Wednesday, July 10, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] Railways of Love

Another review from last year's IF Comp. Spoilers ahead.

Railways of Love by Provodnik Games

One of the questions that kept nagging me as I played through Railways of Love was whether the game really had a Russian vibe, or whether I was just imagining this, based on the fact that you can choose between Russian and English. Of course, the long train journey might conjure up images of the Trans-Siberian railway, and the failing lights fit well with a perhaps clich├ęd idea of the state of household technology in the USSR… but there are long railway trips in the rest of the world too, and I’ve seen the lights in Dutch trains fail at times. But then there was the Progress Program, which sounded ever more like a science fiction version of Marxism-Leninism, 5-year plans included. And when I got to an ending in which the protagonists fail to hook up because one of them is praying and the other cannot refrain from making a hard-line atheist comment, I was certain: this is light years away from Hollywood, and very much in the cultural space also inhabited by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

The structure of Railways of Love is quite original. The two protagonists are sitting in the train, some minor events happen, and all you can do is try to make them confess to each other. But the situation isn’t quite right, and nothing happens. The potential love affair dies in the bud. Then, you get to replay the game; but this time, you are in control of which events happen. Brilliant – instead of controlling the protagonists, we control the environment, hoping to get them together. We will fail a few times, revealing more about the people and the culture involved as we do so, but with a little perseverance, we can get them together. At which point we get an ending that is at least as negative as the other ones – finding somebody who loves you turns out not to be, by itself, the recipe for happiness. Light years away from Hollywood, absolutely, and for me this was the point at which I became really impressed by the game. The sad ending rang true. And yet, it was not the end.

In order to reach the real ending, you have to first find all the other endings. I think the developers should put just a little more effort into steering players who get stuck in the right direction. It is very hard to predict which events will lead to which endings, and the possibility space is large enough that one can get lost exploring it. I certainly did, stuck on 6 of 7 endings. In my particular case this was extra unfortunate because there happened to be a bug in the walkthrough, now fixed; but the game is so nice and atmospheric that having to use the walkthrough at all is a bit of a bummer.

But getting to 7 of 7 endings is certainly worth it, for when we accept our fate, rather than try to change it, the game turns into a neat little comment on the human condition. There are all these wild possibilities that we can fall in love with, but pursuing them will ruin the quiet happiness that is ours. Life is choice, and that means it is sadness, for every choice precludes an infinity of other paths we might have taken. But if we learn to accept the sadness, it is also a joy. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina never learns this lesson; but the protagonists of Railways of Love do. For what is, after all, only a little game, I found it surprisingly moving and surprisingly deep.

For me, one of the highlights of the competition; I rated it 9/10. It is also now available on Android (and perhaps iOS?).

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