Not Just a Game (***) by John Menichelli

Good evening, and welcome to another exciting episode of... Ask The Reviewer!! Tonight we're lucky enough to be joined by a man who definitely has to be considered a legend in his field, given his handful of half-assed reviews and meager, unwelcome additions to the annals of interactive fiction. Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a warm, "ATR" welcome to... Ben Parrish!! <<APPLAUSE>>

ATR: Hi, Ben, how are you doing?
BP: Fine, yeah. Fine.
ATR: Before we start, can you tell us about any new games you're currently working on? We all really enjoyed that, you know, that one. And then of course, that other one.
BP: It smells like ham in here.
ATR: Ohhh...kay. Well, moving right along. Say, Ben, have you had sex in a long, long, long long time?
BP: No.
ATR: There you have it folks! I think we all learned a little something tonight, and maybe we've gone a long way towards explaining a few things. Join us next time, when you'll hear Robb Sherwin say... "Natch!".

Why is that? How can that be? I mean, look at you. You're a handsome, financially secure young man with a good job, a brain as big as all outdoors, and a wit that won't quit. Not to mention your more, shall we say, "natural" gifts. I mean, what's the deal?

Good question. Maybe it has a little something to do with the fact that in between feedings, I've spent most of the time that my rampant alcoholism allows me to remember doing two things: 1) Reading about, thinking about, watching, and very occasionally playing IF. 2) Reading about, thinking about, watching, and even less occasionally playing Go. Most people watch TV or read to go to sleep. Me, I log onto my favorite internet Go server and watch people beat each other into submission with little graphical representations of clamshell and slate stones on a little graphical representation of a rich wooden gameboard. I swear I'm not making this up. This is what I do for fun. Please shoot me.

So what my poor, deprived, perenially tortured libido did not need was a text adventure about Go. (...somewhere, in the darkness, a smut-peddler breathes a contented sigh...)

Go, for the uninitiated, is an ancient Oriental board game, older than chess, and quite likely older than even Lunar Lander. Players take turns putting little dots onto a big grid, until eventually they all run out of dots and forget the whole thing and head out to the balcony with a pair of binoculars to check out the scenery at the pool at the Radisson across the street. This is why it's such a popular game. Oh, you've never heard of it? Maybe that's because you're a fat, lazy American, you fat, lazy American.

Not Just a Game opens with the player arriving for his weekly Go lesson. The lesson does not get off to an auspicious beginning, as the teacher, and the Go board on which the lessons take place, are conspicuously absent. The game then, is afoot. Where did she go? Where did it go? Does this place have a balcony? These and many more questions are yours to answer as you work through this game which is more impressive than it has a right to be, simply because the author said he "wrote it to learn Inform." No, dude. If you want to write a game to learn Inform, you write a few stupid empty rooms and a cat. It's just, you know, tradition. You don't write a creative, unique game full of tricky puzzles, special effects, and Tetris ports, alright? Bastard. Not that I'm bitter.

Warning: You will have to learn how to play Go to win this game. No, I don't mean like, Toshiro Kageyama, direction of attack, aji-keshi, "walking stones" stuff. But you will have to know the very basics, like where you can put your stones (that is, game pieces... ahem), and have at least a vague sense of the rules. This is not much to ask, I should think. A booklet describing everything you need to know about Go is helpfully included in the game itself (and you even get points for reading it!) To the extent you already know and ostensibly like Go, these parts of the game will be all the more enjoyable. Me, I felt a sense of giddiness; finally, a game where I knew what the hell it was about.

Anyway, this ends up being a "whole bunch of stuff secretly happening underneath a regular old house" game, and once you get under there, the puzzles begin. If there is a fault with the puzzles it is that they are largely of the "absurdly serendipitous" variety (">LOOK INSIDE ANCIENT CHALICE" "There is a potato chip there! Golly, I bet that will be helpful!"). This I chalk up to the author's inexperience, but no matter, since any puzzle I can solve, I immediately think is the best puzzle ever. Ergo, this game has a lot of great puzzles!

Solutions to the tough puzzles (except one) that are not immediately apparent are nicely hinted at elsewhere in the game, as one would hope for in a polished work of IF. Observation is the order of the day. I harp on that "except one" only because it held up the authoring of this review by at least two hours because, goddammit, I got stuck. There is an indescribably helpless feeling one gets when restarting a game one is stuck in, with absolutely no idea what to do next. I just sat there and stared at the screen for about five minutes. Stared. Typed "score" a few times. Typed "xyzzy". You know the drill. But then, a very dim lightbulb went off. Wait, no, that can't be it, can it? Oh, what the hell, it's worth a shot. Bingo. Wow, what a friggin' genius I must be!

Like I said, lots of great puzzles.

If the game ever goes seriously wrong, it's only during one sequence which consists almost entirely of Go problems. It's not an unbearably long sequence, but it's long enough to act as a noticable interruption. If IF is a war between a narrative and a crossword, it's disconcerting when the crossword eats a power-pill and swallows the narrative's ghosts, if you catch my drift. Also, the existence of these Go problems doesn't quite fit to begin with, given their simplicity. If the PC (as he is credited) is such a good Go player, why is he being faced with this rookie-level quiz? If you have any familiarity with Go, the puzzles themselves are child's play. If not, then your patience for them will depend on how taken you are with the subject matter. Personally, I would have preferred the game stick more to investigating the philosophical and spiritual characteristics (so often alluded to) of Go, rather than the harsh reality of the stones. That's just me, though.

Please keep my predilection for Go in mind when considering this review. Please also keep in mind that even without said predilection, it's likely I would have enjoyed the game anyway. It's a solid, well-implemented little puzzle-fest with passable writing and plenty of nice touches. A perfectly fine way to spend an evening.

And anyway, if you don't know how to play Go, you should learn. It kicks chess' ass all over the dance floor, and don't even get me started about Chutes and Ladders.

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