Made with the predecessor of today's Inform development system, everything about Final Exam feels thoroughly conventional while also strongly unified and earnest, somewhat retro without being very specifically nostalgic. The story purports to be some kind of political thriller, set in a future regime controlled by a presumably small number of "Administrators," the ranks of which the player character hopes to join. Although the game doesn't take its high concept very seriously, it achieves a compelling and straightforward execution of the text adventure ideal, complete with a fluidly advancing plot and interesting parser mechanics.
The prose is very dry (and not in a noticeably humorous way), though the narrative voice is self-aware enough to joke about parser IF's conventions of poorly anticipated default responses and of refusing to allow players to engage their kleptomania for practical management reasons by giving shallow narrative-based refusals.
Burkean political philosophy is referenced, and the descriptions of the paraphernalia scattered around the "Adminstration Centre" speak to heavy-handed authoritarianism. This sets up an expectation of a dystopian theme, if not necessarily a dystopian setting. However, the game does not follow through on this. Despite all the political beats struck by the beginning of the game, despite the fact that the player character is seeking power over Western civilization, the portrayal feels not much different than a generic slice-of-life day-at-the-job game. Granted, this could all be part of a grand joke, as exemplified by the Idiot's Guide computer book in the Security Administrator's office. However, in general the jokes seem to be simple nods to computer nerdiness or to IF tradition, such as a network connection labelled "Z5." The writing is too dry to provide either a sense of serious commentary or a pattern of irony.
As a parser game, Final Exam is quite successful. The central mechanics involve a complex implementation of a draggable cord, one of the conventionally difficult situations to code and to simulate within a parser model. This incredible feat of implementation and Inform programming involves a length of cord that must remember its path from fixed connections in certain rooms as it is extended into other rooms. Furthermore, the cord can be spliced to lengthen it or cut to shorten it at the player's will. The image of this complicated simulation is presented quite clearly and logically by the accompanying text. Naturally, the execution of this mechanic in the primary puzzle scheme can a bit murky at times, making the final solution to the main sequence slightly more confusing than it perhaps could have been. There is some tedium involved in using the cord mechanic; there are some situations that the code doesn't seem to have anticipated very tightly. However, it's impossible to judge this mechanic as any less than thoroughly implemented. It is strongly integrated into its environment. Playing with the cord mechanic will probably be a pleasure to most traditional parser IF players.
The central puzzle scheme involves a fairly small zone set off from the still smaller framing area. Going through the details of the rooms to uncover puzzle components is a large part of gameplay, although it is fairly easy. (For example, the "SEARCH" command is integrated into examining.) Mapping is probably necessary to solve the major puzzle, although there is no attempt to confuse the player regarding the layout of the rooms.
Like everything else about Final Exam, the map design evokes classic text adventure conventions without leaning on them too heavily. The game stands solidly in the tradition and even alludes to the legacy without leaning on it. The game carries its own weight in its own right, without depending on players' nostalgia. It's encouraging to discover that in 2015 excellent text adventures can still be crafted out of the old mold without too much meta baggage.
Surreal landscapes and dream-like sequences are well established motifs in IF. Whether serious or comedic or horrific, whether sequences within larger contexts or the complete settings of entire adventures, these abstract dreamscapes convey wonder magnified by the interactivity while also teasing a sense of greater meaning. The abstract world of The Problems Compound carries on much of the imagery from its author's previous games Shuffling Around and A Roiling Original (though it's not a sequel), taking a more serious spin on many of the same themes in a puzzle-oriented but accessible adventure.
Despite the abstractions and the use of common high school experiences, the game is less an avatar of universal experiences than one fictional teenager's manifesto. Although the narrative voice of player character Alec Smart is not heavily stylized, we have a strong sense of who Alec is because the whole game is his own abstraction of his world. Part revenge-of-the-nerds story, The Problems Compound narrates Alec's victory over the artificial boxes in which selfish and shallow people have tried to confine him. However, the game is not content merely to show the ascendance of the nerd hero to social superiority, but artfully critiques its own themes in a powerful demonstration of empathy.
