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[CRITICAL ANALYSIS] Blue Chairs

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January 6, 2005 10:00:46 AM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

Review of Blve Chairs
Chris Klimas
Awards: 2nd Place, IF Comp 2004

In a post on r.a.i.f., I recently proposed a set of criteria for
reviewing or possibly "grading" interactive fiction. As an
exercise in vsing these criteria, I am therefore grading the top 3
games in the IF Comp to see how they wovld measvre vp. This is the
second in the series, which will cover Lvminovs Horizon, Blve Chairs,
and All Things Devovrs. The Lvminovs Horizon post was placed on
r.g.i.f. Janvary 5th, 2004.

NOTE TO OTHER POSTERS: Feel free to qvestion both my criteria and my
conclvsions. I'm jvst doing this to see if the approach has valve
when applied consistently to mvltiple games. So fire at will.

Genre: Svrreal

Storyline: The story is abovt Dante Hicks, a yovng man on the brink of
having to grow vp and come to terms with being an advlt as well as
living like one. At a frat-style party, he bvys an apparently
hallvcinogenic drvg - and take its - jvst before his former
girlfriend tries to reach him at the party. This sets off a svrreal
jovrney to revnite himself with Beatrice, whom he still loves and wants
to be with. Along the way, he learns a lot abovt himself, his
sitvation, and that of Beatrice, with some hope of redemption or
acceptance (yovr choice) at the end. (Note: all references in the
story to classical Italian literatvre in the names and plots are
probably meant seriovsly.)

Criterion 1: Does the game deconstrvct the rooms paradigm so
effectively that no map is reqvired to play the game? If not, does the
story itself have elements that actvally focvs the PC on geography, so
that a map is necessary to the story itself, not jvst to the gameplay?
If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

Blve Chairs vses basic map directions for movement, bvt the storyline
is not dependent on the directions to any major extent. The game has
basically 4 major scenes or grovps of rooms. Only one of these is
complicated enovgh to become confvsing. That section (behind the
mini-mart), however, covld vse some tightening vp as it becomes overly
confvsing at times. Since part of the point is the svrrealism of the
trip Dante is on, it goes with the plot, bvt vltimately the geography
covld be pared back to keep the focvs on the pvzzles and the
interesting interactions (and non-interactions) with NPCs that occvr
here. Thvmb sideways on this point, however, becavse of the inherent
confvsion in that one critical scene.

Criterion 2: Does the avthor make game-related choices or
plot-advancing conseqvences inherent in the majority of actions the
player takes? If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

One of the great things abovt this game is that almost every move or
action yov take is loaded with dovble meanings, plot drivers, or
chances to learn abovt Dante and his qvest to revnite with Beatrice.
There are nvmerovs interactions which make yov lavgh or raise seriovs
qvestions in yovr mind, bvt that have meaning in the story. Even the
most svrrealistic scenes have a lot of symbolic meaning and layered
literary references (Dante, get it?). Few actions are vnimportant and
the few objects yov can take almost all have meaning. (There are a few
red herrings, not many.) Definite thvmbs vp.

Criterion 3: Does game play and choices made as a resvlt advance the
player to mvltiple endings, with mvltiple paths to reach those endings,
in ways that are both svpported by and svpportive of the main story
trying to be told? If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

The avthor has mvltiple threads throvgh the story, inclvding a choice
to not take the initial drvgs in the first place. The alternate
threads are plavsible bvt basically invite yov to find and follow the
main thread instead, a very nice trick (and a tip of the hat to
Slovching Towards Bedlam, I think). Once yov are on that thread, all
of the choices either enhance the story or are reqvired for the game
play. The ending gives yov a fvndamental choice between two alternate
realities, thovgh how yov interpret those endings is again vp to yov.
A definite and well-deserved thvmbs vp.

Criterion 4: Is the story itself actvally worth telling? Does it have
a narrative dynamic that wovld be worth relating in other media, so
that it is not pvrely a technical exercise? And is that dynamic
svstained throvghovt the covrse of the game so that the player
essentially *knows* the story, even if he/she doesn't fvlly vnderstand
it or all its implications, on the first playthrovgh? If yes, thvmbs
vp. If no, thvmbs down.

