Robb Sherwin's Fallacy of Dawn is his best game yet. Somewhere in a bleak future we can only hope is more distant than it seems, protagonist Delarion Yar scratched out a living breaking software copy protection. Then some mysterious assailants put an end to his career, not only pounding him into unconsciousness but operating on his brain as well. Now Yar can no longer perceive the electromagnetic spectrum correctly. Thrown out into the city of New Haz with a criminal record, meaning he is unable to leave without paying a huge tariff, Yar cannot even effectively type his own name.
Working in a seedy video arcade, he appears to have about as much future as the obsolete games he's servicing. But before long events convince him he's got to escape New Haz immediately one way or another. The only place to find enough money for the tariff is the lawless west side, but Yar has first to scratch up enough to buy the weapon required to enter that part of the city. Luckily for him he soon hooks up with a couple of capable sidekicks and he's off on the cyberpunk equivalent of a cave crawl.
That is if a cave crawl had finely rendered characters, snappy dialogue and a coherent story line.
Maybe it's all the alleys in New Haze that remind me of cave crawls. There seems to be an overabundance of alleys in IF. An atavistic harking back to those other narrow, walled passages full of dark and lurking danger? Fallacy of Dawn uses graphics at the top of the screen showing the player a photograph of each alley and all the other locations, a succession of scabrous walls and peeling facades half visible in weirdly flaring lights and impenetrable shadows -- what Yar sees with his impaired senses. The photographs are not necessary to the game play but their constant presence enforces the game's aura of cold desolation. To repeat such descriptions in writing at every player turn would quickly become tedious and annoying. The photos, sitting there passively even while the player concentrates on the text do a much better job.
Along with the photographs of the location the game also continuously displays a graph of the player's health and, somewhat ironically, the amount he has in him of the illicit drug he requires. Luckily these are not particularly hard to maintain or critical. Also displayed is the balance on Yar's credit card. A nice touch. The player does not have to keep checking inventory to see what a fix he's in.
Most important, though, are the photos of the game's characters - mostly head shots -- displayed for whichever character the action is focussed on. Robb used photos of his friends and it is fair to wonder to what extent Robb's friends manage to resemble the denizens of New Haze -- rogue androids, child molesters, sneering clerks, mad scientists and an endless army of hired thugs who all seem to be looking just for Yar. (Well, you se, he owes people money) The answer is, with loads of smirking, sneering and snarling, they come off pretty well, or badly. For Robb's sake one can only hope these folks are acting.
Of paramount importance is the main photo of Yar himself, which, unlike a written description would, forces itself immediately on the player with no regard to whatever appearance the player might prefer to imagine or to link with the character's actions. For me, the photo (or Robb's younger brother) looked just right - young and blurred, dazed and confused. Someone who needs you to lead him around a game as dangerous as this one.
Of note also is Yar's love interest and sidekick Clara whom the photos reveal to be one of those rare fresco painters who looks good with a weapon in her hands. Surely here is an IF star in making. One can only hope that Robb's next multimedia game will be the Hugo version of Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
Although the graphics work well it is the writing that carries Fallacy of Dawn.. Robb is a language kamikaze -- destructive and spectacular. His characters spew brief bursts of acid or hilarious obscenity, or lapse into rococo screenfulls of angst. The player is immersed in a flood of emotion, largely anger. The rage some of Robb's characters display toward practically everything in their world, a withering fury provoked equally by the corporate police state and rude shop clerks, reminds me a bit of the anger of the French writer Louis Ferdinand Celine, although Robb at least allows for the possibility of light.
The characters are not all consumed by anger, but they are all well drawn and differentiated. Even the spear carriers, the shop attendants Yar encounters, the weapons shop greeter, the morgue attendant, a murder victim, characters encountered only briefly and by necessity of the game play, are granted a personality, a photo image and a some well chosen lines. Rendering minor players in a lifelike manner is a vital and often overlooked factor in creating a believable world. As for the main characters, they are revealed in increasing depth as the game progressives. Robb's sidekick Porn, for example, demonstrates he is not quite the jerk he appears at first crude quip while Clara and even Yar's main adversary, have some surprising twists to their personalities.
