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The Tesliss Equation Reviews
Author: GoblinBoy
Date: 2012
TADS


Reviewed by DeusExLibris


Plot
In The Tesliss Equation the PC is a student who finds himself enmeshed in a series of weird events (mostly involving beautiful women hurling themselves at him) with no clear idea of what's going on. If that summary sounds a little familiar, it's because it also applies to 2010's Meteor. The two games share a lot of similarities, including specific plot elements, which I'll talk about shortly. However, the major differences lie in the execution of the plot.

One of the criticisms I levelled against Meteor was that its sandbox-ish format coupled with the lack of obvious plot direction, made playing it a somewhat aimless experience. The PC meanders through the four days that the game covers, having sex with women for no obvious reason other than the fact he can. By contrast, Tesliss Equation places the PC in a more closely-controlled and restricted environment. The game takes place over the course of a single day (as far as the player is concerned anyway), and rather than being allowed to wander wherever he likes, the PC's course is rigidly scheduled. Additionally, the PC's behaviour is explained by the fact that several of the NPCs are subtly (and not so subtly) trying to encourage him to have sex. The question then becomes whether or not the PC will succumb to their temptations (something I suggested would have made Meteor more interesting).

The revelation of what's really going on also differs, since it comes about halfway through Tesliss Equation, rather than at the very end. It's also much less of a surprise, partly because Tesliss Equation's central conceit is a more common fictional trope than Meteor's was (it's even been used in AIF a few times, including by GoblinBoy), but mostly because it's more obviously foreshadowed, particularly by the comic books the PC finds everywhere. The placement of the revelation in the middle of the game also has the effect of dividing it into two distinct parts. These two parts are very different in tone and content, and I initially found the jump between them to be quite jarring. However, replaying the game several times has had the effect of smoothing over the transition in my mind.

As I mentioned earlier, Tesliss Equation also reuses a number of specific plot elements from Meteor, which I suspect is deliberate. The main one is the concept of the player as an ingame entity that possesses the PC and controls his actions, which is central to the explanation of both plots. The intention seems to be to build a bridge between the world of Meteor (where it is implied that the school section of Tesliss Equation takes place) and Ereos (via the presence of the goddess Melissandre from Final Sacrifice). I'm not sure what the value of doing this is, other than as a shout-out to GoblinBoy's long-time fans. It's also somewhat confused by the fact that Jenny, who appears as a character in both Meteor and the school section of Tesliss Equation, is then introduced as a different character in the 'real' section of Tesliss Equation (all three use the same character model). The only effect this had for me was to make the scene where Rocket reveals her lesbian experimentation with the 'Jenny' character seem like a copy of the scene in Meteor where Jenny reveals her lesbian experimentation with Ellie, which diminished its impact.
Another parallel between Tesliss Equation and Meteor is that in both games the 'best' ending can be attained by declining most of the sex scenes. The difference is that the 'best' ending in Meteor is somewhat subjective for AIF (the PC and Anna are in love), but in Tesliss Equation it's completely unambiguous, especially for a GoblinBoy game (the PC is in love with not one, but three beautiful women, and they live happily ever after in a ménage a quatre).

It's also interesting to contrast Tesliss Equation with GoblinBoy's previous game, GOP3. In that game, the idea that women exist solely to provide sexual pleasure (usually to men) is made as explicit as it has ever been in AIF. A similar theme runs through Tesliss Equation, with various characters telling the PC that if a woman wears revealing clothing it is because she wants to be looked at by men, and that therefore the man is justified in aggressively pursuing her (a variation on the "she was asking for it" myth). What makes this interesting is that, unlike GOP3 and to a lesser extent some of GoblinBoy's other games, it's not the protagonists espousing this view, but the villains. However, this probably doesn't represent a change in GoblinBoy's depiction of women given that the heroic female lead (Kitty Nova) wears armour that is so skimpy that it has virtually no protective value.

Considered in isolation, the plot of Tesliss Equation is better than the plot of Meteor. It's better executed, more focused, and all of the minor inconsistencies that bugged me about Meteor are explained or removed. Even with the jump between the two halves of Tesliss Equation, the game forms a coherent whole. The problem is that all of the direct and indirect references to Meteor meant that I found it difficult to consider Tesliss Equation in isolation and was constantly comparing it to Meteor instead. I'm not sure what purpose GoblinBoy meant this self-referentiality to serve, but in my case the comparison just emphasised the areas in which Tesliss Equation is inferior to Meteor (most notably in the amount of freedom it allows the player).7.5/10

Characters
Tesliss Equation features a smaller cast of characters than most of GoblinBoy's full release games and, more importantly, it also offers the PC fewer different situations in which to interact with them. Additionally, none of the characters in the first half of the game are 'real', so by design they can't be very deep characters, or the PC would have no chance to see through the illusion.

