T.I.M.E. Stories: Madame
Teaching Time: 20 mins
Playing Time: 90 mins per session
Setup Time: 20 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Recommended: Not really, but you're committed by now.
Solo Play Review
So T.I.M.E. Stories: Madame is the final scenario in what is now termed the ‘white’ series of T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios, as opposed to what will be the new ‘blue’ series. As such its tough to review this like a normal scenario, since there is the basic scenario as a stand alone, its place in the cycle and the fact that we now have the whole series to look back on. So I’m going to essentially do this review in three parts, the middle bit will be jammed with spoilers so I’ll signal that clearly but the first and last sections should be freely readable.
So first of all, the scenario on its own. Madame has quite a few oddities over most modules which have upset a few players but do make a certain sense when viewed objectively. On a minor note it is very much a game about who you are not what you do or have, represented by your receptacles having nobility and affiliations, which actually works quite well and is thematic to the world of what little I know of 17th century French court life. The mechanic that is more controversial is the fact that each run in this module comes with only about 4 TU at the start of the game, but it does allow you to retain far more cards than the usual T.I.M.E. stories module. The upshot of this is three fold, firstly it means you can essentially just play though each location on its own since the TU cost of changing locations is prohibitive, secondly and based on that first point the module does feel quite bitty until you get your head around it and thirdly that certain in-game time penalties (which you can avoid, but in ways that are not instantly obvious) can be crippling to a play through. Objectively it’s a good idea as a mechanic, it means that the main puzzle of the game can be open very early on, and even have stages that players can go back to, but that players will not be able to complete it until they’ve delved into a lot more of the game. In fact Madame is almost the only T.I.M.E. Stories module that I had totally exhausted on my first run because it genuinely both allowed and rewarded searching every corner, which is a very good thing. However, Madame is weird for a T.I.M.E. Stories module, almost everything you find is permanent or semi-permanent, very few map reveals are done and TUs are only important one task at a time, it forces us to go against the instincts and lessons learnt by all the other T.I.M.E. Stories modules, which is quite upsetting. I think this disjuncture from the series is the source of a lot of the online ire that this module has suffered (at least one of the sources, more on the other below) because on its own its actually a pretty good T.I.M.E. Stories module, atmospheric, complex and engaging. The big problem is that you really can’t view this one on its own. A lot of the T.I.M.E. Stories modules hint at or mention the larger story, this one screams it at you, if you walk away once you complete the module itself its pretty good, but the game asks you not to. I’m going to launch into spoilers in the next paragraph, so I’ll just conclude for those skipping spoilers, Madame is a good scenario on its own, but in the overall arc it’s a pretty terrible one. Sorry that I can’t explain better than that, but I’ll see you after the next paragraph for the series overview.
Firstly, Madame requires you to be holding seven glowing cubes at the start of the game to complete it, so that’s Asylum, Prophecy, Mask, Brotherhood and Lumens as a minimum. At the end you use all of your cubes to enter an online code through a QR code and suffer what is probably one of the greatest disappointments of your life so far. I’m not going to super spoiler things but the thing between the agency, the consortium, the Eloi and the Syaans, not resolved. The thing with green goo, not resolved. That crazy old man who asks you to meet him in other times, not resolved. What the agency is for, it doing its basic job, why the anomalies ever happened, essentially nothing. Now this is a four-year long series that players have to have invested in the range of £200 to have reached this point on and sunk upwards of 50 hours playtime into. I hate the idea that game designers or developers owe something beyond the game or have a responsibility beyond the provision of a product, but I’m not exaggerating when I say the final ending made me angry. I wasn’t expecting much and had read what it was online but still the final experience of seeing it made my blood boil. In addition, it needs a QR code reader, which I do not understand as a Space Cowboys requirement, I know its old school but what’s wrong with just writing out a website for people to type in if they don’t have a QR code reader? Previous QR codes have offered a bit of extra juice, but this one ‘answers’ the question of why you’ve been hoarding cards for four years and obsessively re-playing modules just in case there was a cube hidden in there somewhere. Not only that but it’s the first QR code to be an extension of an in-game puzzle so its very much needed. The thing is, it really takes the drama out of a climactic ending. I didn’t have a QR code reader so had to download one, then couldn’t get it to scan, then needed to fiddle with my missing the right order. Incidentally, the puzzle itself is not well done, it is both unclear which card from the final base is to be included in the code and also there are two cards with nine lit sides, which is annoying. Personally, it totally takes me out of the immersion. In short, the series arc ending in Madame is utterly unsatisfying and it honestly ruins what I found to be a generally satisfying scenario. So, spoiler over.
Now we can see the T.I.M.E. stories series in retrospect. It was talked of as a system to tell a range of stories, possibly an experiment of sorts and it looks like its failings and successes have taught Space Cowboys something for the future. The two biggest failings of the series, I would suggest, were its forced genre changes and disappointing overall arc. If you wanted to follow the whole series you had to like an insane range of genre themes and if even one of the range really upset you then a good six or so hours of unpleasant times were headed your way. By making the blue range totally stand alone this problem should be alleviated. Additionally, the base set was extremely poor value for one module, making it hard to judge each section on its own merits, again the new system should remove this problem. However, I for one picked up this series because I admired its ambition and was curious about its intent. Would I have even looked at it if it were simply a series of unconnected scenarios? Honestly probably not, and I don’t know if I’ll follow into the blue series.
So, has T.I.M.E. Stories succeeded as an experiment? Not really, its been up and down and never really justified that base set. Its failed badly enough that Space Cowboys have visibly jettisoned the concept for the ongoing run. Has it failed so badly that I would recommend others to avoid it? Probably yes, unless you happen to be a very specific sort of gamer or group its unlikely that the overall series taken as a £300 box set would please you. Has it failed badly enough that I regret playing it? Honestly, no. Looking back over the series its flaws fade out and I remember some good, long hours of playing and story building. I’m writing this review less than 12 hours after this series made me the most angry I’ve been in a long time and already my feelings towards it are overall of fondness. My best analogy is that its like the friend who is bad for you, but they’re a friend so you’re stuck with them. Would I advise anyone to start the T.I.M.E. Stories series? No. Would I give up my experience with it? No. Is that a weird and not useful paradox coming from a review? Absolutely. Sorry for that. Possibly I just think of myself as an unusual category of gamer. Maybe there are more of us about than I thought.