Review by Herr M. (2020-11-21)
Ignorance is bliss. This is especially true for children whose unspoilt imagination lets them view many details about everyday life as the most miraculous wonders. Missing the bigger picture, not understanding why things are the way they are leads to viewing anything that is beyond their grasp to believe in magic. And what is the best thing about magic? The excitement, eagerly waiting for that surprising twist. Anything seems to be possible to them, because they simply have not seen everything yet. On the other hand being a grown up it is sometimes hard to recall those early days and feel that special kind of excitement again. That is until an unexpected surprise comes along and throws you off course into unfamiliar territory again. One of those might just be The Impossible Bottle.
This piece of interactive fiction is all about the feelings mentioned above. As a six year old girl you roam around your parents house, shortly before a big event is about to take place: You are going to have some visitors! But the family is not ready yet, there are still a couple things to do in order to be prepared. And would not you be a good girl and help your parents? Or are you going to get sidetracked by one of those tempting distractions? Why bother with your boring duties like cleaning up your room when jumping on your bed will never get old? Because with the right set of mind even the most menial task can be exciting too!
And that is were the game’s excellent design comes into play. With a couple of really clever tricks and gimmicks it evokes a special kind of view were fantasy and reality are blending into each other. Its major feature relies on a very keen observation: Children are playing games in order to recreate and expand their world. So as far as they are concerned, who is to say that it cannot be the other way round? That reality is being recreated or expanded by playing with your toys? And that is the spell about fantasies: If you believe hard enough in them they might just come true.
This is were another strength of The Impossible Bottle comes into play. In order to be believable things must be convincing. As far as interactive fiction is concerned the credibility heavily relies on the actual implementation. How freely can you move around? Are you only limited to the plot essential actions? Is there anything going on without your input? Things like these, those small details that all too easily get neglected, are handled masterfully by the author. There are lots of activities you can do, which have nothing to do with advancing the plot. The game acknowledges many commands that seem rather trivial.
It is the little things like this that complete the bigger picture. Why bother with a standard rejection when you have another chance to make your characters more lively? There is a huge difference between “I cannot enter that.” and a “Dad says it's dangerous to get in there, because the machine could start. Then you'd get all dry.” It is that extra effort that certainly pays off: For one it improves your immersion and for two it is yet another chance to give your characters some depth by showing how they are ticking. This is what makes persons likable and their actions relatable.
Sadly there are times when things still might crumble a bit, when you might feel like a grumpy adult again. Like one of the puzzles which just takes a tad bit too much of lateral thinking. Or another one which takes just one step too much to finish and has a certain stress factor to it. Some might also say that the ending goes a bit overboard and delivers more background and explanation than would have been necessary. But this only slightly tarnishes the overall excellent impression.
Yet speaking of grumpy and more cynical: Since the game almost never outright tells you what is really real and what not, it leaves some room for interpretation. You can also take everything that happens at face value which lets the story take a far more darker and disturbing turn, like one of the more macabre episodes right out of The Twilight Zone. And on what higher praise could this review end than that it greatly stimulated this reviewers very own imagination too?
Review by Mr Creosote (2020-10-06)
As an adult, it is really hard to re-immerse oneself into a child's mind and write such a character in a work of fiction. On the other hand, having a child write a child character isn't exactly a super realistic option, either. That is why it is so common to find so many insufferable kids who are really not kids, but “small adults” or “kids through the eyes of adults” in the movies, on TV etc.
The Impossible Bottle therefore takes a bit of a risk on its premise. Although seemingly safe, placing itself into the light-hearted comedy with fantasy elements genre, it is told through the eyes of a six-year-old girl. The Taylors' visit is imminent. Mom is busy working in her study. Dad is cooking dinner… but he's admittedly also late on setting up the table etc. So he recruits his daughter to help. Beginning with the simple request of removing her toys from the ground, subsequently, more and more tasks pile up.
This is where the game shows its main narrative strength. Kids that age often begin to see themselves as “grown-up”. Whereas in situations of perceived danger, complexity etc., they will still fall back to their parents as safety anchors, in everyday life, they will see their parents as needing help or even vastly incompetent in many ways and see it as their own role to support them and set things right. They make a game out of this role reversal (Hollywood writers take note: it's still a game). Essentially, the complete game is a play on that.
There is, unfortunately, one small, but nevertheless major fault in how the narrative treats this, and that is the opening exchange between the girl and her father. She is asked to put away her toys and what the game offers is three fake choices of avoidance and excuses plus one of acceptance. Finally, acceptance is the only real option. As many parents will attest, however, the inevitability of such a task is anything but a given from a child's point of view. It is unfortunate that the game hurts its own credibility in what all players will see first by providing the one instance of an “adult view on kids” which later, it so easily avoids.
Accepting the premise of help being needed and the tasks given for granted, the game subsequently actually allows its player some small diversion. Although largely focussed on its intended solution path (the rooms of the house being surprisingly empty), what is there is actually implemented in a broad way. Everyday household items can be “misused” for purposes of playing. Some objects change their very nature by manipulation, such as the dinner table turning into a fort or the sofa being used as a safe space within surrounding lava floor. The changes in object description account for the protagonist's perception and perspective very well in this regard. The only complaint being that many more such “irrelevant” things and actions would have been a huge plus.
Puzzles originate very organically from the narrative premise as well. Real-world tasks need to be fulfilled, but the way to get there is based on fantasy and imagination. How does a child play with toy cars? Does it push the cars around doing motor sounds? Yes, that is what it looks like from the outside. But in the child's mind, so many more things are going on in that moment. Reflecting this, of course, the player gets to drive the fire truck. Explores a pirate ship. Rides a dinosaur. It's a real adventure of real imagination.
The game largely relies on one central gimmick in this regard, which is a sort of mirrored world. Interactions on one plane affect the other and how this works is gently taught to the player in simple ways at first, but this way of thinking needs to be applied with increasing complexity gradually. The final difficulty level for sure is demanding enough for most players to be stuck in one place or another. Personally, the dinosaur being lose in the house had me confused, as I wasn't sure anymore how this fit into the rules of the world overall. Your mileage may vary. The good news is that even when stuck, there is always a way out, as no real dead ends exist. This is even more valuable than the built-in, but out of this world adaptive hint system which, although it will always provide the player with a logical next step, is insensitive to what the player is actually trying to achieve at each moment.
The Impossible Bottle's tight design with its clearly restricted setting and its gameplay closely interwoven with its narrative really shines overall and never fails to entertain. So it's a safe recommendation. Until… the ending text where in an apparent attempt to give all that happened a “second layer of deeper meaning”, it leaves its established narrative perspective and has the mother give a topicality speech which can be described as kitchen sink psychology at best. This is particularly unnecessary as the plot already came to a hugely satisfying ending before when the true identity of the visitors is revealed. Oh well, two paragraphs of text tacked on after, easily ignored.