Review: L-Zone

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Adequate (pretty trippy in some places)
Very easy
Not a game
Very sketchy
Dialog and writing
You cannot get stuck. You can die in one place.

L-Zone is the earliest of the three interactive works (that I know of) directed by Haruhiko Shono. (L-Zone was originally written in 1993; you may be more familiar with Gadget or Alice, both copyright 1994.) And, well... it's an early work.

It's very small, for one thing. It took me only two or three hours, and that was with detailed exploration of the world and a long period of stuckness. Also, LZ apparently precedes the invention of changing cursors. It's the standard arrow everywhere, hotspot or no, which makes navigation and examining objects somewhat confusing.

(Footnote: ...but this neatly demonstrates the flaw of changing cursors: it's impossible to conceal an important object. LZ has a lot of switches, buttons, and panels. Some of them do nothing, some do something pretty but irrelevant, some do something interesting; but there's no way to tell without trying. This is frustrating, but quite in line with the environment. You're supposed to be surrounded by things to experiment with.)

I suppose that footnote doesn't make much sense unless I explain the plot. Which I won't, because the game doesn't. There is no introduction. You approach a domed city under a harsh scarlet sky; the letters "L-ZONE" stand before the dome, and stairs invite you up to a door in the "L". Beyond that, it's up to you. You wander around futuristic mechanical rooms, full of mechanical futuristic machinery. It's entirely a game of atmosphere, not storyline or puzzles.

"No plot or puzzles? What's left?" I hear you cry. Well, surrealism. Or something. Encounters that leave impressions, strange resonances. Loud music. Think of it as a short German experimental stop-motion film. Only Japanese.

...Look, give the guy a break. It was 1993 and he was playing with ideas. It's better than another eight-CD epic of spaceships, photon blasters, and washed-up movie actors.

Technically, LZ is very simplistic. There is essentially no stored state at all. If you unlock a door, the game doesn't set an "unlocked" flag in memory; it just jumps you to an identical room with a different door hotspot. This means that if you back out, you'll either find the door locked again, or you won't be able to back up very much (because the "unlocked" room doesn't have the exit you entered by in the first place, right?) It also means that you can't possibly get stuck. Either you get to a room or you don't. You can't be missing what you need to continue, because there's no inventory. In certain rooms or areas, you're "carrying" or "wearing" an object, but that's a function of that room or area; when you leave, you'll automatically leave it behind.

The paper CD booklet has an awful lot of what are either spoilers, clues, or essential parts of the game. Specifically, text describing most of the rooms and objects you come across. It doesn't tell you what's going on, not in the sense of tying it all together into a coherent whole, but the labels and brief explanations give you handles to grasp. Perhaps you want that; perhaps not. I'd recommend you play through the disc first, then read the booklet. See how it matches up to your original reactions.

I don't think I can say much more. L-Zone is going to disappoint a lot of people, being neither fish nor flesh nor fowl. It's short, has only intimations of a story, and there's not much to do besides fiddle with all the neat machines. It doesn't look that fancy either. It's not really worth the full price of a CD-ROM game. (I paid forty bucks, and it's not two-thirds as good as Zork Nemesis.)

But with L-Zone as a starting point, and Alice and Gadget following, I'm really curious what Haruhiko Shono will do next.

(Footnote 2: I said LZ was originally released in 1993. The version I bought is labelled "version 2", and is much more recent. The main difference is apparently that this version allows you to save and restore games. You may cringe in horror at the idea of a game that you can't save in; I do too, but remember that this is quite short. You could play all the way through in twenty minutes or so, and since you can't forget to do anything important, replaying wouldn't be that horrendous. Ok, only slightly horrendous. Anyway, the question is moot now.)

Availability: I snatched a copy at Borders (bookstore.) I know it was in software catalogs at one point, but it's not in any of the current ones I looked at. It's a hybrid Mac/PC CD, so if you don't see it in the Mac section, check the PC section.

System requirements: 68030 CPU, 3.5 MB of free memory, 640x480 screen with 256 colors, QuickTime 1.6.1 or later. Wow, remember the good old days? No compatibility problems on my PowerMac.

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