Because of this, most of the characterization comes either via cut-scene or the 'think about' action. It's less involving for the player to find out about Emily and Rowena by reading walls of text rather than by interacting with them (although it is more convenient for both player and author). The player then has to repeat that process with Kitty and Rocket in the second half of the game and read similar cut scenes about different characters. This division is possibly why I didn't find either of them to be particularly compelling characters on the same level as, for example, Anna and Kim (despite the parallels).

Oddly, the character that made the most impression on me was Lyra. The main reason being the scene that occurs when the PC sees through her illusion and defeats her as Jessica. It perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet ambivalence that Hiro and Lyra feel for each other. Sadly, it's not referred to in the one interactive scene that the player gets with Lyra, which plays out the same no matter what. The only other NPC who gets a 'big' scene of that nature is Robert/Groldar, who cements his place as an irredeemable villain by leading an attempted gang rape of Rowena in order to get the PC to reveal the formula.

Hiro himself is a more likeable protagonist than is typical of GoblinBoy's full-size games. For instance, unless the player actively pushes him in that direction, he's not obsessed with sex. When Melissandre offers him guilt-free sex that no one will ever know about, his first reaction is to say "I'll know." It's difficult to imagine James from Meteor or SD3's PC being so moral. All of which made it a lot easier for me to empathise with him. However, it's somewhat ironic that Hiro isn't as well implemented as his high school alter ego, meaning that he's the less believable of the two characters.

It's a highly subjective area, but I wasn't a huge fan of the character designs. Emily and Rowena are the best, being attractive in a realistic, girl next door kind of way, although the palette that GoblinBoy used is oddly muted compared to his previous games. However, as Kitty and Rocket I found them to be too cartoon-like. The PC's school persona is a little unbelievable as well, since he looks too old to be at high school and too buff to be the target of bullies. Of course, that could just be because the school is an illusion, but that doesn't explain why Emily and Rowena are more believable as high schoolers.7/10

Writing
As usual, GoblinBoy's writing is good. The fact that the school is a smaller environment than most of his games means that each room can receive more attention and the result is better implemented descriptions. This helps the world to feel more real, although of course it isn't. GoblinBoy also does a good job of creating a sense of eerie menace. Even if the player doesn't know what's going on, he still gets the sense the Miss Smith, Jessica and company have sinister intentions.

I wasn't quite so impressed with the second half of the game, although that might be because the world is mostly identical tunnels. I also found it hard to get a handle on what the gameworld was about. As depicted in the comic books, it seems like a typical fantasy world, except for the fact that Kitty and Rocket have guns. The PC's memories of Kitty and Rocket in the second half of the game add various other science-fiction elements, such as zero gravity and space stations. Apart from an off-hand reference to a multiverse, this doesn't get any explanation. Indeed, it actually creates an inconsistency if Groldar uses the formula. Why do Hiro, Kitty and Rocket feel the need to repopulate the world single-handed (even to the extent of Hiro having sex with his own daughters) if there are other worlds they could get help from?

As with Hiro, it's ironic that in its own way the 'real' world is almost as unbelievable as the illusion the PC is initially trapped in. I could easily imagine that in the real 'real' world, Emily, Rowena and the PC are hiding out in the woods after having murdered Robert. Another issue is the fact that, like GOP3, the writing in Tesliss Equation is overly reliant on the presence of graphics. If you play the non-graphical version (as I did over the holidays due to the presence of relatives) the writing doesn't seem sufficient to carry the game by itself. To reinforce that dependence, there is also at least one instance where the graphics contain information that the text does not, meaning anyone playing the non-graphical version is at a disadvantage.6.5/10

Gameplay
Depending on your personal preferences, Tesliss Equation's gameplay could be described as either streamlined or pared down. This continues a trend towards decreased levels of interactivity and player freedom in GoblinBoy's recent games. Given the extreme level of both in SD3 (and the amount of work that must have been required to implement that) it's only natural that he should try to scale things back to more realistic levels. But with GOP3 and now Tesliss Equation, he's starting to go too far in the other direction in my opinion.
In the first half of Tesliss Equation, the player almost never has cause to interact with the gameworld on their own initiative in any meaningful way. Outside of the sex scenes, the player's input is restricted to obeying the game's prompts to perform a particular action or go to a certain location (not that they can go anywhere else), reading the ensuing cut scene and possibly getting to pick from whatever options are provided. One effect of this is that it's easy to overlook the few occasions when the PC can do something else, because the player has been conditioned not to expect such opportunities. The player does get to be more active in the second half of the game, which contains the game's only traditional puzzle, but the combat mechanics get a little repetitive.

Whether such minimalism is a good or a bad thing will depend on the tastes of the individual player. On the plus side, there is never any risk of the player becoming frustrated because they don't know what to do next or the correct word to do it. Additionally, it's much easier to explore all the content than it would be if the game was as open as SD3 or Meteor. On the other hand, to me Tesliss Equation feels more like a visual novel than a text adventure. With one obvious exception, Tesliss Equation doesn't really need a text parser because the options available to the player are made explicit, either via menus or the suggestions of the NPCs and narrator. The actual gameplay takes place at a more 'meta' level as the player tries to work out which choices trigger what content. Although that's interesting and challenging, the fact that the player so rarely has to put themselves in the PC's shoes limits how involved in the game the player feels, and thus hinders immersion in my opinion.