Wordplay is central to the narrative style and the general theme, but there is no central mechanic built around wordplay as in the author's Threediopolis. The wordplay generally consists of a simple inversion of two words, where the inverted phrase is the actual object in the fantasy environment and the proper order is either a realistic counterpart or a humorous pun. Despite the simplicity of this scheme, it is used with clever flair to advance the game's larger themes. For instance, an inanimate chair is labeled “PERSON CHAIR,” joking subtly about how lifeless the procedures and bureaucracies that normal well-adjusted people take so seriously really are – the chairperson might as well be the chair itself.
Despite the thematic similarities to Shuffling Around and A Roiling Original, gameplay in The Problems Compound involves mainly traditional adventure game mechanics. This makes for a greater disconnect between theme and gameplay than in some of Schultz's other games, but it also makes for a more accessible experience. At least one and possibly two logic-wordplay puzzles remain, but most of the puzzles involve finding objects to give to NPCs in order to get things from them. The game is typical “new school” puzzle-oriented parser IF, preserving a puzzle-based map design while slightly toning down the complexity of the parser and of the mechanics for the sake of player convenience.
Critiquing The Problems Compound as a game makes far more sense than critiquing it as a story, but its narrative is far from insignificant. Its plot would be far too simple for a prose narrative, but the dreamscape feels like the kind of world where the protagonist's fantastic encounters could be woven together to tell prose stories in the genre of The Phantom Tollbooth, a book referenced by the game's opening text.
Ultimately, The Problems Compound is a second-order allegory mediated by Alec Smart. The identity of the player character is the element that prevents a straight-up allegory from being a possible interpretation. Alec's journey through his fantastic vision has no correspondence with any specific ideology or with anything from our world; the elements of the story are only stand-ins for their counterparts in Alec's life. However, in one sense The Problems Compound comes close to being a pure and direct allegory, because the characters and locations in the story's world are explicitly named for their counterparts, hidden behind wordplay with some concessions to context.
Once inside the fantasy, Alec immediately meets the archetype of the self-appointed big brother friend who thinks the troubled introvert just needs to speak up or cheer up in order to be normal. Guy Sweet's patronizing insistence that he understands Alec's social discontent is proven by his dismissive belittling of Alec's meticulously logical yet unconventional way of understanding.
This interaction sequence is paced effectively by giving the player something to do while drawing out the NPC's comments. Conversation is handled through menus triggered by the TALK TO command. Most of the implemented conversations are less successful than the initial one with Guy Sweet, because the conversation topics are quickly exhausted by rotely going through all the quips. There is no incentive or narrative acknowledgment for sticking to a more realistic interaction by refraining from jumping from one topic to another until all quips are used up.
Guy Sweet is only the first of a cast of vibrant NPCs, each setting the tone for their corresponding part of the map and making the landscape feel intensely personal. Here is the authentically inauthentic Word Weasel, a pedantic mirror to Alec's own tendency to overthink. Here are the sister cultists Faith and Grace Goode, who claim not to be very charismatic and who just want to like their cult films unironically – possibly the only other characters in the game who aren't deceived by the megalomaniac boss villain, the Baiter Master. Here are the Baiter Master's three tragic body guards – Brother Big, Brother Blood, and Brother Soul – each of them missing something they need to be free from exploitation. These NPCs exude character and charm, animated as vividly as childhood cartoons by the narrative and the dialog.
Far from being simplistically nice, this sense of animated charm broaches potentially uncomfortable territory by the way that other misfits are portrayed. The followers of the Baiter Master can be grouped into two categories – those who are intelligent and are trying to climb the social ladder, and those who are less intelligent and who are being taken advantage off. The game's greatest nuance – and its greatest potential to fail – is in its portrayal of the disadvantaged. The text does mock them; or at any rate, it doesn't always make an immediate point about how they're deceived. It's not always clear where the boundary lies between the shallow status-seekers whom Alec disrespects and the marginalized misfits whom he should theoretically empathize with. The most problematic part of the game is a place called “Idiot Village” where one NPC whom the player needs to interact with is depicted as a monkey, as if being an idiot reduces someone's humanity. Granted, the inhumanity could have been intended as a snarky wordplay jab at the ethical shallowness of that NPC's job, which would integrate with the general anti-bureaucracy theme.
