Varicella, Adam Cadre's third game, has almost nothing in common with his first two, I-0 and Photopia--which, in turn, have just as little in common with each other. (One wonders how long Adam can go without producing Interactive Fiction that bears any resemblance to anything he's already written.) "Almost" is operative because Varicella does have a few things in common with Adam's previous works. The writing is terrific, of course; this is one of the best-written works of Interactive Fiction ever, bar none. Beyond that, though, such a wealth of intelligence went into the designing of this game that, even when the playing experience is unedifying, the player can only appreciate the author's artwork.
The premise: you're Primo Varicella, the Palace Minister in the palace of Piedmont, a small Italian city-state (and the product of a somewhat reworked history, since the setting is modern enough to include telephones and electronic surveillance). The king is dead, leaving a five-year-old heir, you're bent on seizing power for yourself- -and you have no apparent compunctions about how you get that power. Your primary tool for the purpose is murder; for your purposes, evidently, your rivals are only out of the way when they're dead. Fortunately, all your rivals for the throne are as evil as you, so the player is unlikely to feel any qualms--and all sorts of nasty stuff ensues.
Varicella is a black comedy, with the accent on "black"--mayhem and self-aggrandizement are your character's primary objectives. It follows the lead of last year's "Little Blue Men" in making the PC amoral, driven by greed and unimpeded by sentimental things like compassion--but it addresses a factor that Little Blue Men did not, namely the problem of expecting the player to go along with the PC's objectives. All of the rivals you bump off, or arrange to have bumped off, are profoundly evil; most of them seem to enjoy abusing or exploiting those weaker than themselves. (It is arguable whether you, the PC, are just as evil, but certainly your enemies are unsavory folks.) The player can see Varicella as a sort of avenging force, therefore, even if there are no signs that Varicella actually feels that way or cares about the various evils perpetrated by his enemies except insofar as they affect him personally. It's a rationalization, but a useful one.
Varicella himself is one of the most intriguing PC's in memory, but also one of the most frustrating. He is fastidious to the point of caricature; the game regularly keeps you from touching or exploring things because the character finds the idea "unseemly." In fact, "unseemly" is Varicella's favorite word; he uses it as a sort of all-purpose denigration, and it gets applied indiscriminately to actions like walking into a wall inadvertently, lying on the floor, or dying messily. His tastes in interior decoration are exacting, and he feels compelled to comment on the furnishings of virtually every room in the palace--in fact, redecorating seems to be among his main objectives in seizing the throne. The persona that emerges is a sort of C-3PO gone Machiavellian, whose main concern in seizing power is ensuring that there are no bloodstains on the carpets. Varicella is an amusing invention, to be sure, but accomplishing his aims while observing his scruples can be aggravating; the verb TELL is almost never useful, as the game invariably returns "You're not about to divulge your secrets to a hysterical female," or with some substitute for the "hysterical female." In fact, though Varicella speaks in the beginning of a "flawless plan," I had the impression that this sort of character would ordinarily fuss over details and never actually dispose of anyone--and that it's the player's intervention that makes him a murderer. If so, it's a disturbing spin on the player-PC relationship.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters are nearly as vivid, and most, with the exception of Miss Sierra, the cynical, clear-eyed prostitute, are wearily familiar. There's the dissolute younger brother, the corrupt priest, the ambitious War Minister, and others. To be sure, Adam gives many of them backstories that put their behavior in context, but they don't do much that could be considered surprising. Miss Sierra is the exception, though; she has definite opinions on everything that goes on, and the perspective that she affords on every aspect of the game is rather disconcerting. (In fact, she seems to function as the author's mouthpiece.) If there is a defect to Miss Sierra, it is that she speaks cynically about everything and initially seems to care personally about nothing, so that discovering something that does touch her personally leaves one wondering why. (It seems, in other words, that she could perfectly well shrug it off as typical of the depraved world she inhabits and understands so well, and it's not clear why she reacts as strongly as she does.) On the other hand, the point of Varicella is served just as well without 10 exhaustively developed characters; the author does what he sets out to do quite well with only a few.
