Review: Absence of Law

At the end of this game, in addition to choices like QUIT / RESTART / AMUSING, there is an option to READ a comment by the author about some of the inspirations for this game and what was running through his head as he developed the game concept. I have to say that the flavor of influences came through strongly as I was playing, so players who have had a reasonably wide exposure to other parser-based works, some foundational, some more recent, will find this game particularly rewarding. AoL builds on concepts drawn from these works, but the story is fresh, so this does not feel like a retread of anything I have played before. I won’t say which works he had in mind, because I would like other players to have the experience as I did and see if they can guess as they play through.

This is an ambitious work: multiple levels of interaction, several shifts in player POV, lots of rooms, NPCs, and puzzles. Despite its size, it has been meticulously proofed and tested. I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory. I suspect this game will rank highly in the competition, so please play it before reading further.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The game is experienced from the viewpoint of the late Dr. Law, director of a high-tech research facility. He may be dead, but his consciousness endures in a backup computer system with a failing battery. No need to wonder about Dr. Law’s motivation: to survive, he needs to make sure that power source doesn’t run out. Framing the story within a time constraint immediately raises the stakes. At several times during the story, we are reminded that the power level continues to decline, and it is a close call at towards the end of the story.

I suspect that the battery power level is not implemented as a resource counter, which would feel a little too old school and absolute for this game. There is no battery level value in the title bar, and if it really mattered, I think there would be. Most likely, the battery level is just a way to keep some pressure on the player to keep moving towards completion of the game.

One thing I didn’t find entirely credible was the premise that before addressing life-and-death matter of the battery, Dr. Law needed to judge a competition between three projects in the lab. It seems to me that could have waited, but in terms of story mechanics it works because these three projects have to be working in order to not only bring Dr. Law back to life, but to realize his personal goal of resurrecting his dog.

The story starts with the introduction of DaedalOS, the computer operating system through which Dr. Law is able to interact with the physical world via various connected devices in the lab. DaedalOS is the voice of the parser, which has been heavily customized to the point that the OS can be considered as the principal NPC in this story.

In terms of game mechanics, this mode of interaction narrows the vast scope of this game to something manageable. The disembodied Dr. Law cannot physically interact with anything, so he is entirely dependent on the intermediate agency of the OS. In turn, the OS provides him at each point in the game with a limited menu of options, typically entered on the “command line”. This also has the benefit of making the player explicitly aware of what verbs are available for a given context. Between this restricted set of commands and putting most objects out of scope, the player’s attention is focused on a narrower set of potential actions than if the entire gamut of parser commands were available. While this is a limitation in some sense, it is part of the puzzle.

From the author’s perspective, limited player options means that limited responses need to be written, so it is more efficient: more of what the author has written will actually be read by the player. Parenthetically: that’s not to say there aren’t easter eggs in this story. The author has done a good job of exposing the items necessary to the story, but the player is also rewarded for exploring off the beaten path… the fourth project, for instance.

When it comes to moving the story along, there is an overarching framework, literally a to-do list: evaluate the three labs projects, code named MEDUSA, HYDRA, and MOIRAI, and then judge which is the winner of the lab competition. In evaluating each project, Dr. Law needs to operate through networked devices in each lab, for example taking remote command of a robotic body.

Each lab is associated with a couple scientists. We learn about them a bit in emails that Dr. Law occasionally receives, and we see how they conduct themselves in their labs as they repair damage, which occurred after an earthquake earlier in the week. For relatively minor characters, most of them have distinct personalities.

Most of the puzzles require getting other people to do things without being able to directly ask or command them to do so. I found a couple of the puzzles to be fussy, and I brute forced one of them — although I’m not sure that was the intended approach. Regardless of how I got there, though, I made it through the puzzles to the fast moving dénouement.

In this last scene, I completely blew my assigned role as emcee, and introduced and spotlit all of the projects in the wrong order — but this was clearly anticipated and still worked out. With my battery on the verge of flickering out, all of the parts of the game came together in a triumphant finish.

Evaluation:

Story: 8. There is a lot of it, and the pace feels frantic.

Voice: 9. DaedalOS:Law::KITT:Michael Knight.

Play: 8. With everything packed into this game, it is amazing that it played as well as it did, and speaks of time spent on making sure that puzzles were clued and objectives clear, both on the part of the author and play testers. I found a couple puzzles either finicky or laborious, but that could also reflect my own self-inflicted difficulties in how I approached them.

Polish: 10. A pleasure to play a game with such high production quality.

Technical: 9. Between modifying the allowable inputs, customizing outputs, switching POVs, and having a giant pile of game objects, this was a structurally complex game. I am curious how long it took to write.

JNSQ: 1

Preliminary Score: 9.8

[To put this in perspective, my yardstick for an 11 would be Violet. I’ll have to see how other games do at the high end to decide whether I need to tweak the overall scaling in my grading this year].

Transcript: absence

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