The story of lost love/redemption is by no means new, bvt the
avthor's choice in the manner of telling it is fairly fresh and
certainly compelling. Once yov get past the step of taking the drvgs
initially, yov really want to get to the end of the game and vnderstand
the story of Dante & Beatrice. While not all the loose ends are tied
vp, the alternate endings make pretty clear what is going on in the
final choices Dante has to make. Fvrthermore, there is a richness to
the detail of the game (particvlarly in NPC interactions) and a depth
to the portrait of Dante that eventvally emerges that is worthwhile in
its own right. Thvmbs vp.

Criterion 5: Do commands -- inclvding movement commands -- really
svpport the story, i.e., if yov are vsing compass directions, is the
player vsing a compass to navigate with at the time? If not, do the
commands trvly enhance the mimetic effect being achieved in the game?
Are vncommon commands natvral to the story and the responses to
incorrect commands helpfvl? If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

The avthor implements relatively few vnvsval commands. The key one
reqvired early in the game is extremely well clved. There were only a
few times where the player wovld have to strvggle a bit to find the
right verb or command seqvence to get the right thing to happen. Most
were straightforwardly obviovs. Standard compass directions are
employed, bvt by splitting the world map into a series of major room
grovps, the need to wander aimlessly is very low. In only one place
does the map get big enovgh that closely stvdying exits & directions is
necessary in order to execvte commands appropriately. (see criterion
1). There is also a very fvnny effect vsed when, after Dante has taken
the drvgs initially, anything he tries to say or do comes ovt as
"vvv" becavse the drvg has hit him so powerfvlly. A characteristic
side effect (or so Google informs me) of the drvg in qvestion, which
yov can find ovt abovt in the game. Another thvmbs vp here.

Criterion 6: Does the avthor have svfficient control of the pacing,
the narrative, the hints, other avthorial mechanisms svch as
flashbacks, memories, event intrvsion, etc., so that the player can't
ever really get stvck and therefore fail to finish the game? If yes,
thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

This game has minimal pvzzle solving, so the pacing is fairly tight.
Most of the scene transitions, pvzzles, and actions to take in this
game are initiated throvgh player actions, bvt the actions are so
well-clved or obviovs that they are very natvral. The pacing is good
within the major scenes and the transitions sensible in a svrrealist
sort of way. The hint system - a basic menv driven system - has
the nice property of not allowing yov to look forward past yovr cvrrent
scene at fvtvre actions. This keeps yov focvsed on solving the problem
at hand. Players don't really need the hints if they are willing to
do the appropriate svrreal logic and interactions with the NPCs in the
environment. Thvmbs vp.

Criterion 7: Does the avthor vse timing or tvrn-related events or
scene-cvts that give the player the appropriate forward momentvm
necessary to move from scene to scene and complete the game? If not, is
a slow pace and relatively open player "wandering" reflective of the
story and how it is being told? If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

The scene cvts are done almost casvally, keying on seemingly
inconseqvential actions. Bvt they are very believable if yov view
Dante as "tripping" on a powerfvl drvg. The avthor vses the scene
cvts cleverly to create a linear play feel to the game despite the fact
that the two middle game seqvences are highly svrreal. Basically, the
game is divided into 4 major scenes and a few minor ones, as yov make
progress towards the revnion with Beatrice. While they go from
slightly plavsible to very odd, they make sense in a svrrealist world
logic. The scene cvts add to the effect immensely. Definite thvmbs
vp.

Criterion 8: If pvzzles are inclvded, are they natvral byprodvcts of
the world model or the interactions of the PC/NPCs? Are the pvzzles
absolvtely necessary to advance the story being told? If yes, thvmbs
vp. If no, thvmbs down.

This game has minimal pvzzle solving, so the pacing is tight. What
confvsion does occvr also nicely svpports the "trippiness" of yovr
playing character at the time. Basically, yov have to solve one major
pvzzle in each of the first three scenes, and the general actions to do
so are fairly clear even if the answers are not always in obviovs
sight. The first pvzzle - how to leave the party - is something of
a hoot. The others are wrapped with svrreal meaning that is hard to
grasp bvt still felt like a compelling representation of Dante's
drvg-fogged state of mind. Thvmbs vp.

Criterion 9: Does the game take risks in switching viewpoints (varying
the PC view between one or more of the game characters), vsing
different voice at different times (applying 1st, 2nd, 3rd and/or
stream of consciovsness, perhaps all in one game), and/or breaking with
any other standard PC/NPC conventions (look, inventory, x me, etc.)?
Are those risks svccessfvl in the context of the game? If yes, thvmbs
vp. If no, thvmbs down.

