January 17, 2012

Review: Meteor by Goblinboy

If you came here looking for a walkthrough, it's here.

This is the third iteration of my Meteor review. The first version was posted on aifgames.com soon after Meteor came out. I revised it slightly when I first posted it on this blog, and now I’ve revised it more extensively to reflect how my opinions have changed (in part due to the discussions I’ve had with various posters to this blog). 


Plot
In Meteor the player assumes the role of James, a young man whose life takes a turn for the sexy after he witnesses a meteorite impact and becomes infected by an alien that makes him irresistible to women.

As a plot that meets the minimal requirements of explaining why James is suddenly having sex with every woman he meets (other than the fact that he’s a male PC in an AIF game). It also means that for once the superhuman sexual endurance of the average AIF protagonist has an in-game explanation. Hopefully, the alien’s influence also extends to protecting James from the effects of long-term priapism (which, in case you were wondering, include impaired erectile function, impotence, and potentially penis removal if gangrene sets in).

However, that plot has the drawback of not being explained onscreen until the final scene of the game (although genre-savvy players will probably guess before that). Consequently, playing Meteor for the first time can feel directionless, since the player is more reliant on the stereotypical conventions of AIF than on any guidance from the plot. Compare that to Pervert Action Crisis, which had a similar plot that was also not revealed until the final scene. However, it presented the PC with an initial goal (investigating a mysterious death), which both gave the player some direction and ultimately leads to the uncovering of the true plot. I think I would have preferred it if Meteor had done something similar. For example by making Silvers more forthcoming about what’s going on, rather than being irritatingly cryptic for no good reason, the game would have been about James either resisting the influence of the alien, or giving in to the temptation it offers, therefore making it primarily about a choice (something that worked well for SD3).

As it is, James is a rather passive figure. The choices the player makes for him are largely restricted to whether or not to show an interest in a particular girl. If he does, the influence of the alien ensures that she swiftly surrenders her favours, trespassing on what would normally be the player’s role in the game and reducing any sense of accomplishment the player might feel. That’s most obvious in the scenes where the girl essentially hurls herself at James after the most minimal interaction (Helen, Nikki, Tammy, Rachel). However, it also undercuts those scenes where there was more potential for an in-depth relationship (Jenny, Ellie). Only Kim is given a motivation for being with James that doesn’t primarily depend on the alien (ie. hurting her sister), but that doesn’t have anything to do with the player’s actions either.

The alien also insulates James from the consequences of his actions. Even if he samples every girl that the game has to offer, James can still end up supposedly living happily ever after with primary love interest Anna. Although there are also endings where they split up, the ability of the PC to have his cake and eat it to is in stark contrast to SD3, where it was impossible for the PC to get either of the girls without sacrificing something. Meteor gestures in that direction with the ‘true love’ ending, which takes the unprecedented step of rewarding the PC for being faithful to his girlfriend. However, that’s undercut by how flexibly the game defines faithfulness. Most egregiously, the PC can rape his sister and still be considered 'faithful'.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Meteor’s plot. I appreciate the fact that it actually provides a reason for why the protagonist is behaving as he does. However, I think the presence of the alien creates more problems than it solves, and ultimately it diminished my enjoyment of the game.
6.5/10

Character
Unlike the School Dreams series, the protagonist of Meteor is a specific character rather than merely an avatar for the player. That’s my preferred choice in a game that involves people and locations that the protagonist is supposed to already know, since the author can then describe the pre-existing relationships in greater detail than would be possible for an anonymous character. It also means that James can appear in the pictures, since there’s no need to maintain the fiction that the player is the protagonist. The main weakness of that approach is that it can potentially decrease the extent to which the player identifies with the PC. So how does it work for Meteor?

During Meteor’s introduction, James is depicted as being a young man who’s uncertain about the prospect of losing his virginity to his girlfriend, the more experienced Anna. That’s an original characterisation for an AIF protagonist, and it makes sense given that the plot of the game is about an alien entity that alters people’s behaviour and lowers their inhibitions. If James had been a stereotypical AIF protagonist, there wouldn’t have been many changes to make. Sadly, that’s the only glimpse we get of the real James. Instead, the character the player controls is ‘infected James’, who behaves like a sex-obsessed teenager, badgers his girlfriend into giving up her anal virginity and grins (by my count, 'grin' is used as a verb in relation to James' dialogue 39 times) while delivering lines like "So tell me about the first guy that stuck his cock in you". For all the difference between him and a stereotypical AIF protagonist, James might just as well have been anonymous. It’s only surprising that no one other than his girlfriend notices any change in him.


