Review: The Legend of Lotus Spring

Official web page; Women Wise (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Quite good; certainly a change
Maybe good to someone, but poor in English
Good, if you explore carefully
Very easy
Almost none, and mostly optional at that
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake

You see the marketing first; you can't avoid it.

"A favorite among women and teenage girls..." I have a stock reaction to that line, you know: "...So you don't want me as a customer." But don't misunderstand; my stock reaction to any marketing is negative. Anyway, it goes on, "...yet perfect for the romantic in all of us." Whew; that'll keep the door open for the Quake-fraggers. For a moment you had me worried.

Yes, I mock. The state of the industry, really, more than this one game. Even to do something different -- to buck a trend -- is a marketing angle that has to be hammered for all it's worth. (Unconventionality is trendy, didja know.)

And the whole Games For Girls trend makes my head spin, it does. I hardly know who to scream at louder. The CompUSA rack is packed with more decapitation, disembowlification, incineration, impalation, world domination, flesh wounds, grief, and hurt than you can comfortably fit in a month of real history. And this scares people because, no, wait for it, because girls don't like that crap. Girls like, you know, girly stuff. Quick! Write some for them!

Somewhere between "Spock's Brain" and Victorian England, that's where we're stuck. Or the segregated South. Only this time the girls are told to be proud of drinking at their consensual, non-violent, pink-painted water fountains. (Boys, of course, deserve no better than their aggressive, domineering, dinosaur-slobbered and truck-battered fountains. Which end of the stick would you like, the short end or the short end?)

I don't know what to do about it. I once wanted to write a game, okay, a game based on the Doom engine (this was a while ago, when I was young and merely cynical) where you play a beefed-up, buzz-cut, bull-shouldered Marine in a saffron robe, charging through a decaying world of rampaging blood-dripping demons and ghouls, and you're handing out flowers. You know, individual daffodils, or flung bouquets and MIRV leis. Rocket-propelled corsages. Long-stemmed red roses. I never decided whether a flower-bedecked demon should become gooney-eyed and peacable, or just eat the flowers and then tear your arms off. I'm not sure it matters.

But marketing is lies (did I warn you about the negative reaction?) so I leave it here. If The Legend of Lotus Spring is being pushed as something different, I can certainly judge it on its own merits. I spend enough time begging for something -- anything -- not enslaved to the twin gods of Focus Group and Market Poll. So, bar the occasional five-paragraph rant on institutionalized sexism, I will confine my remarks entirely to the game itself.

The Emperor Xian Feng stands on a boat, drifting towards Yüan Ming Yüan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness -- an imperial paradise outside Beijing. Lotus Spring, whom he loved, is no longer there. Xian Feng doesn't know what happened to her, but walking around the empty garden will... well, it will hurt differently, maybe.

(You know what that's like.)

Lotus Spring is somewhere on the hairy edge between an adventure game and an interactive movie. If you've been following the text adventure scene, you know what I mean: Photopia was buried in the same fuzz. And Lotus Spring will certainly trigger the same arguments that Photopia did. Is it really a game, when you do nothing, but merely -- "merely" -- explore and watch? Is a puzzle a puzzle when it's optional? Is a game a game when there're no closing credits?

In fact, I simplify. Most of the game is explore-and-watch, yes. But I don't mean that it's non-interactive. Exploring means opening boxes, searching cabinets, writing with brushes, lighting candles, making music. You simply don't see this level of background detail in other graphical adventure games. Lotus Spring is all stuff to play with.

(Again, as a text adventure fan, I can be blase. I write games that way. I know lots of people who do. But to see it in a graphical game is a heady mix of "Aha!" and "Well, finally.")

As you play, memories of your time with Lotus Spring are evoked. Each of the eighteen locations around the garden has one major scene to find, recall, or discover. Once you find it, the corresponding page in your diary is filled in -- an ongoing prose narrative of your progress, with more detail than can be conveyed visually.

But, of course, the eighteen diary scenes are not the sole goal. Each location has many details to explore; the diary page itself often leads you to more of them, once you are able to read it. And the game is in the details. If you charge straight to the final diary scene -- even if you view every diary scene, and read the entire narrative -- you won't have the whole story. This is subtly handled; I'm impressed.

To complicate matters further, there are puzzles, after all. (To shunt the argument -- by "puzzle", I here mean any action beyond "examine everything".) But only a few puzzles; and most of them are optional. Only one, if I recall correctly, lies in the way of you seeing every diary scene. (An odd choice. The only thing more confusing than too many puzzles in a game is a single puzzle; it catches players off-guard.)

