{REVIEW] Fallacy of Dawn

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Eric Mayer

Dec 6, 2001, 11:33:20 AM12/6/01
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.

Eric Mayer
Web Site: <http://home.epix.net/~maywrite>

"The map is not the territory." -- Alfred Korzybski

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