Posted 13 January 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
As a musician who played poorly while auditioning for the king, rather than get a good seat in the orchestra pit, you are tossed into it. So begins Augmented Fourth; the PC in an out-of-control fall, listening to the dimwitted commentary of two guards reading the king's sentence ("Skip to the end, Rob. Poor fellow's goin' to hit the bottom soon."), and attempting to find something other than the floor that will slow you down. Not to worry, for when the landing arrives several turns later, the atmosphere has already been set for a comedic and musical cave romp.
In Augmented Fourth, you, a hapless trumpeter who failed an audition, must escape from the orchestra pit. Along the way, you discover the "odd" underground community of Nolava, meet some of its inhabitants, and decode its history. Despite a reliance on absurd and silly descriptions ("the fish grenade" springs to mind), breaking-the-fourth-wall humor, and IF in-jokes (typing Undress garners the reply: "Wrong game. Papoosen doesn't even have any interstates.") as its main motifs, the game is imaginative and entertaining. Several reference texts litter the game, providing clues for the puzzles and a well-developed backstory. The NPCs (fairly numerous) are the usual IF fare: not terribly interactive, yet responsive within obvious parameters. The game appears impossible to get into an unwinnable state; the puzzles are reasonably challenging and integrated. The story has multiple levels of detail. Taken all together with its interesting structure and themes (more on this later), the games is remarkably cohesive, providing an entertaining gaming experience...if you can forgive all the abuse the ducks, hamsters, fish, and armadillos take.
An augmented fourth, as Uri teaches us, is a musical term -- an interval of notes consisting of three whole tones. What does this mean to the game? Little, actually. But the brief musical education sets the tone -- and some of the background -- for the most interesting feature of this game: the musical spell system. Rather than just a standard cave crawl, typical IF conventions are modified (or should I say "augmented"?) by a musical spell system (functioning much like the old Infocom spell system) based around the player character's trumpet. Littered throughout the underground world are pieces of music that the PC must learn, and each of these musical spells helps further the quest. However, balance is struck since not all puzzles require the use of the musical system.
The game is sectioned into the typical three parts. The introduction sets the tone and premise immediately, as an absurdist comedy. The mid-game gives a sense of a large, expansive area with multiple puzzles to be solved. Multiple references and NPCs help provide clues that move you along, though the mid-game is a little directionless until you have seen several cut-scenes. The endgame feels inevitable, and how it is played echoes this. The ultimate ending comes through a series of decisions made in the proper order with no variation, which is slightly unsatisfying in term of game play. However, in terms of thematic structure, it is clear that it is the only ending possible.
Many games have come and gone with the same basic premise -- the escape from exile. All too often in IF, the premise quickly falls by the wayside as puzzles and escape become the main point of advancement. Uri sands the usual rough edges of IF storytelling, blending together well the backstory, the PC's motivation, and the solutions to the puzzles. The puzzles are not just obstacles to the story, they are part of the story. Occasional cut-scenes reveal the ongoing events surrounding King Goosen of Papoosen and his uneven rule. Rather than being episodes distinct from game play (the "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." effect) they are quite central in helping evolve the player's motivation. It becomes clear that the King, however stupid and absurd he is, is a tyrant. Escape from exile gradually shifts into a basis for political revolution.
This evolution occurs in the underground community of Nolava, self-described by the inhabitants as "odd." A wizard, clearly lonely (perhaps insane?), offers hope of escape but cautions the PC against it, referring the abusive power of the king. In fact, it appears Nolava's inhabitants are all in a self-imposed exile, withdrawing from the reach of the Papoosen monarchy. In exile, most have met some very unfortunate circumstances. While it becomes increasingly clear that the king wields his political authority haphazardly, the absence of such authority in Nolava has had only negative consequences.
This touches on the first of two central themes expressed in the game: the danger surrounding the lack of political authority. It speaks volumes that the PC must (in order to play the game) reject the notion of remaining in Nolava (a jumbled Avalon?) and joining the exiles. Joining the exiles cannot be an option for the game explores implications of political authority and its absence. This problem is expressed in the environment of Nolava. The fate of those outside the king's authority becomes increasingly apparent as the game progresses. The underground inhabitants are victims of tragedy or their own problems; none have favorable fortune. Anarchy seems to reign despite the attempt to order society. Two prominent NPCs who attempted to solve the problem by codifying rules each meet their own fate: the first is a victim of random circumstance, the other cannot seem to finish what he started. And as the cut scenes portray an increasingly arbitrary and autocratic king, the motivation of the PC becomes clear.
This first theme is tempered and explored with a second: the efficacy of music to render change, as expressed through the musical references and spell system. Music is not only a tool to solve the puzzles, it is also the solution to the political issues of the game. The opening crisis came to a point with the failed audition. With this failure the PC is cast into a chaotic world. Music then acts as the tool that advances and imposes order. The final scene brings all these themes together, for the most arbitrary act of the king is a direct attack on music itself. The power of music, and its role in political and personal development, comes together to reform the nature of authority.
The game's message is clear. There is a general fear of the absence of political authority and its chaotic implications. Music is given as a solution to this fear, delivered through ideas of self improvement (verified by the wizard's parting remarks). This may sound like a VH-1 commercial or a recent Meryl Streep movie, and indeed it echoes the types of ideas that link classical music with improved intelligence, forcing mothers to wonder why they didn't listen to more Mozart when they were pregnant. Can music, or music education, solve our problems? In the game it leads to meaningful reform, but perhaps this implication is overly optimistic.
Augmented Fourth is a solid game, surprisingly entertaining since it relies so heavily on well-tread IF turf. Though its structure, premises, types of humor, and themes are all fairly commonplace, it is well complemented by its level of detail. Personalized responses were generated for almost every combination of new verb or musical spell. Reading the source code to find missed responses was also entertaining. The only annoyance in the implementation was the book reference mode, designed to help the PC consult the game's multiple reference works; however, in light of the volume of reference material it was a timesaving addition. Overall, Augmented Fourth is an interesting and funny game, steeped in music and IF tradition. Nothing is radically new or revolutionary, except perhaps for the game's technical soundness, level of detail, and cohesiveness delivered in an imaginative form from a first-time author. While it will not challenge the form, it does handle some interesting themes in an entertaining package.
This article copyright © 2000, Eric Crahan