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Muse: An Autumn Romance by Christopher Huang [Comp98]

IFDB page: Muse: An Autumn Romance
Final placement: 2nd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to find the right words to begin a review of Muse, but I can’t seem to come up with anything that speaks as eloquently as the game’s own prose. Muse is the most gorgeously written piece of IF in the competition — I’ve still got several games left to play, but I would be very surprised if any of them even equaled Muse‘s marvelous skill with words, let alone surpassed it. The game is like the IF version of a Merchant-Ivory movie: quiet setting, stellar production values, highly character-oriented, and deeply, deeply felt. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as moved by a piece of IF as I was by the “optimal” ending of Muse — even some of the less satisfying endings are crafted so well that in themselves they can be quite emotional. The game takes place in a French village in 1886, as viewed through the eyes of Rev. Stephen Dawson, a 59-year-old clergyman from Barchester, England. It is not a typical IF setting, and Dawson is hardly the typical IF hero, but Muse is far from a typical game. It is a story, one of the most successful pieces of interactive fiction I’ve seen for pulling off the fiction as much as the interactivity. Its characters feel real, including its main character; it is the story of Rev. Dawson’s own struggle for acceptance of himself and his role in life, of his journey past regret and into contentment. Through its masterful writing, excellent coding, and some clever techniques, Muse creates a story of someone else’s emotional transformation, made all the more affecting by our direction of that character’s actions.

One way in which the game accomplishes its goal is to eschew the traditional second person, present tense IF voice, settling instead on a first person past tense narration. A typical exchange looks somewhat like this:

>I
I had on my person the following items:
my pocket New Testament

>READ BIBLE
I practically knew its contents by heart.

>GET TRUNK
Oh, but the trunk was heavy! I managed to lift it just high enough for the
purpose of moving it around, but I was getting far too old for this sort of thing.

At first, I was surprised how little a difference this made to me. The game still felt quite natural, which I think is another testament to its writing. On reflection, however, I think that the changes did make a difference. By choosing a first person voice, Muse sidesteps all of the controversy surrounding assigning emotion to the player character. In fact, the game is constantly ascribing emotions to the PC, but it never grates because the first person POV assumes this role quite naturally. Having a game say things like “you practically know its contents by heart” or “you are getting far too old for this sort of thing” would cause much more dissonance for me, especially as the game moved into its deeper emotional registers. The past tense achieves a similar sort of distancing from the player, as well as heightening the “period” effect, not that the game needs it. Muse evokes the Victorian feel extremely well, and the spell is never broken by any piece of writing, any detail of setting, or any development of character.

There’s only one problem. One part of Muse‘s realistic, natural approach is that events go on without you if you aren’t in the right place at the right time. On my first run through the game, I was off doing text-adventurely things like examining all the objects, trying to talk to various characters about dozens of different subjects (an effect which the game also pulls off remarkably well — its coding is quite deep in some areas) and exploring the landscape. Even though the game was giving me gentle nudges to check into the inn, I didn’t do so, because for one thing I couldn’t find it right away, and for another thing I was having too much fun exploring the very rich world of the game. As a result, one of the major plot points happened without me, putting me into a situation where, as far as I can determine, the optimal ending was unreachable. What’s worse, I didn’t know I couldn’t reach the best ending; because it was my first time through, I didn’t realize I had missed anything I could have participated in anyway. I ended up wandering around, quite frustrated with my inability to cause the story to progress.

When I finally looked at the hints, it became clear to me that I had failed to perform an important task, and that as a result the happiest ending had been closed to me. Now, this is of course very realistic — we miss things all the time that could change our lives significantly, and we never know that we’ve missed them — but I don’t think it’s the best design for a game, even a game so story-oriented as Muse. The loss was affecting in its own way, especially when I replayed it after completing the game with the happiest ending, but I didn’t like it that I had “lost” without having any way of knowing I had done so. I don’t think it had to be that way — I can certainly envision how the game might have at least pushed (or strongly nudged) me into a less optimal ending, so that I might realize more quickly that I had missed something, or perhaps the game could even have left the optimal path open even when the plot point had been missed. I would have loved the chance to complete such an incredible story my first time through, without having to resort to hints.

Rating: 9.3

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