Similarly, you can find six objects which can be carried around. A few more can be taken, but only used within a single room. One of the six objects is needed to get to the latter part of the game; the rest are (again, the quotes) "merely" for discovering more of the story.

The pacing, therefore, worries me. Not on my own account! My experience of the game was very smooth. But... I'm an orderly sort of geek. I was careful to do everything in order -- explore each room thoroughly before going on to the next. I was even careful to explore them in order of their corresponding diary pages. If I accidentally ventured ahead of myself, I backed up. And so I saw the whole story, just about, and I saw it in order; and the eighteenth diary scene ended the game for me. Which was satisfying.

But if I had wandered around more randomly... I don't know. I don't think the flow of story could survive very much rearrangement. The eighteenth scene, for example, is very easy to stumble on before the seventeenth. That could be awfully anticlimactic; or it might lead players to simply stop. (The final scene sure feels climactic, even though -- as in Myst -- the gameplay continues with no "The End".)

I missed two of those six objects, for another example. One was early in the game, and I simply didn't notice it was takeable; even if I had, I might not have played with it long enough to take it. (A puzzle was involved, sort of.) Much later, I needed that object to get another, and I needed that object to see a crucial scene... I think. In fact, another object worked as a substitute. I don't know whether that's a bug, or a deliberate alternate solution. In any case, I saw the crucial event, but I missed two or three others in the intervening sequence.

And, upon watching the "ending", I was not motivated to go back and find them. (Or the two objects.) I had most of the puzzle -- and I worry that other people, left with an even more tattered picture, will shrug and put the game away. It's a lot of dull searching over well-known territory for those last pieces, after all; and there's no promise of bigger revelations to motivate one. Maybe you don't think that way, but I like a strong finish.

Bluntly -- after the final scene, I sat back, smiled, shut down the game, and started trawling the CD for video files. I found those two objects, but for me, the story was already over.

Whew. I'm already at 1300 words, and I had this whole list of issues to discuss...

The story. It's a Chinese story. Have you ever read a fairy tale from a foreign culture? (No, Western Europe and America aren't foreign to each other.) Whoever said stories are universal lives in too small a universe. Stories from other places can be jarring -- sometimes you just don't have the background knowledge to tell what's going on. I had that problem, to an extent, in Lotus Spring. A guy mooning after a girl -- okay, I understand that. But what does the Dowager Empress have to do with it? What laws are being broken? Can't the Emperor do whatever the heck he wants?

Even little details -- coloring the eye of an unfinished painting -- lose their resonance if you don't know the underlying story. (A painter was so talented that he had to leave the eyes blank, for fear that a flawless painting would come to life on him.) And this game has, as I said, lots of details.

(You can get a lot of that background knowledge from the object catalogs in the game. Hit "I", and you get a list of nearby objects, with notes about the stories, history, and legends of each. Footnotes, in other words. But I've never liked the footnotes approach either; they turn an exploration into a lecture, and wreck whatever sense of immersion I have in a game. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn't find out about this command at all until a few minutes ago. It's not visible in the game interface. (Commands you can only find out about in the manual. Sigh.) Would I have enjoyed the game more if I'd known? Probably not; but that's just me. Decide for yourself.)

The genius of Barry Hughart (you knew I was going to come round to him eventually) is that he told Chinese fairy tales straight up, from the native point of view, but with enough commentary that we barbarians understood the point. And not in footnotes, either. He compromised neither the story nor the flavor. Lotus Spring doesn't really manage to pull that off. The story is there, but the flavor is muddied in translation. In fact, the prose is clumsy enough that I'm sure it was translated from a Chinese original; and not well. Damn.

The art... did I mention the art? It's pretty good. --That's a joke, folks. The art is stunning. Yüan Ming Yüan is a gorgeous place. It's not -- quite -- photorealistic; the models are just a bit stylized. I'd even say "simplistic", but that sounds like a criticism. It's not. Objects in Riven looked more real, but Lotus Spring has far more in each room. Everything is crowded. Okay, nothing is dirty or worn -- but it's an Emperor's pleasure garden, so what can you expect? Emperors get perfection. And details. I think I mentioned the details.

(I stopped, once, and looked at the screen, and said "I want one." This has happened before. But usually it's a miracle, or an impossibility, like the crawling-water retort in Riven. Here, I wanted... a carved window screen. I could make it out of plaster. Maybe I will.)

