From: "Magnus Olsson" (
Name: Lethe Flow Phoenix Parser: TADS standard
Author: Dan Shiovitz Plot: Linear
Email: Atmosphere: Slightly surreal
Availability: F, GMD Writing: Excellent
Puzzles: Logical, rather simple Supports: TADS ports
Characters: See review Difficulty: Below average

"Lethe Flow Phoenix" is one of those works that one approaches without really knowing what to expect. On one hand, it's been mentioned as small and simple, solvable in a few hours; on the other hand, there's the obscure, almost pretentious, title that implies a mythical significance. Add to that various comments - including spoiler requests - that hinted at great depths, and it felt like a "must-play". I wasn't disappointed - it turned out to be even more interesting than I had expected: "Lethe Flow Phoenix" is an ambitious attempt to deal with questions not normally addressed in IF, and an attempt to extend the traditional adventure game to be able to do so.

At first, you are not very likely to notice much of this. The introduction is short and somewhat sinister: memories of a camping trip, and falling - or stepping - off a cliff, then nothing more until you find yourself in a slightly surrealistic fantasy world, with no idea of how you got there or what to do next.

There is nothing very original about this opening - the sudden abduction to a strange world seems to be becoming a cliche of IF - nor about the world you've ended up in. In fact, everything in the world is vaguely familiar: it seems to be assembled out of common IF icons such as gazebos, bird cages and waterfalls. This is probably intentional (an explanation is given later in the game) and does not imply any lack of originality on the part of the author - the puzzles involving these familiar icons are perhaps not of stunning novelty, but they certainly don't feel old and worn either. The atmosphere in this early part of the game is sweet and idyllic, somewhat reminiscent of "The Sound of One Hand Clapping", though there are dark undertones that foreshadow later revelations.

After having you explore this tiny world (only 15 or so locations) and solve a number of not too difficult puzzles, all at a rather languid pace, the author suddenly turns the tables on his unsuspecting audience. It is here that "Lethe Flow Phoenix" changes from a light, innocent puzzle game to rather dark interactive literature, that at least attempts to touch deep, existential questions.

It starts innocently enough with a puzzle involving a spider and a mushroom. The conclusion of the puzzle is, however, not just an increased score and a longer inventory, but an entirely unexpected series of events that plunges you into what first seems like a nightmare, plagued by ghosts from your past.

Via a series of essentially non-interactive "cut scenes" - there is seldom a choice of actions, but either just one obvious thing to do, which triggers another cut scene, or no option but to watch and listen as the plot advances by itself - you are led to an encounter with the central NPC, Daniel, who in a long monologue explains what is going on and how crucial a role you're actually playing in the scheme of things.

The encounter with Daniel is the climax of "Lethe Flow Phoenix", and acts as a centre of symmetry; it is followed first by another confrontation with your past, and then you are back where you were before, in a "traditional", puzzle-based adventure game. The difference is that after meeting Daniel, you are prepared to do something about your past, to derive inner strength rather from it rather than just grieving over lost opportunities. Similarly, when you're attacking the puzzles again, you are armed with the means to manipulate not only the various objects in the world, but the world itself. This enables you to go back and finish certain puzzles that were left open before, thus bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion.

While not very original, the outer parts of the game are quite well written, with attention to detail even in objects that would normally be considered decorations. People who like red herrings will probably enjoy this; personally, I find significant-looking objects that turn out to be unimportant a bit of a distraction, but this is a matter of taste. On the other hand, the author sometimes fails to realize the full potential of the really significant objects. The gazebo scene, for example, or the remote control, are wonderful devices with lots of possibilitites for experimentation and clever puzzles; I was a bit disappointed that in both cases the intended use for this complex machinery was quite simple.

Still, in a game of this small size, it is perhaps just an advantage to have simple puzzles. And though simple, the puzzles are not trivial. In most cases they require thinking in several steps and solving them gives you that nice feeling of accomplishment that is perhaps the adventurer's best reward. There is only one NPC in the outer parts of the game. It is very simple and not very interactive, and anyway, in the case of this particular NPC it's quite in character.

