Aisle by Sam Barlow(1999)

Rating: ***

Three years ago I was strolling around my local liquor store, surveying the bottom-shelf vodkas (oh, the folly of youth), when there was something of a disturbance up front.  A rather nervous looking fellow was leaning over the counter, screaming at Mrs. Jeon, the sweet Korean lady who ran the store and knew me pretty well from my tad-too-frequent visits.  But what concerned me more than the screaming was the black pistol he was waving in Mrs. Jeon's face.

Beginning to feel a little concern for myself as well, I hid behind the shelves of mixers, careful to conceal what I could of myself, but trying to catch a peek at the action at the same time, to satisfy my own streak of morbid curiosity. So, he continued yelling, she continued screaming hysterically, frantically trying to get the cash register to open with her spasming, quaking fingers.

I winced from the deafening blast when the shot was fired, but opened my eyes soon enough to see the pinkish spray from the back of Mrs. Jeon's head, and to watch her broken, contorted face follow her slumping body, along with several shattered bourbon bottles, to the floor behind the counter.  The robber, having scared himself senseless during the recent violence, spun around once, dropped the gun and ran out of the store.

Something bothered me about all this.

Was it the meaningless loss of precious life?  Well, no.  I mean, life isn't really all that precious at all.  It's simply an unavoidable extrapolation of chaos theory.  Was it the stark reality of this pure, pristine example of Man's inability to escape his brutal, vestigial killer instinct?  Not this either, as I'd come to grips with that inevitability long ago.

No, what bothered me is the realization that every single human life on this planet is a grand sweeping, operatic saga, a story of monumental proportions, written page by page, day by day, as each one struggles and triumphs and weeps and laughs and goes through more shit than you can possibly imagine, even looking back on your own life and trying to remember just how you got where you are.  These are tales of grand themes and tragedies, and with all that work gone into the creation of just this one story, to see it end so abruptly, so unfinished, with the playwrite lying in a pool of blood and rye really struck me as a fantastic loss.

The shock of the scene itself faded, like all memories do, but that one thought stuck with me.  You can watch people going through their daily routines, doing even the most mundane of activities, and know that stored within them, and all around them, are these wonderfully complex, stirring, inspiring, sorrowful, and magnificent stories.  Even when they're playing tennis.  Even when they're drawing up spreadsheets at work...

Even when they're grocery shopping.

And so it is into one of these mundane moments that Aisle places us. An exact moment of time, in fact.  As the game starts, we do not know how we got there, so there is no past, and no matter what command we type in (and there are many, many commands), there is no future either.  You are simply given an opportunity to replay this one mundane moment in time, standing in the pasta aisle of a grocery store, over and over and over again, in all sorts of different ways.

The concept, at first, seems like little more than an Inform exercise to see how thoroughly the author could apply the parser to this one situation.  But give it time, because every time you decide how to live the moment, you lift another strip of the cloak from the past, or the future, and dig a little more out of the story that has gotten you to that aisle.  Soon, a sense is gained that this is quite the shattered life you are living, if just for a second.  Images and memories of past loves and losses begin to whip past your eyes like a slide projector gone awry.  Most of your choices seem to leave little hope for the future, either.  It is difficult to turn your life around in the middle of a Winn-Dixie.  But the future is not set, and with the right attitude, it might actually be one worth looking forward to.

It turns out, though, that the past is not set either.  As the introduction to the game states, "There are many stories, and not all of the stories are about the same man."  If the game has a failing, this is it.  So masterfully executed is the game's concept, that I wished that the whole game was built around discovering what has happened in this man's life.  The process of discovering the truth about what's going on, bit by bit, is a wonderfully inventive, truly interactive way of telling a story.  The goal of the game is not to collect treasure, but to simply find out as much about this man's world as you can.  Therefore it's disconcerting at times, and disappointing too, when the story you're coming to know and understand is suddenly mutated, twisted around, and left disjointed.  I think consistency is the absolute key in an experiment like this.  Otherwise, it really is just an Inform exercise.

Oh dear, I said the "e" word.  Yes, this is experimental IF.  I cringe at the very thought, normally.  Aisle, however, is far and away the most effective, enjoyable experimental IF game I've come across.  It's flawlessly implemented, wonderfully written, and intensely evocative.  It is a very moving experience, and should stick with you long after you leave your interpreter.  In other words, I actually liked it.

And that's its most impressive accomplishment, if you ask me.

Reader Remarks

a lean and hungry gentleman sprach the following on November 15th, 1999:

i'm coming for you next, parrish

Herr Doktor Faustus sprach the following on December 15th, 1999:

It's "playwright", not "playwrite".

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