(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2014 IFComp blog.)
It's usually lazy of a reviewer to summarise the content of a game they're reviewing by reprinting its blurb, but I think the blurb for Tia Orisney’s IFComp 2014 entry Following Me already does the best possible job for the purposes of my review, and handily builds in the limits of advance information the author would like players to know about the game:
"Two women take a wrong turn in the woods and make a gruesome discovery. They seek help from a mysterious stranger and are dragged into a vicious trap that they will be lucky to survive.
The story is delivered in a CYOA format characterised by long, unbroken passages of text studded with infrequent moments of choice and ‘Continue’ buttons. It’s a substantial read. Tia’s long format prose, within the context of this kind of game, was on display in two entries in the 2013 IFComp, of which I fully played one, Blood on the Heather", a wacky Buffy The Vampire Slayer-style adventure which wavered for me between being compelling and tiring. I remember the drive of much of the prose though, about which I wrote:
“I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief.”
Following Me is a serious snowbound thriller which threatens to get very heavy. There's still the distraction of some loose proofreading dragging on the author's obvious storytelling skills, but the plot is tight, the whole thing is quite tense and the construction dense enough to push through problems. Psychologically it stays truthful to the headspace of Kat, the protagonist, and her moment to moment bursts of thought. (Occasionally I felt it was a spot off here – it's not that people don't have the odd bizarre and ostensibly comical thought during times of real peril, but I don't believe they narrate it to themselves at the time using the language they’d use to narrate it to someone else later. i.e. They have no time for a longer or circumspect view because they’re in immediate peril. Kat did this a bit too often for my taste. This is not a big nitpick in a piece which is psychologically on target most of the time.)
The physical manifestation of the bad guys is finally handled, too, the way Kat observes their little tics and physical dynamics. How they say things, where they look when they are delivering particular threats, how they brandish their rifles and how the older man brandishes his cane. These details accumulate to vividly convey the repugnance of their characters, and the experience of being a woman who has become their prisoner.
The choices offered always read as weighty alternatives and they caused me a lot of player deliberation, though the ultimate construction of the game is such that most roads eventually lead to Rome. The choices create different vectors to get there, shepherding the prose in a broad way that reflects a choice you probably made heavily, and so whose outcome you are predisposed to invest in. Because Following Me is a thriller with life-and-death stakes for the characters, I think this scheme works well in this game.
In 1981, you play a man stalking a woman. If "play" sounds light, perhaps it's more accurate to say you are almost chained to the actions of a man in the grip of erotomania (a deluded and obsessive romantic fixation). Due to the shortness of the experience, I will omit further description of either of the main characters, as I can imagine how some players may prefer not to know certain fundamental details of the setup going in. What is certain is the strength of the writing, which thoroughly sinks you into the headspace of the obsessed protagonist, and into his vivid fantasy life.
At the rawest level of game mechanics, 1981 caters to very few player actions; it is what is typically called linear. The obsessed PC imparts clear thoughts in the prose about the next important course of action, and it's generally a waste of time trying anything else. What's interesting is the extent to which this approach could be considered to work well with the subject matter of this game. The psychological disorder at work here is characterised by the subject's complete resistance to all attempts to convince them that the situation is other than they believe it to be. Perhaps this is the best "excuse" for linearity that there can be.
This raises the question of what the player's role is here. "Creepy" and "uncomfortable" have been common review descriptions of the experience of playing 1981. Players tend not to like playing "bad" characters in realistic situations, or even facilitating their actions. I think this remains a difficult or weak point for the prospects of certain kinds of storytelling being done with IF. 1981 may again supply its own solution with its subject matter. With the PC's character being presented so monomaniacally, the player is likely to feel a degree of separation from the PC's actions. If you try to break off the path, the PC either doesn't want to do your thing because it's irrelevant to his plans, or your thing isn't implemented, or both.
It would be difficult and tedious for me to try and describe how 1981 could work as easily as a short story as IF. I think it could, and in that form it would be clear of the "playing a villain" hurdle. But it works in this form with the caveats that you must play the villain and accept mechanical linearity, positions which are unpopular and still querulous to many, respectively. What you will get for this is the sensation that you are shackled to the PC's ruinous path and that there's no getting off. This kind of story trajectory fascinates me because being privy to the amount of effort that a human can devote to going entirely the wrong way in life is strangely illuminating about our capabilities as a species. 1981 is a psychologically strong excursion into this territory – though with little extra implementation – and also an interesting demonstration of one way to traverse a lot of difficult IF terrain to do with unlikeable protagonists and realism.
Spoiling background on the game: (Spoiler - click to show)This is an imagined recreation of the real case of John Hinckley Jr. and his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, resulting in his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. I knew about the case before playing the game, but the game doesn't reveal who the parties are until halfway through. I experienced a minor letdown at the moment of revelation, to an extent, only because I then felt I knew what was going to happen. But inevitability is such a strong part of this game anyway - this was really just my idiosyncratic reaction and no reflection on the game.
The Forgotten Girls drops the player into the bare feet of an Indian girl sexually enslaved in a brothel. Considering the potentially confronting, bleak and dour qualities of the subject material – and it is the game's stated aim to raise awareness of the problem – The Forgotten Girls surprised me by turning out to be thoroughly action packed. As the heroine strives to rescue her friend and effect an escape, we see a range of the brothel's residents' behaviours through her eyes, ranging from the workaday to the cruel. The game's practical and non-exploitative approach keeps it from being didactic. For players who are concerned about encountering any explicit sexual abuse in the game, there is none on camera: it is only implied and out of game time. There are violent scenes, though.
The game's puzzles actually turn out to be fairly classic adventure game stuff: escapes, dealing with locked things, avoiding enemies. A central scene involving one character who is being tortured achieves the strange and novel feat of also managing to be a bit cute at the same time, as your character(Spoiler - click to show) takes this opportunity to create a series of amusing distractions to get rid of the guards. I found this scene to be particularly well executed because it extrapolates some interesting outcomes from simple commands. Had the same scene demanded the player spell out every element of his or her intentions in microscopic detail, it would likely have been a nightmare of worst-of-Infocom pedantry.
The game does have a few weaknesses in basic areas. You have to specify with which key you want to open what door, it's pretty strict on synonyms in general, and its effect is at times undermined by Inform's default delivery style, which remains unadorned here. EG 'You can see a can of beans (in which are some brown beans), a table (on which are Pari, some ropes, an iron rod, and a purse (closed))'. Considering the cleanliness and cleverness of the action overall, these aren't big problems. The game also has good built in hints in the typical style and offers helpful advice during its opening turns in a fashion inviting to newcomers.
The Forgotten Girls finds an engaging way into harsh subject matter. It's practically minded, uncomplicated and clear-eyed. It certainly bends reality a little to adventure game conceits, but does so in a way that's good for playability.