We love a good pun, so upon being asked to review a game running with a pun on a 1900s anti-war book, we jumped at the chance.
Norman’s Great Illusion is a pixel art visual novel with overtly political themes. The developers bill it as an attempt to talk about people who ‘allow the coming to power of forces that have diametrically opposed their principles and goals’. That’s a lofty ambition.
At this point, you might be thinking sure, but what about the game? What do you actually do?
Every day begins with waking up in a 2D representation of a house. In your pants. You then get dressed and settle down and talk with your wife and daughter over breakfast.
This is followed by the drive to work, which involves stopping a meter, very much in the style of retro golf games. Fail to stop the meter in the desired area and you can end up wrecking your car, costing yourself a lot of money. Quite frankly, we’re not sure why this section exists. It appears to be here to give the visual novel a bit of ‘gameplay’, but it’s really just incredibly tedious. More importantly, it doesn’t feel anything like driving. Stopping a meter feels right in a golf game like you’re swinging the club and landing a sweet spot. It doesn’t feel right for driving at all.
Then you get to work and do your job. Your job is to answer as many sums in a quick a timeframe as possible. The more answered correctly, the more you get paid. You must answer via an annoying keypad, which makes this part of the game super annoying. Being generous, you could say this is part of the game’s message – working with unsuited equipment.
What we can’t be generous with is the fact that the division sign shows as a colon symbol when playing in portable mode. Sloppy. The sums also don’t quite work within the context of the game. They’re not tedious or boring – they come at you quick enough to create a sense of urgency and pressure. You never feel like you’re living a life of drudgery like the main character supposedly does.
After work, you drive home again and maybe answer a question. One scenario we encountered asked if we’d assist police if we saw a man running from them. These decisions should be a moral quandary. They should make you think. They didn’t, though, and all because we didn’t care.
To explain, let’s take another game that has done similar things really well. In Papers, Please you play a border crossing agent. You never make quite enough money to survive, so you’re often willing to accept bribes and other favours to let people pass. But if you accept a bribe from a shifty character, you could end up letting someone through who blows up the entire place. It’s brilliant. It’s mechanics and theme mesh perfectly and your decisions really feel like they matter. You always want to extend your playtime and survive, and Papers, Please brilliant subverts that to make you morally compromised.
In Norman’s Great Illusion, the theme and the gameplay are completely separate. They don’t inform or strengthen each other. It’s strange because there are missed opportunities. You sit down with your family twice every day. There were opportunities to grow those characters and then force you to make choices around them. But the game generally doesn’t do that.
The choices that I made (I don’t think I’ve seen all of them) mainly revolved around factory strikes, co-workers and police. The factory is never shown, and it doesn’t really introduce you to your co-workers. I don’t care about them, because I’m not really introduced to them until I need to make a decision.
In fact, we’ve got to the main problem with this visual novel. Sure, the gameplay is terrible. Sure, you have a huge house and almost none of it is interactive. It’s a visual novel, and fans of the genre can overlook that. More difficult to overlook is sloppy writing. Characters that don’t really feel like people. The wife only really talks in blunt terms about what she heard on the radio. A real ambiguity in setting. Even the endings only offer two or three sentences. It’s all woefully underdeveloped.
In one ending for this game, you join the Marxists and start a communist society. But if Marx thought property was theft, I’d hate to see what he thought of charging a fiver for this dreck.