The characters, too, are both somewhat simple and truly amazing. Not in their appearance, which is no better than most digital actors you've seen. It's the movement. I don't think they were motion-captured; they didn't have that... grit to them. Rather -- recall the very best kind of puppetry. Body language, unconscious grace, studied and recreated by conscious design. A rare art in games, since motion capture and straight-out video came in the door. I wish it were done more often.

The game takes place over the course of the day. You encounter clocks (a nice touch), and later changes in the weather, and sunset, and night. Not that this hasn't been done in text games, of course (ahem), but again, I'm glad to see it rendered visually. And yes, the sunset looked great. Someone knows what light is for.

(It would be quibbling to point out that since each scene is rendered just once, and you can backtrack, you can make time run backwards by running around the lake. One day we'll have the storage or rendering capacity...)

I should mention the music as well. I quite liked it, although the sound loops are only about fifteen or twenty seconds long, which means that after you've been in a room for a while, you've had enough of that particular tune.

...Except one. The composer, just once, pulled off some circle-of-modulation magic. It was eerie; I listened to the same twenty-second bar at least a dozen times, thinking "Wow! Every bar is different now!" It took me that long to twig. I knew it wasn't repeating, because every phrase was higher than the one before... Yes, I know the theory of the endlessly-rising chords. But nobody's ever slipped it to me so successfully, in a real piece of music. Yow. (I wonder why it was only one track. I certainly spent enough time in other rooms, thinking "Okay, I'm tired of this tune now.")

The interface was, unfortunately, smattered with small flaws. The hidden commands I mentioned. ("I" for object catalog; "M" for map. I found the inventory and save-game dialogs myself; I was looking for those...) Some animations can be interrupted, but others can't. Navigation hotspots are too often placed in standard locations (top / bottom / left / right sides), rather than matching up to visible scenery. Navigation is awkward in many places; you frequently have to maneuver around a desk before you can play with its contents, and I felt like I was steering an aircraft carrier. And the diary hotspots were pretty obscure too. Not a huge deal, but a player unfamiliar with graphical adventures might have trouble -- and Lotus Spring is aiming at new markets. More care wouldn't have hurt.

Your cursor, by the way, is no mere arrow. You get a tiny fat-faced china doll, who not only signals hotspots, but climbs into the scene to manipulate objects for you. The loco-in-actor is a coy nod to the IF separation between player and protagonist; and, I suppose, the separation between Emperor and mundane world. Not a lot is done with the conceit, but it's distinctive; I approve.

Speaking of sunset and night, it's getting late here.

My conclusion, wishy-washy though it be: The Legend of Lotus Spring took me only about four hours. It's small. It's beautiful, but I don't normally recommend a game solely for the artwork. The prose is awkward. Nonetheless... I enjoyed it a great deal. It scratched long-untended itches in the graphical adventure realm: a rich, engaging setting, which is presented as itself and not as frosting between car chases or puzzle machines. The story is, in the end, a tidy little fairy tale.

You won't find what you're used to. You may not find what you're looking for. No alien menaces, no world-threatening discoveries, no titanic battles. It's engaging, but mostly through mass of detail, not obstacles. If this game is what you want, it'll be exactly what you want.

I realize that doesn't tell you a damn thing. Even worse, it sounds like marketing copy. Er, sorry.

I'll tell you one thing, though. If it turns out that only girls like this game, I'm gonna go back to my bat-cave and cry.

Availability: Dreamcatcher's on-line store. It's a hybrid CD, Mac/Windows. Like most of Dreamcatcher's games, it's twenty bucks. Maybe that'll help make up your mind.

System requirements: MacOS 7.5 or later; 90 MHz PPC; 16 megs RAM; 10 megs hard drive space; 8x CD-ROM; 16-bit color ("thousands"). (Windows-side, make that Pentium 166 and 32 megs RAM.) They mean it about the CD-ROM, by the way. I tried the game on my 120MHz machine with the elderly 2x CD drive, and the video was just hopelessly skippy. Gorgeous stuff, but they didn't skimp on the bandwidth.

Macintoshness: On-and-off. They do use standard load-save dialogs, and they don't mess with your monitor settings. On the down side, no menu bar (would have solved that hidden-command problem, yes?) And the folder icon on the CD doesn't look like a folder. You think I'm nitpicking? The install instructions say "Copy the Lotus Spring folder to your hard drive," and I really was baffled for a second because I thought the flower icon was an application, not a folder. (The application icon inside is an identical flower.) There's a reason for UI conventions, people, and it's not because UI designers are swaggering tin-plated dictators with delusions of godhood.

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