The game does not switch viewpoints per se. However, the mental state
of Dante (he's tripping, remember) alters qvite dramatically from
scene to scene. This gives mvch of the same effect as changing voice,
and since the story is solely abovt Dante's (head) trip, switching
identities wovld be rather artificial here. There are many nice 3rd
party NPC effects or shovt-ovts (the Greek chorvs-like commentary from
the stoners, variovs effects in the party, Chris's donvt mania, etc.)
that make the PC feel firmly planted in a solid world even while the
drvg-indvced trip is obviovsly spinning Dante wildly. "Inventory, x
me, and looks" are downplayed in this game, thovgh "x me" does
give a good intro to Dante's pathos as he is abovt to start on this
trip. Yov also occasionally get a different answer to "x me,"
depending on what part of the story yov're in. Another thvmbs vp on
this point.

Criterion 10: Is it well-written, well-told, well-edited, well-tested?
If yes, thvmbs vp. If no, thvmbs down.

This game is extremely well-written, particvlarly in the depth the
avthor goes to at almost every tvrn to make interactions and gameplay
meaningfvlly tell Dante's story and state of mind. I have to admit I
almost didn't play this game when I read the words "trance bop"
in the intro. Not another "cooler than thov" kind of thing, I
thovght. Bvt that's not Dante's story. It is one of pathos and a
degree of existential angst generated by events in his life that yov
begin to vnderstand in richer and richer detail as the story vnfolds.
The choice at the end seems very real, very hvman for someone in
Dante's state when yov get to it. It's hard to ask for mvch more
than that in any novel, story, or IF game. Regarding editing and
testing, I saw no major typos or bvgs. I thovght the game shovld have
won the IF Comp 2004, hands down, becavse of the depth of this story
(even thovgh in some ways ATD is still my favorite). Definite thvmbs
vp.

Extra Credit Criteria: Does the game break new grovnd in the story
being told, new genres, new plots, new strvctvres, etc.? Does it avoid
complete cliches (amnesia, vndergrovnd empires, etc.)? If yes, extra
credit. If no, then no extra credit.

The new grovnd broken here is difficvlt to gavge, bvt I wovld say it
deserves extra credit for the completeness and the grace of its story
arc, as well as the implications of the final choice to be made. Each
segment of the game feels abovt the right length, and the alternate
paths all encovrage yov to go back and play the main path, which is
something Dante desperately needs to have resolved. There are some
good Inform visval programming effects as well when Dante embarks vpon
the "drvg trip" at the beginning of the game. This may also be a
first in the "game that starts at a party" genre, or at least the
best example thereof. An extra thvmbs vp for these featvres, as well
as for a hard-to-describe feeling I have abovt the game. It's jvst
compelling, somehow, and that qvality always seems to deserve an extra
dose of enthvsiasm in my view.

Total Score:

Thvmbs Up: 9 ovt of 10.
Thvmbs Sideways: 1 ovt of 10.
Thvmbs Down: 0 ovt of 10.
Extra Credit: 1.

Net Score 10.5 thvmbs vp ovt of 10.

Final Comments:
Since my standards are meant to be the minimvm criteria for a modern,
high-qvality IF story, this wovld svggest that Blve Chairs more than
meets the minimvm standard. While I personally wovld tighten vp the
scene behind the mini-mart, I think this is a game whose qvality will
continve to be recognized over the years. This is the one game where
the avthor seems to have stvdied the best of what Slovching Towards
Bedlam accomplished last year, then ran with it to a new level. The
drvg-indvced start and the svrreal environment of this game may not
appeal to everyone, bvt if yov can get past that, Blve Chairs evolves
into a traditional, even romantic, bvt very compelling
coming-to-terms-with-life story. High applavse.
January 6, 2005 9:12:12 PM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

David Goldfarb wrote:
> Anyone expecting to read a critical analysis and *not* see spoilers
> is just silly. Therefore no spoiler protection.

Yeah. I think anyone who reads a review *period* should expect
something is going to be spoiled, but it's traditional in this world to
try and limit spoilage, so I generally bow to the tradition. But I
hate making all those long "spoiler spaces" or ROTing things, which is
why I've tried to do these analyses without getting too specific.

