Thursday, November 26, 2009

Twisty Little Passages

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort, addresses a much needed gap in gaming analysis and history: that of interactive fiction. The precursor to Multi-User Dungeons, interactive fiction was a form of text-based interactive game that sprang to life in tandem with the rise of the personal computer. Single player in scope but capable of taking its players anywhere the programmers could imagine, it relied primarily on the written word to share its world. Although the games initially started with VERB NOUN responses (e.g., "get book", "read book", etc.), they eventually advanced to natural language parsers.

Throughout the book is a history of interactive fiction and its development through the eighties and nineties. It also analyzes the comparisons between hypertext fiction and interactive fiction and the inequalities in how the two or treated. If you can't guess, interactive fiction isn't treated very well.

Montfort seems to have an axe to grind, citing shoddy research that conflates certain interactive fiction as being fantasy adventure games and confuses the origins of Adventure (or ADVENT). Montfort corrects all these misperceptions and more through personal interviews with Will Crowther, creator of Adventure, and Dave Lebling, one of the creators of Zork.

Twisty Little Passages seeks to redress these inconsistencies, positing that interactive fiction is more than just a game but a form of literature in its own right. Montfort makes a convincing argument, but then as an administrator of RetroMUD for over a decade, I'm one of the converted. It's unlikely that literature snobs are reading his book.

Although occasionally defensive in tone, Montfort's retrospect and analysis of interactive fiction is a welcome addition to any game developer's library. It's important to know what went before, and this book addresses an important part of gaming history that has been all but forgotten.

Moterhship Zeta

There were two places I absolutely had to visit in Fallout 3: Dogmeat and the crashed spacecraft. With the new downloadable content, Mothership Zeta, what was once a visit to a spooky alien craft turns into a full-fledged abduction scenario.

After being beamed up by into a saucer, the player is subjected to a disturbing sequence in which the aliens conduct experiments with painful probes. You wake up naked in a holding cell with another abductee, Somah, and have to fight your way to freedom.

Like The Pitt and Operation: Anchorage, this content is an entirely self-contained environment. You're in a spacecraft, after all. The green men, with their guardian drones, pack personal force fields and painful disintegrators that make the weapon you found on the dead alien in Fallout 3 look like a pop gun.

Leading the way through the labyrinthine architecture is Sally, a little girl who is small enough to traverse the ductwork. With a nod to Newt from the movie Aliens, she is at turns annoying (not all of her advice is sound) and helpful. You eventually are joined by other abductees awoken from cryo-sleep, including a samurai, a cowboy, and a medic abducted from Operation: Anchorage.

Like Operation: Anchorage, Mothership Zeta forces cocky players to change their tactics. The aliens are physically weaker but they make up for it with powerful weapons and armor. They come in groups of three or more and attack in enclosed spaces. Mothership Zeta is no cakewalk.

Along the way, the aliens plans are revealed. Creepy tapes of abductees being interviewed and experimented are littered throughout the ship. At one point, the player must conduct a spacewalk – although there's not much of a challenge in doing so. The finale is suitably climactic as you attempt to command the ship to fire on another UFO while fending off wave after wave of angry aliens. The win is hard-earned.

Mothership Zeta provides a few items that will be valuable back on Earth: biogel (heals hundreds of hit points), a disintegrator (inflicts massive amounts of damage in a single shot), and the energy ball-bouncing drone cannon (acts as a grenade but is very imprecise). When I returned to the regular Fallout 3 game, I used the drone cannon to devastating effect, especially because you can bounce the shots around corners.

Motership Zeta isn't for everyone. The foes are a bit repetitive, and listening to the alien chatter (they don't speak English, natch) gets old fast. More often than not I had to resort to bashing their big green heads in with a shock baton – ugly work, as the aliens squeal with every hit. But for fans of 50s science fiction, little green men, and Mars Attacks, this is a must buy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Titus Crow, Volume 2: The Clock of Dreams; Spawn of the Winds

After having slogged through Volume One of the Titus Crow series, complete with lisping dragons, green haired space princesses, and a narrative riddled with ellipses, I steeled myself for Volume Two. With the prototypical pulp hero Titus Crow and his trusty sidekick Henri de Marginy cleaning the clocks (pun intended) of the Cthulhu Cycle Deities (CCD, ugh), there wasn't much left for them to do. But like every good epic series, when the heroes become gods among men in the mortal realm…they leave the mortal realm behind to find adventure.