The main characters of Meteor. From left to right: Jenny, Laura, James, Anna, Kim, Ellie
(Copyright 2010 Goblinboy)

Anna is the game’s primary love interest, although I don’t think she’s completely successful in that role. For one thing, she and James spend very little time together onscreen, and most of the time they do spend together is sexual in nature because of the alien’s influence. We know she’s James’ girlfriend because the game tells us that she is, not because of anything they do together. The result is that the endings where they are together and in love don't feel believable. Contrast that with games like SD3 or Sex Artist, where the player gets to see the PC interact with the girl in a romantic context on multiple occasions. Both SD3 and Meteor have a scene where the PC and the love interest can have sex in an alleyway. The key difference is that in SD3 the PC buys her dinner first, which goes a long way to making it seem like they’re actually in a relationship.

Anna’s background is also problematic. Word of God is that unless the PC finds out about the various skeletons in her closet they never happened. However, the Anna who was sexually abused by her father and had to turn to pornography and implied prostitution in order to support herself and her sister should be a very different character to the Anna who wasn’t subjected to those experiences. But the only effect those experiences actually have is to make it more likely that she's been infected by the alien. I think it makes more sense to assume those experiences did occur, especially since they give Anna a depth and believability that she otherwise lacks. Yes, she consistently lies to James, either outright or by omission. But she does so for very understandable and human reasons. It’s less easy to rationalise her reaction to being caught in flagrante delicto with Silvers, since that also requires an explanation of why the alien affects Anna differently to James, and highlights the fact that she’s as much a plot device as she is a genuine character.

Kim is an emotionally damaged girl with an athletic background who resents her more promiscuous elder sister, and keeps a photo in her underwear drawer as a memento of a happier past. If that sounds familiar it’s because it also describes Alison from SD3. The main difference between the two characters is that as the only ‘sane’ person in the Stevens household, Alison is a victim through no fault of her own, which is what makes her such a sympathetic character. By contrast, if James investigates Kim’s grievances he discovers that everything Anna did was to protect Kim and therefore Kim’s anger is completely misplaced. If the player doesn’t find out about those events, then she still seems like a whiny and ungrateful child since Anna is supporting the two of them. In neither case do I feel much sympathy for her. It has to be said that her feelings towards her sister do provide Kim with some welcome depth, as well as giving her a motivation for becoming involved with James that isn’t connected to the alien’s magic mind control powers. Unfortunately, those feelings never get resolved, which makes her even less believable than Anna as a long-term partner for James.

Silvers' role in the game is mainly to hint cryptically at what’s really going on, although the lecherous comments he makes about Anna also serve to make him a quasi-antagonist for James. The problem is that it’s not clear what in-character purpose is served by doing either of those things. If Silvers really wanted to get information from James, surely he’d be better off not deliberately antagonising him. That’s actually what he does with Anna and Laura, which highlights how illogical his approach with James is. It also strains believability that someone who comes across as a creepy sexual predator would be chosen to lead a mission of this sort, especially given how he takes advantage of the situation (particularly in the final scene). I suppose the point could be that he’s actually little better than the aliens he’s chasing, but his behaviour contrasts with the comparative professionalism of Kelly and Ashlee.

I found Jenny to be the most likeable of the major characters. She just comes across as a fun person without any crippling character flaws or dark secrets lurking in her past, which is good since she is probably the character that James interacts with most frequently. The large amount of dialogue fleshes her out and makes her a believable character, although it also helps that James comes closest to behaving like a normal human being when he’s talking to Jenny. In fact, all that interaction makes James and Jenny seem like the most believable couple in the game. The other character that I particularly liked was Ellie (even though she insisted on taking her glasses off in nearly every picture). James's interactions with the other characters are much more limited, and in most cases they serve a single function within the plot (Kelly, Ashlee, Helen) or are bonuses for the player willing to search them out (Rachel, Mrs Edwards).

Finally, a character that's easy to overlook is the alien entity itself. It comes from another universe and takes control of James, making him seek out sexual encounters for its entertainment... all of which makes it sound very much like a typical AIF player. That's made more explicit in the endings where James remains infected. It's an interesting metatextual touch, but again it comes at the price of increasing the separation between the actual player and the ostensible protagonist, James.