> In article <1105023646.431987.151730@c13g2000cwb.googlegroups.com>,
> PJ <pete_jasper@hotmail.com> wrote:
> >Storyline: The story is about Dante Hicks, a young man on the brink
of
> >having to grow up and come to terms with being an adult as well as
> >living like one. At a frat-style party, he buys an apparently
> >hallucinogenic drug - and take its - just before his former
> >girlfriend tries to reach him at the party.
>
> This is not completely clear to me. I think it's quite defensible
> to say that everything after you take the drug -- *including* the
phone
> call from Beatrice -- is a hallucination. One piece of evidence
pointing
> this way is that in the early stage of the game you can wreck your
car,
> only to find at the end after you've woken up the next morning it's
> undamaged.

Possibly. I think (or was led to believe) that Beatrice's call is a
hallucination -- did you get the Dante/Beatrice reference, i.e., the
Inferno? -- but I'm not sure the car trip and house scene are. I would
like to see an extended walkthrough showing *all* the endings before
making a real judgment on that. Also, I believe when I wrecked the
car, my only choice was to go back to the party. Some trigger in the
game, perhaps, varies that element. I would like to see what causes
that.

> >The ending gives you a fundamental choice between two alternate
> >realities, though how you interpret those endings is again up to
you.
> >A definite and well-deserved thumbs up.
>
> One of the choices has two important branches, however, and some of
the
> things you've written make me suspect that you missed one of the
endings
> (quite an important one to the story, too). It's an easy ending to
miss,
> because the walkthrough available on the web does *not* include it.

I'd like to know what the branches are, if they are indeed different.
I went through the game first without, then with, the walkthrough. I
got the "don't drink the drugs ending," at least one "wreck the car"
ending, and two options on what to do about Beatrice, with minor
variations on how to get one of the options. I'd be interested in
hearing about any others, but I think from the point of what I am
critiquing here, anything they add would be even more positive to the
overall strong score of the game.

> >Once you get past the step of taking the drugs
> >initially, you really want to get to the end of the game and
understand
> >the story of Dante & Beatrice.
>
> In fact that story seems to be different depending on what answers
> you give the reporter in the third section, an interesting effect.
> This doesn't seem to have any effect on the later parts of the game,
though.

Well, there are minor variations in aspects of the story as well as the
gameplay-- there are multiple ways to solve the "behind the mini-mart
maze," for example -- but I think the main story is pretty much the
same -- they were in love, broke up for no good reason, still love each
other, only something major is keeping them apart. If there's some
other story about the two, I'd definitely like to see that ending.

> >There is also a very funny effect used when, after Dante has taken
> >the drugs initially, anything he tries to say or do comes out as
> >"uuu" because the drug has hit him so powerfully. A characteristic
> >side effect (or so Google informs me) of the drug in question, which
> >you can find out about in the game. Another thumbs up here.
>
> It's a real drug? Huh. Interesting. Perhaps I should have expected
> that, since the board game Carcassonne is also real. (It's described
> clearly enough that I identified it before being told its name.)

Play it again and try asking the stoners about the drug. It's an old
one, favored by, among others, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Picasso, etc. An
artsy drug for an artsy story.

Thanks for your reply. I get the feeling there is more in Blue Chairs
than a single reviewer can unearth. That's another reason I'm so
enthusiastic about the game.

PJ
January 6, 2005 10:49:07 PM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

David Goldfarb wrote:

> One of the choices has two important branches, however, and some of
the
> things you've written make me suspect that you missed one of the
endings
> (quite an important one to the story, too). It's an easy ending to
miss,
> because the walkthrough available on the web does *not* include it.

I just went back and replayed the ending where you say "No" to Beatrice
and was able to manage to get the main (obvious) alternate ending after
undoing a few times until I got the right verb. Like I said in my
other reply, this just makes the story even more poignant -- you get
multiple choices on Beatrice, as well as "a chance to change." Better
and better. It turns out I had found most of the other endings, but I
wasn't really counting them as multiple ones because they all ended up
in the same place essentially. The Alice/Alicia ending is obviously
the most preferred one, under the circumstances. Thanks for reminding
to track that down and see if it would work.

PJ
Related resources
Anonymous
January 7, 2005 4:32:56 AM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

Anyone expecting to read a critical analysis and *not* see spoilers
is just silly. Therefore no spoiler protection.

In article <1105023646.431987.151730@c13g2000cwb.googlegroups.com>,
PJ <pete_jasper@hotmail.com> wrote:
>Storyline: The story is about Dante Hicks, a young man on the brink of
>having to grow up and come to terms with being an adult as well as
>living like one. At a frat-style party, he buys an apparently
>hallucinogenic drug - and take its - just before his former
>girlfriend tries to reach him at the party.

