Friday, 14 September 2018 09:00

Lamplight City Review

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Edited by: Chiara Burns

I think I’ve figured out why people say interactive novels aren’t real games. The reason is clear if we look at two genres where solid writing is crucial for a great experience: detective games and point and click adventures. Solid writing doesn’t just mean narrative, although that is important, but also all the small details like in-game writing on documents or books (flavor text), the script of the narrator, interesting characters, the plot structure, and the way the mechanics of the game tell the story. And in a detective story, there are other elements to balance like plot twists, tension, and mystery. When these elements are out of balance, the gameplay becomes boring, and it feels like you’re reading a bad book. This is essentially the challenge that Lamplight City, a detective adventure in an 1840s steampunk setting, narrowly fails to overcome.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some quality elements.

Considering Lamplight City is mostly the work of one man, writer/director Francisco Gonzales, it is an impressive accomplishment. The quantity of dialogue alone is quite a chunk of work for Gonzales to have done alone (more on that later). The art style reminds me of a noir, gas-lit King’s Quest, which is welcome and familiar. The music, although at sometimes slightly out of step with the mood of the scenes, is generally a great addition to the atmosphere.

The voice acting is done well, but at times the actors didn’t seem to know how to best deliver their lines. I don’t think the actors are entirely to blame for this, because at least one actor made the most of the strange character he was given and pulled off a hilarious performance. That leads me to believe it’s the writing and directing that don’t quite obtain realistic dialogue throughout—a problem that is especially apparent at the beginning of the game.

The writing is consistent to a fault.

The story opens with a mystery, which might seem like a guaranteed hook on paper, but there are several issues with the prologue. Without spoiling too much, the first case of the game is about stolen flowers, but even that statement is a little more mysterious than the way the game presents it. There are a few elements that become major speed bumps on the way to introducing the mystery and kill the tension.

The first issue is your partner. He’s the type of guy that makes wise-cracks about everything. Literally, he doesn’t miss a single chance to talk—if you click on something, he makes a lame joke about it every time, without fail. It turns out this is how his character is set up as both your foil and your narrator: He tells you about the things you click on, and when you come to a realization he sums it up for you. While this is an interesting concept, the execution falls short because of how unbearably annoying he is. I fully realize his jokes are meant to be lame and that’s what’s supposed to be funny, but that character is a well-worn trope by now and rarely works. In Lamplight City, it just comes off as annoying and lazy, which is a pity because that guy is with you the whole game.

Then there’s the dialogue, which is very detailed and long-winded. If there’s any point where the dialogue should get to the point, it’s in the prologue. The characters shouldn’t be talking about the weather to add flavor while the instigating conflict of the plot is revealed. At times, I enjoyed the amount of attention put into the dialogue. It makes the characters feel three-dimensional, obscures crucial facts, and provides information about the world. But it’s treated as a set pattern for every character: You ask them about themselves, about the case, and about the people they know, and they give long monologues about each topic. Any sort of pacing that would use less dialogue and more action at exciting moments is foregone. Instead, there are many sleepy conversations you’re forced to click through to get the information you need. The opening scene of the game is no exception, where it begins with blocks of dialogue instead of action.

It’s almost paradoxical, because dialogue is crucial to a detective story. You need to talk to people to get information. However, in Lamplight City, many people tell stories that could have instead been shown and staged as exciting scenes, and it’s hard to pay attention to their comparatively boring deliveries. This is the one area where the exception is the prologue, in which you actually do a physical experiment to solve the case (although it’s laughably easy and comes after the aforementioned blocks of dialogue). But this kind of thing rarely shows up throughout your adventures.

Other things are weirdly persistent in the plot while being seemingly inconsequential. The steampunk setting comes off as pretty unnecessary because most of the steam technologies are analogous to the historical mid-1800s. There are a few cases that involve “Reddites,” an obvious analogy for Luddites, but why make up a fictional group that is exactly the same as the one being referenced? Similarly, the setting seems to basically be America, since everyone has an American accent, but the names of places seem to be slightly different fantasy versions of their real counterparts (like New Holland instead of New Amsterdam, the original name for New York). The same goes for their flag, which is a mix of an early American flag and an Australian flag.

There is also a persistent theme about race in the beginning, but again with no real message or tie-in to the plot. Slavery has been abolished, several people have Creole styles and names, and prejudices against mixed-race people and voodoo are mentioned and shamed by the main character. That’s all fine, but a couple acts in none of this ever comes up again. In other words, Lamplight City is a mixture between mid-1800s London and parts of America with mismatching southern culture and midland accents, but instead of being interesting, all of this comes off as confusing and unnecessary.

The gameplay is full of unrealized potential.

In Lamplight City, you can actually mess up your cases. You can accuse the wrong people, leaving them to horrible fates, and it all kind of matches the main character’s personality; like any fictional private investigator, he abuses drugs and alcohol and reports to work unshowered. This is almost hilariously contradicted by the way he and his wife love and support each other like they’re trying to win a Cutest Couple award, but that’s beside the point. The point the writer wants you to know is this game has an edge (careful or you’ll cut yourself), because if you’re not paying attention you could mess everything up.

Only, it doesn’t really matter. There are no consequences (except guilt over a video game) that come from you cutting corners. In fact, it’s basically inevitable because it’s so hard to pay attention during the exceedingly verbose dialogue, and it’s actually quicker to advance the plot by not bothering to solve the cases.

This is where Lamplight City is most disappointing. There was an opportunity in the gameplay to vary outcomes and create a challenge that felt like it had real stakes. Instead, most of the time you systematically talk to every person until they have nothing else to say, then go and repeat the process in the places they mentioned. In the end, the main plot has nothing to do with the vast majority of cases you didn’t solve anyway. At least, that’s how it was the few times I loaded to change my choices. Because this game had the right idea, trying to build in replayability, but I’m not sitting through all that dialogue from the beginning again, and the saving and loading aren’t designed to let you easily skip around.


The Verdict: Average

Lamplight City is an impressive try that falls short of satisfying. While sitting through so much dialogue, you do eventually develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome and feel the pull to find out what happens at the end, but there’s no big payoff. The writing has potential, especially with the help of the voice acting, but lacks the variation and range needed to really pull off the intended effect.

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Nicholas Barkdull

Nic is a writer and narrative designer with a PhD in Social Research and Cultural Studies. He thinks real time strategy games are still a valid form of e-sport, that true RPGs should be turn-based (with huge casts of characters), and that AAA games have a long way to go before they earn back our trust. He is the Lead Writer for Pathea Games's My Time at Sandrock, and his work can be seen in Playboy, South China Morning Post, The Daily Beast, and many other places.


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