Paul O’Brian on Best Individual PC

Paul O’Brian was editor of the IF review zine SPAG from 1999 to 2005. He’s written hundreds of reviews, including reviewing (almost) every IF Comp game from 1996 to 2004. As an author, he’s a two-time winner of the IF Competition and received the Best Use Of Medium XYZZY Award in 2002 for his game Another Earth, Another Sky. But what has he done for you lately? (Well, he did write you this review.)

The only finalist for Best Individual PC was Coloratura.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura has made XYZZY Award history. It is the first nominee ever to win its category before the second round of voting, by being the sole nominee in its category, Best Individual PC. Mind you, it isn’t the sole 2013 game that qualified for the category — obviously, the other games had player characters. It’s just that Coloratura‘s PC is so good that no other game from the year could muster more than a single vote to compete with it. It was the overwhelming choice, and for good reason. It’s great.

So what’s so great about it? Well, for one thing, the Aqueosity has an unusual point of view, as you might guess from its name. It is essentially an alien life form, and the game does a wonderful job of making it clear just how alien indeed. Now, non-human PCs are nothing new in IF. The trick goes back at least to Miron Schmidt’s 1996 game Ralph (in which the PC is a dog), and probably earlier than that. You can find a whole list of such games at IFDB.

What’s special about the Aqueosity is that not only is it non-human, it is wholly original to this game. In games where you play something like a dog, or a vampire, or an elf, sure the POV is inhuman, but it is still familiar — we’ve got a pre-existing rubric within which to understand it. The Aqueosity is a monster (though of course it doesn’t see itself as such), but it’s like no monster we’ve ever seen before — its closest archetype I can think of is The Blob, and even that isn’t very close at all. So from the first moment of the game, we must struggle to understand just what it is we’re dealing with on a fundamental level. That’s a time-honored tradition in written SF, but it’s used to particularly powerful effect here in the interactive context, where we must not only learn to understand the Aqueosity, we must learn to be the Aqueosity.

This process involves figuring out just what the creature can do, and here we come to another of Coloratura‘s strengths: the expanded capabilities of its PC. It’s always fun to play a character who can influence the world in unusual ways, whether by magic or gizmos or superpowers or whatever, and even more fun when those abilities unlock gradually over the course of the game. Coloratura does a masterful job of uniting character discovery with power discovery, so that learning more about the Aqueosity’s skills and traits lets us comprehend the character better, and vice versa.

The fact that the game curtails some very standard IF tropes (“INVENTORY” gets the response, “This body cannot carry things.”) forces players almost immediately to begin trying to explore more unfamiliar concepts for affecting the environment. Doing so starts uncovering some capacities we’re not used to having in IF, the first of which is probably the most shocking: the PC can kill with a thought. (If in fact “thought” is the right word for whatever goes on when the Aqueosity severs a human’s ties with “the physical.”) As Glasser points out in her author’s notes, having this mass murder occur at the beginning of the game, as a necessary component of progressing, highlights not only the PC’s inhuman capabilities but also its utter remove from human concepts of morality.

The gelatinous PC can also travel through very small spaces, which opens up travel capabilities beyond those of the humans inhabiting the ship. It seems to be highly acidic as well, at least in reaction with some substances… including human flesh. I could never quite suss out what things it would melt and what things it wouldn’t, but in any case its Aqueous acidity is crucial not only to certain puzzle solutions but also to the sense of horror in the story, as the Aqueosity physically disfigures objects and people.

The creep factor increases further when we find that the PC is capable not just of physical influence, but mental influence as well. The game does a lovely job of introducing the “COLOR” verb at an opportune time, and in doing so unfolds the PC in a whole new dimension. At the same time, the power is so perfectly in tune with the game’s theme and milieu (not to mention its title, which gave a very satisfying click at this disclosure) that it feels completely natural and inevitable. Of course the Aqueosity can not only hear the colors of emotion, it can sing them too, and of course that singing would influence the beings nearby. Glasser wisely (and unavoidably) prevents this power from working in most instances, but seeing the list of colors made me feel possibilities gleefully expanding, and I loved solving the puzzles that hinge on this ability.

