This review is republished from r.g.i-f, where it was posted at the conclusion of the 2002 IFComp.
My favorite game of the comp, hands down. Presented as a series of vignettes, each with a central idea revolving around (funnily enough) constraint and paralysis, the game uses the IF format to masterful effect in exploring different aspects of the central problem; in format and theme, it recalls Joyce's Dubliners, and amazingly enough fails to suffer
from the comparison. Inevitably, the parser that one uses to interact with a gameworld is limited to a certain set of responses, and while this
limitation is usually seen as a hurdle to be overcome in creating a
wide-open simulation, Constraints employs it as a devastating tool, drawing the player's attention to how little control they really have.
The high concept behind Constraints is wonderful, but what really makes this game work, and work brilliantly, is the depth in each of the vignettes. The first two could have easily become exercises in boredom, as the player guides a character who cannot affect his/her/its environment in any real way. But the range of actions the game recognizes - in the falling scenario, obvious things like listening or flying, but also screaming and thinking - allows the player to push against the edges of the box, able to feel and perceive, but ultimately unable to act. The second vignette one-ups the first, as a similar (but ironically reversed) sense of impotence is presented against a rich background. A story is unwinding before the player's eyes, but no matter how much the viewpoint character wishes to become part of the narrative, it negates any attempt the character makes to impose itself. The sequence acts as a clever statement on IF in general, and the nested narratives - the story is about two lovers discussing a play - adds a complementary sense of post-modern vertigo, underscoring that it is not only the player character who is powerless to assume the author's role, but the player as well.
The third scenario is perhaps the most conventional bit of IF in the work, but again, expectations are subverted. There are no external directives or obstacles; the player character takes it upon himself to do something, and then neatly prevents himself from acting at all. Again, what could have been an exercise in frustration is rendered compelling through a painstakingly deep simulation, which allows the player
to attempt perhaps a dozen different acts of protest. While those who
disagree with the character's beliefs and politics might find the scenario a chore, it nonetheless functions as a compelling examination of a single character's personality, an element in a larger work that highlights self-imposed paralysis, a discussion about the role of the individual in the modern world, and a fun bit of puzzling.
The final bit of Constraints is a non-game; the player is presented with a Nethack-style dungeon, with an impressive array of possible actions listed along the side of the screen. But there's nothing to listen to, nothing to pick up, no map to read, no wand to fire, no food to eat. All there is, is the dungeon, corridor after featureless corridor, with an occasional staircase down to a lower level. Indeed, the staircases are the most brilliant part of the design - after some experimentation, I found that the stairs down would only appear after about 90 percent of the map has been explored. The very act of exploring, of pushing against the surrounding darkness, itself creates another level of dungeon below, expanding the unexplored regions and keeping the player farther from the goal of reaching the end. The sheer emptiness of the dungeon acts as a sort of goad - the player races from level to level, sure that there must be something around the next corner, some end in sight, some point to it all. But the only possible action, as in the third scenario, is the non-action of quitting the game.
I seem to be on the same wavelength as the author, which probably aided my enjoyment of the game; in fact, I finished reading House of Leaves (which the author credits as an inspiration for the design of the final maze section) only hours before playing the game! But by any measure, Constraints is a masterpiece, fearless and innovative, meriting comparison to the best static fiction in its brilliant integration of format and substance into a elegant whole. I'm quite literally running out of superlatives; this is perhaps the best thing I've seen anyone do with IF.