The Clock of Dreams begins with a rather peculiar scenario: Crow and Tiania have been captured in the Dreamlands. How this happened is hand waved; basically, Crow and Tiana are drugged and enslaved by the Men of Leng. Given that Crow is a cyborg that is highly resistant to damage, it seems unlikely that poisoning him would work…but perhaps that's because this is the Dreamlands and not Earth's reality.

The first half of the novel involves de Marginy's quest to find Crow in the Dreamlands. Once there, Crow takes up the second half as he seeks to rescue Tiania. What's interesting is that Clock of Dreams is one of the first to posit that Cthulhu's dream sendings actually infect the Dreamlands. Here, great nightmarish factories corrupt the land, guarded by three foul guardians: the worm-like Flyer, its tentacle-armed Rider, and a three-legged Runner. Overseeing the entire operation is a deathly titanic Keeper, who in turn servers Nyarlathotep.

Overall, this is book is an improvement over the first volume, if only because there's more for Titus to do. Unlike the previous books, it's told in the present tense, which lends much urgency to the narrative. There's plenty of combat, skullduggery, and a hilarious moment where the only way de Marginy can return to the Dreamlands is to get roaring drunk. With guest appearances by Randolph Carter and King Kuranes, flying airships, and shields that shoot laser beams, this is pulp Cthulhu at its wackiest. But it's juicy and satisfying, especially when Nyarlathotep shows up at the end to put our heroes in their place.

Spawn of the Winds, on the other hand, is a different breed of pulp. Crow and de Marginy are nowhere to be found in this book; its inclusion is primarily because of Ithaqua, who is assigned a peculiar set of personality traits here. Ithaqua, you see, lusts after human women (as all pulp villains inevitably do) because he seeks to spawn terrible progeny who will walk among the winds with him. The winds, as defined by Lumley, are the spaces between worlds, and occasionally Ithaqua kidnaps people and carries them across dimensions to the world of Borea.

Borea is a wind-swept frozen world filled with every snow land clich̩ imaginable: Vikings, Eskimos, white wolves, polar bears, ski-boats, and lots and lots of snow. I kept waiting for Santa Claus to show up. Ithaqua's penchant for turning people into wendigos is turned on its ear here Рinstead, Ithaqua alters the physiology of those whom he traps on Borea so that they are immune to the cold.

The protagonist is an American named Hank Silberhutte, a member of the Wilmarth Foundation out to avenge his cousin, whom he believes was killed by Ithaqua. Silberhutte is a Texan, which of course means he can punch anybody's lights out who dares mess with him. He is also a powerful psychic, capable of linking with Juanita Alvarez, a telepathic receiver and our narrator, across the gulfs of space.

Tagging along is Silberhutte's companions, Paul White (an oracle known as "hunchman"), Dick Selway, Jimmy Franklin, and Silberhutte's hot little sister Tracy. A fateful encounter with Ithaqua ends with Selway dead and the others changed. Only Tracy, holding onto her star stones, remains unaffected.

Awakening on Borea, a brutal war of attrition ensues between worshippers of the Wind Walker who want nothing more than to sacrifice Tracy to Ithaqua (she's a "damned good-looking girl" says Silberhutte). Leading the opposition is Armandra, Woman of the Winds and daughter of Ithaqua. She's basically Storm with wind powers. She flies about the wastes, her flame-red hair whipping behind her, with skin as pale as snow and eyes as stormy as a winter…you get the idea.

Silberhutte falls madly in love with her, both physically and psychically, and their escalating relationship only complicates the war between the two factions. If Armandra dares intervene directly with her wind powers, Ithaqua joins the fray as well. And yet Armandra refuses to let any harm come to Silberhutte, who also wants to join the fight as the macho leader of his Eskimo warriors. It's all very primal.

Unlike the other books in the Crow series, this is a lusty, gun-toting, fist-swinging, princess rescuing, rip-roaring yarn that chews up scenery like a bad actor in a Shakespearean play. It doesn't always make sense, but it's a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pitt

Part of the genius of Fallout 3 is that it mixes 1950s sensibilities with post-apocalyptic atrocities, striking the perfect balance between humor and horror. With the Pitt, the balance definitely shifts towards the nihilistic, more The Road and Swan Song and less Beyond Thunderdome.