I can’t speak of puzzles without mentioning the meat monster, which won another of Coloratura‘s bouquet of awards, for Best Individual Puzzle. This is a beautiful puzzle in lots of ways, but I’ll try to confine myself to those relating to my category. First, the cueing is just fantastic, introducing the PC’s penultimate superpower ever so smoothly:

Colder Room
The madness in this room is soul-wrenching. How the Blind Ones could live with this atrocity is unfathomable. Fleshy chunks of the formerly-alive sit in frozen stacks, trapped in disunity. Your own situation is frustrating, but this is a true, horrific travesty. You need to help this, heal this, fix this: you can’t idle while such suffering exists.

The meat is too disjointed to color. It needs to be combined first.

You smooth your body over the meat packages, physically and metaphysically conducting unity and understanding and cohesion. As you weave together the previously disparate notes, the black gives way to confusion, then curiosity, and then slowly to joy and happiness at its newfound Song. The Newsong greenly bubbles into gleeful thankfulness.

This is a textbook example of how to introduce new verbs without putting the player through a single moment of guess-the-verb frustration. I’d gotten here by exploiting a power I knew — crawling through small spaces — and when I then tried to use another power, the game gave me a stepladder to try something new, and rewarded me generously when I did so.

Even better, when I did struggle, the game was there to catch me. The meat monster puzzle introduces the PC’s final power, that of controlling other beings. This power is crucial for the final act of the game, and the logic that invokes it here is flawless. However, although the game tried to give me a similar cue (“…it only continues to beg you for help. It striates insitence [sic] that you take control, that you fix everything.”), I failed to catch on. Rather than letting me flounder for too long, the game finally just taught me what it wanted me to do:

In a desperate act of submission, the Newsong binds its aura to yours, giving you complete control of its mind and body. You surprise at the bond: your bodies remain divorced, but your minds move in perfect synch. You tug curiously at its simplistic flesh-structures, feeling the creature’s immense weight. You can make it do whatever you want.

As it had done many times before, Coloratura gave me a thrill by opening yet another capability of the PC, and it did so without a trace of contrivance, as the act of a newborn fighting for its life.

A newborn. The Aqueosity’s utter horror and revulsion at the concept of a freezer full of meat, and the way it experiences that environment (“Fleshy chunks of the formerly-alive sit in frozen stacks, trapped in disunity”) brilliantly puts our sympathies on its side, and against our own kind. The joy and gratitude it hears in the Newsong’s voice put the monstrous PC into the role of loving mother, and yet we can also understand perfectly, superimposed upon this picture, the utter shock and horror of the humans aboard the ship, as an inexplicably animate mass of meat suddenly bursts out of the freezer and into the kitchen.

Coloratura makes that kind of move over and over, to enormous effect. It’s my favorite aspect of the game, and it couldn’t be done without the finely crafted PC. See, there are some things IF is great at conveying — special perspectives and special powers are among those. You know what IF is not very good at conveying, though? Dramatic irony. When the audience controls the character, it’s very difficult to pull off an effect where the character knows less than the audience. When we watch Hamlet stab the arras behind which Polonius is hiding, we too feel the stab of tragedy at his unwitting accident. But if Hamlet was an IF PC, how would the author achieve this effect? She could hide the knowledge of Polonius’ location from the PC, but doing so would drain Hamlet’s action of dramatic irony. She could allow the stabbing not to occur, but that would derail the entire plot. Or she could eliminate interactivity around that moment, in which case we’re pretty much back to watching a play.

I’ve never seen a game solve this puzzle, but Coloratura takes an ingenious route to get there. By creating a character which is both horrifying and sympathetic, and making that character our viewpoint onto an otherwise stock and familiar human environment, the game manages to give us more knowledge than the PC, so that we can understand its actions, necessary for its own survival, in the context of the deaths, maimings, and mind control it inflicts on the human crew. That crew is shown to be scientists, not villains of any kind, and so they have our sympathy too, not to mention the built-in sympathy they get by sharing our DNA. Thus we can feel the full tragedy of unwitting destruction as the story unfolds. That is the most impressive artistry of all in this very, very impressive game.

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