Review: Matchstick Memories22 Sep 2014 0
My first thought, upon hearing the pitch for Matchstick Memories, was that it had great potential to remedy a serious problem with classic interactive fiction: as I read most IF games, I'm basically playing Spock (Leonard Nimoy style, not the new-fangled, emotional Zachary Quinto version). I might have some investment in the story, but I always have as much time as I like to rationally evaluate my options. Even worse, the authors know this, so they have to write their choices so as not to make the better option so obvious that the distinctive freedom the book offers effectively disappears. So, not only do I feel like that bizarre abstraction, Economic Model Man, but the story also ends up feeling contrived for maximum uncertainty.
Matchstick Memories (henceforth MM) offers interactive fiction in which your performance on a variety of puzzles determines your choices. You're still the ruthlessly efficient Economic Model Man, but now there's some gameplay standing between you and your decisions. It's well-suited to players who've ever imagined that successful life choices might hinge on the thousands upon thousands of hours of games you've played (which, as a man with a gig reviewing games for a website, I have).
Genre mashups are fertile ground, not just for games generally, but specifically for those which explore the interaction between mechanics and theme at a somewhat abstract level. MM uses its structure to help users encounter bewildering, frightening, or unexpected situations in a context which actually evokes plausible emotional reactions, rather than our idealized hope for how we'd react. It doesn't always work perfectly--the brevity of the story elements sometimes makes it hard to find a thematically-appropriate reason why you walked east when you'd have preferred to walk west, which some blunder in your puzzle-solving might be said to model. However, sometimes you're running for your life through a burning building, confused about which direction is which because there's so much smoke and you're so tired and oh God I can't see what the Jesus I almost didn't make it that time such heat keep going keep going. The moments that fit give you a thrilling peek at a game design ethos which could grant even simple games powerful resonance.
The plot involves navigating your memories, which is harder than you'd expect for reasons which you're trying to discover. Progress consists of discovering matchbooks which give you the ability to cheat a bit on some of the puzzles, making further exploration easier. The puzzles are all simple and familiar: some of them are minesweeper, some are match-3, and there are several others of a similar level of complexity. As a result, you can usually grasp instantly what you need to do--though there's a help button which will tell you the rules, I didn't even notice its presence until about halfway through the game, because I never felt the need to go looking for it. That's intentional; among varied palettes which mirror the fictional situation and restrained use of brightness instability, MM can create discomfort and uncertainty by presenting new puzzles which look very much like familiar ones, but behave slightly differently.
The other major tool it uses is time. Though most puzzles are untimed, not all are, and at crucial moments the game often requires the use of a modicum of dexterity to draw lines quickly. Perhaps as a result of my recent grouting project, which left my hands very dry indeed, the game just didn't detect my fingers very consistently, and these puzzles were maddeningly difficult. During play for the review, the game received an update which helps by changing a puzzle after it's been failed five times. I'd have used that on several pre-update occasions, and it seems to keep the game moving when it would otherwise stall out in frustration.
Unfortunately, though MM binds its pieces together in an utterly fascinating way, the pieces themselves aren't very interesting, and not being able to choose which game you play means there's no way to suit the choice to your real-life context. While none of the sub-games would be my first choice on its own, a frantic dash of a game suits some situations. Other times I might be satisfied to play minesweeper, but rarely do I pick up my device indifferent to which of those I play. Worse, the moments at which the decisions are poorly represented by puzzles are as common and occasionally repetitive as in the choose-your-own-adventure books I recall from childhood. In one particularly egregious example, simply walking around a car (over a path several times retraced) required solving five separate puzzles. None of them were challenging, but it took longer to decide to step out of the car and walk to the other side than it would have in real life for the average New Englander to drive to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts and back.
The sum simply takes too long for the quality of the puzzling; new spins on minesweeper and Bejeweled are always welcome, but they require to be rotating a little faster than they do in MM to look like innovation. To an extent, Matchstick Memories' design demands that familiarity, in order for the puzzles to be familiar enough to set up the way the game plays with expectations to create confusion and disorientation, but the payoff requires a rarified taste to appreciate enough to justify the time spent. I recall a joke about a clown who makes a viewer cry, followed by an absurdly long description of following events, and then the punchline. It's an absolute classic, an unforgettable touchstone for a certain kind of joke which derives its humor from a totally different dynamic than any other kind of joke I've encountered. I didn't really enjoy hearing it, though, and even telling it is tiresome.
A deliberately obscure story rarely appeals to me, and lowest-common-denominator puzzles never do, but the interplay between them in MM is so clever that I'm delighted to have encountered it. Creator Cooper Buckingham may only be entering the iOS space, but MM is inventive and evocative enough that I do hope it won't be his last. I expect this to be a controversial game, with users alternately stimulated and bored depending on their tastes. So be it--if the lessons of the game design work here are widely discussed, it will be a merrier, more empathetic world.
Matchstick Memories was played on an iPad Air for this review.