Like Operation: Anchorage, the player enters former Pittsburgh stripped bare of weapons and armor. He is pretending to be a slave. Mingling among the slaves, the player must fight his way through The Hole, a series of arena battles against increasingly difficult foes. My high-level character tore right through them in record time.

Surviving multiple rounds in The Hole grants an audience with Ashur, the head slaver and a former Brother of Steel. Indeed, this title may be more apt, because Ashur has created a bustling economy using Pittsburgh's steel mill to churn out weapons and armor.

It soon becomes clear that things are a little less black-and-white than in the rest of the Fallout wasteland. With the population largely sterile due to the Troglodyte Degeneration Contagion, Ashur settled on slave labor as a short-term solution to his manpower difficulties. Those who are tough enough ascend to join the slavers in bullying slaves and raiding other communities. The twist-ending requires a sadistic choice with no real winners or losers. It's as grim as it sounds.

Also like Operation: Anchorage, The Pitt provides one of the best melee weapons: The Mauler. An auto-blocking, persistent damage-inflicting beast of a weapon, The Mauler gets blood and guts everywhere, but then, killin's messy work.

That pretty much sums up The Pitt too. I felt a little dirty after playing it.

Operation: Anchorage

Operation: Anchorage was the first downloadable content available for Fallout 3. Fallout is far too complex a game to explain here; suffice it to say that the paranoia and jingoistic patriotism of the 1950s became a permanent way of life due to the escalation of nuclear war between communist forces and America. Operation: Anchorage fills in the back story of the game by thrusting the player into a pivotal moment in Fallout's history: the liberation of Alaska from communist China.

Because this downloadable content is part of the Fallout universe, it's a game within a game. Brotherhood of Steel outcasts need your help to reach a stash of pre-war technology in a bunker (dangling the promise of loot at the end of the simulation). But getting in requires a user with a Pip-Boy interface – an interface only the player possesses -- to successfully complete the virtual simulation.

This isn't really an addition to Fallout so much as it's a complete mini-game more in the vein of the Tom Clancy sneak-and-shoot games. The mission involves a series of escalated attacks against Chinese forces in a windswept arctic climate. There are soldiers that can be commanded to fight on your behalf, enabling some rudimentary squad tactics. There are no mutations and therefore no mutants, no irradiated wasteland and thus no radiation concerns, and only the equipment Anchorage supplies you. In short, it's a completely different game with a similar interface.

Even ammunition and healing are doled out in unlimited dispensers, just like a virtual game. There's no scavenging; corpses fizzle out in virtual sparks and there are no crates that can be opened. In short, this is Fallout stripped down to sneaking and shooting.

And sneaking is critical here. It was a shock for my 20th-level Fallout character, stripped of his huge arsenal of drugs and equipment, to be regularly outmatched by sharpshooters who often had a tactical advantage. In fact, all of the opponents are considerably more difficult, including the invisible Crimson Dragoons. I faced down several threats by staying near a health dispenser and clicking it every few rounds as I was pounded by Dragoon fire. There were several points in the game where I died multiple times using the brute force approach, eventually forced to sneak my way through much of the content. In short, Operation: Anchorage gave me a good dose of humility.

The conclusion involves a final push against Chinese forces. Judicious use of a high Speech skill ended the battle quickly with minimal bloodshed. I didn't even bother to use any of my squad. But it was all worth it. What lies in the vault is some of the sweetest weapons and armor this side of the apocalypse…and a good measure of skullduggery to boot.

Anchorage provides two items that will change your Fallout 3 experience. The first is the Winterized T-51b Power Armor. One of the most powerful armors in the game (DR 45), it never gets damaged. The other standout item is the Gauss Rifle, which has a scope, uses microfusion cells, and causes creatures to be knocked down for four seconds on a critical hit.

Words can't properly express how satisfying it is to hit a Deathclaw full in the face and watch it go flying off a cliff. Those four seconds can be a lifetime on a battlefield, bestowing a critical combat advantage to the player's companions who continue to pound away at the prone target; players using VATS and the right perks can knock an opponent around like a hockey puck.

Operation Anchorage isn't like the rest of Fallout 3 and that might be a turn off for some. But the Gauss Rifle and Power Armor make it all worth it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Spiraling Worm

Chaosium achieved a real coup for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game (RPG) in a way that Dungeons & Dragons never did: it put RPGs on equal footing with Lovecraftian literature. Because Chaosium publishes fiction and RPG supplements it presents both as legitimate, best evidenced by the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, which draws on both sources to round out the Mythos.

