Everyone remembers the big names, the Shorts, the Cadres. Everyone also remembers the spectacularly bad names, the Pankses, the Celsiuses. To some people, the names Andy Phillips or Robb Sherwin are immediately recognisable because those authors have such a particular style; and John Evans is practically synonimous with ambitious, amazingly interesting gimmicks in games broken beyond use.
It’s easy to forget the authors who did some things very well, and with a passion, but whose games just never really measured up, or were never memorable enough.
Cases in point: David Batterham, author of Opening night, and Paul T. Johnson. Author of House of the Midnight Sun and Jet-Blue, games which he later revamped extensively into the games Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Sci-Fi.
I found those two Jonhson games very appealing. Dracula is very oldschool, and wears that on its sleeve unashamedly. There is no brilliance, no stroke of genius, hardly a story at all, but there is good, solid, puzzley entertainment and an accomplished atmosphere. It’s easy to dismiss these games as forgettable - but also a damn shame, because there’s something there. Something not bound by our usual IF conventions.
Sci-Fi’s ABOUT menu has some lengthy introductions, and the biggest acknowledgements are to Poe and 2001: Space Odyssey. Those are dead right. This author has managed to capture some of the atmosphere of Poe (very occasionally) and some of the atmosphere of 2001 (very often). The sense of surreality that you get in the last act of 2001 pervades this entire game, with some pieces of clear-cut reality invading much like the HAL sequence. I could not conceive of a better hommage to 2001; while lacking its scale and, of course, all of the multimedia experiences that make it a true Space Opera, it got the atmosphere, the feeling, very right. It mostly misses on the wonderment and goes mostly for bewilderment, true, but there is wonder to be experienced. There is scale. Just not 2001 style.
Poe references are also proeminent, but the direct ones are surprising: liberal use of the words Psyche and Ulalume, taken out of context and planted into game elements. Well, they work, and I can think of worse hommages.
The game is mostly story-driven, with three straight-up (easy) puzzles at the end. The writing is…
…I’m hesitating here. I’m not sure I can call the writing good, by the IF standards I’m used to. In fact, I’m not sure I can even call the game good, because it’s so linear and so transparent in everything it does. You get the bewildering beginning; in the second part you get into a lengthy ask-tell exposition; then you enter the final act and solve some puzzles. This is unusual design.
But that’s what I really, really like about it, when all’s said and done. Paul Jonhson wanted to make this game. He did not want to make an IF game, he did not want to make an Adventure clone, he wanted to pay hommage to 2001 and incorporate Poe - and he did, in his own way. And because he loves those subjects so much, that love comes through and makes the whole a lot better than you thought it could be. You don’t feel like you’re playing an IF game; you feel like you’re playing Paul Johnson’s game.
By the way, let me clarify: this is not a game full of newbie mistakes. Oh no. The programming is solid. You’ll never think for a moment that you’re playing a game whose author got too big for his britches.
In conclusion, I recommend this game. It’s not very highly rated, and I can understand why that is, but it’s not a game to be easily dismissed. What it achieves is at least engaging and entertaining; what it undertook to do, and how it did it, remains different enough to merit attention.
There are no mention of more modern games from this author, which I find a shame - and a repeating pattern. Maybe some people have a finite number of stories they can / want to tell before they move on to other pastures… in which case I can only say, thank you, Paul T. Johnson, David Batterham and all the other authors who gave us something to remember. Something that wasn’t flashy, something that wasn’t trashy; something that didn’t change our world; but something that did ring true somewhere inside us, and which makes us remember your game for a long time. Thank you both and thank you all.