Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"This mushroom is very frustrated with the current political system": A Retrospective of Jonas Kyratzes' The Sea Will Claim Everything

Below the cut, you'll find a review of Jonas Kyratzes' The Sea Will Claim Everything. Short version: It amused me and affected me, but its style is not for everyone.

Longtime readers may remember one of my more contemplative game studies bit, "IF Another Road Was Taken," wherein I concluded that I gravitated to Lit Geek over Computer Nerd in my formative years in part because my parents had made the choice of going with the Mac rather than the PC, as it was the PC that had the games that would have spurred on a computer interest.  What that assessment forgot was that Dark Castle, for all its black and white glory, was not the only card in the Mac Games deck--there were also the 90s HyperCard games, point-and-click adventure games made through a combination of a simple paint program and some hyperlinks. The ones I was familiar with came on little hard disks that my father had accumulated from somewhere or another, and I played through them diligently. They were emblematic of the Mac, really--a notch easier to use than the text-based adventures, because there was no guessing what to type, but a notch harder to see under the surface, as well. What I mostly remember, though, was the combination of puzzles and sly humor. I suppose I could have gotten into programming through that side of things--it certainly worked for the creators of Myst, for example. So maybe there was more to my bookish side than just a matter of circumstance.  The reason all of this is relevant to the review at hand is that "The Sea Will Claim Everything" is possibly the best 90s HyperCard game I've ever played. Unfortunately, it's 2013.
That's the biggest strike against the game, really. The graphics are nice, with their own style, but far below what's generally deemed acceptable by most for a computer game, even a casual one--there's barely anything in terms of the animation, either, which makes it sort of a hybrid between a game and a series of pictures. Another strike against it is that while it's somewhat nonlinear in terms of what you can do when, it's not always great at signalling which puzzles have to be completed before the next one can, which can be frustrating. And finally,  the gameplay for a HyperCard game is also subtly but significantly different than the PC graphic adventure game, its closest cousin, in that a Hypercard game, due to its first-person, often somewhat static interface, places less emphasis on puzzles and more emphasis on exploration. "The Sea" (I'm going for the abbreviation from now on) shares that trait, as it places much more importance in going out and interacting with the environment than on obscuring how that interaction should work; depending on what you're used to in games of this nature, this may be a welcome change, or too easy.
But I've gone about this review a little backward; let's take a step back, and talk about what this game is. You play a nameless character who has been summoned into this world via the wizard The, to fix the damage done to Underhome by a recent home invasion, and more generally, to help right the negative state of the local islands. Since you're from another dimension, you don't comprehend things the same way they do, which is why The created a windowed interface to help you deal with the world--a nice, diegetic way of integrating interface into story. The real charm of the game is in the combination of its humor and deeper philosophy, both of which are testaments to how much detail Kyratzes puts into his world-building. It starts with the interface system; while it's pretty common for adventure games to have icons for using and consuming items in your inventory, "The Sea" also allows you to sniff every item, and present every item to a mouse that apparently lives in your pocket. There is no in-game need for either of these functions, though Kyratzes has written a response for every single combination anyway. Likewise, every mushroom in the game--and many other objects as well--has its own bit of text, available at a click. There are many, many examples I could give, but I think my favorite is of two flowers standing beside a mushroom: "One of these flowers is in a relationship with a mushroom. The other used to disapprove, but is learning to be more tolerant."
This particular example segues nicely into the deeper philosophy behind the game (almost as if it was chosen specifically for that purpose. Imagine that.), that every being has a perspective worth considering, and is affected by those around them. And with that, we're going to go straight into major spoilers territory here, so skip this paragraph if you wish to remain unsullied. Each of the game's three main islands is being mismanaged by a political leader, and each can be seen as vaguely having a real-life equivalent: America and general corporate greed; austerity measures and Greece; and tightening military dictatorship in the Middle East. In a typical game, the goal would be to overthrow each corrupt leader. But that's not quite what happens here. You find a treasure hoard to pay off the corporate guy, but he gets a step ahead of you and seizes the money himself. You investigate a murder under the military dictator, but instead of finding the murderer, you disperse a greater understanding of the victim's life philosophy. And the search for the seeress leads to a dictum to better understand the here and now. The three events build up to the climax against the ultimate leader of all the villainous folk--only, you're not there for that part. Instead, your actions have inspired the people of the island to rise up. In a fairly interesting speech, The tells you that everyone is grateful for your help, but independence is their fight, not yours, and they have to do it themselves--and you have to have faith that the fight will succeed. It's a wild deviation from the usual videogame arc that bends over backward to declare the player-character as the singular hero who saves everything (although, to be fair, "The Sea" tries to have its cake and eat it, on that front). And that fits with the game's final message: we are not islands, separate and different. Rather, we are all the sea, connected, sinking or swimming together.  And the sea will claim everything.

Oh, wow, that's the name of the game! I just got that!  So yes: The Sea Will Claim Everything is not for everyone. Its graphics--and in some aspects, its overall design--is simple, almost to the point of crudeness. But I found it worth playing.

Later Days.

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