Lots and lots goes on in Varicella, and the timing for your required actions is very tight; ascertaining what you need to do requires several games' worth of information-gathering, along with considerable logistical planning so that you can time everything properly. Constant restarting isn't my favorite mode of gameplay, but it's acceptable in Varicella because the game is so short--with less than a hundred moves to replay, starting from scratch isn't such a chore. (There's even an inside joke toward the end of the game on this very subject: Varicella says to one of his rivals, "None of us really has the luxury of going back and trying it all over again until we get it right, now do we?" Varicella, of course, has had that very luxury.) The other reason why repetition isn't as irritating as it might be elsewhere is that, as mentioned, Adam is a hell of a writer, and reading his prose is consistently enjoyable no matter how often it goes by. Notable, but by no means atypical, is the following passage in the prologue:
"For if this letter you've just received is correct, just such a disease has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old. Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself."
One can almost see the character rubbing his hands together (in a fastidious sort of way, of course) at the prospect of snatching the regency. The phrasing captures his personality nicely--"requiring the services of a regent" is the sentence construction of a man who has spent most of his life trying to phrase indelicate matters delicately. The mock-serious tone of "you can think of no better candidate than yourself" likewise implies that the narrator has spent lots of time thinking it over, really, and is prepared to justify the conclusion to his superiors as a Palace Minister must. The writing reflects Varicella's personality throughout the game, and is almost invariably mordantly funny.
Playing through Varicella is quite an experience; as noted, the player must devote himself to thoroughly unwholesome ends, sought for no particularly good reason, which isn't necessarily such a pleasant sensation. Beyond that, though, the game requires that you unearth all sorts of unsavory details about your fellow aspirants to the regency--and the nature of the things you learn is, by and large, unpleasant. Giving the relevant players their comeuppance is superficially satisfying, but it doesn't address or rectify the evils already done--and the ultimate ending reflects that fact. In that sense, the game is thoroughly depressing; there's such a remarkable concentration of evil in the game's world that the walls practically drip with it. (In fact, in a sense, they do.) Yes, it's fiction, but the story told is unremittingly bleak--part of the game's message is that evil inevitably engenders more evil (and, moreover, a purer and more monstrous evil). It's in the nature of Interactive Fiction that telling a story of dirty deeds leaves the player feeling a bit soiled himself. (Footnote: playing Varicella can also be a tad annoying for those who don't share the author's views, particularly on matters religious: the character who represents religion also emanates hypocrisy and cruelty, and the mouthpiece mentioned above gets to excoriate all religious doctrines as "sugary lies." Subtle.)
But Varicella is a well-told tale, and that it's depressing and unedifying is a testament to how well it's put together; it arguably wouldn't serve the author's purposes as well if it were simply malicious fun. The ending pulls the player up short, forces her to reconsider what came before; suddenly, there are consequences to casual cruelty. That point wouldn't come across nearly as well if the player didn't have a sense of complicity in the events of the game (which she certainly should). There is another process loose in the palace--an infestation of a nefarious green substance--that tells its own story: the palace itself is decaying rapidly, though no one seems to notice but you, and if the decay goes unchecked, the whole place will shortly become unlivable. The infestation serves ably as a metaphor for the evil afoot. (The setting is vaguely reminiscent of the end of Hamlet, in fact, when the "rotten" remnants of Denmark destroy each other and what is left is overrun by Fortinbras and his army. The system's internal contradictions cause it to implode. As it happens, there's also an Ophelia-like character in the game who repeatedly quotes Ophelia.)
This, in short, is one of the best pieces of Interactive Fiction ever to be produced; it works brilliantly on several different levels, from entertainment to Interactive Fiction theory. As Interactive Fiction, and as fiction, it's quite an achievement.
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