Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: The LCPANES Terminal

Title: The LCPANES Terminal
Developer: psy-wombats
Genre: Interactive Novel
Program: Flash/Custom

The LCPANES Terminal is nothing more than a story, a story that you happen to be able to influence through a handful of important choices. Seeing as my background isn't one of great literary knowledge, and certainly not one of great literary ability, it's hard for me to write anything approaching a "proper" review for something that's essentially a book. As I already explained in a lengthy comment on this game's homepage, I'm not entirely sure if I'm going to be able to properly express what I think are The LCPANES Terminal's strong points, but since it deserves to be reviewed I'm going to give it a try anyway.

Throughout the course of this visual novel, I came to the conclusion that the most important aspect, the aspect that made me enjoy the course of the story most, wasn't the storyline itself. It's true that the story is incredibly well-written and it's definitely entertaining in its own right, but I still didn't think that it was the key factor in my enjoyment. What I thought was the key feature was the way the game makes you think carefully about each choice you have to make. Unless you were to breeze through this game mechanically, which would be the wrong thing to do since you'd miss out on a lot of the enjoyment, you'll spend a lot of your time playing this game in deep thought thanks to the complexity of the relationships between the different characters and the situation they find themselves in. The to-and-fro politics that your character is essentially dumped in the middle of are not as simple as they first appear to be, meaning that there is a lot for you to chew over, and it is in forcing the player to think about such issues that this game really shines.

Even after finishing the game, there were still a tonne of questions swirling around in my head about the choices I had made. Which ones could I have perhaps made better? How would they have affected the relationships that my character fostered throughout the course of the game? Could I really have done it any better? That I spent so much time theory-crafting after I had already finished the game is testament to the amount of thought I had to put in whilst still playing it. Hell, even if I had just mashed a bunch of random choices throughout the course of the game, I'd have probably still spent a little time afterwards trying to piece together the effect that they had. This is the real quality that this game has: it makes you think.

As for the story itself, the premise is pretty simple. A group of strangers are trapped in a series of different rooms for reasons they don't understand and they have to try and escape using a series of coded books left for them by their capture. Unfortunately for these people, they are all trapped in different rooms (and I got the impression on several occasions that these rooms are not on the same site, but this is something you can think about yourself as you play through the game) and can only communicate with each other through a series of computers. However, these computers only allow communication in a single direction, meaning that the captives need to trust each other to pass on messages in order to survive. This leads to a complex set of politics for your character to come to terms with as they try to escape, as your character is dumped into this situation after the other captives have already been trapped for a long period of time. Getting used to the "norms" they set up is a large part of the storyline.

Fortunately, the feelings of each of the captives towards each other are really well explained and it gives the player an instant feel for what each person thinks of the others. However, the clever part of this is that, because the system only allows you to talk to one of the other captives (at least at first), you only ever really get second or third-hand impressions fed to you. This gives you a lopsided and biased impression of each captive, meaning that each choice you make is being made with knowledge that you have to balance against the inherent bias that it contains. It is this element of the writing, I thought, that made the choices so interesting to consider. Were everything presented to you in a matter-of-fact manner then the game wouldn't be half as interesting, it is the bias in the language of the other captives that makes the choices so hard to make. 

Interestingly, though, I actually think that The LCPANES Terminal would work as a story even if you didn't have the player making choices. Why? Because given the talent shown within the writing, I believe that psy_wombats (the developer) could have easily replaced the choices the player has to make with their own written account of the internal struggle that the main character has to go through. What I mean by this is that, if you were to verbalise my thought process whilst playing this game and replace the choices with it, you would turn this from a very good "playable" novel into a very good "traditional" novel. Does that make sense? I'm not sure. In any case, what I'm trying to say is that the writing is amazing, and I'm not really sure what more I can say in that respect. That the language is vivid and really paints a picture in your head? That the characters really leap off the page? Such clich├ęs are things I want to avoid, even if they are true. Ah well, I never claimed to be a literary critic. I think I've explained what made the story work from my point of view, you'll just have to trust me when I say that the writing itself matches the complexity of the storyline it is trying to portray. 

The LCPANES Terminal has a rare quality compared to other games; it really makes you think. If you appreciate your brain being put through the grinder every now and again then I suggest giving it a go. 10/10.