I had a few parser problems (the most serious one being that you can enter a cave by typing just "enter" in the right place, but the command "enter cave" gives the response "I don't see any cave here"), and the way the magnet is handled is extremely awkward, but my only major complaint with the outer parts of the game is the very first puzzle. Unfortunately, it is of the tired "find food or you'll die" variety, and, as usual, the time before you starve is far too short, forcing you to restart from the beginning over and over again until you've found all the objects necessary to get food. The puzzle in itself is quite nice, but the time limit detracts considerably from the enjoyment. Perhaps it was put in to give a sense of urgency to the rather placid early game, but in that case it is almost certainly not the right method.

Apart from a this, gameplay flows smoothly and a reasonably experienced adventurer should be able to solve it in a few sittings.

The central section is entirely different. Almost all the action takes place in the cut scenes, and the player is led through the plot without the option to deviate from the path, being told what he thinks and feels, never really given a chance to act. The centre of the centre, so to speak, is entirely non-interactive; a story within the story, told by Daniel in a monologue that must be the longest speech by any IF character so far, at least outside "The Legend Lives".

There are no real puzzles in this section, and the NPCs are essentially non-interactive, although it is possible to extract some interesting background information by asking Daniel questions after he has finished his speech. The author uses the cut scenes very effectively, gradually leading the player into longer and longer, and less and less interactive scenes. The writing is very good indeed, the imagery evocative, the language beautiful and poetic, without degenerating into empty effects - and what is being said is important: not only the background to the entire setting, but the player character's internal conflicts and attempts to come to grips with his or her past.

Dan Shiovitz is addressing very deep questions for an adventure game, and perhaps he has chosen the only realistic way of doing so. Still, I must confess that it fails to be really engaging.

I think one reason for this is simply the enormous contrast with the outer parts of the game, and especially the differences in time scale. Solving the first part of the game takes at least a few hours, during which one gets into the mode of thought appropriate for a puzzle game. Then one is presented with an enormous amount of text, which takes perhaps ten minutes to read - only to be abruptly dumped back into the remainder of the puzzle game, which will take some time to finish. The effect is that what should be the central part and climax of the work turns into a short interlude, while the rest of the game, which is infinitely less important in terms of emotional content, dominates it totally.

Also, although the writing is excellent, I feel that author attempts too much. He certainly seems to have given his imagination free reins; the result is a story that combines fallen angels with alien invaders, philosophical speculation with battle scenes; a struggle of enormous proportions - and this is just the background. The player character's immediate concern is not this cosmic drama, but coming to grips with himself and with the ghosts of his past.

Somehow, this combination of myth and science fiction, legend and psychological drama, science fiction and ghost story, saving the world and achieveing personal fulfilment, all presented in just a few pages of text, fails to have the desired impact just because it is _too_ powerful, too all-encompassing.

I'm not saying that it is impossible to combine these elements into one story, just that the author may be making it just a little bit too hard for himself - and for his readers. There are limits to the ability to suspend disbelief. If the author had concentrated on one or two aspects of this story, instead of trying to do everything at once, it would have been much more effective; the message would have come across much more powerfully without all the fireworks.

To summarize, "Lethe Flow Phoenix" is a work with strong centrifugal tendencies - it flies apart into quite disparate components. Taken by themselves, these parts are perhaps not perfect, but very good indeed, considering that this is the author's debut work. Together, they fail to yield an artistic unit, partly because of the author's high ambitions; however, he shouldn't be blamed for failing to achieve everything but praised for even making the attempt. Without experimentation, we would never get anywhere.

"Lethe Flow Phoenix" is very interesting for what it tries to achieve, and the ways in which it succeeds or fails to succeed in doing so. It contains some pieces of excellent writing, as well as some good work in the invention of puzzles and intricate puzzle machinery. IF authors are advised to study it carefully.

And for everybody, authors or non-authors alike, it remains a very enjoyable game.