Toeing the party line

Beyond Exile is Doug Shanahan’s adaptation of author Lawrence Johns’ epic poem, written in Quest. During most of the game, the player dons the role of Frank Glendover, continuing his philosophical and personal journey during the 1970’s which is said to have started out in Johns’ previous work Love and Hate. However, the game also puts the player into the shoes of such real-life characters such as convicted revolutionary Ilich Sanchez (“Carlos the Jackal“) as well as acclaimed poet/professor Billy Collins.

Beyond Exile screenshot

Beyond Exile is primarily a mouse-driven game, with most of the places’ and objects’ names and the required actions listed out in a neat little window on the right of the game window. The game’s text appears to have been copied directly from the book – the conversations between NPCs, the rather generalized object descriptions, even some of the game responses are rendered in double-spaced lines of free verse. The game is also quite puzzle-less, as there’s hardly a part where the player is required to solve out anything.

But then there’s puzzleless, and there’s nearly puzzleless, and then there’s this.

Setting the game text aside, Beyond Exile was, for me at least, a frustration. Not because of puzzles or gameplay mechanics, but because of the interface. There were several instances where I had to go through the different compass directions, cycling through the only 3 options available for the player – “Look at,” “Take,” and “Speak To” – just to see which of those would advance the plot. It even got to the point where I considered purchasing the book and reading it instead of going through all this hassle.

Throughout the game the protagonist had to travel to different parts of the world in order to learn and answer the burning questions inside his mind. Instead of employing textual descriptions, the author decided instead to use small images which bore highlights from those places. I would have loved to see verses describing the places as well, at least through the eyes of Frank, or whoever the player was at the time.

Beyond Exile had been made to be very faithful to the original poem – too faithful, in my opinion, to be truly interactive. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to stray away from the main theme, and not all of the places you visited as a player can be visited back. These minor additions would have lessened the burden of looking for the next “plot gatekeeper,” so to speak. For example, providing other minor NPCs (and not just Lamont the taxi driver) some speaking parts would have added to the realism – or at least, anything other than “He says nothing” would have been good.

What made me stick to playing the game was, inevitably, the philosophy. The plot pretty much resembles a James Bond movie, with a dash of the occult, but Frank Glendover is no Agent 007. He reminds me more of Miyamoto Musashi in the manga series Vagabond, but not as destructive.

Ultimately, adaptations are a mixed bag, and its success or failure will depend on not just how faithful the rendition is to the original work, but how effective the plot will be in the new medium, along with the many changes inherent within it. Beyond Exile, in its current IF form, is further proof why some authors prefer to let their work stay in its original medium – something always gets lost in the transition. If Lawrence Johns had been as involved in the making as much as Douglas Adams was during the Infocom days, it might have resulted in a more enjoyable experience.