So it's a bold move when Chaosium publishes a new modern work without the comforting bosom of the surrounding Mythos to prop it up. Even more daring, the Spiraling Worm is a collection of action stories set in the modern day.

Ignore the cover. The picture of Peel, with his oddly stubby arms and stiff posture, isn't particularly compelling.

David Conyers may be best known for his RPG contributions, but he's equally comfortable in the fiction realm. His protagonist of note, Australian Army military intelligence officer Major Harrison Peel, is a no-nonsense action hero waging war against a cosmic threat he barely understands. John Sunseri's character of choice is NSA agent Jack Dixon, who is a bit less stalwart than his Australian colleague. Rounding out the global trio and connecting the stories is MI6 agent James Figgs, who ranges from cold aloofness in Sunseri's stories to borderline psychopath in Conyers'.

The series starts out with Peel and Figgs in Vietnam in Made of Meat, featuring only a hint of the Mythos in the Tcho-Tcho and their worship of Shub-Niggurath. The conclusion is open-ended and unsatisfying.

To What Green Altar is Dixon's introductory tale, a less satisfying but interesting take on Cthugha, the Tunguska Event, and the Vatican. Unfortunately, the Mythos knowledge possessed by the Church doesn't seem to figure in the other stories.

Impossible Object, more a science fiction tale, is awesome. Peel fights a battle of perception in his native Australia, trying to grapple with a device nobody can truly perceive, much less comprehend. The ending is an awesome cliffhanger, leaving you wondering if the entire universe might implode…

Until you read False Containment, so the universe clearly did not end. It unfortunately saps some of the strength of Impossible Object, but False Containment is so strong that it's easy to forgive. Featuring time travel, body horror, and a gibbering monstrosity that cannot be contained by time or space. False Containment is one of the few stories in this collection that isn't afraid to drive home the insane horror of the Mythos.

Resurgence features two shoggoths gone wild, the inevitable conclusion of a monstrosity that eats everything. Resurgence isn't afraid to escalate tensions to an international level, forcing Peel to sacrifice himself to save his beloved continent…

Until, that is, the events in Weapon Grade. Dixon brings Peel into another mission, this one featuring another dimension and more shoggoths. It's interesting but not as powerful as the other short stories – it feels more like an excuse to keep Peel alive (he's cured of his ailment by the end of it) than anything else.

The title work, The Spiraling Worm, is a filthy, disturbing foray into the heart of the Congo jungle. Dixon, Peel, and Figgs are together again, and the circumstances are unsparingly brutal. This is a story that's not for the faint of heart. It features a suitably climactic showdown between helicopter gunships, Nyarlathotep, and an elder artifact. Unfortunately, the bizarre mask and its rotting cult steal the show. The conclusion is actually a beginning, as Dixon and Peel join forces to launch a secret organization dedicated to eradicating the Mythos…

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's been done already: Delta Green, wherein government agents with little infrastructure support wage a secret war against the Mythos. Chaosium has never quite fully embraced the enormously popular modern take on the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, publishing its own brand of "Cthulhu Now" supplements. In fact, some of the stories in Spiraling Worm were originally meant to be part of Delta Green, but presumably they weren't able to get the rights from Pagan Publishing.

It seems as if the authors are intent on building their own, parallel, government-against-the-mythos series by connecting to Tim Curran's Hive. Which isn't a bad thing. But with the resurgence of Delta Green, I wonder if DG fans will be forced to choose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Quick, what movie features Britain in turmoil, three young children growing up under the tutelage of a sorceress, invocations of ancient demons and wizards, curse spells, and a modern school of magic that's not what it appears to be? Nope, it's not Harry Potter…it's Bedknobs and Broomsticks!

It's the beginning of World War II and Miss Price (Angela Lansbury, looking suitably spinsterish) has been saddled with three British war orphans: Charlie (Ian Weighill), Carrie (Cindy O'Callaghan) and Paul Rawlins (Roy Snart). Although she prefers to keep to herself, Price has no choice but to take them under her wing, at least until a more proper home can be found for them. As it turns out, Miss Price is a witch, a witch who hopes to help the British war effort if only she can master the final level of her training and thereby learn the spell "substitutiary locomotion."

