Jigsaw

By Graham Nelson, October 1995 (Inform).
Review: Gareth Rees.

Jigsaw opens on the night of December 31st, 1999, at a party to celebrate the new millennium. Feeling out of sympathy with the thronging party-goers, and unable to find again the attractive stranger in black who has just slipped away, you wander off to explore a mysterious monument built by the late eccentric millionaire Grad Kaldecki. You discover that Kaldecki has constructed - or somehow obtained access to - a time machine. In the centre of the monument, the time machine takes the baroque form of a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces (once found) give access to turning points in twentieth century history. Kaldecki planned to alter history, but died with his work barely started, leaving his acolyte (the attractive stranger, soon capitalised as Black) to complete his megalomaniacal scheme. Much against your will, you find yourself trailing around the century in Black's wake, trying to restore history to its rightful course, and searching for hidden jigsaw pieces. You visit some of the most important moments in twentieth century history: World War I, the Wright brothers, women's suffrage, the Moon landings, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall. (Though not every historian would place the writing of Proust's novel A la Recherche de Temps Perdu in this list!) The quest is complicated by a romance between you and Black, and by hints of metaphysical significance when you enter a realm called 'The Land', whose mist-shrouded locations are emblematic of the great themes: Art, Science War and Nature.

It is often an axiom in time-cop novels that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that any kind of interference with history must be disastrous. Jigsaw rigidly enforces this convention by ending the game whenever the past is changed. This extreme historical conservatism sits uneasily with some of the chapters: it is not clear why eight million men had to die for the sake of the world as we know it, nor what is so bad about the world described in the following paragraph that World War I was preferable:

You shake your head, confused. Why did the mad London-born architect Kettering build this monument? Why did the government of the Franco-British Republic ever allow Century Park to be built here at Versailles? Never mind: time to go and get a drink of potato brandy from the commissars and toast the new millennium.

Sometimes it is completely implausible that the disturbance in the past could have led to the result you see. For example, in the Suez Canal chapter, the wider outcome does not depend on your actions: even though Black brokered a deal to prevent the Suez Crisis, the powers that be always intended to renege on the deal.

Jigsaw is a huge game, one of the largest text adventures ever written. It is made manageable only by its episodic structure: each time zone can be treated more or less as a separate game, requiring only those objects that are nearby to solve its puzzles. (Though there are a few interconnections between the eras to make life interesting, and attempts to use anachronistic objects inappropriately are often amusing.) Jigsaw's puzzles are hard; often all you can do is collect the available objects and fiddle with them, without any real understanding of what your objective is until you've achieved it. Particularly unfortunate in this respect are the Alexander Fleming, women's suffrage and East Berlin chapters. A few other puzzles refer to classic works of interactive fiction including Adventure, Zork and Enchanter, and the novice without this background will struggle.

Some of the puzzles, on the other hand, are inspired. In one chapter, you find yourself at Bletchley Park in World War II and have to decrypt a message encoded by the Enigma machine. Sweating away at this problem, I suddenly realised that, whereas the usual derring-do of an adventure game is only so much make-believe, in this case my task was made no easier by its fictional nature. Of course, my 1940s counterparts faced a more difficult Enigma machine - Nelson's being slightly simplified - had to succeed without the benefit of information gained by supernatural means, had no access to high-speed computers, and faced rather greater consequences of failure than merely an unfinished game. I found myself thinking, If Turing and Newman could do it, then surely I, with all these advantages, can do it too!

The most interesting feature of Jigsaw is the way it deals with Black's sex. By cunning paraphrase, Nelson manages to avoid ever stating whether Black is male or female: knowing only that Black is attractive to you, you are free to project your own preference onto the situation. This is a more elegant device than the outright question Are you male or female? or the various contrivances by which Infocom games force a decision on you. Not every reader appreciates this elegance: at least one person posting to rec.games.int-fiction, having noticed that both you and Black are able to pass yourselves off successfully in masculine roles, argued that you and Black must therefore be gay men. But given the fantastic nature of the piece, and the famous cases of women who have gone disguised as men for long periods of time without detection, it is foolish to rigidly insist on such an interpretation.

Jigsaw is Nelson's second game. His first, Curses, grew by stages into a mish-mash of Celtic Druids and King Arthur rubbing shoulders with classical Greek Gods and the poems of T.S. Eliot. The effect is certainly startling, but I imagine that a writer as attracted to elaborate formal structures as Nelson could not be satisfied with the outcome. A new game gave him the opportunity to make amends. The result is dominated by structures based on the numbers 16 and 100. There are 16 time zones, 16 chapters, 16 jigsaw pieces, 16 animals to sketch, 16 locations in the Land and the game starts with 16 minutes to go before the start of the new century. There are 100 years in the Twentieth Century and 100 points to be scored. There are also pairings of opposites: Prologue and Epilogue, Black and White, nature and technology, the dead Land and the living Land, the party at the end of the century and the party at the beginning, the chapel unbuilt and the chapel disused.

At times I felt the correspondences and allegory were too obvious and too much; Black's schematic role rather overshadows the tentative story of Black's relationship with the player (and this is not helped by the flexible order of the chapters). Jigsaw also lacks the excitement and unpredictability which Curses achieved by being so chaotic.

Still, Jigsaw is extremely good by the standards of existing text adventure games, and certainly good enough to be worth paying the compliment of taking it seriously. Although it adopts a traditional puzzle-based style of game-play, and doesn't make any technical advances beyond the state of the art, it does wonders with the limited techniques at its disposal. Everyone who enjoys text adventures should play it.

Play Jigsaw

 
 
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Andrew Clover