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Lockdown
Author: Richard Otter
Date: 2015
Inform 7/Gluxe


Reviewed by Sam Kabo Ashwell

Story: The protagonist is a janitor at a Science! institute; when play begins, he has just locked the base down and then murdered everyone inside it. The actual game involves him walking around the base and figuring out how to mess up the experiment in order to explode everything.


I think this is aiming to be a psychological thriller, but it doesn’t have quite enough going on in either department.

On the psychological drama side, this is a story about a mass shooting/suicide, told from the perspective of the shooter. The shooter has serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment, and uncovering this is a major focus of the game. Most of this doesn’t add much to ‘serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment’, though. On encountering the dead bodies of his former co-workers, we get a little information about how he didn’t like them.

The media res opening suggests that it might be intended as that venerable old saw of psychological thrillers, the Dreadful Past Conveniently Obscured by Amnesia, but – thankfully – this turns out to just be the effect of the player’s limited knowledge, rather than the protagonist’s.

And on the thriller side, there’s kind of a lack of thrills. You’re fortified inside a base, with The Authorities hammering on the door – that’s a reliable premise for building tension over the course of a story, but beyond its initial introduction, it’s basically ignored. You have an objective at the outset of the story, and advance steadily towards that objective until you accomplish it. That’s OK for gameplay purposes, kinda, but really bad for story.

The story isn’t hugely interested in the SF part either; we never really learn what the science guys are studying or why. The parts you can interact with are all rather pulpy: Big Machine With Buttons, Huge Shiny Crystal – but the overactive enthusiasm and melodrama that I generally take as hallmarks of self-conscious science pulp are absent. The principal reason to situate the action in a science base, rather than in any other workplace, is so that puzzles are required to complete the action.

2.

Writing:

You speed read the document which is your annual appraisal written by John Myers. Although the document does mention your overall performance it seems to be mainly be about your mental stability. A number of lines stand out, “prolonged depression”, “strong feelings of anger”, “delusions and hallucinations”, “inability to cope with daily problems and activities”, “denial of obvious problems”, “suicidal thoughts” and so on.

One further section catches your eye. “Williams has a habit of introducing himself as a Junior Technician and has stopped wearing his Maintenance badge.”

This kind of verges out of the normal territory of an appraisal and into a psychiatric report – the language is largely about the PC’s internal states, which you don’t really care about if you’re seeking justifications to fire someone – but in writing terms, the problem is that it’s a big old violation of Show Don’t Tell. I was put in mind of an old Adam Cadre review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s approach to characterisation and worldbuilding:


To a great extent, the purpose of narrative is to explore people’s psychological makeup. We follow characters around and watch what they do, what decisions they make, and come to understand what makes them tick. This process is entirely short-circuited by having a character sit down in a chair and say, “Here’s what makes me tick, doc.”

The symptoms and behaviours described don’t form an implausible background for a mass shooter, but at the end of it you don’t feel as though you know Peter Williams much more deeply than the police report and news articles that’ll come out in the aftermath. Fiction’s great strength is its ability to go beyond what an outsider could reasonably know, to go beyond the general to the acutely-personal specifics. Without that, it’s just non-fiction without the credibility. 2.

Puzzles: The mechanic here is that you have to set up the testing chamber in such a way as to destroy the base. You have a checklist of things to do, and the action principally comprises walking around the base, searching for the things you need to do and then doing them. This is fundamentally a bit tedious – there’s no creative thinking required for any of it, and the activation sequence involves a certain amount of pointless busywork (the doors around you lock, and you have to reset everything before you can unlock them).

The one puzzle in the game which does involve an ingenious approach is as follows: late in the game you need a small iron object, so you tear down a shelf in order to get at the nails. Perfectly reasonable, and if I had been doing this kind of puzzle all along I might very well have got it; but by this point I didn’t have much expectation of anything beyond ‘find thing, use in the obvious way’, and my brain had pretty much disengaged.

Finally, the narrative integration could stand to be stronger: if, for instance, we had more about the science of the project and Williams’ interest in it, this could have developed into an OK theme. But since we don’t even know what this stuff is for, ‘I’ll show them all’ – and thus the main motivation of the puzzle – is kind of disconnected. 2.

Theme: At one point it’s mentioned that it’s only a few hours until sunrise – this is tied to a clock, but as far as I could tell there’s no significant time limit, nor any particular reason why things have to be wrapped up by sunrise. Present, but an insignificant detail. 2.

Technical: I did not encounter any significant bugs, and it all pretty much works fine. 3.

Overall: 2.
 


Reviewed by Andrew Schultz.

This is a game about someone who has just gone on a shooting spree. They're faced with the consequences, but there's still one more thing to do. The question: what?


It wasn't really clear to me at first. I figured it was some sort of experiment, but it's tough to put everything together. The main character's job is to figure why his experiment has gone wrong, or he can't show people his breakthrough. I confess I'm very confused why the game starts at 2 AM. It makes me wonder how long the dead people were there for, and why you didn't do things sooner, or why the SWAT team didn't break in sooner. This makes a bad first impression re: realism.

My first play-through, I got locked into the Control Room with no way out. The walkthrough has a typo--you need to go east twice at one point--but it made sense when I looked at it. I don't think the energy rod was well-clued, but at least you could TAKE ALL to plow through it. At that point it becomes a bit Rube Goldberg-y for me, and I figured you have to push a bunch of buttons, but actually getting the rod and crystal in place didn't work. Maybe this is me rushing things. After all, I only did X LIST and not READ LIST until later. Perhaps the hints could poke you to do that before giving the full walkthrough?

This was an awkward game to play through but my impression was that it didn't mean to be this awkward. Perhaps another reason was that I'd played another game this person wrote, Again and Again, and I remember a lot of similar phrases and was trying hard to reconcile the humorous tone of that game with the far more serious tone here. And while I hate being grammar police, the lack of commas made me picture the dialogue flashbacks as far more flippant than they were meant to be. I also found the player's internal tone to be a bit too smug, while Leadlight (disclosure: the author, Wade Clarke, is a friend and I tested his game) captured the whole just letting things out there a lot better. In this case, it feels like an author who's disposed to humor is trying a serious tone and just missing the mark. The solution here is to have a lot of critical testers--oh, and don't let the killer take a victim's panties? And refer to "a receptionist" as something more? Even the receptionist whose name you didn't mention? I think stuff like the diamond ring you search and find on the receptionist is potentially the right sort of creepy, and you don't want to give too much detail--but as is, it feels disbelievable.

I think there are a few ways to go about doing this better. The introduction could mean more. Perhaps build a stronger story with each body you examine. I'd have liked a way to turn myself in, or at least a stern reject of why I can't unlock the office or don't want to. And I think a lot of parsercomp games will have neat tweaks to make them better, but this felt like it fell far short of its emotional potential--while Sunrise upset me, it outlined some scenarios and its flashbacks gave me something to wrestle with. This feels splashed out there, and X-ing various people, well, they're just there, and the protagonist hates everyone, and it feels sort of emo. I don't know--even providing the player with hints like "How'd this experiment go" or "You're bumbling around like X did" might hit the right tone of self-righteousness for the character.

So I think this experiment didn't work, and I'd like some way to sympathize with anyone here beyond "the protagonist's experiment failed." Maybe his small successes were ignored? He was teased around the office? Maybe people around the office weren't total monsters, but something earlier affected him?


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