Lorelei: ruminations

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Comments: 3 (plus live)   (latest 4 hours later)

Tagged: lorelei and the laser eyes, simogo, puzzles, puzzle hunts, puzzle books, puzzle boxes, adventure games, graham nelson, craft, thematic apperception, ruminations, reviews

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes (Simogo) is a stylish puzzle-box full of puzzle-boxes. I really liked it, and I also felt like it didn't want to be liked.

This is an old-fashioned approach to puzzles. It feels more like a puzzle book. The Fool's Errand is maybe a better comparison, although I have trouble pinning down why I say that. Let's see:

  • A letter on a table next to a combination lock. The letter has underlined words which form a clue. Why? Because it's a puzzle. The suspended disbelief of puzzle environments is old hat, but this is a studied artifice.
  • Sets of clues which reveals more sets of clues which link up into a final answer. (Remember finishing a Cliff Johnson game amid a pile of crumpled-up clue notes?)
  • Unexpected use of the interface.

Now, the game also fills its fictional world with '80s computers, '90s consoles, puzzle books and puzzle boxes. And mazes. Multiple mazes. You literally find a book of puzzles which you carry in your inventory and whip out for various locked doors. So the game is quite explicitly invoking both the retro and the meta aesthetic. Old-fashioned in both form and intent.

But there's more. Lorelei is a story about retro art and retro artists -- 60s cinema, stage magic, Dada sculpture -- but reimagined as interactive art. Contemporary ideas of game design projected backwards into the past.

Ah, you say, artifice and history and anachronistic interactivity? That's Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, that's a close neighbor. But KR0's take on interactive fiction is folksy and elegaic. It's the nostalgia of old-timey games, elaborated.

Lorelei's take, in contrast, is grand guignol. Mad artists gouging out eyes and plunging out third-story windows. Black-and-white cinema splashed with blood. If there's any nostalgia at all, it's for Silent Hill or Resident Evil -- games where you were uncomfortable all the time and also the tank-controls sucked.

It's not a cozy experience, is what I'm saying. Not precisely horror, but not cozy. Content warning bodily harm. I loved the puzzles but I was never happy just to be there.

What then of the puzzles? They were, by and large, easily solved. My biggest mistake in play was overthinking the solutions! But I still loved them, because every puzzle was a different idea; each started with that moment of "What is this? What am I looking at?"

Ah, there's the common factor with puzzle hunts and puzzle books and puzzle boxes. The modern approach to puzzles -- the root of the "thinky puzzle" tradition -- is iteration on a deep, explorable mechanic. There will be surprises, but they spring up in a field that you have mastered. Baba and Monster's Expedition start you out with a simple push.

But Masquerade and Maze (and latterly Gorogoa) were never like that. They threw you into a well of tantalizing maybe-clues and challenged you to find a pattern. That's the essence of Mystery Hunt puzzles. Lorelei may be a blood-spattered haunt of a game, but that's the living spark it's chasing.

And that spark leads us to the story, which is... allusive at best. A murder? A movie? A magic show? The game cheerfully hashes together its layers: screenplays about screenplays, books about books, games about games. No fourth wall is left unbroken. The environment itself is ostentatiously a rendering, as its puzzles are ostentatiously puzzles. If there's a "true" narrative, it exists in the negative spaces.

The endgame brings this together with a series of plot questions: what just happened? Who killed who? Who is fictional and who is real?

I like to call this sort of pop quiz "thematic apperception". (Yes, I'm misusing a psychology term.) It brings the game's story and theme on-stage as puzzle elements. I did this at the end of System's Twilight and felt very clever -- well, it was the 90s. Maybe it's on-the-nose (or in-the-eye) today.

But doesn't this exactly describe Obra Dinn and Golden Idol? Games where the puzzle is to figure out the game's plot events? Yes, and I've used the term that way.

But, hm, I've glossed over a distinction. The Obra-Dinners are pure inference: look at the clues, decide what happened. In System's Twilight I reversed the polarity a bit: I asked thematic questions, which (perhaps) got players to think about the story at a deeper level.

Lorelei takes this much farther. Its questions yanked me into thinking about the "real" story, the story behind all the metafictional layers. Wait, someone is imaginary? Someone really killed someone? I admit that I had waved it all off as a obfuscatory narrative haze, but the game wants specific answers. By asking, it created them.

...You know, this leads me to reconsider a cliche.

In Graham Nelson's classic essay "The Craft of Adventure", he writes:

An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative.

That was 1995 and I trust he'll forgive me for calling it a cliche today. We still quote that line, but we've also had thirty more years of creatively entangling narrative and puzzle design.

But I never spotted that a crossword is solved both ways. That's the whole point of the crossing words! When you figure out a DOWN clue, that gives you information towards the ACROSS clues, and vice versa. And then sometimes you guess, which helps.

If you think about solving an Obra-Idol-Roottrees, it feels a lot like solving a crossword. Try one option here, eliminate that option there, fill more of the grid. Knowing trivia may help. Sometimes you guess. There is no war; the crossword model is how you read the story.

And Lorelei handles its plot puzzles just that way. Story is DOWN, puzzles are ACROSS. The game gives you clues about the puzzles; the puzzles ask questions that give you clues about the game. You can guess if you need to. The narrative is checked letters.

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