Number of Reviews: 9
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A Diamond in the Rough, March 21, 2012
Play this game if: you like your IF short and simple, or you want to play through one of the more memorable set-pieces in the genre.
Don't play this game if: you're easily put off by linear and nearly puzzle-free gameplay.
The Act of Misdirection opens with a wonderful scene in which the player must perform a magic act without knowing the choreography beforehand. Fortunately, the protagonist does know, which puts the player in the interesting position of being one step ahead of the audience (as the narrative voice provides clues to the tricks) and one step behind the protagonist. The writing is very strong here, and the game effectively builds the player's sense of entertainment and anticipation as the player does the same thing to the in-game audience. It's thrilling stuff, the kind of set-piece which would make for an excellent Inform tutorial.
The rest of the game pales a little in comparison. This is not to denigrate Harrison's achievements: from a purely technical standpoint there's still a fair amount to appreciate, such as some solid NPC interactions and a setting that has the population density of character and detail just right. But the writing and atmosphere just don't harmonize with these aspects of the game the way they do in the first act (no wordplay intended?).
Beyond the opening scene, the writing is probably the chief attraction. Harrison isn't afraid to use some flowery prose, but more importantly establishes a good couple of narrative voices. (Spoiler - click to show)The contrast between the narrator's voice for the magic act and the rest of the game is a good touch, with the dramatic and confident narration in the beginning emphasizing Meldellevo's power and skill, and the following imagined diatribes from Sally highlighting how insecure a character Sarah really is. This adds somewhat to the Faustian conflict at play. The settings are easy to picture as a result of the good descriptive text, rendering progress that much more comfortable, and some tense moments have genuine punch. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider the excellent use of the single-sentence paragraph at the climax of the magic routine, as well as the "normal" ending's final sentence. There are, however, some rough patches - syntax and word usage errors not due to technical issues. They aren't really numerous enough to destroy your enjoyment of the game or anything, but together with a sense that a premise this creative could have supported a bigger story, they add to the feeling of the whole package as a little unpolished.
This is also one of the more linear stories I've encountered in IF - as the author notes, it's impossible to put the game into an unwinnable state. However, the alternate ending - and yes, there is one - relies on a sufficiently unfair puzzle that getting it is more of an exercise for a second playthrough than a genuine opportunity for the first-time player. It also means that the nearly puzzle-less environment consists largely of "guess the verb" mini-games, though these aren't particularly unfair.
Overall, this is a story with strong promise - and even as a diamond in the rough (emphasizing the "diamond"), it's worth your time. Were Ms Harrison to expand this into a larger narrative - which I would argue, is a worthwhile pursuit - I'd suggest maintaining (where possible) the information asymmetry between player and protagonist, as well as getting one (or maybe one more) friendly eye to proofread and test-play.