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.


Anonymous Jonas said...

First of all, thanks for the kind review.

A comment on the "darkness" part of the game. I was going to send this to your per email a few days ago, but I was ill.

It should be noted that not every protagonist of the five fragments is necessarily the same person. That is one aspect of the difference in style in that fragment. Furthermore, the lack of clear emotional reactions (other than the longing for his wife) was intentional; I wanted to have the horror in the descriptions, not in the voice. And the disaffection of that voice, the very fact that it doesn't react in a more realistic way, is part of what makes it disturbing.

The risk with making something like The Museum of Broken Memories is that there is always something that someone won't like. A lot of people found the "darkness" fragment to be disturbing and scary. Others, like you, found it to be silly. Others in turn think the "fever" bit is the best and the "door" room sucks, or the other way around. There's something for everyone to hate and love.

Again, thank you very very much for your review. I'm glad you enjoyed the game.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Jozef said...

Hi Jonas,

I should thank you for writing the game; I found it very insightful. I didn't realize the protagonist may not be the same person. In fact, it may amuse you to know that after I finished the game I thought of the protagonist as someone in a coma, trying to find a way out by putting his memories back together, only to realize that he'd need to let go and start anew.

I personally didn't find the dark segment scary, neither did I any other part. However, I appreciated the short stories in the segment where the character is trying to find five memories for the ghost. Those stories were incredibly touching and very well done. But that's just me, and as I mentioned in my e-mail, the great thing about art is that everybody can appreciate it in their own way ;)

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Vince Twelve said...

Great to see you back Jozef!

11:39 PM  
Blogger abc said...

I definitely thought the blind segment was one of the most horrific. Like what Jonas was saying, the disaffection of the voice is what makes it so real, to me.

As far as gameplay goes, though, it really was horrific. It took me such a long time to find anything. =[

5:54 PM  

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