The gameplay, for me, worked almost perfectly. I'd guess what the average IF player wants is a doable challenge. If the puzzles are too hard for us to solve, we're frustrated, if they're too simple we don't feel we've accomplished anything. We want something that will test us, at least a bit, but allow us to succeed. Since players differ in ability it is difficult if not impossible to satisfy them all with the same game. My puzzle solving ability is pitiful so the doable challenges of Fallacy of Dawn (for me) will likely be extremely simple for a more savvy player. Nevertheless, puzzles there are.
The two main parts of the game have a somewhat different feel. Yar and his sidekicks have to find the money to buy Yar's way out of New Haz. In the first part, the player contends with a fairly limited map of the city's east side and the narrow goal of getting a small amount of money for the weapon needed to gain admittance to the west side where there is real money to be made. The somewhat, but not overly, limited scope means that the player soon runs into important characters and obtains the background necessary to the story.
Once the wild west side is reached the map and the game open up. There are numerous ways in which Yar can obtain what he needs, puzzles of various types and complexity - mostly of the quest variety -- none very daunting, although some involve scenes full of real tension.. Not all the puzzles need to be solved, nor, it seems do they need to be solved in any particular order. However, Robb manages to ensure that you don't wander fruitlessly around the map. I never meandered far before I ran into someone or something that got the action going again. (As Robb has explained, generally the player finds quests by entering buildings) When I realized how forgiving the game was I really enjoyed myself, just exploring and waiting to see what chance turned up, and especially so since on both sides of the city there are a lot of amusing embellishments. A bus that will transport you here and there and a Hacker Hall of Shame. In the video shop examining the ancient video games in the bin gets you a quick review and handing them to the shop clerk earns you his snide ratings.
A couple other aspects of Fallacy of Dawn struck me as interesting. It's told in the first person. Oddly, I didn't notice it wasn't in the traditional second person until I went back and reviewed the game. First person narration is common for a book focussed tightly on one character and insofar as Fallacy of Dawn has a novelistic attitude the viewpoint just seemed right and as completely unobtrusive as it would've been in a book. Maybe, as IF moves in the direction of literature and the player is asked to identify with a lifelike, realistic character, rather than an anonymous caving kleptomaniac, the second person viewpoint is becoming outmoded.
Also, when I finished this game I couldn't help thinking of Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic use of what he called the McGuffin. Although the exact meaning of the term is sometimes disputed, it is generally accepted that a McGuffin is a device or plot element that catches the viewer's attention or drives the plot, but isn't actually important. In Fallacy of Dawn Yar's treasure hunt for the funds to escape New Haz is a sort of McGuffin. Not that he doesn't want to escape or doesn't need to find the money to do so, but the real story -- I think I dare say without spoiling anything -- is Yar's discovery of his identity. The search for identity is a common literary theme, but like many themes treated in books, doesn't necessarily lend itself to game play. Typing >reflect >ponder >agonize >take the epiphany doesn't make for much of a game.
It isn't surprising that the closer IF approaches literature the less interesting the game play tends to be. Players are propelled on rails, their choices are trivial or entirely irrelevant. In Fallacy of Dawn Robb sometimes yanks the player away from the quest, parts of the task are achieved without much fort or by unexpected means. But although some of the game is, in that sense, on rails, the McGuffin, the quest for the money to free Yar, constantly moves the action forward, insures that the player always has something interesting to do and thus feels like a participant rather than merely a turner of pages.
Finally, although it took me more than two hours to play Fallacy of Dawn, longer games have been entered in the Annual IF Comp and done well. An ace player might finish in two hours - or certainly Robb could have convinced himself they might. So I have to commend the author for respecting the rules and releasing this superb game into the howling darkness outside the Comp. I hope prospective comp participants will take note and that the IF community remembers Fallacy of Dawn when its time to vote for the XYZZY Awards.