The road to Idiot Village is blocked by a cop named Officer Petty and an “intuition counter.” The instant dislike that Officer Petty takes for Alec portrays a very believable archetype of the deep insecurities that practical, community-building people seem to feel when confronted with highly intuitive people who can't conform. Officer Petty's reluctance to let Alec bother the idiots under his guard seems both realistic and entirely understandable. The scene where Alec bribes off Officer Petty reveals a sharp gap between two very different people who are repressed by the same root problems. Perhaps some sadness over the fact that these two fellow sufferers can't stop being opponents is revealed in Officer Petty's weary manner as well as Alec's vague cynicism.
Fortunately, the game explicitly tackles these problems. Despite being introverted and misunderstood, Alec Smart's inner world is fundamentally social, giving the impression that his supposed social incompetence is a misnomer applied ignorantly or deliberately by people who think they're better than him. A brilliant and deeply implemented red herring shows that Alec has the wits to dominate all the arguments and to oust the Baiter Master by taking up the condescending, sensationalist fakeness that he so disrespects. However, Alec's true victory has him standing up not only for the rights of the oppressed, but also for their unique ways of being clever.
Through its animated playfulness, The Problems Compound shows how serious the high school experience is. The social difficulties of one misunderstood teenager are symptomatic of the same universal power dynamics that leave some people grasping after empty promises and others out of the loop entirely. The world needs the insightful nerds to resist settling for mere smart-alec cynicism in order to save others from the oppression of deliberate artificiality wielded by those who would seize social power.
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
At the conceptual level, Pit of the Condemned is a refreshing find. A parser game, it selectively incorporates a variety of tropes from different kinds of old-school adventures, cutting out the irrelevant details from each trope and uniting the gameplay around one strongly implemented mechanic. It clothes the experience with an internal mythology reflected by the setting, allowing it to portray a serious and earnestly sincere fiction side despite being a more mechanically oriented variety of IF. The strength the concept is paired with a well designed map layout, but the novice implementation prevents the game from rising above the level of a generically old school novelty.
The part of the concept that is executed best is the central mechanic of fleeing from a Wumpus-like monster. The resulting dynamic feels somewhat like a board game and also evokes the spatial maneuvering from the original Hunt the Wumpus. Like in the classic, the player must determine the location of the monster from atmospheric messages and use the terrain against it. Unlike in Hunt the Wumpus, this monster stalks the player character through the map, at times following closely behind until shaken off the trail.
Instead of allowing the monster's seeking code to run every single turn, the monster puzzle is based on a unit of "actions." As explained in a brief meta message appearing discreetly when the mechanic becomes relevant, actions are mainly restricted to the travel commands and to waiting. (I suspect game-critical commands such as those for shouting to alert the monster or setting traps are probably also actions.) The monster only moves when the player performs an action, leaving other commands in a timeless limbo. While not advancing the turn counter for looking and examining is precedented, Pit of the Condemned also suspends time for taking objects and using the ASK/TELL conversation system. This causes a huge discontinuity between the player's commands and any sense of coherent reality about the game world. The resulting board-game-like feeling is consistent with the overall focus on the monster chase mechanic as well as with the sparing use of randomly placed elements. Jarringly, a 12-hour clock is printed in the status line, suggesting a closer association with narrative continuity than the rest of the implementation supports.