The three orphans eventually stumble upon her secret. In an unlikely series of deals and skullduggery, Price bargains with the orphans to keep her secret in exchange for some magic, a bed knob that transforms any bed into a dimension-traveling device. Soon after, Price discovers that her tutoring via post from the mysterious Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson), headmaster of the College of Witchcraft, has come to an abrupt end. Using the bed knob, Price and the three children track down Browne, who is in fact a con man that doesn't know much about magic at all.

Thus begins a quest to find the elusive substitutiary spell, first via double-dealings with a bookseller who has the other half of a mysterious spellbook, and then to an animated world of talking animals in pursuit of an amulet with the magic words inscribed upon it. Along the way, the motley band will face down the King of the Beasts, a razor-wielding thug, and of machinegun-toting Nazis.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks shows its age, both in its narrative speed and its approach to mature themes. The musical numbers often meander, with the characters speaking their lines and dance routines that are far too aggressive for the two older protagonists. There are a few misogynistic references (met with a frown by Miss Price) and…well, it's all very British, as it should be. The movie also isn't afraid to threaten the children with real harm, be it from a charging lion or a Nazi wielding a machinegun. Bad people in this movie are really bad, and there's a refreshing honesty about the whole thing.

By the time film gets around to its climax, young children will likely be bored. But what a glorious climax it is, complete with unrealistically numerous legions of animated suits of armor arrayed against the Nazis, who are there to "teach Britain a lesson." Although at times jingoistic, Bedknobs aims high and rarely sugarcoats the harsh realities of war.

This is as much a war film as it is a flight of fantasy, and in that regard Bedknobs and Broomsticks has some important lessons to teach young children. And in that regard, Miss Price and friends could teach Harry Potter a thing or two.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

When I discovered a movie was being made about The Men Who Stare at Goats I was excited, until I realized it was a comedic work of fiction. Thing is, The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't funny.

Oh, it's darkly humorous as the author, Jon Ronson, attempts to get to the truth while keeping a straight face. But it's not funny, and the conclusion Ronson reaches by the end of the book, after tracking the noble origins of a twisted, sadistic form of psychological warfare, is a punch in the face. So why was it made into a comedy?

Fortunately, comedy is too broad a stroke for the movie. It's actually a gonzo buddy journalism movie, where the actors play everything utterly straight. The humor is in what isn't said.

For example: When Ewan McGregor's journalist character Bob Wilton, he of Obi-Wan fame, asks "What's a Jedi?" nobody so much as snickers. Unfortunately the audience didn't seem to get it either: only my wife and I were laughing.

Wilton is on a mission to prove to his wife that he's more of a man than the one-armed editor who steals her from him. See? One armed men are funny!

Partnering with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a Special Forces psi-ops soldier, the two travel around Iraq on a mysterious mission. Just about every eccentric Ronson encountered in his book is collapsed into two characters in the film, Cassady and Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Cassady's mentor.

And that's pretty much where The Men Who Stares at Goats loses its way…literally, as the two characters repeatedly get lost in the desert. Eventually, they end up at a secret base where more than just goat staring takes place.

The film is faithful to its source in surprising ways, from the Today show broadcast of Barney music used in torturing prisoners to a picture-for-picture reproduction of the First Earth Battalion manual (here titled the New Earth Army). The problem is that following Ronson/Wilton's journey to its logical conclusion should end with court marshals, public outrage, and an official inquiry. The strength and weakness of The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it unflinchingly deals with this problem…it's just that the solution is patently ridiculous. The film drives right off the cliff into a wish fulfillment fantasy that saps the strength of the rest of the movie.

The film ends with a sucker punch (SPOILER). Wilton publishes the truth, and instead of outrage, the world just laughs. The moral is that mass media turned the awful true story into a comedy…just like a comedic buddy movie did to a certain book you might have read.

Too bleak to be funny, too lighthearted to be serious, The Men Who Stares at Goats ends up as a hot mess of hippy idealism smashed together with modern conspiracy. It should have been a documentary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Happening

There's a lot wrong with The Happening.

At base, The Happening is a nightmarish parable about our crowded society in modern times. We threaten the world, director M. Night Shyamalan seems to say, with our sheer numbers. On the other hand, being completely isolated isn't the solution either, creating a suspicious, isolationist attitude that leads to a self-destructive spiral.

But The Happening is mostly about watching people commit suicide in terrible ways. This ranges from terrible echoes of 9/11, when workmen jump from a building to their death, to the cartoonishly absurd, when a zookeeper taunts a lion and it tears his arm off. Anyone who watches the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet knows that big cats go for the neck first.

