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John Carpenter comes to IF, June 9, 2013
Play it if: you have half an hour to spend on a short, sharp genre exercise which delivers a surprisingly punchy and tightly-written horror experience.
Don't play it if: you're looking for a puzzle-solving experience, a long, involving story, or any particular depth of characterization.
I like puzzles and experimental narrative as much as the next person, but at heart I think I'm a genre enthusiast. I love it when IF takes the most memorable elements of beloved genres in other media and makes them into something fresh and new.
Anchorhead did this with the H.P. Lovecraft oeuvre, The Baron did it with German Expressionism...and here we have a bite-sized homage to John Carpenter's The Thing.
I think the most impressive technical feat here was the writing style. As has already been mentioned this iteration of the IF Whispers was geared towards a more cohesive story, but it's still striking how seamless the writing and gameplay feels given that there were four authors at work here. If they hadn't told me, I'd never have guessed it.
Another thing I found impressive was the structure of play. The game is nearly puzzle-less (at least by most definitions of "puzzle"), but it succeeds in gently steering the player towards the next stage of the story. Sam Raimi once said something about how his approach to filmmaking was an exercise in planting seeds and letting the audience's imagination do the rest. That seems to be the principle at work here, with the player left to infer a lot of what's going on based on certain clues. I like that the process partly depends on a degree of genre savvy; once I understood what was going on it became immediately clear to me what I needed to try to do, even though the game never outright tells you(Spoiler - click to show) that you have to destroy the base to prevent the rescuers from causing a pandemic. A significant degree of the game's appeal comes from what TV Tropes likes to call "Fridge Logic"(Spoiler - click to show) - the revelation that the cuddly little cat is the carrier sheds a whole new light on that pesky cold, doesn't it?.
The horror elements here work well because they take their time, letting the player soak in the unsettling environment but never letting the player forget that there is a danger here which has yet to be uncovered. There are some good touches, like the dynamic object descriptions(Spoiler - click to show) and the hallucinations, which let the player appreciate the psychological horrors of the game with a greater immediacy than is possible in a more detached medium like film.
Flaws? Well, there are a couple. The game is a little too difficult for a player to realistically get the "good" ending on the first playthrough, if you ask me. By this I mean that the time limit, when it eventually asserts itself, feels more frustrating than challenging. Then again, there doesn't appear to be a limit to the "undo" function, so maybe I'm just nitpicking there.
There is also the matter of a few items.(Spoiler - click to show)It makes sense to me that the generator and screaming television could be products of hallucinations - or that hallucinations could block out the ability to see the diary - but why are these in play before you've even been exposed to the carrier? If you've contracted the plague from some secondary source, shouldn't the more usual symptoms also manifest? These feel like easily fixable glitches and they have a disproportionately confusing effect on gameplay given those items' importance to the story.
Still, these aren't game-killing details by any stretch of the imagination. This game remains an excellent, atmospheric short entry into genre IF.
A fun list for people who've finished the game:
(Spoiler - click to show)Parallels between this game and The Thing:
1. The main threat is "infectious" and spreads itself.
2. The protagonist's experience with the "infection" is foreshadowed by his encounters with the previous victims.
3. The exploration of an abandoned Antarctic research facility.
4. The first living thing we see is the vector for the infection (the wolf, the cat).
5. The protagonist must destroy the facility to prevent the infection from posing an apocalyptic threat to human civilization.