A vaguely roguelike dynamic appears from the fact that a small number of tools are scattered randomly over the map, alongside one or two keys that might not be randomized. The map contains four or five zones that fulfill many of the stereotypes for adventure game landscapes -- vacant cities, a sewer system, a cavern containing a fairly direct reference to the old school text adventures. Based on the nature of the central puzzle and the old school feel of the zones, I assumed that I would need to create a map. However, the map is small enough and the zones integrated together well enough that I never ended up making a map and still successfully defeated the monster twice. The map feels like a dungeon in the generic sense of the word, as used in game genres ranging from roguelikes to MUDs.
The strategy behind the first actions are dependent on the initial placement of the beast, which is also random. This would not be very significant except for the fact that the player character is accompanied in his or her death-by-monster sentence by an NPC named Iza, (Spoiler - click to show)who has an injured ankle and cannot walk. Most of the time, Iza will die almost immediately, since the monster charges the starting location within a few moves. Often, it seems to be impossible to prevent her death, but occasionally the monster is far enough away that the player can go toward the monster and then go in a different direction in order to lure the monster away from Iza by shouting.
The significance of the fact that the monster is not called a "wumpus" or any other nostalgic reference shouldn't be overlooked. This is the difference between a flimsy hodgepodge of overused material and an insightful application of tried-and-true conventions portraying a creative vision, although badly implemented. A spark of brilliance lies in the way that the game rewards close attention to its world's details, implying a continuity behind the game's components without narrating any explicit backstory. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point, examining a skeleton reveals that the ancient population of the city weren't completely human. Deeper in the dungeon lies a religious building containing a depiction of some sort of deity, and its features mirror those of the skeleton in some ways. (This is not spelled out, but left to the player to infer.) The implications regarding the nature of the beast and of the beings that once inhabited the city are fascinating.
This is done without much of a narrative component. There is a brief scripted exchange at the beginning, where two NPCs -- a magistrate and a guard -- leave the player character and Iza to their fate. Beyond the few shallow interactions with Iza that are implemented, the player's decisions don't feel very plot consequential, at least partly because of the vast mechanical-narrative divide created by the separation of "actions" from other turns. (Spoiler - click to show)The end of the scripted sequence has Iza explain that it may be possible to "find a way out" if only the beast can be killed. However, killing the monster results in the immediate end of the game, presumably as the win condition. No closing text is provided to acknowledge the player character's next hurdle of trying to find a way to get out of the Pit and then to survive as an outlaw. If the player manages to save Iza by luring the monster away from her, that achievement is never acknowledged.
Although following most best practices, the implementation is uneven. Room titles are inconsistently capitalized. Many decent descriptions are provided for nouns mentioned in the room descriptions, but the mechanism for defeating the monster is so simple and so explicit that the gameplay feels insubstantial. The several very good components never come together in a solid execution. Despite all this, Pit of the Condemned is capable of delivering legitimate fun in response to reasonable gameplay. More significantly to me, it shows a rare appreciation for the power of subtle narrative implication. The sum of the whole is not what it could be, but these pieces could be woven masterfully.
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
Untold Riches retells the traditional parser text adventure scenario with enthusiastic homage to the Infocom era. Although games about the legacy of the Infocom era or the larger culture of 1980's computing are far from rare nowadays, the tone of the veneration as well as the specific experiences that are referenced and the ways that nostalgia is evoked can give all these homage pieces individuality. Untold Riches achieves some uniqueness through a twist that radically changes the player's understanding of its nostalgic narrative interludes.
Brief snippets of backstory are frequently inserted into messages produced by taking actions or by travelling to new rooms, as well as worked in to object descriptions. These interludes narrate the past antics of one Professor d'Squarius, who never makes a direct appearance as an NPC despite his prominence in the story. From these, the professor is used for comedy as the blustery, lovably incompetent academic who needs to be rescued constantly by his long-suffering "teenage sidekick," the player character. No history of the two characters' partnership is given, and the sidekick has no real characterization or narrative voice apart from going along complacently with the professor's crazy antics, with perhaps some implicit gentle eye rolling. The arrangement is waved away by the narrative without explanation by virtue of the general vagueness of the game's overall tone.