The sex scenes themselves are standard GoblinBoy fare in terms of both their quality (which is good) and subject matter. However, although I found them to be enjoyable, none of them really stick out in my memory. I think that's in part because the major scenes don't receive a great deal of build-up, especially compared to some of GoblinBoy's other games. Emily is presented as the great love of the PC's life, but the player only gets to interact with her in a couple of highly circumscribed scenes. Likewise, Kitty is described as the great love of Hiro's life, but they have basically no onscreen romantic interaction at all. The one scene that I think does get adequate build up (at least if the player chooses the correct options) is Lyra and Hiro. Unfortunately the scene itself is disappointingly bland (probably a function of the fact that with or without the build-up it plays out the same).

Additionally, the atmosphere of dreamlike unreality that pervades the first half of the game adversely affected my suspension of disbelief. It's clear that the scenes aren't really happening, at least in the form that the player is experiencing them, so it's hard to feel too invested in what happens. That effect is amplified by the fact that for the most part, the player doesn't have to do very much to get the scenes, as they're delivered rather that achieved.7/10

Technical
Rather unusually for a GoblinBoy game, I noticed a significant number of bugs and other errors in Tesliss Equation. Most of these are of a minor character, such as continuity errors, or an exit being omitted from a room description. None of these bugs caused me more than very mild inconvenience, but I was left with the overall impression that Tesliss Equation is the least polished game that GoblinBoy has released for some time, perhaps due to a desire to get it released before Christmas.

GoblinBoy added a few new commands for this game, although some of them ('flirt' and 'compliment') have appeared in previous games under different guises. Disappointingly, flirting or complimenting the female characters seldom has more than cosmetic effects. The only truly new command is 'think about', although even there you could argue that it's very similar to daydreaming in SD3. However, it does serve a more important purpose in this game by providing a source of characterization that Tesliss Equation's narrower focus would otherwise disallow.
On top of that, there are several combat mechanics in use. The boxing match is the most interesting, since it gives the player a range of possible actions to choose from. However, unless you accept Jessica's help there are no clues to suggest which option you should pick, meaning that winning the boxing match honestly is largely a matter of luck (or liberal use of the undo command if you're me). However, given that the PC (or, to be more accurate, the PC's alter ego) is supposedly a nerd with no real fighting skills, you could argue that that realistically reflects his chances.

The combat in the second half of the game is more simplistic, with the player's choices restricted to attacking or running away. That can get repetitive since there are a large number of monsters that the PC needs to defeat, and therefore the player has to repeat the same commands a large number of times. The only tactics I could discover were of the metagame variety.7.5/10
Final ThoughtsEarlier I menioned some of the similarities between Tesliss Equation and Meteor. The other GoblinBoy game that Tesliss Equation reminds me of is Camping Trip. Both games explicitly direct the PC's course through the plot. The difference is that in Camping Trip that was a result of GoblinBoy's relative lack of experience as an author and a consequent lack of confidence in allowing the player too much freedom. By contrast, in Tesliss Equation that lack of freedom is a conscious design choice made to keep the author's workload to a manageable level (although ironically Tesliss Equation is the largest game GoblinBoy has ever released, thanks to the more one thousand pictures).

How well Tesliss Equation succeeds depends largely on the individual tastes of the player. I've seen various people state that it's the best game GoblinBoy has produced. I can readily believe that some people would feel that way, as the approach that GoblinBoy has chosen has a number of advantages. The player is never left stumbling about, trying to work out what command they are supposed to use to perform a particular action. Consequently, the plot and the sex proceed smoothly, without any frustration for the player. Additionally, Tesliss Equation lacks the nasty, or at least ambivalent, edge of many of GoblinBoy's previous games. Hiro is a genuine hero, rather than a selfish sex-obsessed teenager.
Unfortunately, the side effect of this approach is that it minimises many of the elements that most interest me about interactive fiction, in particular player freedom and immersion. Don't get me wrong, Tesliss Equation is undoubtedly a good game, but for me it's simply not in the same league as Meteor or SD3. The latter felt like inspired works, while Tesliss Equation feels… manufactured for lack of a better term. A result of the author making a calculated decision rather than simply following his imagination. I realise that it's unfair of me to compare Tesliss Equation to Meteor or SD3, since it's clearly not intended to be on the same scale as those two games. However, GoblinBoy invites the comparison by linking Tesliss Equation to Meteor the way that he does.


Overall, the release of Tesliss Equation has left me with a feeling of disappointment. Not at the game itself, which I still found enjoyable despite my criticisms. However, I think Tesliss Equation is proof positive that we're never going to see a game as epic as SD3 again. In the long-term that's probably a good thing, since games of that scale are unachievable by most authors and unsustainable by the others. But the selfish part of me can't help feeling disappointed that the Age of Wonders has passed.7.5/10


Overall score = 72%


Reviews should be considered copyrighted by their respective authors.