[review] Muse

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Adam Cadre

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Nov 17, 1998, 3:00:00 AM11/17/98
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THE CALLIOPE EFFECT
Muse by Christopher Huang

A few minutes into this game, I scribbled down the following in my
notepad: "I grow old... I grow old... I shall wear the bottoms of
my trousers rolled." Later on the game quoted those lines back at
me. I wondered just how aware the author was of all the implications
involved.

You see, those lines were written by TS Eliot at the oh-so-elderly
age of twenty-two -- the same age as the author of Muse. Prufrock
himself, from whose "Love Song" these lines are drawn, is given no
specified age in the poem, but I tend to side with Fred Crews in
believing that he too is somewhere in his twenties, sure that his
prematurely thinning hair indicates that his life is effectively
over. In which case Eliot is mocking those twenty-two-year-olds
who would write unironically from the perspective of a fifty-nine-
year-old. (If not, of course, then Eliot is such a one himself.
But there's too much implicit mockery in "Prufrock" for me to believe
that if Eliot were to see those lines quoted at the end of Muse he
would say anything other than "No, no -- if the mermaids aren't
singing to you, it's probably because they're picking up that you're
the type who identifies with someone three times your age. For pity's
sake, Prufrock is not a role model!")

I also couldn't help thinking about a comment I received on an early
draft of my novel, which revolves around a bunch of high-school-aged
kids: "Ninety-nine percent of the manuscripts I read are about
middle-aged people giving up or old people wondering why they
didn't give up sooner. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to
read about some people who are actually *looking forward* to life!"
This is of course not the state of affairs in IF: indeed, Muse
deserves credit for introducing a well-realized PC unlike any IF PC
I can think of. But still, considering that a good deal of the fun
of IF is to step into a space where you can do anything -- go ahead,
hitchhike naked! kick that head! scrape that parrot! -- it's rather
draining to play a character who can barely make it up the stairs.

But let me, like J. Alfred Prufrock, reverse myself yet again. The
fact that the good reverend's collar felt confining is a testament
to the author's success in creating a world with an atmosphere so
seamless that I did very much feel like I was there. And since that
may well be what I like best about playing IF -- the ability to walk
around a world born from someone else's mind, and knock over vases
while I'm there -- Muse guaranteed itself a top score from me right
from the get-go. Not only was the world well-constructed, with nary
a line to break the illusion of being somewhere else, it was exactly
the right size for the story being told: any larger and it would have
been daunting; any smaller and I would have been overcome by
claustrophobia. This is just one small example of the craftsmanship
involved in this game, which is simply superb throughout.

The idea behind the game gives one pause, though. Here we have a
game that advertises itself as having been built around interacting
with NPCs -- the hardest thing to do well in IF, especially with an
ASK/TELL interface. And Huang doesn't quite carry it off. The
characters are all quite thin: partly because they each only have
maybe a dozen things to say, and partly because what they do have
to say isn't really all that interesting. It was hard for me to
work up any kind of feeling for my ostensible love interest when she
couldn't have been less exciting had you shot her up with a tanker
truck full of Haldol. But, of course, that made sense in a way:
she *is* Victorian.

I'm used to getting frustrated struggling with the parser; in Muse,
I found myself in a similar struggle, not with the parser, but with
Victorian protocol. That seemed to me to be an evocative association:
I wondered how not being able to act naturally even to the extent we
can today, having to fit everything you did or said into the strict
bounds of a rigid code of propriety, resembled struggling with a sort
of "parser" every waking moment of your life. And then I started
musing (appropriately enough) about Konstanza's character, or lack
thereof. So she's completely colorless as a character. This may
be boring -- but is it unrealistic? This was, after all, a culture
where women were trained from day one to be purely decorative
creatures with nothing to say, no wills of their own... a culture
that squeezed the life out of half the population until they stopped
being human and became -- wait for it -- NPCs.

At this point, Muse's author may be happily nodding, pleased that I
picked up on the fact that his game is in fact a sly critique of the
Victorian era, and hoping that I now realize that his "Prufrock"
reference is another clue that we're supposed to recoil from the
world he presents; on the other hand, he may be horrified at just how
violently I'm reading against the grain here. If it's the latter, I
can only imagine how he'll take to the idea of me reconstructing the
source code to his game and recompiling it with one little difference:
this time around, the lass with whom the good reverend will find
himself so taken is Tracy Valencia. (Turn #3: >SUFFER STROKE.)

My score: 8.6 (2nd place)

-----
Adam Cadre, Anaheim, CA
http://www.retina.net/~grignr

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