Anyway, The Happening's premise is spooky: what if something in the wind made people commit suicide in the most immediate and awful way possible? Where would you go? What would you do?

Night has all the elements of a good horror story: the aforementioned disaster, the strained relationship between Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and even an innocent little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) thrown in for good measure.

The Happening should be a great horror film. It's spooky. The premise that a gust of wind could bring about a fatal, nightmarish end lends an ominous shadow to the events. We can expect plenty of drama, morally ambiguous choices, and desperate survival tactics as our protagonists flee for their lives from an alien foe.

Actually, I was just describing Spielberg's War of the Worlds, which took the same premise and made a creepy, nuanced film about parents, children, and the distance between them. The two films have a lot in common: the insidious enemy that pops up out of nowhere, the little girl in distress, the long journey against all odds to a haven that might already have been destroyed.

The Happening follows the same script but fails miserably on almost all counts. Oh, Night's got the scary part down. But what carries a film like this is the emotional heft of characters brought to the brink. Wahlberg does a workman-like job of trying to be clever and sarcastic, but the script forces him to spew mouthfuls of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook at a rapid fire pace that he can't keep up. Deschanel, never a strong actress to begin with, is comedically awful. There isn't the slightest romantic tension between her and Wahlberg. And the little girl? She barely says a word.

The list of what's wrong goes on and on: citizens leave New York in an orderly fashion without snarling any mass transit; victims go to inordinate and improbable lengths to kill themselves; a father abandons his only child in a vain quest to find his wife; nobody seems to think traveling with a gas mask might be a good idea except two old ladies sitting at home.

They're the smart ones.

EXPO - Magic of the White City

Like so many other viewers, I came round to viewing EXPO – The Magic of the White City ("EXPO") because I read The Devil in the White City (The White City) first. Sort of. Actually, my wife read The White City years after I did and, her curiosity piqued, rented the DVD.

EXPO is about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, an exposition of such majesty, scope, corruption, and expense that it is a feat unparalleled in America today. The closest we have to the Fair is Disney World, a lineage most explicitly drawn in The White City; Walt Disney's father, Elias, was a construction worker on some of the buildings at the fair.

EXPO is narrated by Gene Wilder. I'm admit to a bias – I'm a big fan of Young Frankenstein and he's the only "celebrity sighting" I've ever encountered in real life. Wilder's getting on in age (the DVD was produced in 2005), so there's now a bit of a whistle to his speech. Still, his lilting voice has enough emotion and wry humor to make his narration enjoyable. And there is a lot of narration.

We tend to think of previous American centuries as quaintly backward, where such modern notions as political correctness and global unity didn't exist. And while EXPO is careful to point out that American culture still had its own foibles and intolerance endemic to the time, the World's Fair put all those to shame. It was a global unification of wealth, prosperity, and cultural exchange in a way that's inconceivable in today's contentious world. We can learn a lot from the Chicago World's Fair.

EXPO uses old maps and photographs to detail events at the fair whenever possible, with few computer graphics or animation. There are occasional shots of live actors, none whom particularly add anything of value to the narrative. In fact, it's clear that the producers felt that the medium was a little dry, because there are copious live action shots of a belly dancer interspersed with discussion of the Midway.

Minor quibbles aside, EXPO works overtime to try to encompass the grandeur of such a huge undertaking without losing sight of the details. As a result, it necessarily glosses over some pieces (rampant corruption, the aforementioned Devil himself who is the subject of The White City book) and emphasizes others (global diversity, architecture, and the first appearances of American staples). That's okay though; EXPO is a huge undertaking with such a sweepingly broad subject that it's better served as a companion piece to a book. Like The Devil in the White City.

What's of interest to gamers is the White City itself. It brought together vastly different groups from around the world, including popular entertainers, royalty, and indigenous peoples. Role-playing games set in this era are often constrained by political norms, but the 1893 World's Fair is an exception to the rule. Just about anyone from anywhere could be justified as being in Chicago during the Fair's existence.

If this seems like the perfect setting for a mystery adventure, Peter Nepstad agrees. He produced the text-based interactive fiction 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. Featuring over 30 hours of gameplay and employing over 500 archival photographs, Nepstad's exhaustive research brings to life dozens of interactive characters. Nepstad's game provides plenty of material for Game Masters who want to use the Fair as a setting for their own campaigns. It's the closest thing to being there.