The Light: Shelby's Addendum

By Colm A. McCarthy, December 1995 (TADS).
Review: Gareth Rees.

In this game you play Shelby, a young apprentice to the 'Regulators', Holcroft and Barclay. You live in a remote lighthouse where you nominally study physics, but actually spend most of your time cooking and scrubbing floors. Returning to the lighthouse after an extended period of absence, you find that things have gone wrong. An ominous mist surrounds the lighthouse and Holcroft and Barclay are nowhere to be found. It is up to you to find out what is the matter, and to put things right again.

Most of the fun in this game is figuring out the background to the world McCarthy has created here, so I won't reveal too much about it. Suffice to say that this is a world somewhat like ours, but in which 'physics' is a very different subject from the physics we know. The how and why of this world is revealed tantalisingly slowly, a little bit in the room descriptions, some more in books, magazines and other papers that you read, and some more that you have to guess for yourself. The idea of alternate worlds, and the uses to which they might be put (if technology were to allow their manipulation), play a strong part in the rationale for the plot and some of the game mechanics. (However, it is a bit disappointing that the working of the plot depends on so many people being complete idiots! If the 'phase modulator' is so essential that its removal can threaten the destruction of the world, why does the UN leave it to be guarded only by two old physicists?)

Although the discovery of the background is interesting, the actual mechanics of the game are disappointing. Some of the text is good, notably the introductory paragraphs, but much of the rest is rather lacklustre. Room descriptions have a tendency towards lists of furniture and exits, and there are rather too many rooms in which nothing happens (I counted 25 that could have been removed without loss). Far too many of the puzzles require you to read through the room description, examine every object mentioned and look under every piece of furniture. Several locations seem to be full of clutter for the express purpose of distracting you from the one object you need to investigate.

There are a few places where over-enthusiasm on the part of the writer rather spoils the atmosphere. There's a submarine trip in which you're treated to jokey descriptons of characters from television programmes (Flipper the dolphin, the puppets from Stingray and so on). These seem completely out of place with the more serious tone of the rest of the game, and would have been better turned into Easter eggs. Late on in the game, with the island crumbling around you and doom approaching, you are treated to messages along the lines of All around you the earth groans horribly, presumably in order to instil in you some sense of urgency. But these messages appear every turn, and it turns out that there is in fact no time limit, so after fifty or more repetitions the effect is ludicrous rather than alarming.

Some of the puzzles seemed completely arbitrary to me, and even after solving them I still don't understand why the solution worked. For example, there's a puzzle with two circles on the ground; if you put the right objects in the circles, a secret door opens. As far as I can tell, there are no clues to which objects to use (and the walkthrough at ftp.gmd.de gives the wrong two objects; perhaps that was an earlier version of the game). Another puzzle uses an oxygen cylinder and a pump to make a submarine appear; I might have understood this if the submarine had been in an underground chamber full of water that needed to be pumped out, but in fact the submarine appeared in the open sea. So what was the oxygen used for?

Some other puzzles are made difficult by programming errors: there's a trapdoor in the ceiling which is too high to reach, but you might not realise this because the commands 'touch trapdoor', 'push trapdoor' and so on give messages that suggest you can touch it. A pivoting balance is implemented so that it only moves when you put an object on one of the plates. If you change the weight of an object while it's on the plate, the balance stays where it is.

However, a few of the puzzles are well done: two cleverly-clued password puzzles gave me an Aha! feeling when I got them right first time.

I've been rather harsh in this review; there are good aspects to The Light: Shelby's Addendum, and it would not have been out of place had it appeared as a mid-period Infocom game. But I didn't enjoy playing it very much because the moments of excitement were few and far between. I had expected the eventual encounter with Barclay and Holcroft to liven things up a bit, but, when they do appear, these characters are passive and unresponsive, implemented with the minimum of effort necessary to carry them from their rediscovery to their disappearance a handful of turns later. The one point in the game that really ought to be exciting - a ding-dong fight between Barclay and Holcroft in an underground laboratory - was made completely non-interactive, with nothing for the player to do but yawn as several screenfuls of text scroll by.

I wouldn't actually advise against playing The Light: Shelby's Addendum, but do keep a walkthrough handy and don't hesitate to refer to it.

 
 
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Andrew Clover