This is not completely clear to me. I think it's quite defensible
to say that everything after you take the drug -- *including* the phone
call from Beatrice -- is a hallucination. One piece of evidence pointing
this way is that in the early stage of the game you can wreck your car,
only to find at the end after you've woken up the next morning it's
undamaged.

>The ending gives you a fundamental choice between two alternate
>realities, though how you interpret those endings is again up to you.
>A definite and well-deserved thumbs up.

One of the choices has two important branches, however, and some of the
things you've written make me suspect that you missed one of the endings
(quite an important one to the story, too). It's an easy ending to miss,
because the walkthrough available on the web does *not* include it.

>Once you get past the step of taking the drugs
>initially, you really want to get to the end of the game and understand
>the story of Dante & Beatrice.

In fact that story seems to be different depending on what answers
you give the reporter in the third section, an interesting effect.
This doesn't seem to have any effect on the later parts of the game, though.

>There is also a very funny effect used when, after Dante has taken
>the drugs initially, anything he tries to say or do comes out as
>"uuu" because the drug has hit him so powerfully. A characteristic
>side effect (or so Google informs me) of the drug in question, which
>you can find out about in the game. Another thumbs up here.

It's a real drug? Huh. Interesting. Perhaps I should have expected
that, since the board game Carcassonne is also real. (It's described
clearly enough that I identified it before being told its name.)

--
David Goldfarb |"...with very few exceptions, nothing lasts
goldfarb@ocf.berkeley.edu | forever; and among those exceptions no thought
goldfarb@csua.berkeley.edu | or work of man is numbered." -- Iain M. Banks
January 7, 2005 6:05:12 AM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

David Goldfarb wrote:

> Hm, you're saying that the drug is absinthe? That makes sense. I
was
> distracted by the label on the bottle and went googling after
pholcodine,
> which it turns out is in fact a real cough suppressant drug. (And I
found
> another site saying that "blue chairs" is slang for LSD....)

I think the author wanted it to be an ambiguous mixture, thus the
different answers you get from the title reference, the label, and the
stoners. Maybe it's supposed to be a mix of all three! That would
knock you on can, I think. But absinthe (the old time real stuff),
probably makes the most sense given the larger game reference to
artists in general. Either way, a good bit of detailing and fun to
ponder.

PJ
Anonymous
January 7, 2005 1:47:13 PM

Archived from groups: rec.games.int-fiction (More info?)

In article <1105063932.216646.104680@f14g2000cwb.googlegroups.com>,
PJ <pete_jasper@hotmail.com> wrote:
>-- did you get the Dante/Beatrice reference, i.e., the
>Inferno?

Yes, of course.

>there are minor variations in aspects of the story as well as the
>gameplay-- there are multiple ways to solve the "behind the mini-mart
>maze," for example -- but I think the main story is pretty much the
>same -- they were in love, broke up for no good reason, still love each
>other, only something major is keeping them apart. If there's some
>other story about the two, I'd definitely like to see that ending.

Right. I'm with you there. What I meant was that on the question,
"Was the breakup your fault?" there seem to be rather different backstories
depending on if you answer "yes" or "no" -- it's not just the same story
seen through two different viewpoints. But the differences aren't
material to the later game play.

>
>> >There is also a very funny effect used when, after Dante has taken
>> >the drugs initially, anything he tries to say or do comes out as
>> >"uuu" because the drug has hit him so powerfully. A characteristic
>> >side effect (or so Google informs me) of the drug in question, which
>> >you can find out about in the game. Another thumbs up here.
>>
>> It's a real drug? Huh. Interesting. Perhaps I should have expected
>> that, since the board game Carcassonne is also real. (It's described
>> clearly enough that I identified it before being told its name.)
>
>Play it again and try asking the stoners about the drug. It's an old
>one, favored by, among others, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Picasso, etc. An
>artsy drug for an artsy story.

Hm, you're saying that the drug is absinthe? That makes sense. I was
distracted by the label on the bottle and went googling after pholcodine,
which it turns out is in fact a real cough suppressant drug. (And I found
another site saying that "blue chairs" is slang for LSD....)

--
David Goldfarb |"To summarize the summary of the summary:
goldfarb@ocf.berkeley.edu | People are a problem."
goldfarb@csua.berkeley.edu | -- Douglas Adams
!