The introduction to Theatre by Brendon Wyber explains that you are an estate agent, trying to sell an old run-down theatre in a slum area of town. It is late in the evening, and you're in a hurry to see off the buyer and set out to the opera, when you remember that you left your pager in the basement. After collecting it, you discover that your car has been stolen, and a nasty thug turns up to make sure that you don't wander off. It looks as though you're going to have to spend the night in the theatre unless you can find a phone and call the police.
You have to play through the above. It takes a minimum of about ten turns, but it feels very forced because the game won't allow you to explore until you have finished the opening, and the 'You can't do that yet, because that would be contrary to the plot' messages come thick and fast. Perhaps the author could have found a more natural way to restrict access to the rest of the theatre until the opening was finished.
After the opening, the game becomes much wider. You explore the haunted theatre, at first in search of a way out, and then in search of magical items necessary to thwart a certain evil power. You find yourself collecting the scattered pages of the 1898 journal of Eric Morris, the man who drew the architects' plans for the theatre, which gradually reveal a tantalising story of how he fell in love with Elizabeth, a mysterious and beautiful woman who persuaded him to alter the plans in nefarious ways.
My first impressions were very favourable. The developing plot was intriguing, and the atmosphere well-judged. I imagined that the focus would be on some tragic and melodramatic incident in the history of the theatre (perhaps, I speculated wildly, this would be a jealous rivalry between two leading actors over a woman, or a spurned prima donna who killed herself). The puzzles were logical and not over-hard, and the programming was excellent: almost everything I tried produced an intelligent response, and there were never any problems guessing verbs. The developing journal entries kept me interested in looking around for more.
If anything lets the game down, it's the quality of the prose, which feels as though it has been very hastily written, without much attention to grammar. There are few memorable or vivid descriptions, and lots of clumsy phrasing. This is a particular problem with the journal entries, which have an unfortunate Adrian Mole tone.
However, the game becomes weaker as it progresses. The early sections are original and interesting, but there comes a point where the game loses its atmosphere and becomes a standard fantasy set in H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. A couple of scenes (the monster in the library and the rats in the tunnels) feel as though they could have been lifted straight out of Infocom's game Lurking Horror, also based on Lovecraft's books. The interesting exploration eventually comes to an end with the disappointing realisation that this has been a simple treasure hunting exercise: you have to find a collection of colour-coded jewels of power and leave them in the correct place.
The author explained to me that because of time constraints, he hadn't been able to spend as much time on the ending as he would have liked. Theatre certainly feels as though it reached a certain point and then was finished off in a desperate rush. There are many loose ends: for example, it is hinted that there is a cellular phone in the theatre, but this never materialises. Some of the closing scenes are very unfortunate: for example, the appearance of Elizabeth near the end completely spoils the characterisation of her that was established through the journal. It's very disappointing that there is no real attempt to link the plot with the potentially interesting milieu of early twentieth century theatre.
I don't want to sound too negative. Theatre is excellent when considered only as an adventure game, with good puzzles and superb game-play. I felt that it lacked the consistency and prose that would have made it a good piece of fiction too. But then I feel the same way about Zork.
(The One that Got Away)