Perhaps the player character's age evokes the experiences of players who might have been teenagers when they were playing text adventures in the 1980s. While science fiction or detective settings might have also been used to exemplify the Golden Age text adventure milieu, Untold Riches is cast in the obvious genre for representing the entire spectrum in broad strokes---the adventure genre. However, all the whip slinging and mummy escaping happens in the backstory interludes, leaving only relics of the genre conventions to populate the descriptions and puzzles.
This vaguely nostalgic tone is supported by the puzzles and gameplay. This is definitely a puzzle game rather than a story game. The actual plot that the player can advance is minimal. However, the puzzles are implemented with relatively verbose responses, integrating with the narrative flashbacks and promoting the aesthetic without overwhelming the player with any significant text dumps.
The puzzles themselves exemplify the height of parser IF design conventions. The game is good at implementing reasonable actions that seasoned text adventure players would try, rewarding even the ones that ultimately advance nothing with meaningful responses. The structure is a good balance of breadth and depth, allowing the player access to two different goals and several puzzles at once while concealing resources needed for one goal behind puzzles pertaining to the other one. Intuitive and highly economical, the map bridges formerly separated locations in response to solving puzzles, offering a tight sense of geometry. Far from the meticulous difficulty of many old school text adventures, the puzzles are solved naturally by the exploration process that most experienced players will automatically undertake. This produces the sense that the puzzles -- like the setting -- are vague silhouettes of the typical experiences from the old adventures.
As an interested millennial who never lived through the Infocom Golden Age, I probably wouldn't be able to determine whether or not the flashbacks allude directly to specific 1980's text adventures or to specific puzzles or sequences in them. However, the general sense of these interludes and of the gameplay as a whole creates an impression of a more vague incorporation of Golden Age aesthetics. This is nostalgia adapted to rose-colored memory and to modern conventions, not retro trivia.
There seems to be a tangible theme about the relationship between the memory and the actual artefact---or between the promises of satisfaction implicitly made by our favorite media and the actual experiences delivered. Explaining the basic treasure hunt premise in the opening text, we are told that the professor had never said what the "amazing treasure" he and the player character are seeking really is. Upon finally uncovering the artefact, the narrative message merely calls it "an object so magnificent it defies description." All other references to this supposedly wonderful artefact are pointedly vague, revealing only that it has some kind of protrusions and leaving the rest to the player's imagination.
As one description of a different object puts it, "The fact that this chest looks exactly like all the others makes you that much more curious about what's inside." Even so, the fact that Untold Riches feels exactly like all the other text adventures makes the player that much more appreciative of the kind of wonder that IF can embody at its best. There is no pretense of delivering an authentically retro experience. The game never pretends to be anything other than the light, conventional, modernized nostalgia piece that it is. It also makes no obvious attempt at critical commentary, but rather points to the intangible ideal behind all the great adventures.
At what point does the intangible ideal of past joys wear out? Certainly there is such a point, and IF fans could discuss whether or not the IF community as a whole has reached this saturation. At some point, new ground has to be broken, no matter how glorious the old thing was. However, the fact that the old experiences were wonderful in a unique way is a truth that transcends the nostalgic framing. By focusing so intensely on the ideal, Untold Riches finds some relevance even for those of us who don't remember the Golden Age.
Additionally, the plot twist at the end contributes a new idea to the well-established genre of nostalgic adventure games about other games. For anyone interested in the lore and traditions of IF, this twist makes Untold Riches a must-play, especially given how extremely playable and accommodating the rest of the game is. Although its goal is modest, Untold Riches succeeds well at being what it is.
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
Playfulness is one quality of traditional IF that is often difficult to critique or evaluate. Big-headed reviewers often find little use for it, since it is concerned neither with Making a Difference, nor with High Art, nor with abstract Capital Letter Ideals (CLI, because parser). Although many types of digital games create a sense of playfulness, parser IF has probably always had a unique way of providing playful experiences due to its verbal spontaneity combined with unpredictably flexible simulation, mirroring in some ways the structure of spoken riddles.
Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box follows this tradition of playful spontaneity, while deliberately hamstringing some of the parser tropes that are traditionally used to achieve it. This approach could perhaps be interpreted as some kind of wry commentary about IF tropes and tradition, but there is surprisingly little sarcasm in narrative voice. Instead, this subversion of the typical mechanics creates a sense of surprise at the fact that the experience turned out to be approximately what we would have expected. It is a way of cutting back to basics, of getting past players' familiarity in order to show them again what is really fun about parser IF.
Not counting the meta activities of saving, quitting, restoring, and restarting, there are only four commands allowed to interact with the object mentioned in the game's title. (Annoyingly, the meta commands for logging transcripts are also blocked.) Besides the old standby commands for waiting, examining, and looking, players are given only one command that handles any relevant interaction.
Many of the puzzles produced by interacting with various parts of the variety box in this way can generally be solved by mowing through all the possibilities. However, the mechanic of sequential ordering creates real logical challenge in two or three parts of the game, and I had to glance at the walkthrough. However, there is no fear of messing up a vital sequence or otherwise ruining the experience, as the game helpfully explains upfront that the game is "unlosable." This seems like a direct reversal of the traditional perception of puzzle-heavy parser IF games, a perception of being brutally and arbitrarily difficult, especially when possible to put those games into unwinnable situations.
The "unlosable" message encourages players to "try things." The game's achievement is that it provides a large amount of things to try and to discover even with its limited input set. The number of things available to interact with obscures the simplicity of the sequence-based puzzles and also hides them within the framework of discovery. At its strongest points, the game rewards intuitive reasoning when the player correctly chooses the right object to interact with, producing a sense of wonder and achievement. (If the player wants to be a poor sport by rotely going through every possibility, that's the player's business. Trying everything out of curiosity is another matter.)
The game's first explicit joke comes from the fact that this "do everything" command is listed in the help message as "UNDERTAKE TO INTERACT WITH" rather than the obvious choice of a "USE" verb. "USE" is implemented as a synonym as well as "U," but typing out the whole spiel produces a joke that seems to make fun of IF players' demand for extremely brief commands to the point of turning the parser into an obtuse relic of nerdy techno-babble, while simultaneously expecting sweeping intuitive and natural comprehension of their ideas.
It might be legitimate to question whether the parser is the best way to implement the kind of interaction that Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box primarily utilizes, but its aesthetic and appeal are very dependent on its being a parser IF game. The fact that this sense of hidden discovery comes from a stripped down, simplistic parser game renews our appreciation for the basic kind of fun produced by logic puzzles in parser IF.
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
The Internet has created a strange mixture of intimate empathy and dispassionate distance. There has probably never been a greater sense of ambiguity between professional dignity and visceral honesty than in today's creative and fan communities on the Web, including the interactive fiction community. In an age where it sometimes feels that half the Internet wants plain old lukewarm geeky fun and the other half wants passionate validation for grievances and desires, works that succeed in providing artistic insight without grinding any particular ax stand out despite the risk of being overlooked or dismissed as mild or conformist.
Crossroads is just such an interactive story. Not only does it present a beautiful vision made up of urban fairy tale twined together with heavy surrealism, but it also speaks to the need of having one's desires validated and appeased. Although a single experience is short, a surprisingly vast amount of content hides beneath the hyperlink choice trails. Different choices leading off from any given section reconvene at the same text far less often than seasoned players of choice-based IF would probably expect. Instead, choices are likely to skew off haphazardly in unexpected directions while remaining fixed around the core themes. This sense of multiplication -- of possibilities exploding into more possibilities -- is actually referenced as a recurring theme in some of those branches. There is easily enough content for Comp judges to explore the potential narratives for the entire two hours allowed for evaluation.
