Theatre (IF)

Brendon Wyber, for Cave Rock Software. 1995. Version 2.


At the time that Brendon Wyber wrote this in 1995, a lot of the IF that I know and love simply did not exist and another amount had already come and been superceded by the gaming boom of the nineties. From what I know of the history of the genre, this was sort of the end of a dead zone between when the largely hobbyist structure it now enjoys came to be and the commercial version that used to be had faded. Adventure games had become graphical, including franchises that had started out as text only. This would have been a couple of years after Myst.

I am digressing, though. Wyber's Theatre is obstensibly horror. By this I mean that it uses a lot of horror trophes and ideas but rarely comes across as very scary or terrifying (the mannequins, however, made me really, really nervous). And that, simply said, is one-half of the only real complaints I have about the game (the other half in a moment). On every other level this game is solid and is well worth playing.

After a short prologue run of mostly hand-held scenes, you find yourself stuck in an old abandoned theatre. The glory of its past is faded and now, in this creaky old building with its dusty prop rooms and antiquated posters of a previous century, you are stuck until you can find a way out. You go off in search of a phone and some unsettling stuff occurs, including a few places where the architecture feels notably non-euclidean.

The horror blends together equal parts Hammer Studios and H.P. Lovecraft, without really standing in any either sub-genre. The writing rarely impresses, and tends to run full-tilt in the adequate rank. It gets the job done. It helps to set enough of a mood for the game to be enjoyable, but not so much to make you feel like you are in a horror game. Sticking to a single sort of horror would have helped, but the text works enough not to nitpick it all day.

The quest underneath the horror, the skeleton (no pun intended) of a story that is framed by tone and descriptions, is surprisingly old school. While this could have been something of a bad thing, it worked for me. Maybe I was just in a good, old fashioned "find the key, collect the orbs" sort of quest. It has an ironic freshness in its brevity. It does smack of straight gamism in places, though, the sort that would make the key to the red door playing a red flute.

The solidity of the puzzles and game world is surprising thourough. With maybe some slight exceptions, the puzzles tend to be products of their context. You move and use objects in a way that makes real world sense. While some puzzles require a little back and forth and a bit of a leap of faith mixed with experimentation, most puzzles are solvable by getting into the mood of the game. There are some syntax traps requiring a quasi-narrow precision to the words chosen, but in the few cases I can think of the word choice simply would not make any sense any other way. There is at least two non-sequitors, where an action leads to a preferred, but moderately unconnected outcome. The one I thought was quite effective in the story. The other I am still confused as to what it implied. Overall strong parser of the philosophy that there is no reason to make "look at/through" and "search" different words and with only a few, and nearly random, glitches.

There a few hidden paths and a few secret doors. It is fitting to the genre and none of them are so hidden that they require complete leaps of faith.

The end comes abruptly. The quest has just started getting full footing and suddenly it goes to the IF equivalent of a cut scene and one last couple of rooms with no turning back. At this time you have explored just about every portion of the theatre, sure, but it just seems that somehow it could have all tied back together. It feels like it is missing some final thread that could have made it feel like a game about haunted theatre instead of a game set around a haunted theatre. This, of course, is the other half of my complaints.

To add to it, the last couple of puzzles are notably weaker and are lacking the rationale the earlier puzzles are imbued with.

You have a largely solid game, with some old school appeal, and strong puzzle design and a consistent level design. You have a setting that is creepy enough, as well as naturally lending itself to a self-contained game. You have enough charming quirks in the game world, as well as some intriguing, if not frightening, random events of noises in the distance and doors slamming shut behind you. In other words, Theatre is a game worth playing.

Final Scores

(0-100, 50 = Average)

Interactive: 91

Fiction: 65

Reviewer's Tilt: 93

Final Average: 83


How I Did

Excellent, I suppose. Solved a bunch of stuff, got full score (not sure if less than full is possible) after about six hours of playing. Took me a lot of turns, though, because of one oversight that I eventually corrected. There is one item that I am not sure about its usefulness, and I admit it might have been a red herring.

Hints, Suggestions and Mild Spoilers (for what they are worth

In a couple of places you can most definitely use up something, or lose something, you will need later. Caution is advised.

This game awards the "look" command. Look at things a good bit. A couple of puzzles that do not seem to make sense will actually be real simple if you look at the right item.

This game also awards thinking of yourself as standing in an actual theatre. A few solutions make the most sense if you picture being an actual person interacting with things around you.

Secret doors and paths happen in this game. In a few places there are paths that are obviously there but are blocked. Of the two, the secret doors tend to involve a "look at x, open/push y" sort of scenario. The blocked paths are more complicated, and require some back and forth movement. While the secret paths are available from near the beginning, the blocked paths may take a while to work through.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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