's not a bad game. I could say many positive things about it. But you can read up on those in the other reviews (see also here). So, with the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, let's move on to my complaints.
Babel is set in an abandoned scientific base on one of the poles, far from all human contact. It becomes apparent very early on that the amnesiac player character has a special ability: he can touch certain things in the world, that he perceives as glowing, and these will then project forth emotionally-charged scenes that happened nearby at some time in the near past. Much of the game consists of the player hunting for such glowing objects, so that he can trigger these flashbacks.
Although justified in the narrative, this is obviously a plot device thought up only so that the author can bombard the player with non-interactive cut-scenes. Rather than telling a story in which the player (note that I'm not saying "player character") participates, we get to slowly uncover a story that has already taken place. In other words, Babel has fallen into the dreadful trap of excessive reliance on backstory. As Stephen Bond memorably puts it: "If Lord of the Rings had consisted mostly of Frodo recovering lost pages of The Silmarillion, then no one would ever have read it." But this is almost precisely what Babel does.
Playing the game consists of the tired old routine of thoroughly searching everything you encounter, writing down all the clues, collecting keys, and then opening doors that you couldn't open before you found the right key or the right piece of information. This will open up new areas that you get to search thoroughly, find keys in, and... well, you understand what's going on. Except that this time, we also get to read very long cut-scenes whenever we find a glowing object.
It's not that this is unenjoyable per se. Although the puzzles are nothing to write home about (expect combination codes for safes and fiddling with intricate machinery), the environment is interesting, the cut-scenes are generally well-written, and the story, although hardly fresh, is worth perusing. But look at it this way. As an author, you have thought up an interesting story. Now what would be more exciting for a player: (1) being dropped into the middle of that story so you get to perceive it first-hand and act in it, in other words, experiencing your fictional story as interactive fiction; or (2) solve a bunch of thirteen-in-a-dozen IF puzzles and be rewarded by reading excerpts from a static fiction story that you have written out beforehand? Of course (1) more exciting. It is also harder to implement, but nobody said making good interactive fiction was easy.
Okay, so the gameplay is uninspiring and to a great extent detached from the story. Not entirely detached, of course, and Finley attempts to tie in the backstory with the interactive present in several ways. The most important of these is that you get clues to solve puzzles from the cut-scenes. But that's still me just experiencing the story from afar and then opening locked doors. The others are that (a) the back-story gives vital information for understanding who the player character is, which is finally revealed at a dramatic moment; and that (b) we learn the end of the back-story only in the present. But again, all of this is non-interactive. (And the big revelation about the player character will surely be guessed by every player long, long before it actually happens.)
Which leaves me somewhat baffled. This game is more than adequate, but it is definitely not great. It's very standard interactive fiction with a relative standard story pasted onto it a totally non-interactive way. So why do Andrew Plotkin and Paul O'Brian give it a 10 and a 9.8 respectively? Why do half the reviewers on this site give it 5 stars? I have no idea -- but if you wish to comment, please do.
Every detail and every puzzle in this game is there for a reason; the player isn't made to jump through hoops just for the sake of mental exercise. Why are the keys to routine parts of the station so hard to obtain? By the end of the game you will know and it will make sense. The writing also gives an overwhelming sense of urgency while not, as far as I could tell, actually having a time-limit coded into the game (other than in one puzzle, which you can do over if you mess up). This makes it very playable for relatively new players apt to go over and over things like me.
No character in this game is morally unambiguous. They are human, fallible, and very believable. Some scenes do stray just over the line into melodramatic or preachy, and the romantic subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me. But that's only a tiny quibble in what is otherwise a seamless and chilling story.
There were a couple points where I considered looking up hints, but I didnít need them. Puzzles made sense and I liked how the game was very clear about why something wouldnít work. (Spoiler - click to show)The radiation puzzle was particularly ingenious, since it was understandable that the machine would be able to talk and report problems, which has the side effect of helping the player follow proper procedures. My only problem was getting the game to understand me sometimes. Wasnít so much verb guessing as phrasing issues. Sometimes, I had to split commands and let the game ask me for clarification to get what I wanted. But it didnít happen often and certainly wasnít frustrating enough to make me stop playing.
Where this game really shines is characterization. I think the characters are some of the most vivid and three-dimensional I have ever seen in the IF Iíve played. While playing, I felt as though I were watching a movie. I think there was the right blend of story and puzzles. Some games, such as those that have a lot of conversation, feel like Iím reading a book and am just there to press the right buttons and turn pages. I feel like I should just read a book. Iíd get more story at one time. Babel gave a sense of purpose interspersed with cut scenes that gradually fleshed out a dramatic and tragic tale. (Spoiler - click to show)Admittedly, the calendar felt contrived, but I can forgive that since it was useful for the overall story. All the characters had good and bad traits; everyone was culpable for what happens in the story. Itís not like you can say one person was the mastermind and everyone else just went along. Setting was well done; there was definitely a sense of isolation and a quiet, creeping horror that doesnít overdo it on the overt graphic images. I came away feeling just as I did last time - horrified but in a satisfied way. The ending felt fair, right, with just the right amount of pain to add an emotional component. Think of Anakin Skywalker and his subsequent failure, and you have Babel.
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