Metamorphoses by Emily Short [Comp00]

IFDB page: Metamorphoses
Final placement: 2nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I first played Myst, I wasn’t so much impressed by its storyline and puzzles as I was by its images. The gorgeously rendered locations, where each object seems freighted with meaning; the arcane and elegantly wrought machinery with its delicate gears and imposing levers; the transformations that could be brought about when various changes were enacted — I found them all quite arresting. Metamorphoses brought me back to that feeling of pleasure and awe, and it did so without the use of any graphics whatsoever. The game’s prose is crisp and powerful, conveying its Myst-like landscape of glass trees, heavy steel cranks, and shimmering water with clean, charged phrases.

The game never specifies exactly where it is set, except to make clear that its world is separate from the ordinary one, and that the PC has been sent there through the use of some sort of magic. The objects and locations therein are described economically but evocatively, like so:

Tower of Stars
You stand among cogs and gears, many with teeth longer than your
forearm; the outer ring of the floor is wholly occupied with these.

But above is a spangled darkness full of music. The moon turns slowly
overhead, and the constellations wheel round the pole-star; off to
the east is the dimmest hint of warmth, but the sun itself is nowhere
to be seen.

At its best (and it usually is), Metamorphoses delivers the transcendent grandeur of graphical powerhouses like Myst, and tinges it with an emotional weight that only text can achieve.

As to what is actually happening in this breathtaking landscape, well that isn’t so clear, or at least it wasn’t to me. You play some kind of servant, a girl apparently (since you’re wearing a dress.) Your fealty is to a Master who doesn’t appear to treat you well, and it is he who has sent you to this mystical landscape in pursuit of some unspecified magical objects. Even this much is based on some guesses and intuitive leaps — the game makes little effort to provide clear exposition of character and plot, leaving players to fill in many of the voluminous gaps for themselves.

I found the overall effect to be rather emotionally distancing. Perhaps I struggled to connect to the character because the flashbacks and other characterization elements are presented in such an abstract manner, or perhaps it was due to the rather spartan, forbidding images of the landscape itself, some of which contain dark hints of hellish abuse in the PC’s past. Perhaps it was even due to the austerity of the prose itself, whose sharp images and clipped diction were magnificent at conveying vivid scenes, but which stumbled rather more when describing the fuzzier and more complex realm of emotions. No doubt the real cause is some combination of these factors, but whatever the reason, I found that I enjoyed the game more when I set aside its plot and focused my attention on its lovely images and excellent design.

That design is perhaps the best thing about Metamorphoses. There are puzzles, yes, but almost every puzzle seems to have alternate solutions, and even better, these alternate solutions make perfect sense within the game’s magical logic. Moreover, Metamorphoses provides much space for play and experimentation, especially through the use of a couple of devices that can effect startling and fascinating transformations on most of the objects in the game. The potential of these devices is so vast, and their effects implemented so thoroughly, that I could easily have spent the two hour judging period just playing with them and experimenting with the results.

In fact, the game is coded so well that for a moment it gave me a flash of that wonderful sense I used to get when I first started playing interactive fiction, the sense that here is a world where anything can happen, and anything I try can elicit a magical, transformative response. Of course, that feeling breaks down quickly and inevitably when something I attempt isn’t accounted for, but just for that moment of wonder it gave me, I won’t forget Metamorphoses for a very long time.

Rating: 9.3