The intersection of landscape and character in IF is a highly fertile one, and Heroes reaps a great harvest from it. Now, I should qualify this review with the statement that I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours, and therefore missed what looked to me like it might be an additional payoff in the game’s structure. So in describing what I found in the game, I might not be telling the whole story about what’s there. With that caveat in mind, the game’s gimmick is this: set up a fairly simple landscape and a basic goal, then allow the player a choice of five viewpoint characters, each of which share the landscape and goal.
This structure makes Heroes a sort of five-games-in-one, where each subgame enhances and deepens the others, since one character might have an insight or knowledge about the situation that the others lack. In addition, seeing the game’s location through five pairs of eyes allows juxtapositions that simultaneously intensifies our understanding of the location and the character. For instance, a fairly basic area, as seen through the eyes of an adventurer, a thief, and an enchanter:
The grimy, ramshackle buildings of Oldtown dutifully try to reform
themselves as you progress east down Temple Way, but nothing besides
the temple itself makes any real pretense of belonging anywhere other
than Oldtown. Or rather, nothing besides the temple and Baron
Sedmon's nearby mansion.
Sturdy, functional buildings lie in and out of shadow on the road to
the temple square. Simple architecture, devoid of handholds; closely
spaced buildings, devoid of alleyways; uncut walls, devoid of
windows: the builders in this area knew how to encourage amateurs to
Randomly arranged paving stones form this street, proceeding east
towards a more attractive arrangement. The darkened buildings lean
sloppily over the edge of the street, reducing the energetic
potential of the strict east-west layout. West the road leads back
into the seething mess that is Oldtown.
I can’t say enough about how much I loved this. Because the characters are each limited to their own viewpoints, but we are able to see them all, the game gives us a far more complete and interesting picture of the area than any single viewpoint could provide. In addition, because we have seen the area through other eyes, we gain insight into the viewpoint character by noticing what that character does and doesn’t observe. Where the adventurer simply notices what ways are open for travel, the enchanter observes how those avenues impinge on a geometrically-oriented magic system; where the enchanter notices only the direction of the walls’ lines, the thief notices the lack of handholds and windows.
Some games have begun to explore this dynamic — Wishbringer and LASH displayed the changes of a landscape and the shifting meanings attendant to that change, while Being Andrew Plotkin gave us a variety of characters whose reactions to a particular area conflicted, to wonderful comic effect. Heroes takes the next step, opening up an endlessly fascinating vista.
Correspondingly, the game’s design also reflects a diversity of viewpoints. Each character has the same goal, but none of them will go about it in quite the same way. The adventurer’s method combines both NPC interaction and object manipulation, first learning what an NPC wants in order to stop being an obstacle, then obtaining that desideratum through various clever mechanical operations and trickery. The difference between this and the enchanter’s method is similar to the difference between the PC of the Zork series and the PC of the Enchanter series — instead of pushing, pulling, turning, and moving things, the mage casts spells that have different, but equally useful, effects. The thief utilizes shadows and rooftops, while the king depends almost completely on NPC interactions such as gossip and courtly intrigue.
It’s just a lovely idea, and for the most part, the game carries it off very well. In addition, several neat choices appear to prevent the game from ever becoming unwinnable, but not by preventing missteps on the part of the player. Instead, as it becomes clear that an action may have closed off the game, Heroes offers the player opportunities to undo the consequences of that action, or to take another shot at the crucial action. After playing so many games in this comp that really do close off without warning, it was a great joy to realize that in this game, I didn’t have to restart after all, especially since restarting would have meant starting each viewpoint story from the beginning.
With all this going for it, Heroes easily would have scored a 10 from me (by which I mean somewhere between 9.5 and 10.0) if not for a few problems. For one, a couple of the puzzles appear to lack sufficient information about their components, making it very tough to guess their solutions. At least one other had a solution that appeared to contradict some of the stated rules of the situation. In addition, there were a number of instances where I felt that the game failed to give me enough feedback about whether I was on the right or wrong track, or where a perfectly valid idea was unimplemented (even if just with a failure message that provided a clear reason for denying the action.)
Finally, and most problematic, one of the sections appeared to be broken in such a way as to allow its main puzzle to be bypassed entirely. Heroes is an ambitious project, and in some ways it’s not surprising that the game should still be pretty rough around the edges. Its problems prevent it from reaching the very top echelon of competition games, but what it does have to offer is dazzling indeed.