All Roads, by Jon Ingold (***)

It might surprise you to know that at the time the 2001 IF Competition games were released, I actually, briefly contemplated getting seriously back into IF (for what would have been approximately the seventeenth time in five years). I even (get this) downloaded all the games! Now, with all those games cluttering up your hard drive, it's tough sometimes to know exactly where to start. Did I let that daunt me? Of course not. I was undauntable at the time, that's how serious I was about this.

The line of thinking went, "Hey, if I'm gonna be serious about this, I'm gonna end up playing them all eventually, so it doesn't really matter where I start! Just pick one! After I go get another beer!" And I did, and I did. The game I chose to start with was called Fine-Tuned.

After a very cute, enjoyable introduction, the game really took off, and as I zoomed down the road in my fancy auto, I thought to myself, "Damn, I'm sure glad I decided to get seriously back into IF for what seems like the seventeenth time in five years." I was having fun, I was enjoying the story, enjoying the writing, even - hey - enjoying the occasional puzzle it threw at me. The first chapter came to a close rather suddenly, though, and then I found myself in chapter two, which has a decidedly different tone from the whimsy of the first. At this point I was totally drawn in. Could it really be this good? I can't believe I've deprived myself of this sort of entertainment for so long!

Things continued rather smoothly, in fact, until the third chapter. Many have complained about it, but I hadn't read any of the complaints by the time I played the game, and I shortly found myself getting yet another beer, but not out of joyful anticipation, but instead out of uncontrollable rage, as I was unable, no matter what I did, to make the game proceed without crashing, library-erroring, or otherwise behaving in a manner completely unbefitting a quality software product.

After an hour or so of this frustration, I quit the game, and for approximately the seventeenth time in the last five years, I gave up IF entirely, and deleted the Comp games immediately. Fuck this.

But then came the dark times. The company I worked for was continuing to deteriorate, right along with the rest of the world economy. Life became less about fun and games, and more about mere survival! As we began scurrying about, battling each other for the scarce resources remaining (like, for instance, ball-point pens), we became more animal than human. And the people I worked for became more idiotic than, say, non-idiotic. My future uncertain, I became wracked by waves of dread and anxiety, leaving me emotionally paralyzed, unable to experience happiness, sorrow, love, or even girlish glee. I was a walking ghost, a shadow of who I was, and who I might have been.

Then I got a new job, though, which is good. And as it turns out, the job didn't begin for another week and a half, which is very good, because it allowed me to infect myself with an absolutely raging case of short-timer disease. Proudly chanting the Short-Timer's Motto ("What are they gonna do, fire me??") I set about trying to fill up eight hours a day in this place without actually getting any work done, or otherwise being anything approaching productive. As any experienced short-timer knows, the best way to do this (besides working on one's website, or writing IF game reviews) is to play games at your desk!

The trick here, though, is to not make it obvious. This is a problem. The guy that sits behind me, his monitor faces away from the boss, so he (seriously, here) plays Civilization III all day. I'm not so lucky, as if my boss should happen to sit up straight for once in his life, he'd actually get a pretty square view of my monitor. This means that, if I'm gonna play a game, it can't look like a game. It's gotta be able to pass for say, a UNIX shell window or something. And I think we all know what kind of game fits that particular bill. In fact, I'm starting to think that the only reason IF has even survived this long is because you can get away with playing it at work.

But again, I'm stuck with the question of... what to play? There's so much out there, and I've been out of it for so long, I just had no clue. However, after browsing around and regaining my bearings, I decided to download and play the winner of the latest competition. And that brings us to All Roads.

One particularly interesting thing about All Roads is that you can sit down with the intention of writing a review for it, and then all of a sudden spend a page and a half talking about pretty much everything else except All Roads. There's not too many games I've played that can make that claim. I challenge you to challenge that assertion.

It is a difficult thing to write a game of the "peel the onion" variety. This is what I (as of five seconds ago) call games which throw you into a situation which you're not meant to understand, but then as time goes on, and things happen, you "peel the onion" and eventually are made aware of what's going on, who you are, what you're doing, and why. It's difficult primarily because you have to juggle so many things at once:

In All Roads, it is apparent right away that it's going to be one of those games. Immediately you find yourself at the "end of your rope" at your own hanging execution. But then a mysterious blackness appears beside you, a blackness which magically teleports you to someplace else whenever you enter it. Lest you think that the concept of dark spaces with teleportation qualities is a new one, rest assured: it isn't. But along the same lines, lest you think that this game is just a So Far ripoff, rest assured: it isn't.

After this introductory sequence, you set about the task of doing your job (once you're clued into what your job is), and figuring out who all these people are. For instance, there's the mysterious woman by the fountain. Then the mysterious woman who leads you through the Venetian alleyways. Then the other mysterious woman, and her mysterious aide (who works behind a mysterious-looking door). And then there's that mysterious teleporting blackness to deal with.

It's all quite mysterious, you see.

You barrel forward, however, dealing with these strange, inexplicable (to the player, at least) rifts in the space/time continuum, confident that at the end, all of this is going to make sense, and you're going to be sitting there in a state of awe-inspired shock, a puddle of appreciative drool forming under your chair.

"Onion" games reveal themselves in a number of different ways. For instance, Adam Cadre's "Shrapnel" deals with the issue in perhaps the most straightforward of ways: You don't know anything that's going on until the game is over, and then you get to read three or four pages explaining it all to you. While perhaps not the most satisfying denouement, it is still effective in encouraging you to re-live the game's events in your mind, with your newfound knowledge bringing new meaning to the experiences within. All Roads tries for the subtler approach, slowly but consistently hinting at things, building hint upon hint, until the point where all of the hints magically lock together in your brain, and finally, everything makes sense.

My problem with All Roads was that this last step never happened. It kept hinting and hinting, but instead of clearing things up, it just made me feel stupider and stupider, all the way to very end where it finally revealed all of its secrets to me, and left me completely without a clue as to what the hell had happened.

This could be my problem. Reading comprehension was my worst subject on the standardized tests. (However, I think this was largely due to the fact that I never read any of the things they were testing me on.) I have to think, though, that some of the blame can be laid with the game itself. For instance, there are way too many NPCs saying way too many serious, important, yet bewildering things to each other, and it becomes increasingly (and for me, impossibly) difficult to interpret and detect what inferences are meant to be drawn from it all. This had the double effect of both leaving me with a blank, confused stare on my face, as well as convincing me it was time to go take a long lunch break at the local British-style pub.

I cared what was going on, though, and I was more than willing to keep playing long enough to hopefully find out. And although I did not, I still have to recommend the game for the simple reason that, even having no idea what I was doing, I found it very well made, and fun to play. It does a marvelous job of leading you down the path it wants you to go, while still making you feel like you're in control. The puzzles (what few there are) are so intuitive, that I was never stuck even for a single turn at any point. The correct course of action just seemed to flow from my fingers without me having to spend a moment's thought on it. Hey. You say "really really easy", I say "intuitive". Who's writing the review here?

The writing and implementation quality is consistently high. Even the occasional misspelling bothered me less than they normally do, due either to the fact that I was enjoying the trip so much that I didn't notice, or that I just don't give a shit anymore. I'd bet on a little of each.

I'm not getting too deep into the details of the plot. Normally this would be because I don't want to spoil it for you. In this case, though, I just have no idea what the details of the plot are.

While not a classic, All Roads was still able to do for me just what I needed it to do: kill an hour or two while I wait out the rest of my employment at this disastrous embarrassment of an organization. Thank you, Jon Ingold. Thank you very, very much.




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