From: "Molley the Mage" (mollems@pulsar.cs.wku.edu)

NAME: The Light: Shelby's Addendum PARSER: TADS 2.2
AUTHOR: C. A. McCarthy PLOT: Darkish science fiction
EMAIL: mlkuehl@students.wisc.edu (?) ATMOSPHERE: Excellent!
AVAILABILITY: Shareware, GMD WRITING: Highest quality
PUZZLES: Obscure, not well done SUPPORTS: TADS 2.2 ports
CHARACTERS: Richly developed DIFFICULTY: NP-Complete

"The Light: Shelby's Addendum" is a fascinating piece of science-fiction IF from a very talented writer, C.A. McCarthy (a regular contributor to the interactive fiction newsgroups as well). The game casts you as Shelby, the "apprentice" (functional equivalent of a graduate student) to the Regulators, two physicists who maintain a beacon which is critical to the survival of the Earth (in between their studies of subsurface sonar phenomena). When you return home from a trip to find that the beacon is no longer alight, and no one seems to be left at the project site, you must embark on a search for the truth behind the evil happenings which have befallen the Lighthouse. What fate has befallen the Regulators? What's happened to the phase modulator? And why didn't anyone feed the chickens, for crying out loud?

As it turns out, you'll get to know the Regulators quite well before meeting either one of them. Barclay and Holcroft come to life through Shelby's observations on the everyday things around him, and through other sources (a diary, for example). You'll learn that something sinister is definitely afoot, and that one of the Regulators has placed all of Earth's inhabitants in danger by embarking on a dangerous "quest" of his own. His motivations, as well as his methods, must be unraveled if Shelby is to succeed.

The first problem, however, is the fact that without the beacon, Shelby (and any other living thing) is out of phase with the rest of the world. If you do not find some way to prevent it (and quickly!) Shelby will meet a grisly death within just a few turns of the game's beginning. In my opinion, the time limit imposed by the game to solve this first puzzle is too tight. You get 100 moves before dying, which may seem like a lot, but trust me -- it's not. This is definitely a "restore puzzle" and one which will probably take you several restarts to solve.

Which brings me to my only major complaint with the game: the puzzles. "The Light: Shelby's Addendum" contains several puzzles which are more or less original in concept. Unfortunately, they are terribly executed. While a genuine attempt has been made by the author to integrate the puzzles into the story, the nature and difficulty of the puzzles is such that they stick out like a sore thumb. Not only are some of the more important puzzles (like the first one you'll need to solve in order to stay alive) just downright obscure, the author has chosen to "hide" most of the objects in the game deep within the scenery. You'll need to look under, over, around, behind, and through every single piece of scenery to avoid missing vital objects without which you cannot complete the quest.

In particular, the places where the keys are hidden on the mainland is extremely unfair. Quite frankly, I don't recommend playing this game without at least a hint sheet (and probably a walkthrough) or you will almost certainly become hopelessly stuck at any of several places. You may consider this "puzzle wimpiness" on my part, but consider that Trinity and Spellbreaker are my two all-time favorite Infocom games, and perhaps that will put my opinions of "Shelby"'s puzzles into perspective.

This is not to say that *all* of the puzzles are bad: several of them are quite clever, and the implementation of all the puzzles is basically seamless (with one exception, but it doesn't affect your ability to finish the game). There's one puzzle near the end of the game which involves a weight-sensitive elevator and is quite nifty in its execution. In fact, the implementation of the whole game seems *very* solid. I didn't discover any unknown bugs in the game, nor did I notice any typos (other than a couple of places where "its" was used instead of "it's") and the game mechanics and pacing flowed beautifully.

In truth, despite the incongruency of the puzzles, I hasten to say that I enjoyed "Shelby's Addendum" a great deal. This game is well written. The plot is great, there's a bit of horror (but nothing overboard), the characters are well-developed (including the player's character, which is unusual in IF but handled beautifully here), and the room descriptions and scenery descriptions are vivid and consistently of the highest quality. The "cut scenes" (areas of long text where various central characters interact) and the original storyline throughout made me think I was reading a top-notch science-fiction short story instead of playing a computer game. Did I mention that I think the prose is *really* good? I have to be sure and work that little tidbit into this paragraph somewhere.

There's an undertone of ecological (ir)responsibility in the game, but the player is not really "hit over the head" with any kind of great theme or moral message. One does get a glimpse into how far a man might go to regain that which he has lost, and a more convincing NPC than Barclay I have not seen in an interactive fiction game for some time. There is plenty of material here for your philosophical brain cells to chew on, as well as a good amount of technical descriptions and other "futuristic" science. The game logic is consistent all the way through, and everything is eminently believable. The author has certainly created a seamless experience as far as I am concerned.

However, many players will be turned off by the puzzles. I know that after several hours of extreme frustration when Shelby first came out, I was unable to survive the 100-turn limit and put the game away for another day. I just dragged it out today, actually, and pretty much lucked into the solution to that first puzzle. Once you have managed to locate the wall safe, however, the rest of the steps needed to preserve Shelby's physical integrity should be easier. However, this is only the first of several major frustrations you will encounter. The only word of advice I can give to players is examine EVERYTHING. And I mean everything. If a noun is mentioned in a room description, you had better look at it or you may well miss something crucial. While I always have been and remain a great advocate of the rule that "if a noun is used in a room description, the player should be able to examine it", I believe that the author has gone a bit too far in making the player search for important objects and other pieces of information in unlikely places.

In summary, "The Light: Shelby's Addendum" is not going to make my list of the top three interactive fiction games of the year, because frankly it wasn't that much fun to play, what with the puzzles being such a mess. However, it rates number one for 1996 in quality of writing, characterization, story, and plot. This is a game which begs to be *read*. This is a game which could have been published as a short story. This is a game which, if you can get past the first few frustrations, will reward you amply. I've not played any of Colm's other games; (he mentions two in the accompanying text file), but I would sure like to read some of his fiction -- because his instincts as a writer are right on the money. Some better puzzles and a bit less random searching, and this would be one of the best games ever to come down the pipe. As it stands, "Shelby" is much like a lighthouse itself -- brief periods of dazzling illumination punctuated by deep darkness. But the light pierces, straight and true. Give this one a chance, folks.

Also, I have to give a good review to any game which implements a full bottle of the finest liquid refreshment on Earth, Guinness Extra Stout. Brought a tear to my eye, it did. The only thing I regretted was that there was only one bottle. :)