Overall, I think the characters of Meteor represent some of the best technical implementation ever seen in AIF. The amount of dialogue and the menu-based conversation system that delivers it is a big part of that. Instead of the NPCs presenting the player with a one line response to a specific query, they actually have conversations with James. We also get to see Jenny interact with her sister Laura independently of the PC, which helps establish both of them as dynamic and believable characters. The problem is that even though they’re fleshed out to an extent that’s rare for AIF, for the most part the characters of Meteor are bland and predictable. That’s primarily due to the way in which the influence of the alien makes them fall into line with James’ desires and prevents them from having any conflicting goals of their own which might create drama. Only Anna and Kim have any genuine depth or complexity, and in Anna’s case her character is compromised by the role she’s forced to play in the plot.
7.5/10

Writing
Goblinboy's only real flaw as an author is probably the lack of interest he seems to have in non-sexual description. How big a flaw that is depends on the tastes of the player. It's not as much in evidence here as it has been in some of his previous games, but personally I find that generic descriptions and objects not being implemented don't do much to sustain my suspension of disbelief. It also sends a message that Meteor is primarily about sex, and things like plot, immersion and gameplay are largely afterthoughts. Certainly the game’s one traditional IF puzzle sticks out like a sore thumb.

However, one place there definitely aren't any problems is the dialogue. The conversations that the NPCs have with James and with each other are a major strength of the characterisation. The decision to use a menu-based conversation system produces much more natural sounding dialogue, which I find preferable to the monologue that typically results from the traditional ask/tell system. It also gives the author tighter control over what dialogue the player sees, although that comes at the price of removing some of the interactivity from the player. Although it wasn't interactive either, I liked the pre-scripted opening because it was more involving than a simple text dump of exposition. I would have preferred it if there had been an option to restore a saved game beforehand, rather than forcing the player to click through the opening every time they start the game, but that’s a minor quibble.

One authorial decision I found mystifying was the decision to set the game in an alternate history America. This is alluded to so rarely that the player could be forgiven for not noticing it, and it has no real effect on the story. Given the tight focus of Goblinboy's writing, it's hard to believe that it's only there for flavour. The most plausible explanation I can think of is that it supports the thesis that the alien is the player, since both are effectively from 'another universe'.
7.5/10

Gameplay
As is the case with most of Goblinboy's games, Meteor incorporates a vast amount of sex into its story. The girls of Meteor form a broad array of different types (e.g. little sister, virgin, teacher, jailbait, nerd, slut), which helps make their respective scenes distinct. I like the move away from an arousal-based mechanic because it removes the need to repeat the same commands over and over in order to get to a climax. The cost of that is that the scenes feel a little pared down compared to School Dreams 3, especially since the penetration and clothing mechanics from that game are also absent. But there are little touches, such as the order of actions changing the final outcome, that prevent the scenes from becoming formulaic

Although all of the scenes have something that makes them distinct, they are all what I would describe as 'porn sex' (explicitly so in Jenny's scene). Nearly all of the girls beg James to take them hard and he obliges, to their delight. That's not inherently a bad thing, but it does mean that you will be disappointed if you're looking for romance, tenderness, emotional content, or indeed variety. As someone who finds the set-up and context of a scene nearly as important as the scene itself, that struck me as a missed opportunity. It’s also why there’s no scene in Meteor that has the same impact as the Molly/Becky scene from SD3.

Meteor’s epic scale almost becomes a negative during its climactic scene. Each girl has up to a dozen major actions and half a dozen minor actions. With three girls involved that's fifty different actions if you want to see all of the content. And therein lies the problem, as working through all of the possible options eventually starts to become monotonous. That’s especially true of the five person variation, which should be the game's tour de force but starts feeling a little bit like work once you've typed in the fortieth action. Even so, it's impressive that you never get the sense that Goblinboy ever succumbed to fatigue while writing it, and it speaks to the overall strength of the sex scenes that the harshest thing I can say is that there were too much of them.

However, as I mentioned above, one thing that diminished my enjoyment of the scenes was how little I had to do to access them. For the majority of the scenes (Anna, Jenny, Kim, Ellie, Ashlee) all James really has to do is go through all the conversation options provided and the scene follows on from there. The most complicated it gets is having to spike Jenny’s drink in order to get her to remove her clothes during the photoshoot (the aforementioned one traditional IF puzzle). That’s certainly more realistic than having to deliver a particular item to the girl in order to make her accessible (a key/lock puzzle), but it’s also less involving and doesn’t provide the player with much sense of accomplishment. The content that the player actually has to work for is mostly cut scenes, such as the various webcam movies, and Rachel and Mrs Edwards’ scenes. The latter includes what I think is the best puzzle in the game. The solution isn’t immediately obvious, but it makes logical sense once you do find it. Even better, a wrong answer produces feedback, which gives the player some idea of where they went wrong, and therefore a better chance of getting it right next time.

