Posted by: Ben | October 8, 2015

if: Life on Mars?

This is a review of Life On Mars? by Hugo Labrande, from the 2015 Interactive Fiction competition. The review may contain plot spoilers or other things one subsequently wishes one had not read, or in some cases, written. I am not a proper member of the IF community and am not qualified to judge interactive fiction, but will probably vote anyway.

cemetery gates
The typical structure of a castaway story concerns a protagonist who overcomes trauma, loneliness and other relevant sources of adversity, leading to survival and personal growth. This story goes very much in the other direction, placing the protagonist, Charlotte in a situation where her internal resiliance is unequal to the trauma she is forced to undergo. This makes for a pretty bleak experience, not at all lightened by the response of her rigidly uncomprehending private-sector employers, who seem undecided about whether to leave her to die or send a team to shoot her for cowardice.

(And yet some of the people involved seemed to be in the military. I didn’t really understand what was going on with that.)

A bulging email inbox sets out the backstory in a chunky text dump that consumes the overwhelming majority of the play time. It might have been more palatable if this information could have been parcelled out a bit more evenly, and the act of obtaining it gamified a little more.

There are some interesting narrative techniques later on – the brief display of partial room descriptions simulating the sensation of running, panicked, through familiar locations; then the voice of the room descriptions explicitly taking the role of Charlotte’s calm, rational side in debate with her impulsive, emotional self – although between that and the extensive exposition via emails, the part of her that types in the commands was feeling a bit left out by this point.

It all ended with a disappointing suddenness just when it looked as though a plot twist was on the way, meaning any opportunity of investigating the apparent Weird Goings On was denied, although too much Lovecraftian menace could have ended up altering the tone considerably, and not necessarily for the better.

A suitably atmospheric Spotify playlist was a nice touch, apart from that one unfortunate moment when you discover that Pantera didn’t cover The Smiths’ Cemetry Gates after all.

Image: Cemetery Gates, Marc Chagall, 1917



  1. Hey! Thanks a lot for the review, I appreciate it! Glad you enjoyed the playlist too 🙂

    (I had no idea this was also the title of a song by The Smiths – had never listened to them before actually. They’re going on my Spotify playlist that’s for sure 😉

  2. I guess the idea is that with space exploration, the government has an interest in getting involved? I don’t have much experience with Europe, or with the military of any country, so the most confusing thing for me would have been why a military person could “outrank” someone I assumed to be a civilian, since I am under the impression that military ranks are within the military only, at least officially.

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