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About the Story
A session with Madeline.
Probe into the psyche of a frightened young woman in an experimental psychological horror game built around conversation. (not scary)
Content warning: Inappropriate for young kids.
39th Place - tie - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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I enjoyed this one a lot. It was atmospheric and slightly creepy. The gameplay centers around your character asking questions to a girl who is begging for help. You have to guess the right things to ask, and the NPC responds. The author has developed an impressive system in which a lot of what I tried got fairly relevant responses. I was genuinely motivated to figure out how to help the girl. There are no content warnings, as that would spoil important details, but be aware you may read descriptions or see images that could disturb some players. I was able to finish fairly quickly, but I am interested to see what other responses are available, so I would replay Thanatophobia again.
This game has a fairly unusual format. Like parser games, you type in text and get a text response. Unlike parser games, it's not necessarily deterministic; instead, with a chatbot structure, it reacts to keywords. I tried to see if it was using GPT-3 or something similar, but it was hard to tell; it knew a bit about Harry Potter but not so much about Chemistry. Overall, it felt somewhat more like a hand-rolled chatbot and less like a standard AI bot.
There are several things to discover in this game, but it can be hard to know what to do first. Just messing around will eventually lead the game to guide you towards a solution. I was able to finish without hints, and it took me about an hour.
For content warnings, the game does contain a fairly gruesome realistic image later on (a (Spoiler - click to show)blue-lipped overdose victim).
Overall, the chatbot system was a bit hard to use but I felt like it guided me to where I wanted to go. The text has a fairly descript 'voice' and nice little details, although necessarily due to the technology it didn't respond directly to my questions, leading to some bland messages.
I like 'dream games' and surreal stuff. Overall, I think this worked fairly well, but I don't really see a ton of replay value and I think the chatbot structure could be refined over time (although I imagine that it's a real challenge to work on something like this).
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I also beta tested this game, and havenít done a full replay, so caveat lector)
There are various origin points for what weíve come to call IF Ė Adventure, most obviously, but you can also trace choice-based games back to the print Choose Your Own Adventure series and its own early-20th-Century antecedents, and Aaron Reed defensibly started his 50 Years of Text Games series with the initial, purely-text versions of Oregon Trail. There is an eccentric uncle in the attic nobody really likes to talk about, though Ė or rather, aunt, since Iím speaking of the chatbot ELIZA. Viewed now as little more than a parlor trick Ė though how could it have been anything else, given the hardware constraints at its 1960s inception? Ė AI tech is finally catching up to the possibility of having a computer that can engage in a dialogue with you, even if the Turing Test is in no danger of falling anytime soon. So it makes sense that authors are now attempting to re-cross the streams and make a chatbot into a game, rather than something for pre-teen boys to feed dirty jokes into.
Of the runs at this idea that Iíve seen, Thanatophobia seems the strongest. Iím not equipped to evaluate the back-end of what makes it feel reasonably responsive, but there are some design parameters that are cannily set up to paper over the inevitable infelicities that will come up when trying to speak English to a robot. For one thing, the interlocuter character is set up as someone disoriented and not in their right mind, so the occasional odd interjection doesnít seem too mimesis breaking. For another, the gameís built around a mystery with several pieces, so itís less likely the player will spend so much time on one topic or area that they start trying increasingly-odd questions or statements. The authorís also done a good job of fleshing out various non-essential bits of backstory so that thereís room for the player to explore without quickly seeing the difference between the hand-tuned, critical path content and generic chatbot oatmeal.
The story being told here isnít especially novel Ė thereís a little bit of a twist, but plumbing an allegory to discover someoneís hidden trauma is well-trod territory in IF by this point, albeit it does act as a clever homage to the psychoanalyst-aping roots of the chatbot conceit. And the characters inhabit well-worn archetypes without doing much to distinguish themselves. But for a formal experiment, keeping the narrative tame is probably the right call. Similarly, while the expected chatbot-friction is reduced, itís definitely still there Ė but I do wonder how much of that would be smoothed if there were more uniform player expectations about how to interact with such things, much as there are by now for traditional parser games.
All told I found Thanataphobia a success, perhaps more intriguing for the directions it points to than for what it accomplishes in itself, but an entertaining way to spend an hour nonetheless.
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