The gameplay of Meteor is much less obviously non-linear than SD3. Choosing one option hardly ever closes off another possibility. Ellie’s is the only full scene that has a prerequisite (Jenny’s scene), although the Rachel and Mrs Edwards cut scenes do as well. Consequently it’s quite easy to see the majority of the content on a single playthrough. Overall, the player’s choices feel less meaningful, which is emphasised by the fact that James largely escapes the consequences of any of his actions. He can happily cheat on his girlfriend (as long as he doesn’t tell her about it) and rape his sister (the most negative action he can take in the game) and still end up living happily ever after with Anna. The endings where James remains infected could be construed as negative (since the implication is that he is now a soulless automaton under the control of the alien), but given their content I doubt many players would see them as such. However, the challenge of seeing all of the possible epilogue scenes gives Meteor some replayability.
8.5/10

Technical
In a game as large and as complicated as Meteor there are bound to be bugs, even after testing. That's why I'm not too upset by the handful that I encountered, especially as none of them were game-breaking. I'm a little less charitable towards the epidemic of typos and spelling mistakes. The amount of text might have been too large to proof-read line by line, but I don't think it would have been an insurmountable task to spellcheck it, either from a transcript or using something like Textout to extract the text from the source file. That probably would have removed 99% of the typos, and if it had been done Meteor would be the first game to receive a score over 9 from me.

However, it would be a bit churlish to get too hung up on spelling given the amount of effort and polish that has gone into other aspects of the game. In particular, the final scene must be easily the largest ever seen in AIF, dwarfing even the climax of SD3 with the number of possible combinations and positions. Elsewhere, the technical flourishes that are a trademark of Goblinboy's games are on display. Most notable are the camera, which adds an extra dimension to James' interactions with the girls, and the webcam, which is an ingenious and believable way of wedging more content into the game (unlike the computer).

While I thought the menu-based conversation system worked well in helping to characterise the NPCs, I was a bit irritated by the way that choosing an option usually (but not always) dumped you out of the menu. Continually having to retype 'talk to x' quickly becomes tedious. The lack of any implemented response to my attempts to punch Silvers in his smug cryptic face was also something that I found disappointing. But those are minor quibbles. Overall, Meteor is as technically strong as we've come to expect from Goblinboy.
9/10

Final Thoughts
When School Dreams 3 was released, it was hard to see how any game could ever top it. Although it comes close, I don't think that Meteor quite manages that feat. It’s certainly the more technically polished of the two games and it has a stronger plot than SD3. The sex scenes in Meteor are as good as SD3 in their overall quality. Although there's nothing to match the impact of the Becky/Molly scene, that's counter-balanced by the various little touches that make each of Meteor's scenes unique.

The major difference is that Meteor largely jettisons those elements that made Goblinboy’s previous games so challenging and interesting. The most obvious example is that the player’s choices no longer have meaningful consequences. When Camping Trip forced players to choose between Becky and Melissa, it was a major revelation for AIF. SD3 continued that by giving us a game where every ending required the PC to sacrifice something, whether it was his relationship with Becky or the ménage a quatre with Mike and Melissa. By contrast, Meteor is much more of a traditional wish fulfilment fantasy where the PC can not only have his cake but eat as much of it as he likes with only a slight risk of a stomach ache (something that’s even more obviously true of GoP3). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the fact that most of the scenes are so easily accessible makes the game less challenging for the player as well as the PC, and therefore less involving.

None of which is to say that Meteor isn’t a fun game to play. Given the breadth of content on display that would be absurdly ungrateful. However, I do think that it’s lacking the qualities that made SD3 such a unique and brilliant game. Perhaps SD3 was the result of an unrepeatable convergence of various factors and we’ll never see its like again. I hope not, but for all its polish Meteor fails to recapture that magic.
8.5/10

Overall score = 79%

2 comments:

  1. Just found your blog, im rabbie from sharks lagoon - love this analytical style breakdown, did not know it was done anywhere for aif. Good stuff

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. There’s no analysis like unnecessarily detailed over-analysis, that’s my motto.

    ReplyDelete

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