1893: A World’s Fair Mystery review
(1893 can be purchased for $19.99 plus S&H at the Illuminated Lantern website.)
Traveling is not an opportunity I have had much in my lifetime. Other than visiting the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most famous battle ever on American soil, I really haven't been to many famous places; time and money haven't afforded me that luxury. Even if I had an unlimited budget, however, there are some places I won't ever be able to visit because they exist in a time long since passed.
How, then, can one hope to tour the great Chicago World's Fair? Barring the time machine, which I'm told will probably not be invented in my lifetime, we have adventure games as our sole recourse for truly experiencing famous locations of the past. I suppose you could read a history book, look at the photos; but that relegates the experience to a distanced, bystander level. Only an adventure game can allow the player to actually take part in such a historically significant event.
Peter Nepstad, a Chicago native who lives within walking distance of the site of the 1893 World's Fair, has spent the better portion of the last four years of his life designing a game that would bring every element of the World's Fair to the gamer; not in a first-person graphical format, as the psuedo-historical Cryo adventures utilized, but rather a text adventure, with a parser interface and supplemental authentic photographs. Injected into the non-fiction World's Fair environment is a fictional jewel theft storyline. The end result, 1893: A World's Fair Mystery, is fascinating, entertaining, deviously educational, and simply one of the most fantastic adventure games I have ever played, text or otherwise.
The story casts you as a Chicago detective, called to the scene of the World's Fair to investigate a large-scale diamond theft. Included in your case dossier is a crime-scene note, containing clues to locate all the diamonds. Your goal, obviously, is to recover the diamonds; yet 1893 is about so much more than that. If all you do is follow a walkthrough to uncover the diamonds in the quickest possible manner, you have spoiled the possibilities of the game in a way few games can be spoiled, for here is an opportunity to explore fully one of the most spectacular settings in modern world history.
To complete 1893 successfully, you'll need proper detective skills to piece together the clues. You'll also need map-following skills; the World's Fair is an immense and confusing place, and thankfully Nepstad is courteous enough to include an authentic World's Fair Guidebook, complete with historical background and ground maps. Without these maps, you will be lost beyond belief (as, indeed, you would have been in 1893 at the real fairgrounds without a map). Beyond these skills, you'll have to have good conversational instinct, as winning the trust of many characters is crucial to your mission. You'll also need to pay attention to textual detail; inventory collection and puzzle-solving is essential, and the items you'll need are not found in the photographs.
Above all, you must have the toleration for lots and lots of reading. This is not a game for those with short attention spans; it is a game for those who enjoy filling their imagination with images of the things they are reading about. The early stage of the game takes you on an extensive tour of the main portion of the fairgrounds; it is very easy to tune out at this point as you are bombarded with historical information (albeit skillfully written and energetic historical information). Once you have completed the tour (which is optional), the exploration begins. At this point the game is almost completely non-linear. A few preordained actions will take place at various times, but the entire fair is open to you at all times, and the diamonds can be recovered in any order. Again, just like if you were really there.
The detail written into the text is just staggering; certainly the game contains more text than many history textbooks. Beyond that, it's actually written well, with attention to detail and a reasonable amount of humor and life, thereby increasing the Post Mortem mystery of how a professional company can fail so miserably to produce decent dialogue in a game with less than 1% of the text of 1893...but I digress. If you are able to stomach the extensive reading, and if your imagination can cooperate, you will instantly be absorbed by the wonder of the World's Fair.
Just as Jonathan Boakes did in 2002, Peter Nepstad represents the spirit of adventure games. One man, working his life away on something as simple as a computer game, doing more research than most students will do in their entire college career, just to entertain? 1893 is joyously entertaining, with a well-told story and a well-captured spirit of wonder, but it is at the same time one of the most educational adventures since Pepper's Adventures in Time. The World's Fair was not just an American spirit rally; it was a microcosm of the global situation, the state of affairs of women and minorities, a symbol of the peak of the Progressive Era that would come crashing down with the advent of the first World War, and the irrepressible spirit of a city nearly destroyed by The Great Fire. I don't understand this because I've studied it in the course of my education; I understand this because in 1893 I sincerely experienced the World's Fair. I saw the ferris wheel, ate at the restaurants (eating is required at regular intervals, but you've got a nice spending allowance), and even took a piece of cheese from the largest cheese in the world. I spent well over twenty hours there, could have spent more. Not only did I solve a crime, I saw amazing sights that they'll probably still be talking about a hundred and ten years from now.
It is nearly a miracle that this sort of childlike wonder, which so many visually successful games completely fail to inspire, can be brought by a text adventure. In e-mail correspondence with Peter, he told me "I kept wanting to cut sections out of the game so I could finish it faster, but I just couldn't justify it. If I was going to do the World's Fair, then I was going to do it all. I just kept in mind a quote from Daniel Burnham, the planner and architect in charge of the Columbian Exposition: 'Make no small plans, for they have no magic to stir men's souls.'" 1893: A World's Fair Mystery is no small adventure; it is indeed stirring magic.
Chances like this, to really experience something as exciting as the 1893 World's Fair, are rare. Don't pass this up if you have the attention span.