If Adam Cadre, after only a smattering of offerings, can be said to have already defined a canonical form for his IF work, then Shrapnel is surely a return to it. Released non-coincidentally in conjunction with the 1999 XYZZY awards (which were all but dominated by his last major effort), it eschews the complex gamesmanship of puzzles and tricks for storytelling. One gets a sense that this is really his true love, and as such Shrapnel might have served as somewhat of a relief after the grand Rubik's Cube of Varicella. Indeed, it's a joy to play if only for the sheer effortlessness with which Adam makes it seem he has written it.
The form (if not the structure) of the game is similar to his award-winning Photopia. Your job as the player is not to force the story forward by solving riddles or pressing the right button. Your task is simply to come to grips with what is happening, and then push the story forward when you are ready. Decision-points are few, and even then, they're just different rivers by which to arrive at the same sea. Shrapnel is yet more proof that for puzzle-less IF to work, the story must be compelling in spades, and the writing must be rock-solid. Fortunately, with an author this confident and skilled, there are no worries.
Shrapnel is what I would call a "WTF" game. Plunged into the middle of a story you've not been told yet, and with a scant few words of introduction, the first reaction of the player is likely to be "WTF is happening?" By doing, and looking, and listening, and waiting, eventually one will find out WTF happened. That, then, turns out to be the goal of the game itself. Once you find out "WTF", you're done. And never before in my (admittedly limited, lazy) IF experience have I had such a compulsion to immediately fire a game right back up and play through it again, so that all the pieces that made zero sense the first time would at least make, you know, 35-40% sense. Good enough.
Obviously, this sort of structure makes a game difficult to review, since any description of the plot is almost a spoiler in itself. So I won't do that. Aren't I nice?
The first fifteen minutes (in real-time) of the game are exhilarating, as the first few bits of information begin to drift in, and the world in which you find yourself begins to take shape. This is a sticky wicket for an author, as it's far too easy to bore the player by just explaining everything straight out, frustrate the player by making it too hard to get on with the story, or completely bewilder the player with what you thought were brilliantly organized clues and clever wordsmithing. But it's done so very well in Shrapnel, that it's almost annoying - like someone with aspirations for being a scratch golfer playing a round with Tiger.
The game is also notable for its special effects. One of the best is the "opening credits" sequence, which, if you blur your eyes and flex your imagination, almost look like the beginning of a movie. Besides that, from the very beginning, the flow of the game is constantly toyed with, sped up, slowed down, and spun around using various Z-machine tricks and other deftly wielded techniques. Then there's the scene (or two...) highly reminiscent of the beginning of Once and Future, and then there's the final denoument... All the way through, this is a unique, very creative work of IF.
In-jokes? Well, yes. The entire setting of the game has to be considered something of an in-joke for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with text adventures. I feared at the outset that it would serve only as an annoying distraction, but, as I assume the author intended, it ended up neither degrading nor enhancing the overall experience. It simply is what it is. By the way, the only other in-joke I found, I would never dream of complaining about.
So, this is a great piece of work, no doubt, and surely accomplishes all it set out to. Halfway through, I was trying to think how I could expand my rating system to include more than four stars. Unfortunately, that never became an issue.
First of all, for the seemingly sweeping tale the game is trying to tell, it's maddeningly short. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that one really doesn't have any idea what's going on until the very end, and it's only at that point the player is finally filled in on wussup, but then there's no time left to do anything with this information. It just... ends. And that problem is in turn exacerbated by the fact that after the conclusion, one doesn't even get a little page saying, "This game was inspired by a dream and five beers, thanks for playing!" One is merely left to eat command line (or desktop, if that's your thing.) This is just a personal preference of mine. I hate being kicked out of ladies' dressing rooms, but even more, I hate being kicked out of games. Don't do that to me. I'm very sensitive.
Complaints aside, it would be absolutely absurd for any IF fan to not immediately download and play Shrapnel at their earliest convenience. I consider it a very valuable addition to the library. So will you.
Go ahead. Play it. It won't take long.
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