The Legend of Lotus Spring
I was originally interested in this game as a result of reading a review, and deciding that it was a game that I could play with my daughters, aged 11 and 7. At that stage I knew nothing about its development background - my decision was made solely on the basis that it sounded like an engaging and gentle story, well suited to playing and discussing out loud. The cultural aspects were also something that attracted me, offering another dimension to the experience. Both of my daughters will sit and play games with me, some less gentle than others, so it seemed a potentially worthy purchase.
Having acquired the game, I found that it was developed by a body called Women Wise, which according to the game book was formed to encourage women to use and create new media with a female perspective. Their website further stated that the game was "designed with special attention to what research shows women look for in interface design, story and character creation, and visual treatments in software titles". This made me no more or less interested in playing the game, although I was intrigued as to what I might find in it that was particularly female oriented. I was also more interested to see how my daughters would respond to the game.
Given this background, I was mildly surprised to find that you play the game from the perspective of the Chinese Emperor Xian Feng, although the game book states that you are travelling with him, not that you are playing as him. The year is 1858 and according to Chinese legend, the Emperor loved and lived with a concubine whom he named Lotus Spring. They lived together in Lotus Haven within the Garden of Perfect Brightness, an 800 acre themed garden built by generations of Emperors outside the city of Beijing. However the dowager Empress became jealous and had Lotus Spring arrested and imprisoned on an island in the middle of the garden.
The game commences with the Emperor travelling to the island to find what has become of Lotus Spring, and his search is the thrust of the game. As you play, their love and life together is revealed, as are the detail and trappings of life in imperial China. Other Chinese legends are also scattered throughout the game. As you explore the garden, you interact with objects, solve gentle puzzles and trigger animations which generate pages in the Dream Diary of Lotus Spring. By completing the diary you will know the full story of Lotus Spring.
The game is played in the first person, although third person animations are triggered from time to time. The interface will be familiar to all gamers, consisting of a "smart" cursor through which you explore the garden and its buildings, and interact with the objects and scenes. The cursor is a small china doll, which my youngest daughter found appealing in itself. Occasionally it too will become animated and participate in a scene.
Movement is typically "point and click". You do not have 360 degree rotation in each scene (as in games like Zork Nemesis or Faust), nor can you pan up and down. From some scenes you might be able to "turn" in small incremental steps, in others you can only turn 180 degrees. On occasion, this can be confusing; the cursor will indicate you can turn left, and in fact you turn completely around. However it causes no great difficulty.
You can find your location within the garden at any time by accessing a map, and the china doll's shoulder bag functions as your inventory. You can also access information about objects you find in the garden's buildings, which will assist your search for the answers you are looking for. These are easily accessed, each by a single specific key.
Whenever information is provided to you, or parts of the story are completed by filling a page in the Dream Diary, you can either read the information, or click an icon to have it read to you.
In the end, it was my 7 year old daughter, Clare, who played the game with me. I did not play without her - we played the whole game together. I did not start out to play that way, but settled into that regime for two reasons. One was that she enjoyed the game immensely, and I enjoyed the experience of playing and discussing it with her. The other was that without her, I would have lost interest.
To me, this game is more an interactive story book full of luscious and vibrant illustrations than it is a game. The visuals are certainly beautiful and full of intricate detail, and as befits a garden of beauty, they are accompanied by a quiet and tranquil soundtrack. However there is little game play, and I was not drawn into the story itself. Perhaps most tellingly, I did not find the garden an engaging enough place to simply walk around by myself. I enjoyed the solitude of Riven, and the historical discovery of Pompeii, and both those elements are present here. However for me, all the pieces didn't gell, and the predominantly passive nature of the game left me with an overall impression of looking into the garden from the other side of a wall.
The Garden of Perfect Brightness was however a delightful place to be with my daughter. At times you glimpse animals that you can follow and chase. You can pat birds, and feed peacocks and fish. You can float flower lanterns on the lake, play musical instruments and paint pictures. You can rummage through closets full of exotic clothes, rifle through jewellery boxes, and even unpack a five star picnic hamper on a large stone boat.
Many of the settings contain almost childlike elements - in one temple you can water 12 different plants, and each will bloom and be animated in a different way. Making them bloom is not essential to the plot; there is no real reason to do it other than you can. Clare said it was her favourite part, and we watered the flowers again and again. Watering them required the assistance of the china doll, which was an added bonus. We then matched the flower with the appropriate goddess, and worked out which goddess and flower corresponded to Clare's birthday (apricot). Of course, we then had to do it for all her friends.
There is even a wicked witch (the Empress) to give the place a bit of scary spice.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey with the valued assistance of Clare 2000.
All rights reserved.
IBM/Windows - Windows 95/98/NT, 166 Pentium (Pentium II preferred), 32Mb RAM, 10Mb free hard drive, 8x CD ROM (16x preferred), 640 x 480 display, 16 bit colour, Windows compatible sound card