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16th Place - 14th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2008)
The idea of feverishly going over the story again and again trying to avoid the catastrophe at the end is not bad. Unfortunately, Grief is devoid of any emotions, which makes it a rather dull exercise in elementary combinatorics for the player.
Grief is a very interesting replayable puzzle game, with several different endings, that will take multiple attempts to come to the conclusion. It's short, so you probably won't even have to save. The game play itself is solid, handling the number of scenarios well, though the implementation could be a little deeper, giving it a bit more verisimilitude.
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The essential problem of any piece of art is getting the audience on board with what you're trying to accomplish. The worst thing that can happen to an author is if, by accident, your piece strongly suggests an interpretation completely incompatible with your aims.
Repetition can be dark, claustrophobic, ominous, spirit-crushing. It can also be ridiculous. These functions aren't mutually exclusive -- just within IF, the repeated self-sabotage of Violet is both funny and heart-rendingly tragic -- but the emergence of one when you were meaning to just do the other is lethal. (Spoiler - click to show)Grief's portrayal of a paranoid, overprotective parent, becoming increasingly desperate to protect their child over multiple iterations, is meant to reflect agonising guilt; instead, as the parent's protective measures get stronger they seem more ridiculous, and as the child finds ever more arcane ways to die things drift into the realm of Edward Gorey or South Park. Serious tragedy is hard, and the structural idea is not inherently awful; perhaps with stronger prose and less generic characterisation it might have worked.
The other problem is that the subject matter, and to some extent the structure, draw inevitable comparisons with Photopia; intentional or not, that's a tough act to follow.
This is one of those games where you have to play over and over again in order to find the secret combination that allows you to win. The problem with this game -- as with all games of this sort -- is that emotion is crushed by the bus of monotony. You need prose that really hits home in order to motivate players to replay a game repeatedly, and Grief doesn't come close to such prose.
I played the game through once, and while I was surprised by the ending, I wasn't motivated to play it again -- nor did I have much hope that victory was achievable, given the name of the game. I suppose that's another way to play this game: just once, lose, and then reflect upon the nature of grief. However, even that method of playing is unsatisfactory, due to the just-the-facts-m'am style of prose. So what does Grief achieve? It manages to be decently coded, threadbare, and unmotivating.
I was warned that this was the kind of game that you have to play through several times. This alone put me off. But I was slightly curious and figuring the game was tiny, I could try it out anyway.
Interaction is very minimal, which is a mercy for a game you have to replay but also means it's hard to get very invested in the story. I played through a few times and made different mistakes each time. But I'm not motivated to figure out the winning combination because to get hit with so many "random" tragedies just takes its toll.
Characters, setting, writing - I'd characterize everything as flat or bland. Everything has a kind of generic feel, there to serve a function that will inevitably turn on you. I couldn't even feel sorrow. If anything, the emotion I feel right now is frustration and even a little apathy. There's just no reason to care about the people and nothing particularly striking about the prose. I don't play games or read books for this kind of feeling. For tragedies to work, you have to get to know the people and like them, as well as caring about their plight. None of that here. Tragedy can be incredibly cathartic and beautiful, but it has to have heart, to speak to a person's emotion. There has to be just enough individuality in the character to make them real, as well as a plot with elements people have experience with. The subject matter was too narrow for me to relate to, and there was no other angle to view the plot from, no other sorrow that might have engendered pity or a sense of loss. This kind of game might have worked if the object was simply not to get killed, without trying to be sad, because the genre isn't served well by constant replays and short game length.
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