If there is such a thing as experimental game design, Aisle is a prime example. The game's introduction makes it clear that the game is very different from most adventures. Inserted midway into a story about a man, you must decide which single action the man takes next. Once decided, the story moves forward of its own accord and your role, as a participant, ends. Aisle has no puzzles, no clearly defined goal, no score, and no way to tell if you're winning, making Aisle more interactive fiction than a text-based adventure.
Aisle recognizes a remarkably diverse range of commands. With a little experimentation, you can find well over one hundred individual stories, each accessible through synonym-based commands. The setup text displayed before your turn initially provides you with some ideas for a few commands but, as you encounter each new story, three general groups of command options become available. The first has the man interacting with a woman in some way that reveals parts of his psyche. The second group contains "think and remember" commands, and is more reflective in nature, revealing fragments of memories. The last set of commands consists of direct actions that can reveal a range of possibilities or nothing at all. After going through a number of stories, you can piece together the man's past and psyche, but will eventually hit a roadblock. The stories don't all fit together and some are completely incompatible. Aisle's introduction, however, does state there are many stories and not all of them are about the same man.
So, what's the point to Aisle? You can't win and the pieces don't fit together to reconstruct the background story. What you get out of Aisle depends on what you put into it. If you start to empathize or sympathize with the man and care about what happens to him, you get more out of the experience.
The game makes that easy with skillful prose that ranges all over the emotional map to suit the different stories, with some stories written in powerful and evocative language, while others offer a lighter touch. The writing style does slip in a few places, but the stories with more emotional impact are generally well done.
Aisle is like a sheet of bubble wrapping paper. Some people can pass by the bubble wrap without a second thought while others are compelled to pop the bubbles one by one. If Aisle's premise interests you, you'll find yourself playing with it like bubble wrap, trying lots of different commands to find those last few bubbles you haven't popped yet. If not, you'll find Aisle's lack of goals and direction frustrating. But, if you don't try, you'll never know.
Enjoyment: The prose, generally well written, successfully pulls off the great range of emotions incorporated in different story endings.
Replay Value: Because the depth and number of varied endings is remarkable, you'll replay to uncover them all.
A common criticism of adventure games generally and works of interactive fiction specifically is that they oftentimes suffer from what have been characterized as "read-the-designer's-mind" puzzles -- making necessary apparently arbitrary (and sometimes seemingly absurd) actions that produce unreasonable-to-expect results; the puzzles look kosher in a walkthrough but only make sense to a player after the fact, knowing of their implausible effect. Aisle is the inverse: the designer has instead had to read the player's mind, predicting which actions, likely or unlikely, the player is apt to attempt in the somewhat under-stimulating environment (certainly an unusually pedestrian game setting) of the Italian foods section of a supermarket late one Thursday night.
The designer of any gaming environment will of course be expected to have some plan regarding how the player will interact with it, but here the rules are a bit askew from the convention: rather than the player wandering the market and interacting with objects contained there in the conventional adventuring fashion, gradually coming to some understanding of the game world and the forces motivating his passage through it, this game permits the player only a single move... that move triggering a memory, hinting at a roiling and turbulent backstory that can only be more fully appreciated by unlocking more recollections. But the story cannot progress; upon completion of the single move, the protagonist leaves the market and the game concludes -- then restarts, giving the player another crack at glimpsing another, parallel facet of the memories the shelves of pasta provoke. As the introductory blurb states: "You will be asked to define the story by controlling one instant in the life of the man whose story it is. Your intervention will begin and end the story."
This game is in some senses more akin to an advent calendar, a suite of one-shot surprises, than to its text adventure game brethren: a given game session will yield precisely one of 136 micro-narratives consisting entirely of a static prelude, one instance of valid player input and one response to that input. There are no wrong answers or mistakes to be made: there are only lots of answers, and the closest you can come to winning is in determining how to trigger as many of the endings as possible, so as to arrive as closely as you can to envisioning the scenario presented by the grand puzzle with all of its pieces in.
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