The story opens with a statement that is as universal as it is dull: "You want something." What distinguishes "you" from all the other wanters of somethings is both the thing you want and the drastic measures you're willing to take in order to get it, which are both ultimately the same thing. This is very much a story where the second person perspective is supposed to be you, the reader. As audience members, our unique perspectives directly form the subject of the art, and in some of the many possible branches and endings even seem to be directly handled by the plot. Crossroads achieves this without any sense of coercion or emotional manipulation, without forcing readers to identify with any particular kind of experience. It also avoids explicit customization choices. Some degree of customization comes from toggle words that change into other words when clicked, and this interactivity mechanism sometimes affects the output text of later sections.
One branch requires the reader to type original phrases into a browser input window. This is the most advanced mechanic employed. There is no call to engage in any real-world actions as part of the experience. However, one section simulates breathing hypertextually, and the constantly reinforced sense of slow but steady pacing as well as the close association with the reader's mind and the overall peaceful mood impelled me to breathe and click in cadence with the hypertext involuntarily. The mechanic with the greatest potential to misfire is the frequent use of long pauses before critical text appears. These pauses are critically important to the tone and the pacing, but the exact timing can seem a little erratic at times, such as in a passage where a line of text could transform into different sentences while the reader is still playing with toggle links in the paragraph above.
The plot is simple and primal. Determined to die, you seek out the advice of a great witch, who takes you into the dark forest and down to the secret water where you will encounter your true fate. This is the stuff of mythology and religion, the raw ingredients of the monomythic pattern. Here, however, this archetypal imagery and plot structure is not used to tell a generically universal epic, but instead to empathize with the psychological and spiritual wanderings of any particular individual. The whole work is permeated with a sense of Zen -- a loss of the self and its anxieties in the awareness of true reality. This is not some cheap self-help encouragement; this sense of Zen catharsis is dependent on the continual deliberate choice to see what is, not what you want.
One branch mentions the obvious plot hole without dwelling on it---seeking death, why didn't the protagonist merely commit suicide? The question is brushed aside very naturally because the story is an exploration of the archetypal Death of fairyland -- more than the mere cessation of life. Themes about annihilation coexist beside a depiction of a seemingly Christian concept of absolution. The story revels in this conflation of disparate death-related themes, jumping from one concept to another. Ultimately, the kind of death that Crossroads is most concerned about is the death of the personality, the surrender of the struggle to be one's own master. Paradoxically, most of the story's branches end by sending the seeker of death back to the normal world to live a new life. As the witch explains, "Death is only one facet of an ending. All change is a kind of death."
After the surprising diversity of plot variants, the writing is the second most successful element in the weaving of this zen magic. Not particularly stylized, it calls little attention to itself but remains subtle enough to match connotations of words to the context, such as "The fault gouge jagged and bare" in a branch dealing with guilt and absolution. The witch is not interactive outside of her central role in the narrative, but her voice is ominous and her character delightfully ambiguous. It is possible to interpret her motivation as either benevolent or malevolent. She fulfills the oracle and goddess archetypes in an active way that upholds the story's use of mythic imagery.
This skillfully woven treatment of profoundly spiritual themes is dressed with appropriate modesty; the visual aesthetic of the text and UI appears to be the default Twine skin. This seems like an unfortunate decision in an indie landscape where most of the attention goes either to the biggest modernized Zork clone or to the game that can scream the loudest about social issues. Crossroads doesn't look like much, and despite the skillfulness of the writing and the many intriguing branches, at a glance it seems like any typical Twine piece, even if an exemplary one. Somehow, this ordinary quality feels appropriate, because Crossroads is less about itself than most of the games that often populate competitions. Instead, it feels genuinely to be about us, the readers and Internet community members, and our experiences.
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
A Twine story with a strong game mechanic in addition to its narrative, Duel occupies an interesting position on the continuum of game-versus-fiction. It would be much better as an integrated piece of interactive fiction if it were impossible to win the game.
This is not a condemnation of the game element. On the contrary, the game element elevates Duel from a nominally interactive hypertext fiction to a highly unique experience. Although some mild frustration or tedium may arise from the complications of the merger of game and story, this is not the one great flaw.
