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17 October 2013 @ 02:03 pm
[IF Comp 2013] Moquette  
Moquette, Alex Warren, Quest
version 2013-09-29

This starts out in an ominous place: a My Shitty Life game. Contrary to the usual patterns of that genre, it has the virtue of being set in a concrete, potentially-rich place with which the author is obviously pretty familiar - the London Underground - and the writing has more powers of observation than the average My Shitty Apartment/Job/School game. But it does a very poor job of providing an immediate hook - what is this game going to be about? what's going to be cool about it?

To a great extent, I think, its central purpose is to be a tech demo of the Quest web-player's fancy display effects - there are a lot of page-swipes and marquees and explosions-o-words, and while they're technically impressive, there are rather more of them than are really needed; I felt the overall effect was a bit like a new Photoshop user putting five lens flares into every image. A lot of the time I found myself more irritated by the momentary (but frequent) disruption to play than I was impressed by the shiny effects. This is stuff that you generally want to use with a great deal of caution - and, like many web interpreters, there's that monentary, maddening lag between normal commands.

To all appearances, it's a CYOA implementation of Zone 1, which conveniently includes the entire Circle Line and the great majority of the stations with name-recognition or cultural cachet. Interaction is very limited: you can exit the train, switch lines or directions on a line, and look at a random selection of passengers. Stations themselves go almost undescribed. Occasionally there will be some brief commentary about a particular stop or line, providing a little history or local knowledge. Leaving a station for the world above is never presented as an option, and no attainable objectives are ever presented; so the game is really just about randomly wandering from train to train. Sometimes the trains break down and force you to get off; if you try to leave Zone 1, as I did (the thing about Zone 1 is that nobody you know lives there), then the protagonist takes over and leaves the train rather than end up in the middle of nowhere.

Plot - and I use the term pretty loosely, here - emerges more or less independently of player agency. The PC skips work to... aimlessly do something else, which ends up being random rides on the Tube. He has a hangover which gets steadily worse, to the point of blacking out. He runs into Heather, a woman who he has a horrible ineffectual crush on, fails to adequately make small talk, and then blacks out and wakes up to find her gone. After a bit more wandering and obsessing about Heather, it suddenly emerges that there is some sort of Truman Show deal going on: what exactly that consists of is never clearly articulated, but it has something to do with the player/PC distinction. At the end, the protagonist escapes the player's control and departs for London Above.

As in the real Tube, people-watching doesn't really provide enough entertainment to prevent things from being boring. Game designers, take note: if you ever come up with a premise that boils down to 'okay, so the player can't really do anything significant and is just hanging out getting bored, right, but every now and then some plot happens', then you should throw it out.

Your inability to leave the Tube is particularly irritating because London is a city where you want to go and do stuff. I want to go and visit my grandfather and finally do the Wellcome Collection and see if that Polish place in South Ken is still open and check whether London Rollergirls have a bout on and eat a national cuisine I've never tried before and then drink heavily somewhere CAMRA-approved. Instead, I am stuck with this mopey schmuck in a series of greasy, sooty-aired carriages.

The thing that makes this feel like the My Shitty Apartment genre is the protagonist's attitude: he seems to be a youngish man with a dead-end job, socially isolated, directionless, self-loathing and defensively cynical. Although this is fundamentally a pretty unattractive set of characteristics, it should be totally possible to portray a character like this as someone compelling or even likeable. But we don't see much else about the guy, except for a fondness for Obscure London Facts (a trait he shares with every single person who has lived in London for more than three consecutive months). Heather is described mostly in terms of the protagonist's obsessive reaction to her, which gives us a very poor idea of what those reactions are about. Similarly, the protagonist doesn't have anything going on other than a general cynical malaise and a lack of direction or belonging. That's a pretty unattractive point of view from the outset, and to be compelling it needs counterpoint, something to let us see that this guy is or could be something besides a sack of generic negativity.

The tech-demo side of this is fair enough, I suppose; Quest has been sorely in need of a flagship game for some time now, and while this doesn't provide a proof-of-concept that Quest is a good tool to produce deeply-implemented games or complex narratives, it does demonstrate that it's a viable platform for slick, professional-looking games. But it doesn't make a convincing case that its bells and whistles are really all that helpful for content.

Score: 4