Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Museum of Broken Memories Review

The Great Machine spins its wheels. It spits out yet another soldier caught in the middle of the horror of war. Or maybe the horror only exists in his head; the real war may be over. I guess we’ll never know, as this soldier is trapped in a world with no escape; a world consisting only of fragments of his memories.

Jonas Kyratzes has written several great games. He focuses on the horrors of war, and on the individual trapped in those horrors. The main character is always alone. He reacts very strongly to the environment, becoming very emotional and retrospective at the smallest impulse. This game is not an exception: once again you play a person scarred by the war who contemplates on the past. His memories aren’t limited to the horror of war, however; he also remembers fragments from his pre-war past, and in contrast, the war looks even more brutal.

This very theme was explored by one of the author’s previous games, The Great Machine, to a great extent. In that text adventure, you played a soldier trapped in a never-ending cycle of survival on the battlefield. The author references the game here when he mentions the wheels of the great machine spinning and threatening to grind the player, but here he is more interested in exploring the character’s psyche. The very powerful narrative allows the player to explore the main character, and despite the relative lack of linearity, it always fits together very well.

The Museum of Broken Memories takes place – not surprisingly - in a museum. There is no visible exit, but some of the paintings serve as portals to other worlds in the main character’s brain. You can move around by clicking on a room on the museum’s map. Despite the game being presented in a first person view, one can only turn around in the museum; movement is not implemented in the main interface (a pseudo-movement is available in some of the sub-games, by clicking on the door to the next room). This doesn’t detract from the experience, though, most of the game lies behind the five portals you’d be able to access.

These portals lead to five different worlds in the main character’s mind. Some of them present skewed and fragmented memories, while others seem to stimulate the character’s imagination. In one world, you’d feel the strong urge to escape from an unseen horror, in another you’ll want to find your friend, and yet in another you’ll be helping others to regain their memories. Each world has very unique graphics. In one case, for example, you’ll move around an adventure game storyboard, drawn in simple lines on a notepad. In yet another world, you’ll be blind. The place is totally dark, and you’ll move only by touch.

The heart of the game, however, isn’t connected to the very appropriate graphics, but lies in the narrative. The main character remembers things. Nearly every memory sparks an emotion, which further colors his speech. The author paid close attention in giving the character a very unique voice, which does not explain anything to the player, and yet makes the player understand things as the game goes on. You’ll be able to extract a great deal of information about the war and suffering the character and his lowed ones went through. One scene in particular, where your character explores the memories of a child who lost its toy, is extremely powerful and may stay with you for a long time.

However, nothing is perfect, and neither is this game. Interestingly, it is the narrative that fails. In one of the five worlds, it is much weaker than elsewhere, and given how strong it is in the other four worlds, this contrast is enormous. The largest world you’ll find yourself in is a maze without any light. The screen will remain dark throughout your journey here; only the cursor will change in the appropriate spots. The character will be able to use his hearing and touch, though. Here, the storyline follows the search for your lost love, only finding death all around you. The house you are moving in slowly falls apart, morphing into a battlefield. Given the lack of graphics, I anticipated the author to pay a much greater attention to the narrative. I expected not only the usual flashbacks, but also a much more detailed environmental description, and possibly my character guessing what he heard or touched. I was sorely disappointed. The flashbacks and emotions were almost gone, and all that was left was the description of the environment. The character seemed more curious than anything else. The author tried to compensate by using a very flowery language, but even that didn’t work. In fact, sentences like “a carpet of broken bones, bound together by rotting flesh” sound quite ridiculous if the main character doesn’t express any emotion.

Still, this deficit barely scratches this great game. Even though the graphics and music should be enough to please any gamer, the main strength of this title lies in the writing. In fact, it reads more like a poem than a game. That may not be too surprising, considering that the author seems to have been inspired by the writings of William Blake. In fact, Blake’s god of intellect, Urizen, plays an important role throughout this adventure. I found Urizen to be a little more malicious and active here than in Blake’s world, but this is the author’s prerogative. Jonas has later explained to me his vision of Urizen as the Authority, the personification of everything that’s fueled by short-term greed, such as senseless wars, economic and military imperialism, and more. His description allowed me to better understand the solitude of the main character as well, as Urizen also represents the repression of the individual.

All in all, The Museum of Broken Memories is a highly original and insightful work. It won’t be enjoyable in the classic sense of adventuring, as it lacks the traditional inventory system and puzzle solving. It will work itself into the player’s brain and create more questions than answers. With its superb graphics and soundtrack it will make it a little easier to digest the narrative, which is outstanding on its own. Despite a small hiccup in writing, I highly recommend this title to anybody looking for something more mature than what games usually offer.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Still alive

I'm not dead yet. I'm not. I'm getting better. I'll think I'll go for a walk.

There, I said it. First of all, I'd like to appologize for my disappearance and for not replying to e-mails and personal messages. The sad truth is that I was well over my head. In May I got my master's degree, and the next day I started working for a very exciting startup. I knew I was getting into a position with lots of varied work, seven days a week. As of Nov. 1, however, I've got an assistant, and I should get back to a resemblance of normality, rarely exceeding 60 work hours per week. This allowed me to already play my first adventure game in months, and soon I'll be beginning to catch up with the roughly 200 games I missed.

In addition to this blog, I will be posting short articles on independent adventuring at GameSetWatch.

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