The game is a sequential puzzle. Learning how to solve it involves failing multiple times, making the game a nominal member of the category of lose-and-repeat text adventures that includes Make It Good and All Things Devours. The possibility set is limited enough to be fully implemented using only a short list of hyperlinks. This hyperlink interface would probably become confusing or restrictive if the game were longer, but the available options fit the amount of content and the overall complexity excellently. Trying different combinations soon yields apparently optimal strategies. Learning better strategies through experimentation has a climactic ascent that builds the sense of tension produced by the short plot. Trying different possibilities involves enough creativity that it doesn't feel rote, although the same is not true for the process of navigating through the same narrative each cycle.
The greatest weakness of Duel's implementation of its mechanic is that most of the details about the darkly wonderful fantasy vision that the story creates are easily revealed on first playthrough. New information produced by different combinations and sequences is very easy to miss while skipping passed the walls of text that the player probably only paid attention to on the first cycle. This is especially problematic due to the fact that the sparing new information is necessary both to the gameplay and to understanding the story.
Aside from the tedium of clicking through the same walls of text over and over again, the overall experience is both fun and intriguing. Duel must be a rarity -- a Twine hypertext IF with a better developed game mechanic than story narrative.
However, the narrative is not necessarily neglected. Although the brief glimpses of a dark fantasy environment may not be massively original, they are effective enough as small setpieces. The main feature of the plot is the ability to call memories of people or environmental events into existence. This story mechanic is developed with reasonable complexity given the narrative's brevity, leaving intriguing suggestions about the kind of a world where such an ability would be harvested and weaponized.
Even as short as it is, the story suggests moral complexity beyond the presumed baseline of grimdark "shades of gray." This gives Duel more emotional power than it would otherwise have held. Unfortunately, this complexity is betrayed by the uneven marriage of gameplay and story, causing the work as a whole to fall short of greatness.
(Spoiler - click to show)From the protagonist's viewpoint, the world is severe. Insanity accompanies power, and the right to hold power over others is earned by absorbing the insane darkness unflinchingly. The protagonist deserves to be betrayed by his or her slaves. If the player experiences this feeling or understanding, then the game can be interpreted as a commentary on our selfish consumption of tragedy and suffering through the media and the Internet. We consume the gory details that break through our desensitized daze without bothering to understand the full context of all these stories of horror, abuse, and tragedy that we're confronted with every day---without ever properly empathizing with the victims.
The really intriguing suggestion is that the protagonist's opponent knew some great secret -- some powerful memory that breaks the usual rules of the duel. When the opponent uses his last and best hope, the protagonist's enslaved champion becomes aware of her existence as a stolen memory and turns to attack her conjurer. Perhaps the opponent is morally superior to the protagonist -- the hero come to challenge the evil sorcery with the secret of transcendent Truth. Or perhaps not; while he does seem to prefer impersonal environmental attacks instead of enslaved champions, he begins by summoning an army full of soldiers. Either way, the opponent's secret could be viewed as the true hinge of the plot---making him the real protagonist, and the assumed protagonist actually the antagonist.
Telling an interactive story from the antagonist's viewpoint without signaling this structure upfront is a fascinating narrative device. Whenever the player loses after having nearly defeated the opponent by summoning either Inai or Avashi to destroy him, there is a sense of narrative closure.
When the player wins by sending Avashi after Inai, this narrative betrayal could be brilliant, and there is a sense of tragedy. At the moment of glorious revelation, one slave chooses to continue the status quo of power and meaningless rivalry. Transcendent love is defeated by the eternal persistence of hate. Here is the anti-Tolkien. When Truth is exposed, the reality of suffering validates our cheap consumeristic abuse of tragedy over the holistic understanding of real people.
The "win ending" is not presented as a lament. The player character is victorious, and the narrative takes no measure to point out how darkness and suffering or power and slavery have won the day. You just win, and the accomplishment of maximizing the sequential puzzle feels at odds with the extremely cynical implications of the narrative.