Review: Alida

Alida (official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Writing and dialogue
Pretty good
Fairly easy
Not very good
sqrt(S/LM) / 2
Forgiveness rating
You can make a fatal mistake in two places -- once in the middle of the story, once at the end. In both cases it's fairly obvious that you've made a fatal mistake, and the game ends very quickly, giving you just enough time to understand your fate.

The tag-line on the box says: "Explore the imaginative world of a gigantic guitar." This is not a metaphor.

It is, however, Australian.

The scenario is this: Alida is a band. Their first album sold so well that the record company had to send out for spare zeroes. What do bored rock stars do with that much money? That's right -- they buy an island off the coast of Australia and turn it into a thousand-foot-long, fully functional electric guitar. For an amusement park. Or something.

The only thing I can say about this premise is that, while it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life, it's realistically stupid. I mean, I'd do it. If I had that much money, and I liked rock music, and I was out of my frigging mind.

Anyway, the project turned out to be just as bad an idea as it sounds, and the giant guitar-island-whatever was never completed. It stands abandoned. But one of the creators has returned to it after fifteen years, and then he disappeared...

Did I mention this guitar is full of puzzles?

The comparison to Myst is painfully tempting. I'm not going to say "Myst clone". I am not. But it's big; it's an island; it's abandoned. It's got strange machinery. It's got diaries. It's got an observatory. All the doors and elevators are sealed by puzzle locks. Two characters are imprisoned. You have to decide who to trust. The background music sounds like Myst music, even.

Okay, okay, it's a Myst clone.

I am not dismissing Alida. Homage is not a sin. I enjoy this sort of game. The music is good Myst soundtrack. The puzzles are all original. It's just... rather blatantly inspired by a familiar work, is all.

The problem is, it doesn't really go beyond Myst's boundaries -- certainly not the way Riven did. Alida never comes together into a coherent world. Some of the puzzles build on each other, but not in a very interesting way. Separate areas are linked only in that clues to one puzzle are hidden elsewhere in the game. Things fit together okay, but they don't grow out of each other.

Yes, it's a giant guitar. That gives the whole some integrity. The strings run from the tuning pins down past the pickup and the giant finger-plucker. But that's a pretty dull connection, compared to Rhem's intricate network of pipes, valves, and reservoirs. A guitar is an awfully simple mechanism to build a game around -- and making it electric just means adding extra puzzle-machines around the edge.

I suppose a French horn would have been out of the question. Or a bassoon. Have you ever looked at the valve linkages on a bassoon? That would be a puzzle and a half.

Alida makes an interesting effort to work other characters into the storyline. As I said, two characters are imprisoned on the island -- and, unlike Sirrus and Achenar, they do more than rant meaninglessly at you from their cells. They provide information, at appropriate times in the story. They gain some freedom of movement, in the course of the game, and interact with you a bit as you move around.

Unfortunately, this doesn't go very far. Even when not imprisoned, the characters stay out of sight. You only see them in very limited, restricted situations. I realize this is an inherent problem -- video costs disk space -- but I can't help feeling like more could have been done. So few interaction animations appear that (I think) the game becomes inconsistent. (I saw one character early on, in a place where he couldn't have been. I had explored the game in an order the designers didn't account for.)

And, more irritating, these encounters aren't really woven in to your actions. I mean, these people give you some clues, but you don't have to pay attention to them otherwise. I didn't even remember their names as I played -- much less what they were supposed to have done. The story of Alida, which you are supposed to be discovering as you play the game, is not part of the game. At the end, you're faced with a choice, but it's a pretty blatant choice; I knew what I was supposed to do, without thinking about the characters at all.

I think there was supposed to be a Clever Twist involved, but honestly it went right under my feet. Without a bump.

Aside from that, I don't think there's much I can tell you beyond "Myst game, giant guitar, puzzles mostly well-designed."

Well, I can talk more about the puzzles. A few of them didn't seem to make much sense. One in particular totally stumped me, and when I went looking for a walkthrough, I found that it had totally stumped everyone else too. One person had solved it purely by accident; if I hadn't been able to imitate her solution, I'd still be stuck there.

A few of the other puzzles didn't give you much motivation to solve them. Solving these puzzles rewards you with redundant clues -- information that you could have worked out for yourself, or found by a bit of experimentation. This means that you can finish Alida without solving all the puzzles... and since there isn't much to the game besides the puzzles, this is rather a flaw. (In fact, I think there's a key plot event that you can entirely skip! I didn't replay the entire game to verify this, but I'm pretty sure you could get to the end without that event -- which makes the ending completely nonsensical.)

On the flip side, the puzzle I skipped had a "missable" clue -- if you aren't listening carefully at one point, you'll never solve that puzzle at all. There's no way to hear that message again. Of course, as I said, it's a skippable puzzle; solving it gives you a clue you don't really need. Maybe they intended to make it an optional puzzle? But it also triggers that critical event! I'm really not sure what the designers were thinking at this point. It's possible they were being clever, but if so I don't get it.

Interface irritation: For some reason, the designers don't let you interrupt animations. You can skip a few of the longest animations (by holding down the option key as you click) but once the long elevator ride has begun, you have to sit through it. Or the long door-opening or door-closing. (The door animations could not be skipped.) You may not think a four-second door-opening animation is "long", but wait until the sixteenth time you experience it... Well, I shouldn't need to explain how self-evidently dumb this is.

And now I must digress to complain about physics:

The game notes that the guitar's strings are 252 meters long. This is approximately 400 times the typical scale length of a guitar. Now, we all know that the frequency of a vibrating string is 1/2 * sqrt(S / LM), where S is the tension, L is the length, and M is the total mass of the string. So, you take a typical guitar string, scale it up by a factor of 400... the mass goes up by 400 cubed, of course... keep the tension constant... multiply... ah, I see this guitar plays seventeen octaves below middle C. The damn strings ought to be wobbling back and forth once every five minutes. Utterly inaudible, even if you're a blue whale.

But when the thing is plucked -- in the game -- you can hear it. It's maybe an octave lower than a normal guitar. So obviously they've cranked up the tension by, let's see... a factor of six billion.

I look forward to the sequel, in which a string snaps, and the resulting explosion vaporizes New Zealand.

Yes, yes, I'm kidding. Alida does leave itself open for a sequel. And the sequel could potentially be a much better game -- the open plot threads relate to some strange technology which was found on the island as the giant guitar was being built. The technology could lead into a much more interesting game-world. If the designers are able to follow up the strengths of Alida, while compensating for the design weaknesses, I'll definitely pick it up.

Although then I wouldn't be able to say "giant guitar" nearly as often. Sigh.

Summary: Alida isn't bad, but it's very reminiscent of Myst -- both in the clever puzzles and the inadequate storyline. Recommended if you're sure that's what you want.

A few days later, I added this postscript to my review:

I've been exchanging email with the designer, Cos Russo. I asked him about the apparent inconsistencies in the storyline... and he politely explained how wrong I was. I had somehow managed to confuse two of the characters in the story. I thought a person had appeared where he couldn't be, because it was actually a different person! Similarly, the "nonsensical ending" I thought I saw was just a permissible variation.

Furthermore, the designer indicated that he's fixing some of the puzzle and gameplay flaws that I (and presumably others) have noticed. He said the MacOSX version will contain these fixes; I'm not sure whether the OS8/9 version will be updated with the same fixes.

I'm not retracting my review, because it is a valid review: it's how I reacted to the game. There's no point in trying to figure out whether my confusion was "my fault" or "the game's fault". Everyone reacts differently to these things. Just keep in mind that Alida is confusing, at least a little, and try to remember who said what about who.

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