IFDB page: Little Blue Men
Final placement: 7th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition
WARNING: Because Little Blue Men uses obscenities in its text, that language will also appear in this review.
Well, the first thing I have to say is that starting Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories was quite mind-bending. The game starts with a character who is sitting at his desk thinking of his job as “another day in the trenches,” looking at his corner as his “own little slice of the shit pie those sons of bitches call an office.” I had this sudden vision of IF authors as angry loners, driven by their misanthropy and lack of social skills into highly solitary hobbies like writing and programming, friendless misfits who hate their jobs, hate their lives, and generally hate people, and who write supposedly entertaining games that are really about how much the world sucks. Luckily, the vision passed as the game underwent a curious transformation. First of all, the game’s disclaimer assured me that “at its most fundamental level, this game is about learning to love yourself.” OK, maybe we’re not loving anybody else yet, but loving yourself is at least a little positive. Next, I entered a few commands, the first ones that came to mind, really, and… won the game. Or did I? My final message said “*** You have learned to love yourself ***”, which is what I was told the game was about. So I won, right? In 10 moves? I wondered how in the heck a game whose .z5 file was 171K could end up being so short. I wondered, in the game’s words, “What the hell…?!”
It turns out that although LBM may be about learning to love yourself, if you do the things that help you reach that goal too quickly you end up missing the entire story. That story consists of scheming ways to kill or otherwise waylay your co-workers, destroy the things that aggravate you, discover the secrets hidden behind the bland office walls, and figure out just who or what your boss, “that bastard Biedermeyer”, really is. In short, it consists of getting an unpleasant character to do unsavory things, in service of a plot that grows more and more metaphorical and surreal as you progress through it. When I finally got to the end, I wasn’t sure that I was any more satisfied with the “real” ending than the one I got to in 10 moves. In his postscript, the author tells us that he wants the story’s structure to help us question to help us analyze some of our assumptions about IF. For one thing, we should think about what really is the most “optimal” ending of the game, and whether it’s worth it to actually play through a game if it’s possible to reach a positive ending at the beginning, and/or if the motivations of the character are twisted and repugnant? Now, these are not new ideas. Andrew Plotkin‘s A Change In The Weather offers a similar situation at its outset — if you rejoin the picnic, you end up having fun after all, but you also miss the story. To go back earlier, Michael Berlyn used a related technique in Infidel by making the main character a shallow, exploitive greedhead who probably deserves a desert demise, then asking you to solve puzzles and find treasure on his behalf. Little Blue Men, though, makes these propositions starker than ever before by making its main character thoroughly repulsive and an optimal ending immediately reachable.
Now, my answer to this question in its abstract form is that responses will vary depending on the player. Some people probably have no interest in playing a repulsive character, and so will just delete the game. Others might be driven by curiosity to complete the game even though they find the experience unpleasant. Still others will view it as a chance to get a glimpse into abnormal psychology, or to have some fun playing a villainous character. In this way, playing such a game is akin to watching a movie like Natural Born Killers, or reading a book like In Cold Blood — it may be very well-done, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fine. Consequently, I guess I don’t view the question as all that interesting, maybe because any assumption I might have had about IF characters having to be good was eliminated as soon as I finished Infidel (in 1986). But even though I feel this way, LBM still didn’t work for me, not because of its main character but because of its choices of setting, imagery, and metaphor. The game invokes the movie Jacob’s Ladder a couple of times, which is a movie I loved. That film was by turns profound, chilling, and inspiring. LBM only achieves glimpses of these things, and I think the reason is because I found its imagery muddled and incoherent. The game is obviously taking place on some metaphorical level, but it was never at all clear to me what the metaphors were supposed to be representing, and as they stack up it only becomes more confusing. In addition, there was basically no connection with reality, which left the game’s symbols floating unanchored. Some flashback scenes, some glimpses of reality, some type of explanation for the heaven/hell dichotomy the game presents would have gone a long way toward connecting its symbolism with something more meaningful than just other symbols. There’s a lot to like about this game. It is written well, and although it doesn’t achieve an overall arc, it does contain moments which can be quite moving or frightening. Technically I could find very little for which to fault it, both in its writing and its coding. Its puzzles may have had some unpleasant content, but they were clever and engaging, and generally quite well integrated with the storyline. But for me, it did not succeed as a work of art. Nonetheless, I respect it for being an ambitious but flawed experiment — I’ll take that over competent repetition any day.